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Careers in Social Work

The field of social work spans across multiple career options. You should choose a social work career based on the types of people you want to help as well as the work environment you prefer. You can read more about the different types of social workers below.

Top 10 Reasons to Pursue a Career in Social Work

Considering social work but not sure if it’s the right career for you? There are many reasons to choose a career in social work. Ten reasons you may be interested in a career in social work are listed below:

  1. You like working with people! Social workers are interested in helping people, either individually or on a big picture level.
  2. You or a loved one have been helped by a social worker in the past and became interested in their work.
  3. You or a loved one have experienced a hardship such as addiction or abuse and would like to help others overcome similar challenges.
  4. You have an interest in a field commonly addressed by social workers such as poverty, mental health, or community organizing.
  5. You would like to work in a certain institution such as a hospital or a school but you are more interested in providing clinical or case management services than health care or education.
  6. You have a strong interest in working with a certain population such as children or older adults.
  7. You enjoy volunteer work and are interested in extending your passion into a career in non-profit management, program development, or direct social services.
  8. You enjoy working in an ever-changing, fast-paced environment addressing crisis situations while managing a large number of tasks.
  9. You are interested in a career with lots of flexibility in an ever-changing field allowing you to work in different settings, with different goals and challenges, but with a shared purpose of serving the common good.
  10. You want a career focused on helping people and making the world a better place!

What Does a Social Worker Do?

There are so many potential career paths in social work, it can be challenging to answer the question: what does a social worker do? Many social workers provide clinical and case management services directly to individuals, couples, families, and groups. Social workers serve clients dealing with a range of challenges including poverty, physical and mental health issues, addiction, and family problems. Social workers provide clinical services, such as therapy or counseling, and connect people to resources in the community to help them overcome challenges.

Social workers believe that everyone is impacted by their environment. This person-in-environment perspective informs many areas of social work. Some social workers do not work directly with individual clients. Instead, they work in community organizations, government, and advocacy groups to alleviate poverty and social injustice on a big picture level. These social work careers include legislative advocacy, policy analysis, and community organizing to break down barriers and drive reform.

Many social workers’ careers include both individual client-centered work and big picture work. Whether professionals choose a career as a school social worker, child social worker, medical social worker, or another social work path, their work will likely involve individual services for people in need of support along with program development and advocacy to improve the institutions, systems and policies impacting their client population.

Social Worker Job Description

While each job varies within the field of social work, some common social work tasks are listed below.

  • Identify people who need help such as vulnerable children and older adults, those struggling with mental illness or addiction, and families living in poverty.
  • Assess clients’ needs and strengths and develop a plan to support individuals and families as they work toward goals.
  • Counsel people to manage challenges in their lives such as illness, loss, unemployment and family problems and provide links to community resources addressing such challenges.
  • Assist individuals and families in meeting basic needs by connecting them to food assistance, child care, and health care.
  • Help clients navigate government assistance and benefits programs such as Medicaid, Social Security Disability, and food assistance.
  • Respond to crisis situations such as mental health crises and child abuse reports.
  • Advocate for access to resources needed to improve people’s lives.

People They Serve

Most social workers spend their days working with people. The type of work social workers do varies based on the groups of people they serve. Common groups of people that social workers serve include:

  • Children
  • Older adults
  • People with disabilities
  • Patients with chronic, acute or terminal diagnoses
  • People struggling with mental illness or addiction

Where They Work

Most social workers work in an office setting, though many spend a large portion of their time visiting clients in their homes, schools, and in the community. Social workers most often work in the following settings:

  • Hospitals, medical clinics, and nursing homes
  • Community mental health agencies and substance misuse clinics
  • State and local governments including child welfare agencies and departments of health and human services
  • Schools and other youth-serving organizations
  • Military bases and veterans clinics
  • Correctional facilities
  • Private practices1

Types of Social Workers

Social work practice can take place at the micro, mezzo, or macro level. Micro social work is practice that concentrates on the individual and family levels. Mezzo social work is focused on groups that fall between the community and the individual, such as neighborhoods, task forces, and support groups. Macro social work is focused on driving change in community systems, institutions, and larger group units, commonly through government or other non-profit agencies.

These levels refer to the scale of the systems being analyzed in each type of practice and are complementary to one another; as a result, there can be considerable overlap between the micro, mezzo, and macro levels of social work practice. Further, not all social work professionals agree on how different groups and interactions should be categorized. However, understanding the effectiveness of differing approaches and interventions on each level and how these can work together to build positive social change is important for effective practice.

