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How to Become a Social Worker: A Quick Guide

Social workers contribute to many areas of society. They play an important role in individual and family services, local and state government, and ambulatory healthcare services.

Harnessing a passion to help others, social workers improve lives by connecting clients with resources and social services. They administer mental health services, prevent substance abuse, protect children and families, and serve on the front lines of crisis situations.

Social workers' job duties vary by work setting and specialty. Some work in child welfare, at colleges, and in hospices and palliative care. Most take positions that correlate to their educational background and specialized training.

At minimum, social workers need a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college. Employers often prefer social workers who hold master’s degrees. All clinical social workers must hold a master's degree.

Keep reading this page to learn how to become a social worker, including the benefits of licensure and certification.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly does a social worker do?

When people need help dealing with challenges or navigating crises, they turn to social workers. Social workers perform outreach work in needy communities and develop programs connecting people to resources like food stamps and childcare. On an individual basis, they perform client intake and assessments.

How long does it take to become a social worker?

It takes between 4-6 years to become a social worker. Prospective social workers spend four years earning a bachelor’s degree in social work and two years getting a master’s degree. Social workers who want to work in a clinical setting must fulfill at least two years of supervised work experience before earning a license.

What is a clinical social worker?

Clinical social workers get the training to perform clinical assessments through master’s programs and supervised work experiences. Graduate-level study and clinicals also train candidates to diagnose and treat people suffering from mental illnesses or emotional issues. Students learn to apply social work theories and processes to individual, group, and family counseling. Clinical social workers must obtain licensure to practice.

How do I get started as a social worker?

Prospective social workers must first earn a bachelor’s degree. Bachelor's-level candidates can pursue a specialty in mental health and substance abuse, community social work, or social work administration. Graduates can immediately enter the workforce or pursue a master's degree.

What are the traits of a social worker?

People from all walks of life become social workers, but many share common traits that draw them to the occupation. Social workers often demonstrate compassion, empathy, a desire for social justice, and patience. They must also be highly organized to manage multiple cases at once.

Steps to Become a Social Worker

No one can become a social worker without completing a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. Many students opt to attend programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), because it guarantees the curriculum meets certain academic standards. Many employers and graduate schools also prefer graduates from CSWE-accredited programs.

A prospective social worker's path depends on their career goals. Some specialties require a license and an advanced degree. School social workers in some states need a master’s degree in social work, a license, and certification from the National Association of Social Workers.

Social Work Degrees

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work

A bachelor’s degree in social work prepares graduates for jobs as mental health assistants, rehabilitation caseworkers, family service workers, and caseworkers. These four-year programs teach students about legal and ethical standards in social work, case management, human behavior theory, psychology, and sociology.

Core classes provide a generalist social work education. Students also take electives or concentrations in areas such as addiction and children and families. Candidates gain hands-on training and learn from working professionals through field experiences and labs.

Most bachelor’s degrees require 120 credits to graduate, including major coursework and general education courses.

Bachelor of Social Work Degree

Earn a Master's Degree in Social Work

Individuals with a master’s degree in social work hold the knowledge and educational credentials to work in clinical settings. Graduate students obtain a research-informed education to prepare them for the licensing exams.

With a generalist practice curriculum, students can hone their expertise in areas such as child development, public health, clinical, or geriatric. Direct practice working with individuals and groups is a key component of many master’s in social work programs. Residencies teach students about diversity and racism, health care policy, epidemiology, and biostatistics for public health.

Programs last an average of two years, or about 16 months on accelerated timelines. Students must complete between 32-65 credits to earn their degree. Graduates of CSWE-accredited undergraduate programs can earn advanced standing.

Get Licensed as a Social Worker

Licensing is crucial for social workers who want to work in a clinical or school setting. Earning a master’s degree in social work is the first step needed to obtain licensure. While requirements vary by state, most states expect applicants to get fingerprinted and fulfil 3,000-4,000 supervised practice hours.

Candidates who complete these requirements can sit for licensing exams like the Master’s Association of Social Work Boards exam.

States may also require that applicants complete post-master’s courses in aging and long-term care or child abuse assessment and reporting. Most states mandate that social workers renew licenses every two years by completing continuing education classes.

Social Work Licensing Guide

Consider Professional Social Work Certifications

While professionals must be licensed to work as school or clinical social workers, they do not need to hold certifications. In fact, despite the many benefits of gaining additional credentials, many licensed social workers practice for years before earning a certification.

Certifications do not replace licensure, but merely enhance a social worker’s credentials. They provide professional recognition of a social worker’s knowledge in a specific area and may lead to promotions and higher pay. Expertise in a specialized field often provides career mobility.

Most certifications offered through the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) require a master’s degree. Individuals with a master’s degree can become clinical social workers in gerontology or certified school social work specialists. However, bachelor's degree-holders can become certified children, youth, and family social workers or certified social work case managers. Some certifications may only be available to NASW members.

Career Options for Social Workers

Employment opportunities for social workers hinge primarily on the individual's educational background. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects employment for all social workers to grow by 13% through 2029, with employers adding 90,700 jobs.

Employment projections vary by specialty. Jobs for healthcare social workers should increase by 14% from 2019-2029, whereas child, family, and school social work positions are expected to grow by 12% in the same time period. According to the BLS, clinical social work careers requiring a master’s degree should expand as the demand for healthcare and funding continues to increase.

Outpacing other social work subfields, jobs for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors should increase by 25% from 2019-2029. While the position only requires a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree-holders may fare better on the job market. Employers should add 79,000 occupations by 2029.

Certain areas, such as rural parts of the country, lack healthcare services and boast a higher demand for mental health counselors. Fields like the military also need counselors to work with veterans and military members.

Learn more about salaries for social workers by visiting this page.

Careers in Social Work

Research How to Become a Social Worker by State