logo

Careers in Social Work

The field of social work spans across multiple career options, depending on the type of social work degree you pursue and your personal career goals and interests. Many people choose a social work career based on the types of people they want to help as well as the work environment they prefer. You can read more about the different types of social workers below.

Table of Contents
Top 10 Reasons to Pursue a Career in Social Work
What Does a Social Worker Do?
Social Worker Job Description
People They Serve
Where They Work
Types of Social Work Careers
Micro Level Careers
Mezzo Level Careers
Macro Level Careers
Frequently Asked Questions
Additional Resources

Top 10 Reasons to Pursue a Career in Social Work

Are you considering a career in social work but not sure if it’s the right career for you? There are many reasons people choose a social work career. We’ve compiled our top ten reasons below:

  1. You like working with people. Social workers are almost always 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, so you became interested in their work.
  3. You or a loved one have experienced a hardship such as addiction or abuse and you 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 environment, such as a hospital or a school, but you are more interested in providing clinical or case management services than healthcare or education.
  6. You have a strong interest in working with a certain population such as children, the mentally ill, or older adults.
  7. You enjoy volunteer work and making a difference 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 a fast-paced environment addressing crisis situations while managing a large number of tasks.
  9. You are interested in a flexible career in an ever-changing field allowing you to work in different settings, each with their own goals and challenges, but with a shared purpose of serving the common good.
  10. You want to have 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 that 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. They may provide clinical services, such as therapy or counseling, and connect people to resources in the community to help them overcome challenges. You can read more about this type of career in our micro social workers section below.

Most 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. Read more about these types of social workers in the section about macro social workers section below.

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. Read more about these types of social workers in our section about mezzo social workers section below.

Social Worker Job Description

While the tasks associated with each job vary 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, strengths, and goals, and develop a plan to support individuals and families as they work toward their goals.
  • Counsel people to manage challenges in their lives such as illness, loss, unemployment, and family problems, providing connections with community resources addressing such challenges.
  • Assist individuals and families in meeting basic needs by connecting them to food assistance resources, child care, and healthcare.
  • Help clients navigate government assistance and benefits programs such as Medicaid, Social Security Disability Insurance, and food assistance programs.
  • Respond to crisis situations such as mental health crises and spousal or 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 coping with grief or loss
  • People with mental illnesses
  • People struggling with 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 affairs 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. Macro social work is focused on driving change in community systems, institutions, and larger group units, commonly through government or other non-profit agencies. Mezzo social work is focused on groups that fall between the individual and the community, such as neighborhoods, task forces, and support groups.

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 While some clinical social workers are generalists and work with clients facing diverse issues, others specialize in areas such as rural social work, family practice, or child welfare. Social work at the clinical level always requires a minimum of a master’s degree in social work (MSW) and state licensure.

Psychiatric Social Worker

Psychiatric social workers, also known as mental health social workers, who engage in mental health social work, often work in hospitals or inpatient psychiatric treatment centers. They assess patients’ social, emotional, interpersonal, economic, and environmental needs, along with their strengths, to develop an effective 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. Many schools offer degree programs with a concentration in mental health social work to help students prepare for this career. Psychiatric social workers typically need at least a bachelors’ degree in social work (BSW) to practice.

Child and Family Social Worker

Child and family social workers, also known as youth 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 unique 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 between the child and his or her 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. The related area of child welfare social work focuses on the needs of children and adolescents.

Education, Licensure, and Salary: Child and Family Social Worker
  • 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 (2016) $20.79 hourly, $43,250 annually3
Industries Employed (2014)3
  • State and local government, excluding education and hospitals: 41%
  • Health care and social assistance: 37%
  • Educational services; state, local and private 14%
  • Other industries: 8%1

Social and Human Service Assistant

Social and human services assistants work with social workers, counselors, and other health and human services professionals to provide support to individuals and community groups. They may hold different titles, such as social work assistant, counselor assistant, case work aide, social services assistant, or human services worker. The duties of a social and human service assistant vary according to the setting in which they work, but commonly these professionals are responsible for assisting clients in finding and accessing mental health and community resources. An associate’s degree in social work (ASW) is often sufficient for those seeking social services assistant positions, though a bachelor’s degree or higher in social work can be beneficial for those social and human service assistants seeking opportunities for career advancement.

