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How to Become a Social Worker: A Quick Guide

If you are considering becoming a social worker, you have come to the right place. How to Become a Social Worker: A Quick Guide seeks to answer your most important questions about the social work field as a whole, salary and job figures, possible educational paths, and the best schools in the field. We also feature helpful advice from social work experts and explain in depth the specific, up-to-date licensure requirements for each state so that you can decide not only where to go to school but also where you might want to start your career.

Table of Contents
What Is Social Work?
What Do Social Workers Do?
Why Become a Social Worker?
How can I learn about the field before making a decision?
Steps to Become a Social Worker
1. Earn a bachelor’s degree in social work.
2. Earn a master’s degree in social work.
3. Make the most of your time in school.
4. Consider getting licensed in your state.
5. Find a job!
Maintaining Your Social Work License and Continuing Education
Frequently Asked Questions

What Is Social Work?

The profession of social work seeks to improve the quality of life for individuals and to effect system-wide change through the pursuit of social justice. Just like any helping profession, such as nursing and teaching, social work seeks to help people overcome some of life’s most difficult challenges. What separates social work from other helping professions is its focus on the person-in-environment model and its emphasis on social justice. Social workers not only consider individuals’ internal struggles, as a counselor might, they also work with people to examine their relationships, family structure, community environment, and the systems and policies that impact them in order to identify ways to help address challenges.

Social work also emphasizes a strengths-based approach in which all individuals have strengths and resources and the social worker’s role is to help build upon a person’s skills and support systems. The profession of social work is varied serving people young and old, from every walk of life, in a number of settings such as hospitals, schools, neighborhoods and community organizations. It involves work with families, couples, groups, organizations, and communities. Social work is dedicated to the pursuit of social justice through direct service and through advocacy on the local, national, and global levels. These areas of practice are also referred to as the micro, mezzo, and macro levels. You can read more about specific careers in social work as well as the differences and intersections between micro, mezzo, and macro social work on our careers page.

What Do Social Workers Do?

Many social workers work directly with individuals, couples, families or small groups. These social workers help clients cope with problems such as poverty, abuse, addiction, unemployment, educational problems, disability, trauma and mental illness. Social workers provide individual, family and group counseling, case management services connecting clients with resources and service providers, and other services to empower clients to meet their own needs.

Social workers often work within nonprofit organizations, schools, hospitals and government agencies working toward the common good. These social workers may work directly with individual clients or be involved in program development, program evaluation, and human services management. Many social workers choose to work with communities, organizations or governments to address social problems on a systems level. These workers advocate for vulnerable populations, fighting to end the inequalities and injustices they see in their communities. They engage in legislative advocacy, policy analysis, and community organizing to break down barriers and drive reform.

Why Become a Social Worker?

There are many reasons you may be drawn to a career in social work. Some people become interested in social work because they have been helped by a social worker in the past or they have experienced hardship and would like to help others overcome similar struggles. You may be drawn to the field by a particular interest in addressing problems such as addiction, abuse, or mental illness. You may have a strong interest in working with children or with elders. Despite the varied paths that lead social workers to the profession, most social workers enjoy working with people and are driven by their desire to help others and make the world a better place.

How can I learn about the social work field before making a decision?

The best way to learn about social work is to volunteer! There are volunteer opportunities in every community that can give you a sense of life as a social worker. Many social workers are tasked with volunteer management and are actively seeking volunteers to help out in hospitals, schools, and community organizations around the country. Volunteering not only allows you to meet social workers and learn about what social workers do, it may also provide you with some experience working directly with individuals, families or groups and/or advocating for community-wide change. To look for volunteer opportunities, you can start by contacting local schools, churches, or community centers. For national listings of volunteer opportunities visit (link)

Steps for Becoming a Social Worker

The guide below will outline the general steps to become a social worker. The first step in becoming a social worker is obtaining the necessary education. There are a number of educational paths to consider on the road to become a social worker.

1. Earn a bachelor’s degree in social work.

The first step for many people interested in becoming a social worker is to obtain a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) from a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited college or university. Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) programs prepare students for entry-level, professional, generalist social work practice and for graduate social work education. Students learn to practice as professional social workers with individuals, families, groups and communities. Students learn a great deal about the profession while earning their BSWs since bachelor’s of social work programs combine classroom learning with field education. Students gain work experience while applying their classroom training to real-world work settings. Once you receive your BSW, you will be eligible to begin working as a social worker.

