Careers in Social Work
Social work offers a wide array of opportunities in different settings and specialties, especially for graduates who hold a master's degree. Social workers might occupy positions in schools, hospitals, outpatient services, nursing care facilities, and government agencies. Because they address the specific needs of their clients, social workers provide a variety of services depending on their chosen setting.
In addition, social workers benefit from working in a growing field: the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 13% employment growth rate for all social workers from 2019-29, outpacing the average employment estimates for other fields. Job prospects look particularly good for clinical social workers, as the steadily growing healthcare industry increases demand for social workers qualified to provide treatment services.
Though the field offers access to a variety of opportunities, new master of social work (MSW) graduates may have difficulty landing their initial position in their preferred specialty. According to a report from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), around 16% of graduates surveyed had trouble finding work in their preferred subfield.
Learn more on this page about social work opportunities, including potential careers, degree paths, and salaries.
What Does a Social Worker Do?
In general, social workers help children, families, and adults access programs and services that improve their lives.
Social workers work in vulnerable communities, partnering with other agencies to address emergency situations. Many work in specialty care areas like helping families navigate the foster care system, terminally ill patients cope with a diagnosis, or veterans access resources.
In general, social workers help children, families, and adults access programs and services that improve their lives.
According to the CSWE survey, about 34.8% of MSW students focus their practice on children and families. Another 26.4% of social workers choose to help individuals with mental health issues.
Duties also differ depending on a social worker's educational background. Professionals with a bachelor's in social work (BSW) may have limited responsibilities compared to those who hold an MSW. Clinical social workers must hold a master's degree and a license in order to conduct the extensive responsibilities of the role, such as diagnosing individuals suffering from physical or mental health issues.
Where Does a Social Worker Work?
Social workers find positions in schools, family services, local and state government agencies, and ambulatory services. Their daily routines and work settings look different. Some work in offices, while others, such as school social workers, might travel between facilities within a region or district.
Individual and family services, which employs 18% of the workforce, ranks highly among the industries that employ the most social workers. About 342,500 of the nation's total 713,200 social workers serve as child, family, and school social workers.
According to the CSWE survey, 31.1% of MSW graduates hold jobs at nonprofit organizations. Additionally, a little over 25% of social workers who hold an MSW land positions in outpatient healthcare services and inpatient hospitals.
Understanding Micro, Mezzo, and Macro Social Work Practice
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) organizes social work practices into three systems: micro, mezzo, and macro social work. Each system relies on the "Person-in-Environment (PIE) Theory," which frames how social workers understand the issues that clients face in society. While the categories are helpful, social workers might blend their boundaries and work on multiple levels, supporting individuals, groups, and communities.
Micro Social Work
This level typically describes licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) working on an individual basis. Focusing on the individual with whom they're working, they help clients to overcome physical, emotional, and mental challenges.
Mezzo Social Work
Like micro social workers, mezzo social workers are typically LCSWs. Though they also support clients on the individual level, mezzo social workers focus on managing multiple clients within groups, such as families or specific communities. In their practice, mezzo social workers serve as liaisons, collaborating with other systems, agencies, and community members to help individual clients.
Macro Social Work
Macro social workers focus on the goal of promoting systemic change by focusing on the interactions between systems, often specializing in a particular communities' needs. They might advocate for legislation or develop policy, maintaining a connection with micro and mezzo social workers in order to stay informed on concrete practices and needs.
Entry-Level Social Work Careers
Social workers with a bachelor's degree can find jobs as social and human service assistants, health educators, and social science research assistants. They also work at the macro social work level, influencing the policymakers who create and fund public programs.
Child welfare specialists, also called child welfare workers, partner with community organizations to protect children. Their duties also include reporting suspected child abuse or neglect.
With less than one year of experience, an entry-level child welfare specialist can expect to earn an annual salary of about $35,450, according to PayScale. After gaining about 5-9 years of experience, PayScale reports that these social workers can expect to make about $46,549 per year. Employers do not require a license for this job.
Social and Human Service Assistant
Social and human service assistants, interchangeably called social work assistants, have broad responsibilities working with a variety of different communities. They primarily assist social workers who help children, elderly people, and individuals experiencing homelessness.
The BLS reports that social and human service assistants make a median annual pay of $35,060. At a minimum, employers require prospective social and human service assistants to earn a high school diploma. Many also hold certificates or an associate degree.
Health educators focus on creating the programs that inform communities about health services. They also train community health workers, collect data, and teach health education at high schools and middle schools. Health educators also work in hospitals, government agencies, outpatient care centers, and nonprofits.
A role as a health educator requires a bachelor's degree in social work or health education. Many health educators also hold a certified health education specialist credential. They earn a median annual salary of $55,220, according to the BLS.
Social Science Research Assistant
Social science research assistants help scientists and researchers conduct surveys and carry out experiments. Training to become a social science research assistant begins with completing a bachelor's in social work program.