Healthcare Social Worker

Healthcare social workers counsel patients at the time of their diagnosis and throughout their treatment, helping them adjust to their living arrangements and make arrangements and plans for dealing with an illness. Some of these social workers work on multidisciplinary teams with doctors and other health professionals to focus on illnesses’ effects on the emotional health of patients and families. There are also specialized fields of healthcare social work which focus on special populations or times in the life cycle. Most healthcare social workers have a master’s degree in social work.4

Medical Social Worker

Medical social workers, under the healthcare social work umbrella, provide patients with psychological and social support to cope with chronic or terminal illnesses. They provide patients with education and counseling, including 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. Many master’s of social work programs include concentrations in aging or social work with older adults to prepare social workers for the unique needs of this population.

Hospice Social Worker

Hospice social workers, another type of healthcare social worker, help patients and their families cope with terminal illness. Hospice social workers either provide families with grief counseling or link them to outside services offering 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 (2016) $25.85 hourly, $53,760 annually4
Industries Employed (2012)4
  • Healthcare and social assistance: 81%
  • Government: 10%
  • Other industries: 9%

Mental Health and Substance Abuse 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 whom are psychiatrists, 23% of whom are psychologists and 5% of whom are 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 and rebuilding 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, veterans services, and older adult services.

Education and Licensure
  • Education: MSW required for most positions.
  • Licensure. Varies (see state licensure pages)
  • Median wages (2016) $20.53 hourly, $42,800 annually6
Industries Employed (2014)5
  • Healthcare and social assistance: 76%
  • Government: 16%
  • Other industries:8%

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 with 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 classified as 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 (2016) $20.79 hourly, $43,250 annually3
Industries Employed (2014)3
  • Government: 41%
  • Healthcare and social assistance: 37%
  • Educational services: 14%
  • Other industries: 8%

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 that affect them and their impacts on the community. Then, they can help to develop solutions and strategies that solve problems, promote participation, and improve people’s 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, working to promote community development, assisting the community in finding needed resources, and helping 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 community health commonly work within a social service agency or local government.

Community Health Workers and Administrators

Similar to a community social worker, community health workers (CHWs) seek to address health problems at the community level. Community health workers act as liaisons between the members of the community and the social services available to them. CHWs also provide basic health and medical care to people within a community, often educating them about health issues and sharing preventative measures they can take to avoid illness. A bachelor’s degree or master’s degree in social work with public health coursework is strong preparation for this career. According to O*Net OnLine, community health workers earn an average annual salary of $37,330 and are also known as community health managers, community health outreach program coordinators, and community health specialists.7

Social and Community Service Manager

Social and community service managers oversee and coordinate service programs or the organizations offering such programs. Their work is similar to that of community social workers, but is more administration- and management-focused. Social and community service managers typically work for non-profit and government agencies. Their responsibilities routinely include coordinating with contractors, managing service availability, and supervising counselors, social workers, and other staff. Social work graduates with an interest in management can be competitive applicants for positions as social and community service managers, especially with related experience in the public services field.

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.

Health Educator

Health educators, who are typically employed in non-profit and government organizations, promote health education from the individual to the community level. Similar to social workers, these professionals work to identify the needs of the group(s) they are working with in order to plan and provide appropriate programs. The education provided may be centered on nutrition, physical activity, disease prevention, or further specialized areas such as diabetes management. Health educators earn an average annual salary of $53,070 and have faster than average job growth prospects, projected between 9% and 13% through 2024.8 Example job titles for public health jobs that involve education include community health educator, patient education manager, and peer health educator.

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. This level of practice is also referred to as social policy social work and can impact changes in public policy as well as government policy.

Administrative Social Worker

Administrative social workers, also called management social workers, social work managers, or social work administrators, hold leadership roles in social and community service organizations including social welfare departments, schools, and hospitals. Social work administration is also known as social work management and has a strong emphasis on organizational leadership. 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 they may be hired by organizations of all kinds.