Micro Level Careers

Clinical Social Worker

Clinical social workers are the largest group of professionally trained mental health providers in the US, providing over half of all counseling and therapy services.2 These social workers diagnose and treat mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders. They provide individual and family therapy, couples counseling, and group treatment. They also counsel clients to develop new ways of thinking, change behaviors, and cope with challenging situations. Clinical social workers collaborate with doctors, other mental health professionals, and clients to develop treatment plans, and they may monitor and adjust treatment plans based on each client’s needs and progress. Besides direct therapeutic support, clinical social workers connect clients to community resources and services such as support groups, resources for basic needs, and wellness activities. Many work in private practices either with other mental health professionals or independently. Others are employed by hospitals or community mental health agencies.1

Psychiatric Social Worker

Psychiatric social workers often work in hospitals or in-patient psychiatric treatment centers. They assess each patient’s social, emotional, interpersonal, economic and environmental needs, and strengths to develop a treatment plan. Social workers support patients suffering from psychiatric illness to manage family relationships, employment, and other affected parts of their lives. Using individual counseling, group therapy, and family therapy, they connect psychiatric patients to hospital and community resources and plan for successful discharge, transitioning patients back to their families and communities. Most psychiatric social workers work in hospitals and residential treatment centers, but others work in outpatient mental health centers and substance misuse treatment facilities providing similar services to clients.

Child and Family Social Worker

Child and family social workers provide a range of case management services to support children by improving the functioning of their families and/or engaging support and supervision outside of the family. Each child in need requires a range of services. Common services provided by child and family social workers for parents and families include job placement, medical assistance, debt counseling, addiction treatment, family therapy, and financial support. Social workers in this field may serve as an advocate for each child and a liaison for the child’s school, medical and mental health providers, courts, and home. They also may manage adoptions, seek supervised foster care services, and placements in residential treatment facilities. Many child and family social workers work for local government agencies such as departments of health and human services or departments of children and families.

Education, Licensure, and Salary
  • Education: BSW or bachelor’s degree in a related field required for most positions, not all. MSW required/preferred for some management and school social work positions.
  • Licensure: Varies. See our Licensure page for more details.
  • Median wages (2014) $20.25 hourly, $42,120 annually3
Industries Employed (2012)
  • State and local government, excluding education and hospitals: 41%
  • Health care and social assistance: 36%
  • Educational services; state, local and private 15%
  • Religious, grantmaking, civic, professional and similar organizations: 5%1

Healthcare Social Worker

Healthcare social workers counsel patients at the time of their diagnosis and throughout treatment, helping them adjust to their living arrangements and make other plans for dealing with an illness. Some of these social workers who work in multidisciplinary teams with doctors and other health professionals focus on illnesses’ effects on the emotional health of patients and families. There are specialized fields of healthcare social work which focus on special populations or times in the lifecycle.

Medical Social Worker

Medical social workers, under the healthcare social work umbrella, provide people with psychological and social support to cope with chronic or terminal illnesses. They provide patients with education and counseling, discharge planning, and connect patients to other services. They also work to remove barriers to healthcare for all patients and work on multidisciplinary teams to create, monitor, and adjust care plans. Medical social workers also counsel patients’ families and caregivers to assist them in understanding and supporting their loved one while caring for themselves. They may also organize support groups and health promotion activities. Medical social workers are often called upon in situations of suspected child or elder abuse and in mental health crises in hospitals. Some hospital social workers visit patients at home after they are discharged to make sure that community and family supports are in place.

Geriatric Social Worker

Geriatric social workers, also under the healthcare social work umbrella, assist older adults and their families in finding services such as meal delivery and home healthcare. In some instances, they support seniors as they transition into assisted living or nursing care facilities and continue to work with seniors in those settings.

Hospice Social Worker

Hospice social workers, another type of healthcare social worker, help patients and their families cope with terminal illness. Hospice social workers provide or link families to services such as grief counseling and support groups.

Education, Licensure, and Salary: Healthcare Social Workers
  • Education: MSW required for most positions
  • Licensure: Varies. See our Licensure page for more details.
  • Median wages (2014) $24.97 hourly, $51,930 annual4
Industries Employed (2012)
  • Hospitals; state, local, and private: 31%
  • Ambulatory health care services: 21%
  • Nursing and residential care facilities: 15%
  • Social assistance: 13%1

Mental Health and Substance Use Social Worker

Social workers provide most of the country’s mental health services. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), 60% of mental health professionals are clinically-trained social workers, compared to 10% of psychiatrists, 23% of psychologists and 5% of psychiatric nurses.5 Mental health and substance use social workers assess and treat individuals with mental, emotional, or substance use problems. Social workers specializing in mental health and addiction provide individual and group therapy, crisis intervention, and case management. Because mental illness and addiction impact all areas of a client’s life, social workers assist clients in maintaining safe housing, obtaining employment, and building family relationships. Social workers in this field also support clients in adhering to treatment plans by scheduling appointments, arranging transportation and childcare, and monitoring progress toward set goals. They also manage substance use prevention programs and promote mental health education. Social workers in many employment settings are likely to serve individuals who suffer from mental illness and/or addiction. Substance use problems are common in many areas of social work practice including child abuse and neglect cases, juvenile delinquency, domestic violence and other legal problems, veteran services, and older adult services.