Social science research assistants might work for employers in scientific research services, colleges, or government agencies. Though their salaries depend on their workplace, the BLS reports that social science research assistants make a mean annual wage of $50,420.
Social Work Case Manager
Social work case managers manage operations at agencies that provide community services. Unlike social workers, case managers do not typically provide one-on-one therapy.
To land a job as a social work case manager, candidates need at least a bachelor's degree, though a master's degree can improve employment prospects. Many in this position also hold the NASW certified social work case manager credential. On average, social case managers make a salary of $39,074, according to PayScale.
Social Work Careers by Specialty
MSW graduates typically work in specialty fields, such as child and family services, geriatrics, mental health and substance abuse, or education. While most social workers who specialize in specific fields hold an advanced degree, graduates with a bachelor's degree can also work in niche areas.
Earning the corresponding NASW credential gives a social worker the professional recognition to work in case management, gerontology, hospice and palliative care, or youth and family services. Most NASW certifications require a master's degree. However, graduates who hold a bachelor's degree can qualify for certain NASW certifications, such as social work case managers. These credentials let employers know that social workers meet industry standards.
Child and Family Social Worker
These social workers respond to crises and help families access services, such as food stamps and housing opportunities. Most hold at least a BSW. Becoming a child and family social worker does not require a license.
School Social Worker
School districts often hire to assist struggling students. These professionals partner with teachers and parents to create plans that address emotional, behavioral, social, and/or academic development issues.
Licensed school social workers often hold a master's degree, though specific requirements vary by state. The BLS reports that school social workers make a median annual salary of $47,390. Most CSWE-surveyed school social workers work in elementary schools and preschools.
Mental Health Social Worker
When hiring mental health social workers, many employers require a master's degree and a license. In some states, a bachelor's degree may suffice, though mental health social workers without licenses and an advanced degree may be limited to performing certain responsibilities.
Mental health social workers help people cope with mental, behavioral, and emotional issues. The BLS reports that these social workers earn a median annual salary of $46,650. Many find work in clinical rehabilitation centers and private practices.
Substance Abuse Social Worker
Substance abuse social workers can find employment at rehabilitation facilities, hospitals, and detention centers. In these settings, professionals assess, treat, and create interventions to help individuals suffering from alcohol and substance addictions.
These professionals also address other comorbid addictions that affect individuals, families, and communities, such as gambling or sex addiction. Mental health and substance abuse social workers make an annual mean salary of $51,670.
Healthcare Social Worker
Healthcare social workers provide information and services to make navigating the medical world easier for their clients. They might help people come to terms with a medical diagnosis or educate doctors and healthcare professionals about a patient's emotional needs.
Healthcare social workers, according to the BLS, make a median annual wage of $56,750. Besides client-based services, healthcare social workers also influence healthcare policy and advocate for patients' rights.
Clinical Social Worker
Clinical social workers must hold a master's in social work, complete two years of supervised work experience in a clinical setting, and obtain state licensure. Licensed clinical social workers earn an average annual salary of $58,390, according to PayScale.
Clinical social workers can provide individual therapy, and may help clients cope with mental health conditions or assist them in finding housing and jobs. These professionals work at hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and clinics.
Social and Community Service Manager
Working as a social and community service manager requires at least a bachelor's degree, although employers might look for a master's degree in social work or a related major, such as public health. Social and community service managers partner with community leaders to develop and deliver programs that best serve a community's needs.
These professionals must juggle multiple tasks, such as writing grant proposals, managing administrative staff, and monitoring the success of outreach work. They make a median annual salary of $112,480.
Social Work Teacher
Colleges hire social work teachers for both part-time and tenure positions. Social work teachers at four-year colleges and universities need a minimum of a master's degree, but more often a doctorate.
Community colleges may hire part-time instructors who hold a master's degree in social work. Pay for social work teachers depends on the setting; social work teachers make an annual mean wage of $78,320 and $72,090 at four-year and two-year colleges, respectively.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What field of social work pays the most?
Not all social workers take home the same pay. Social workers in the federal executive branch, local governments, and state government earn the most, with a median annual wage of $61,230. These professionals make more than social workers in healthcare, mental health and substance abuse, schools, and child and family services.
- Why is social work a good career?
Becoming a social worker offers a chance to enter a field on track to outpace many other industries. The BLS projects social work jobs to grow by 13% from 2019-29. The career offers both fulfilling work helping others and upward mobility in the field through advanced degrees and credentials.
- How long does it take to complete an MSW?
Students can expect to spend at least two years, or four semesters, earning a master's degree in social work. Part-time students take longer to earn their degree. Conversely, accelerated programs offer faster-than-average graduation pathways. The licensure process takes an additional two years of supervised work experience.
- What is the difference between social work licensure and social work certification?
Becoming a licensed clinical social worker allows individuals under state law to work in clinical settings, enabling them to provide individual therapy services. The process requires additional post-graduate education and a passing score on the Association of Social Work Boards exam. A certification, such as those offered through NASW, gives social workers recognition for their abilities in specific specialties like case management or education.