Research Assistant

While research social workers commonly hold a PhD, those with an interest in research who have a bachelor’s or master’s degree may be interested in working as a research assistant. Research assistants help senior researchers find, interpret, and present research to support organizational decisions, program proposals, new theories, business models, and grant applications. A degree in social work can provide the well-rounded education that employers seek when hiring research assistants, especially in organizations focused on social and human services.

Environmental Health Workers and Administrators

Environmental health workers, also known as environmental health officers and administrators, work in both policy and public education to promote environmental health and safety in communities. In addition to job titles like environmental health director, population health manager, and outreach educator, these types of positions include food inspectors, health inspectors, and safety inspectors of various kinds. Environmental health workers earn a median annual salary of $68,910, and on average are well-educated; 70% of such workers hold a bachelor’s degree, while 26% hold a master’s degree and 2% hold a professional degree.9

Healthcare Administrator

Healthcare administrators are typically found in management roles, coordinating health services in hospitals, large doctor’s offices, and public and non-profit health care providers of all sizes. Alternative job titles include medical and health services managers, hospital administrators, and health coordinators. A master’s degree in public health or health administration is typically required and licensure as a social worker can be advantageous for this career. According to O*Net OnLine, these professionals earn a median annual salary of $96,540 and are in high demand, with job growth projected above 14% through 2024.10 Among those working in this field, 19% hold an associate’s degree, 65% hold a bachelor’s degree, and 12% hold a master’s degree.10

Public Health Administrator

Public health administrators, who perform similar work to healthcare administrators, are typically found working in non-profit and government agencies, though they can be found working in hospitals and similar organizations. Public health administrators focus on health education and policy decisions that impact large-scale communities, entire cities, states, and even regions. Related job titles include public health director, educator, or coordinator. A master’s degree in public health or a specialized master’s degree in public policy or public administration can prepare you for administrative jobs in public health.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much are social workers paid?

As discussed above, there are many different types of social workers, and each social work career will offer different average salaries. For example, healthcare administrators earn a median salary of $96,540 per year, healthcare social workers earn a median of $53,760 per year, child, family, and school social workers earn a median of $43,250 per year, environmental health workers earn a median of $68,910 per year, and mental health and substance abuse social workers earn a median of $42,800 per year.10,4,3,9,6

How do I become a social worker?

Most social workers have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, but those who are interested in entry-level social work may be able to get a job with an associate’s degree in social work. Most states require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in social work to obtain licensure, and many require a master’s degree in social work to be licensed. To work as a clinical social worker, a master’s of social work (MSW) is required. Check with your state’s licensure requirements for more information.

What jobs can you get with a social work degree?

The career options for social work graduates are broad. Some people who get a degree in social work are looking to work directly with clients, as licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) or child, family, and school social workers, while others want to work at the macro level, working to promote change on a larger scale, such as in public policy. Other possible social work jobs include community social worker, healthcare social worker, and research assistant. Read more about micro, mezzo, and macro social work careers above, and decide which area interests you most before choosing a professional path for your career.

What hours do social workers typically work?

Social workers do not have “typical” hours. Depending on the type of social work job you have, many social workers, especially those at the micro and mezzo levels, have to be available after normal working hours for client visits and meetings. According to a recent article from The Guardian, social workers reported working an average of 45.9 hours per week, which is higher than their contracted hours (37.2). The same study reported that social workers tend to spend more time completing administrative tasks than face-to-face time with clients. If you are considering a career as a social worker, you should expect that you may have to work a varied (and sometimes challenging) schedule.

Additional Resources

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. O*Net OnLine, Child, Family, and School Social Workers: https://www.onetonline.org/link/details/21-1021.00
4. O*Net 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. O*Net OnLine, Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/21-1023.00
7. O*Net OnLine, Community Health Workers: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/21-1094.00
8. O*Net OnLine, Health Educators: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/21-1091.00
9. O*Net OnLine, Environmental Scientists and Specialists, Including Health: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/19-2041.00
10. O*Net OnLine, Medical and Health Services Managers: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/11-9111.00