How to Become a Social Worker: A Quick Guide

Social workers help improve lives. They assist individuals and families experiencing poverty, natural disasters, and homelessness. Tens of millions of Americans rely on social safety nets that social workers provide access to.

Social work lets you forge a career path in countless specialties and settings, including colleges, nonprofits, nursing homes, and government agencies. You can also become a licensed clinical social worker who counsels and treats mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders.

Learn about how to become a social worker, including the educational and licensure requirements and careers.

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The Vital Role of Social Workers: An Overview

From 1880-1914, about 650,000 immigrants arrived every year in the United States, according to the Population Reference Bureau. Social work became a profession during the late 19th century to help immigrants improve their lives.

Today, social and economic programs exist to provide resources to vulnerable people and communities.

What is Social Work?

The social work profession helps improve people’s well-being and meet their needs. Social workers provide therapy or resources to help people and communities work through economic, social, or personal problems.

What do Social Workers do?

Social workers connect those experiencing problems with resources, programs, and assistance. You may think of social work as helping the poor, older people, or children find resources and acquire tools, but they serve all populations. You can also become a licensed clinical social worker who provides therapy and treatment.

Who do social workers work with?

Social work lets you work with people experiencing problems in their lives. Child welfare workers help children, adolescents, and families. Justice and corrections social workers work with people who are incarcerated.

Social workers work in schools, child welfare agencies, and healthcare settings.

Steps to Become a Social Worker

The first step to becoming a social worker is to earn a college degree. Most social work positions require at least a bachelor’s in social work degree (BSW) from an accredited school. However, some states accept social workers with an associate degree. A BSW allows you to pursue entry-level social work jobs in most states but not clinical roles.

Many social workers hold advanced degrees, including a master’s in social work (MSW) or a doctorate. The educational level you reach depends on what you want to do as a social worker. For example, licensed clinical social workers treat people with mental conditions. They need at least a master’s degree and a state license.

At a minimum, it takes four years to become a social worker with a BSW degree and an additional 2-3 years to earn an MSW. Social work students also complete fieldwork. Clinical social workers usually need at least 3,000 supervised clinical hours of fieldwork to get licensed, but requirements vary by state.

Social Work Degrees

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work

Your first step in becoming a social worker is earning a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field. Social workers often complete a BSW or a sociology, psychology, or political science degree.

Schools awarded roughly 20,000 BSW degrees from 2019-20, according to a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) survey. You can earn a BSW in four years if you study full time.

Accredited BSW programs require fieldwork. You must complete at least 400 supervised hours of supervised fieldwork experience at the bachelor’s level.

A BSW helps prepare you to become a social work case manager, health educator, service coordinator, outreach worker, or research assistant. You may also qualify for advanced standing in an MSW program with a BSW.

Earn a Master’s Degree in Social Work

You can complete an MSW in 2-3 years —or quicker if you hold a BSW and qualify for advanced standing in the program. You will complete a minimum of 900 clinical supervised hours during your MSW studies.

No licensed clinical social worker can begin working without a master’s in social work degree (MSW). According to the CSWE, schools award about 76,000 MSW degrees every year.

An MSW degree opens the doors to careers as child, family or school social workers, medical and health social workers, and mental health and substance abuse social workers. Graduates can also pursue clinical social work licensure in their state.

Obtain Your Social Work License

States set their own requirements for social work licenses, so titles vary by state and jurisdiction. You need a college degree and supervised work experience to get licensed or registered.

You need at least an MSW to get licensed in New York and California. And in Arkansas and Idaho, you only need a BSW to become a licensed social worker (LSW).

The most common licenses are licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs), licensed baccalaureate social workers (LBSWs), and licensed master social workers (LMSWs). Both LCSWs and LMSWs require a master’s degree.

Before applying for licensure, you must pass the required exam in your state. For instance, to become an LCSW, you must pass the Association of Social Work Board clinical exam.

Social Work Licensing Guide

Consider Professional Social Work Certifications

No state requires certification to become a social worker. Certifications validate specialized knowledge and skills in a specific area of social work. Earning certifications in social work may help you advance in your career by focusing on a specialized field and pursuing higher pay.

The National Association of Social Workers offers certifications in addiction and substance abuse, case management, clinical work, education, gerontology, healthcare, hospice and palliative care, the military, and youth and family. You need the required degree, clinical experience, and license to qualify for certification.

Career Paths for Social Workers

A BSW degree can offer access to entry-level social work jobs, such as case management, community outreach, health education, juvenile courts, and residential service coordination. You can get licensed as an LBSW with a BSW in certain states. Some states, such as Georgia, Florida, and New York, require that you have at least an MSW degree to work as a licensed social worker.

Social workers can apply for advanced opportunities after getting an MSW as a criminal justice social worker, school social worker, or clinical social worker. LCSWs can pursue independent practice with an MSW and a state license.

Explore Social Work Careers

Social Worker Salaries

Your educational level and workplace determine what you get paid as a social worker.

Social workers in May 2021 made a median annual salary of $50,390, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, they can earn between $46,640-$61,190 in top-paying industries, which include local government and ambulatory healthcare services, state government, and individual and family services.

The bottom 10% of social workers make a median annual wage of $36,530, while the top 10% made more than $82,840 in 2021.

Healthcare and local government social workers earn over $60,000 in median annual wages. Other top-paying social workers include mental health and substance abuse social workers who earn an annual median salary of $57,800.

Social Work Employment Outlook and Salary, by Area of Practice
Social Work Area of PracticeJob OutlookAverage Annual Salary
Child, Family, and School Social Workers+8%$54,880
Healthcare Social Workers+11%$62,310
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers+11%$57,800
Social Workers, All Other+3%$63,010

Source: BLS

Social Work Salary Guide

Research How to Become a Social Worker by State

Each state sets their social work licensing requirements. In some states, you can pursue licensure with a BSW, while others require a master’s degree. Other requirements include getting the required experience and passing your state’s social work licensure exam.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Social Worker

How can I start a career in social work?

Research the right program for your social work career goals and make sure your degree meets your state’s requirements. Earning a BSW can set the foundation for a social work career. Depending on where you live, you may need to earn an MSW, get experience, and pass a state exam to become a licensed social worker.

What are the highest-paying social work careers?

Medical social workers typically earn higher pay in the field, with an average salary of over $60,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the 90% percentile of medical social workers made about $75,000 a year.

What is the fastest path to becoming a social worker?

The quickest way to become a master’s-level social worker is to use your BSW toward an advanced standing seat. When you enroll in an MSW program with advanced standing you can graduate in less than two years.

Some states, such as New Mexico and Texas, allow you to become a licensed baccalaureate social worker after earning a BSW.

Can you become a social worker online?

Yes. Many colleges offer accredited BSW and MSW programs that function completely online. That said, you still need to complete your fieldwork in person to get licensed in your respective state.