2. Earn a master’s degree in social work.

Whether you received your bachelor’s degree in social work or in any other field, you may apply to a CSWE accredited graduate program to earn your Master of Social Work (MSW). If you receive a BSW prior to applying to graduate school, you may be eligible for advanced standing allowing you to receive an MSW in one year rather than the traditional two-year program. While all accredited social work graduate programs follow similar curricula combining classroom learning with field education, some schools of social work have strong clinical programs while others focus on systemic issues such as poverty reduction and social justice. Choosing a clinical focus or a macro concentration may determine electives and field education placements but all graduates receive the same degree.

A few points to keep in mind when deciding which degree path is best for you:

  • If you are considering working toward your first bachelor’s degree, a BSW may be a good choice. A BSW gives you a solid foundation to begin work as an entry-level social worker. If you decide to continue your education with a master’s degree, you may apply for advanced standing. This way, you may receive both your BSW and MSW in only five years.
  • If you already have a bachelor’s degree in another field, there is no need to seek out a BSW. You may find a position you enjoy in the social services field with a bachelor’s degree from another discipline. If you would like to become a social worker, you should apply to a CESW-accredited MSW program.
  • If you are interested in moving to a supervisory role and advancing in your career in social work, you should consider obtaining an MSW. Increasingly, employers are seeking master’s level social workers for any position above entry-level. Even those searching for entry level positions are likely to find that an MSW opens more doors than a BSW.
  • If you are interested in clinical social work, you must obtain an MSW and then become licensed in your state.

3. Make the most of your time in school.

  1. Choose courses and consider specialized certifications based on careers that may interest you. If you plan to work as a clinical social worker, take as many clinical classes as possible. If you are more interested in macro social work, choose an elective in advocacy or nonprofit management that will help you build marketable skills.
  2. Make the most of your practicum placements and internship experiences. As a social work student working at a field placement, capitalize on the opportunity to position yourself for future employment. Always treat your placement experience just as you would paid employment. During your field placements, push yourself to gain new skills and experiences that will prepare you for employment and keep in mind: you never know when a job may open up at your practicum site. A hardworking, energetic student who already understands organizational policies and procedures is a great candidate for the next opening. Even if you are not interested in working at your field site, be sure to build connections with supervisors and colleagues who can alert you to other job prospects and serve as references during the interview process.
  3. Begin your job search well before graduation. Many employers planning to hire in the summer start interviewing candidates in the spring. Research your state’s licensing process; you may be able to start the application process early too. Remember many people graduate at the same time. It is important to position yourself ahead of the pack as your graduation date nears.

4. Consider getting licensed in your state.

The purpose of social work licensing is to ensure safe professional practice. Each state board defines what is required for each level of social work license. The specific license names and requirements vary significantly by state. There are four levels of education and training that are commonly distinguished by different levels of licensure.

  1. Bachelor’s level: Baccalaureate social work degree (BSW)
  2. Master’s level: Master’s degree in social work (MSW)
  3. Advanced Generalist: MSW plus two years non-clinical supervised social work experience
  4. Clinical: MSW plus two years direct clinical supervised social work experience

Some states require you to obtain a license before beginning your career in social work. In some states, it may be important to work toward progressive licenses as you advance in your career.

5. Find a job!

Finally, once you are fully prepared to enter the field of social work, it is time to look for a job. While finding a job in social work can be similar to finding any job, we have included some ideas below to get you started. If you are ready to look for available jobs in your area, check out our Jobs page.

Scour the internet.

  1. Job search engines can feel too time-consuming given their relatively low rate of return, but you should be registered and familiar with the major ones such as Monster, Career Builder, etc. Some engines, such as idealist.org are directed at the social work profession and nonprofit sector. Setup preferences to narrow your search, and utilize job alert emails to receive job listings in your inbox.
  2. Look beyond the national search engines and consider local job listings. Some communities have nonprofit coalitions or task forces that list jobs across agencies. Check the job boards of local membership organization chapters such as NASW. Visit job boards for hospitals, school districts, state and local government agencies, and other large employers in your area.

Expand your search.

  1. Social workers are found in many professional settings. Expand your search beyond schools, hospitals and public agencies. Consider private practice, small nonprofits, churches and advocacy organizations. Consider your interests as a social worker and brainstorm nontraditional settings where you can put your skills to use.
  2. You’ve probably already considered common search engines for job posts but many jobs are never advertised. Professional networking is critical to learn about job openings and position yourself as a candidate to be recommended for those positions. Attend as many networking events and workshops as possible. Utilize continuing education courses as networking opportunities. Consider attending workshops for counselors, nurses, and other helping professionals who may know about jobs that fit your search criteria. Maintain contact with professors, advisors and peers from your bachelors and masters programs. Reach out to new contacts for informational interviews. Let your friends know that you are serious about your job search. Expanding your social circle and cultivating good relationships with people who know you’re looking for a job, can lead to crucial a referral down the road.

