How to Become a Social Worker

Working with children, the disenfranchised and the elderly is a job some people find very satisfying indeed. Helping families live better lives, counseling a wide variety of people to improve their standards of living, acting as a liaison between various institutions and more … these are the roles social workers perform in an effort to improve the outcomes for various groups and populations.

If you’ve been considering becoming a social worker as a way to expand your career opportunities and make a difference in the lives of others, you’ll probably be excited to hear that social workers typically get a lot of fulfillment out of their jobs.

Before you embark on a career-defining departure from your current career and lifestyle, however, it pays to know exactly what you can expect from a social work program, what types of roles exist, what licenses and certification you’ll need in order to practice and more. Let’s dive in to everything you need to know in order to make a social work career … well … work for you.

Social Worker: The Definition

Social workers provide many roles, so it’s difficult to provide a one-size-fits-all definition of exactly what they do. In a nutshell, however, social workers help various groups of people develop the skills they need to cope with life as successfully as possible. Clinical social workers are licensed to diagnose and treat mental illness as well.

Social workers may find employment in a wide variety of institutions. For instance, those that want to work with children might work in schools, child welfare organizations or human services facilities. There, you could help children develop important life skills they might not be developing at home or school, or ensure that they receive the love and care they need if parents are unable to provide this. If you want to work with the elderly, a nursing home or long-term care facility might be better for you.

In addition to working directly with different groups of people, social workers also serve legal, administrative and liaison roles. They might work to forge connections between two different institutions that are both needed in order to serve a particular family, for instance. They might also help address legal issues, get paperwork filed, ensure medical needs are addressed or communicate with state or local agencies on a client’s behalf.

Job Outlook

The outlook for social workers is fairly good. The pay is relatively low compared to the amount of schooling you need (which we will discuss below): only $45,900 per year, on average (which translates to a little more than $22 per hour). However, because of the satisfaction gained from helping others, many social workers don’t mind.

Plus, the number of jobs is projected to grow at 12 percent between 2014 and 2024, which is faster than average, meaning you stand a good chance of getting a job of your choice upon graduation. That’s an additional 74,800 jobs by 2024.

These numbers break down a little differently if you segregate job specialties. Child and family social workers are only projected to grow 6 percent over the same period of time, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is roughly as fast as all other jobs. However, healthcare social work job opportunities are project to grow at a rate of 19 percent, which is much faster than industry average (about three times as fast). These social workers will be instrumental in helping aging populations with medications and lifestyle adjustments, and help their families cope with the stress of loved ones getting older. If you want to ensure yourself a job upon graduation, choosing a healthcare focus is a good idea.

Job Satisfaction

Before starting a new career, many people wonder about job satisfaction. If you don’t love what they do, after all, you may end up switching careers soon after earning your degree, which is neither cost-effective or time-saving. Let’s talk a little bit about the upsides and downsides of social work.

First of all, it’s important to recognize that there are some significant drawbacks to the job. Most people find the work highly stressful due to tight deadlines, early hours, evening and weekend work, mountains of paperwork and the weight of the outcome riding on many situations. Social workers are often instrumental in deciding whether families will stay together or where children will be placed, which can be very emotionally demanding. Moreover, if you aren’t willing to read about neglect, abuse, poverty and other disturbing situations, you probably shouldn’t embark on this career.

However, despite this, a social work career does offer a fair bit of flexibility if that’s what you prioritize. If you become a clinical social worker, for instance, and go into practice for yourself, then you can set your own hours. If you decide to be employed by a school or institution, on the other hand, and want a bigger work-life balance, you can choose to just work part time. Social workers find, in other words, an average amount of flexibility in their careers.

The same is true of upward mobility. While the pay is on average somewhat low, that’s only the average. If you work hard for years or decades, you will see a paycheck of considerably more than that. Moreover, you will come across more and more satisfying job opportunities by staying in the field for many years.

If you still aren’t sure whether this career is for you, try simulating it by working in a setting that emulates what social work would be like. You could volunteer in a clinic, at a school or at a charitable organization that works to help families improve their lives. If you enjoy the work and think you’d like to get paid for it, a degree in social work probably isn’t a bad idea.

Schooling and Degrees

As with many fields, social work is a multifarious profession, which offers a variety of opportunities at various professional levels.