Education and Licensure
  • Education: MSW required for most positions.
  • Licensure. Varies (see state licensure pages)
  • Median wages (2014) $19.90 hourly, $41,380 annual6
Industries Employed (2012)
  • Ambulatory health care services: 27%
  • Social assistance: 21%
  • Nursing and residential care facilities:15%
  • Hospitals; state, local, and private:15%1

Mezzo Level Careers

School Social Worker

School social workers work with children at all grade levels, assisting students whose academic struggles, behavior, truancy, and interpersonal difficulties impact their school progress. They may consult with parents, teachers, and other support staff to find solutions for struggling children. School social workers are often called upon in situations of child abuse or neglect to navigate legal channels and serve as a liaison to outside agencies. While some of these professionals are assigned to one school, many work for the larger school district and respond to mental health crises and child abuse concerns in multiple schools. School social workers are often part of a multidisciplinary team of counselors, psychologists, nurses, administrators, and educators working to support students. School social work is typically considered mezzo practice as it involves working with the entire student community in one or more schools, though it can be micro practice when a professional is working one-to-one with struggling students.

Education, Licensure, and Salary
  • Education: BSW or bachelor’s degree in a related field required for most positions, not all. MSW required/preferred for some management and school social work positions.
  • Licensure: Varies. See our Licensure page for more details.
  • Median wages (2014) $20.25 hourly, $42,120 annually3
Industries Employed (2012)
  • State and local government, excluding education and hospitals: 41%
  • Health care and social assistance: 36%
  • Educational services; state, local and private 15%
  • Religious, grantmaking, civic, professional and similar organizations: 5%1

Community Social Worker

Community social workers focus on promoting positive change at the community or neighborhood level, based on a given community’s diversity and cultural values. These social workers work closely with community leaders as well as residents to understand issues and their impacts and to develop solutions and strategies that solve problems, promote participation, and improve overall quality of life. Assessment by a community social worker might involve taking surveys of community members, analyzing the physical environment, and researching historical neighborhood trends. These social workers may then act as advocates for change, assist the community in finding needed resources, and help the community implement proposed solutions. Community social work can also fall into the category of macro social work, depending on the size of the community and the scale of the interventions. Professionals in this area commonly work within a social service agency or local government.

Group Social Worker

Group social work can take place at the micro or mezzo level. Formal groups above the family level are typically included in mezzo social work, although some social workers regard family practice as taking place at the micro level. Group social workers are typically employed by social service agencies or other non-profits to organize groups, facilitate intergroup or interpersonal communication, and evaluate the effectiveness of an organization’s social service programs. These social workers may also work in private businesses or organizations to identify and suggest tools for constructively managing sources of intergroup conflict or tackling workplace issues. In most environments, group social workers seek to help group members develop positive communication tools collectively to promote personal growth and to collaborate effectively on common issues and interests. Group support or group therapy is a common career path for these types of social workers.

Macro Level Careers

Public Policy Social Worker

Public policy social workers typically work in government and non-profit organizations to promote social change through education, legislation, and other large-scale interventions. These professionals may also engage in international policy work for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the World Health Organization. Public policy social workers engage in policy analysis on issues such as public housing developments, zoning regulations, public service programs, and other large-scale projects. A public policy social worker may organize focus groups to analyze the perception of proposed or enacted changes or conduct needs assessments. They may also run and evaluate organizational training programs or manage logistics for large-scale social service programs.

Administrative Social Worker

Administrative social workers, also called management social workers or social work administrators, hold leadership roles in social and community service organizations including social welfare departments, schools, and hospitals. Successful management of a social service organization requires leaders who understand social work at all levels as well as how organizations perform and intersect to meet service, policy, and other goals. An administrative social worker typically has responsibility for budget allocation, program development, and operations and staff management, as well as other tasks such as fundraising, grant writing, and public relations. Importantly, social work administrators seek to improve their organizations and the groups that these organizations serve, through strong planning and positive change.

Research Social Worker

Social work research is a field as broad as social work itself. However, because the results of social work research frequently have large-system impacts, research social work is commonly regarded as taking place at the macro level of practice. Research social workers may conduct high-level research to determine the effectiveness of interventions or applications of social work theory or more targeted research to evaluate the effectiveness of a given program or social service agency. Research projects may also involve identifying problems and causes, making qualitative comparisons, or developing new theories. Research social workers frequently gather their own data and write articles regarding their findings for publication. Social work researchers commonly possess a PhD and may work in academia or government, though organizations of all kinds may hire them.

Additional Resources

  • Gibelman, M. (2005). What Social Workers Do. (2nd Edition). Washington, DC: NASW Press.

References:
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Social Workers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm#tab-3
2. Social Workers.org: http://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/choices/choices2.asp
3. ONet Online, Child, Family, and School Social Workers: https://www.onetonline.org/link/details/21-1021.00
4. ONet Online, Healthcare Social Workers: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/21-1022.00
5. National Association of Social Workers (NASW), Mental Health: https://www.socialworkers.org/pressroom/features/issue/mental.asp
6. ONet Online, Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/21-1023.00