Maintaining Your Social Work License and Continuing Education

Once you have obtained a social work license, continuing education will be necessary to ensure that you are staying up-to-date on best practices in the field. Social workers are lifelong learners who value ongoing continuing education throughout their career. Continuing education requirements vary from one state to another; some boards require only a specific number of hours, while others mandate continuing education in certain topics such as social work ethics. You will find plenty of continuing education courses offered online and in your community for varying costs. Keep in mind that your state licensing board has final approval on any continuing education course from any source on any subject. It is your responsibility as a regulated social worker to contact your board and verify that your continuing education plans meet your board’s requirements. Be sure to keep careful records of all continuing education courses you complete through your employer, at conferences, trainings, workshops, and online. It is your responsibility to provide proof of continuing education when you apply to renew your social work license.

Gain additional experience and build connections.

  1. Build skills, make contacts and learn more about your desired profession through volunteering. Call a few nonprofits you are interested in pursuing and ask if you can provide regular volunteer help. Commit to a regular schedule so that you can demonstrate your professional strengths. Also consider occasional volunteer opportunities at additional organizations in the community. Even one Saturday volunteer project may open your eyes to types of work you had not considered before and connect you to like-minded peers. Remember, volunteering is a great addition to any social work resume.
  2. You may desire a full time position but consider taking per diem or temporary social work positions while you search. These opportunities expand your work experience and skills, increase your professional network and may even lead to permanent employment.

Research How to Become a Social Worker by State

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: How long does it take to become a social worker?

Answer: Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) programs generally take four years to complete. If you attend a full-time Master of Social Work (MSW) program, it should take two years. Part-time programs are available for undergrads and graduate students. Expect these programs to take longer. Students applying to graduate level social work programs who have a BSW are often eligible for advanced standing. Advanced standing programs can last as little as one year, allowing you to become a master’s level social worker in five total years. In some states, you may begin practicing as a social worker immediately after graduation. In other states, you must obtain a social work license before beginning your career as a social worker.

Question: What is a clinical social worker?

Answer: A clinical social worker provides individual, family or group clinical social work services such as psychotherapy, counseling, and other forms of therapy. Clinical social workers are often involved in assessment, diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions. Clinical social workers often work in hospitals, mental health agencies and private practices.

Question: What do you learn in social work school?

Answer: The practice of social work requires knowledge of human development and behavior, of social, economic and cultural institutions, and of the interaction of all these factors. While you may choose elective courses, internships and field education experiences that interest you, all BSW and MSW programs prepare you for a varied career in social work by addressing both individual and systemic areas of study. Both BSW and MSW programs incorporate classroom education with training in the field to prepare you to practice as a social worker.

Question: Are there any social work scholarships available?

Answer: Many social work students receive scholarships to support their undergraduate and graduate programs. If you are considering a bachelor’s of social work, it is important to research all of the scholarship, grant and loan opportunities available for undergraduate students. If you already know that you’re interested in serving a particular community or need, take a look at organizations that tackle a specific cause. Some state and local government employers provide scholarships for employees seeking to advance their degrees or students willing to commit to employment for a few years after graduation. Many graduate students finance their MSW degree as graduate assistants or teaching assistants. These work-study positions often cover tuition and provide a stipend for living expenses.

Question: What is social work supervision?

Answer: There are many definitions of social work supervision. Generally, supervision is defined as a professional relationship between a supervisor and a social worker in which the supervisor provides evaluation and direction of the social worker’s services to clients to promote competence and ethics fostering ongoing development of the social worker’s knowledge and application of professional social work skills and values. While your manager may serve as a supervisor, the role of manager or employer is distinct from the role of supervisor. Supervision allows for consultation on current services and issues as they arise and debriefing on past practice. Supervision is often a structured time designed to enhance knowledge and skills through practice, discuss pertinent research, develop greater self-awareness, and internalize professional ethics. Supervisors regularly analyze supervisees’ decisions and judgments, alternative options to be considered, and lessons learned in individual and group sessions. Group sessions allow for supervised social workers to learn from each other as well as their supervisor while individual sessions often address more personal topics such as managing biases, ethical dilemmas in the field, and practicing self-care. Each state defines the number of hours and the type of supervision necessary to receive varying levels of social work licenses. Even if you are not working toward an advanced license, supervision can be very helpful for new social workers. Supervision may also be recommended if you are taking over a new role or learning a new skill and may be required as a result of disciplinary action.

References:
1. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW), Best Practices in Social Work Supervision: http://www.naswdc.org/practice/naswstandards/supervisionstandards2013.pdf