Earning an associate’s degree in social work will enable you to fill some administrative roles in institutions or offices that provide social work services. This is a good place to start if you aren’t yet sure whether social work is for you, or if you’re trying to save money by earning an initial degree and then working for a while.

Undergraduate social work, or a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW), prepares you to work in the field after only four years of study. The Portland State University BSW program, for instance, states that it “Emphasizes commitment to well-being, self-determination, and social and economic justice. The educational experience prepares professional entry-level generalist social workers to provide competent, value/ethics based, and effective services with diverse individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities.”

You can also get a master’s degree in social work (MSW) if your hope is to work as a clinical social worker counseling children, families, adults, couples and the elderly. This will also enable you to influence policy, promote social justice, and be instrumental in transforming and bettering populations and communities. Which degree you choose depends on your interests. Keep in mind you can also get your BSW, work for a while to see which specialties might appeal to you, and then earn your MSW.

Speaking of specialties, you can attain a number of credentials certifying that you focus in a certain area of social work, which can open more doors for you in you career. We will talk below about what those credentials are.

Almost every four-year college and university across the United States offers a social work program, and many offer master’s programs in social work as well. If you want to attend a traditional college, simply ask at the local institutions in your area.

However, if you want the flexibility and reduced cost of attending online classes, you can search online for social work degrees. You can earn an associate’s degree online and then begin working, or leverage the classes you’ve already taken toward a bachelor’s at a four-year institution.

Licenses and Certification

In most states, social workers who have only a bachelor’s degree will need either a license or a certification to work. Some states don’t require it. You can check the Association of Social Work Boards to find out more about what your particular state will require for you to practice in it.

All states, however, require that clinical social workers (for which you must have a master’s degree) have licenses to practice in their states. The only exception to this rule is that some states will waive the requirement for clinical social workers who work in government agencies. In addition to a license, clinical social workers also need 2 years of supervised clinical experience in order to practice. Typically students will set up their apprenticeship ahead of time, while they’re still in their master’s program.

What About Credentials?

Credentials are an extra level of expertise. A credential is a professional certification showing that a clinical social worker is certified to practice a social work specialty within a certain state or territory. This is not the same as a license, which proves that you have met the minimum credentials to practice. A credential, in contrast, shows that you have gone above and beyond and have a particular proficiency that qualifies you to work in that niche.

A credential can help substantially widen your career opportunities, because you can fulfill specialized roles in state or federal agencies, advise policymakers or congressmen, or help influence decisions at the community level.

Note that credentials are voluntary, and you do not need to earn them in order to practice in any capacity. You also do not need an MSW or to work as a clinical social worker in order to qualify for a credential; you can get it so long as you have a BSW and have met the requirement of completing a supervised 3-year work period. The credentialing process includes a critical review process, including evaluation of skills, experience and education.

Types of Social Workers

There are a huge variety of social workers, fulfilling different roles within different communities and with different populations. Here is a partial list of social worker roles:

  • Child, Family and School Social Workers: These social workers help children and families find solutions to problems in school, at home or in the community. They often work in foster care agencies, schools and government offices.
  • Community Social Workers: These social workers are out in the community, helping to improve access and resources for a variety of people.
  • Medical or Healthcare Social Workers: Many families or individuals lack access to resources to help with medical issues. Healthcare social workers help remedy this.
  • Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers: Mental health and substance abuse can both significantly reduce quality of life for affected individuals and their families. Often mental health and alcohol or drug dependency go hand in hand, making this issue particularly challenging.
  • Military Social Workers: These social workers help military personnel, spouses and children deal with the challenges that military life brings (including moving from place to place and deployment). They may also help retired military professionals or servicepeople deal with the trauma of war.
  • Social Work Administrators, Researchers, Planner and Policymakers: These social workers tend to work less with particular people or individuals, instead helping influence social policy, identifying areas of need, writing grants or conductive research.

There are other types of social workers as well, so if you are interested in a career path you don’t see here, ask a school administrator who works in the social work department what your other options are.

Getting Started

Now that you know more about a social worker’s role and the route to beginning such a profession, we hope that you feel better prepared to consider all your options. Please feel free to let us know in the comments below if you have any other questions, or have had experience yourself that might help enlighten others considering this admirable career path.