How to Become a Social Worker

Social workers provide important services to disadvantaged and underprivileged communities. Social workers can work in a number of different roles and for many different agencies. Different positions are available to social work professionals with varying degrees of certification and education. The most common path to becoming a social worker is to pursue a master’s of social work (MSW) degree from a CSWE accredited institution.

Undergraduate students can also pursue a degree in social work. These bachelor of social work (BSW) degrees provide a foundation in the skills needed to become a social worker. There are some support roles available for graduates with a BSW, however most students continue to a MSW to become licensed in their state. Many master’s programs also offer an advanced standing track for students starting their graduate career with a BSW.

In order to work in a clinical setting, directly interacting with people, licensing is required. With licensing, most states allow social workers to refer to themselves as licensed clinical social workers (LCSW). Each state has a different set of licensing requirements to become a LCSW. In most states, this requires an MSW degree and post-graduate supervised experience . In addition, licensing may require passing the Association of Social Work Boards exam.

Steps to Become a Social Worker

Step 1: Earn Your Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree is often required for anyone pursuing a career in social work.

A bachelor’s in social work (BSW) is a common first step towards a career in social work. Graduates with this degree may work in entry-level social work administration positions. A BSW may prepare students for direct-service positions as a case worker or mental health assistant. BSW programs are valuable in teaching students about diverse populations, human behavior, and the basics of working in social work. These programs require students to complete undergraduate level internships.

Some students may choose to get a bachelor’s degree in a related field. Most master’s programs will accept students with a liberal arts background. However, a bachelor’s degree in a related field such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, public health, education, or women’s studies will provide a good foundation.

Step 2: Earn a Master’s Degree in Social Work

A clinical career in social work almost always requires a master’s degree or higher. Though there are some entry-level and support positions available to those without a master’s, the options are very limited. A master’s in social work (MSW) is required to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) in most states.

There are a variety of MSW programs available. These programs generally require a bachelor’s degree with a liberal arts foundation, or a BSW. Students with a BSW can often apply to an advanced standing program which may require fewer credit hours and internship hours, accelerating the process.

Another option for those considering social work is an online MSW degree. Many schools offer both on-campus and online MSW programs. There are well respected programs with high-quality resources available in an online format. This could provide a level of greater flexibility for students with busy schedules.

Step 3: Complete Social Work Internship Hours

An essential component of any MSW program is an internship. In order to get experience, students must work directly with the public. These internship experiences provide essential training with real-world social work. Most master’s programs require students to do around 1,000 hours of field work before graduation. Both online and in-campus programs require in-person fieldwork. Social work internships can occur in a number of different settings. These include schools, hospitals, community service agencies, correctional facilities, and therapy practices.

In addition to educational internships, supervised clinical work after graduation is generally required to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). Some states may require upwords of 3,000 post-graduate supervised hours. Check with your state’s licensing board for social worker for more detailed information.

Step 4: Choose Your Social Work Career

MSW graduates can pursue a license to become a LCSW. With this license, social workers can get jobs in a number of different areas. A clinical social worker is one of the best known options, however social workers are also needed in other settings.

  • School social workers provide services to students and their families to address problems that interfere with the student’s education.
  • Medical social workers work in a health-care setting to provide patients and their families with support.
  • Macro social workers focus on solving large scale social problems. They do this by developing social programs on a local, state or national level. These jobs can include a wide range of responsibilities.

Step 5: Apply for Social Work Licensure in Your State

Social workers are required to have a license to practice in a clinical setting. A license allows social workers to practice as a licensed social worker or licensed clinical social worker, depending upon the state.

When pursuing social work licensure, graduates have multiple options. Graduates with an MSW can pursue a clinical license, which generally requires two years of supervised experience after completing a master’s in social work program. The LCSW designation is often required to work directly with clientele without supervision.

Alternatively a licensed master of social work (LMSW) does not require post-graduation experience. With this type of licensing, social workers can not provide direct psychotherapy independently. They may work with a LCSW or as a macro social worker. In this role an LMSW may engage in community organizing, political advocacy and more large scale work.

Requirements for different roles and social work licensure vary substantially by state. It is important to research the requirements in your state.

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What Does a Social Worker Do?

Social workers provide essential services to individuals, families and communities. Social workers generally serve at-risk, underprivileged and disadvantaged populations. These can include working in mental health care focusing on victims of abuse, those suffering from substance abuse disorders, the elderly and inmates of correctional facilities to name a few.

Social workers provide support to individuals through therapy, counseling and guidance. Different social work roles require different skills and specializations. Social workers also help people who are struggling with any number of issues navigate these experiences and find the care and support they need.

Different Careers in Social Work

A social worker can work in clinical settings in private practice, corporate roles, schools, health care, and other positions. Different organizations have different needs out of social workers. The problems addressed in a school versus those in a corporate HR department will be very different. Understanding these differences and getting specialized education to match the individual needs of these organizations. Social workers in schools are more likely to interact with families and children, while in health care they may deal primarily with elderly patients.

Alternatively, social workers may work in non-clinical roles. These can include macro social work and administration roles. Macro social work focuses on developing community programs and improving social support systems. This is essential work to ensuring that social work is available and effective for those who need it.

Social workers have many options when choosing their specialization. Understanding the differences between these specialties is important when starting a career in social work.

Social Work Career Outlook and Salary

Social work is a rapidly growing field in the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects an 11% growth in social work and related jobs between 2018-2028. This is in comparison to an average of seven percent growth throughout the job market, according to the BLS. With this in mind, it is a good time to pursue a social work degree. Graduates can expect to find jobs with relative ease.

Social work is a rewarding field due to its importance for our society. Though social workers generally do not enter this field for the pay, there are well paying positions available. In general, social workers with higher levels of education will be able to get higher paying positions in management and administration. The BLS tracks the salaries of social workers and related professions. In May of 2018, social workers made a median income of $49,470. The upper 10% of earners in social work made over $81,400.