Alternative Jobs to Pursue With a Social Work Degree

A degree in social work can lead to a rewarding and lucrative career. Social workers often choose their career path based on the populations they want to work with or their desired work environment. They usually specialize in one area of the field, such as healthcare, children and family social work, or mental health. Depending on their concentration, social workers earn a median annual wage of $46,650-$61,230.

Social workers also develop many essential skills that can serve them well in outside jobs similar to social work. Professionals with training in social work may pursue an alternative career path for many different reasons, including low pay, long hours, or insufficient support in the work environment. Unfortunately, due to these stressors in the workplace, emotional burnout is also a notable factor in some social workers’ decisions to change careers.

This guide offers information on career change options for social workers, based on advice from three experts in the field. This guide also explores the phenomenon of social worker burnout and how to prevent it. Finally, we take a close look at eight popular alternative careers for social workers and how the skills they develop in the field prepare them for these outside roles.

Social Work and Compassion Fatigue

Social workers can become emotionally and physically exhausted while providing clients with guidance. Sometimes referred to as compassion fatigue, professionals experience burnout when they have worked in stressful work environments or with clients dealing with trauma from serious life experiences. Social workers may also experience a shift in their worldview that affects their daily lives and is what some experts refer to as “vicarious trauma.”

Burnout is often centered around the work environment or setting, and may differ between social work positions. A lack of emotional support in the workplace, poor health benefits, and low compensation can all contribute to social worker burnout.

To avoid burnout, our social worker contributors suggest that young professionals try to work with populations they enjoy most. Tamara Leroy-London, a licensed independent clinical social worker (LICSW) in Massachusetts, states that, even if professionals serve clients with, “complex needs, including populations with trauma [or] those in need of crisis interventions,” social workers are more likely to enjoy their work and be less prone to burnout if their client base fits their professional interests.

Leroy-London also encourages social workers to develop an assertive character and set boundaries. “Assertiveness is so important because when you can identify what you need, and then advocate for that need, there is a sense of peace that comes with that, which may otherwise turn into emotional turmoil and anxiety,” she says.

Additionally, boundaries help social work professionals maintain a balance between work and home life. For Leroy-London, boundaries “help us to incorporate all of our life needs, and not just focus on work-related matters, which may lead to resentment.”

Some social workers, however, mitigate compassion fatigue by making a career change.

Career Change Options for Social Workers

There are many alternative careers for social workers seeking jobs without clinical or direct-practice components. The skills social workers develop in training and on-the-job are highly transferable, presenting candidates with many career opportunities.

Social workers usually develop excellent self-motivation, leadership, communication, research, and planning skills. Additionally, social workers are problem-solvers, strategizers, and goal-oriented workers who can thrive in many roles. Professionals with degrees and experience in social work move on to careers in education, consulting, human resources, and community service management.

Depending on their prospective role, social workers may need to pursue additional education to make a career change. While positions in research and college-level teaching often require a doctoral degree, a master’s degree in social work may suffice. Candidates interested in research or teaching jobs at major universities typically need a Ph.D. in a relevant field.

Alternatively, social workers may need to acquire additional certifications to pursue work in some fields. Professionals seeking a career in consulting might consider earning a certification in IT consulting, management consulting, risk management consulting, or a certification relevant to their area of interest.

What Else Can I Do With My Social Work Degree?

Candidates who wish to change positions benefit from having hands-on social work experience before they pursue managerial and supervisory roles. Stacey Aldridge, an LCSW in private practice, notes that social workers develop highly transferable skills from their direct contact with clients, including problem-solving and interpersonal skills, that prepare them for work in a wide variety of alternative roles. Professionals with a social work degree can excel in jobs and career paths outside of typical case management roles, including the following positions.

1. College Admissions Counseling

College admissions counselors work for both public institutions and private businesses, helping prospective college students excel during the college admissions process. Andrew Spiers, the director of training and technical assistance for Pathways to Housing PA’s (PTHPA) Housing First University, considers this role an excellent fit for social workers who “like working with others, but need ‘lower stakes.'”

Professionals working as school and career counselors at the high school level take on similar responsibilities.

2. Social and Community Service Managers

Many social workers thrive in nonprofit institutions and advocacy organizations. According to Tamara Leroy-London, “A social work lens provides a foundation to understand human behavior, analyze societal systems, and to be objective across situations.”

Social workers can often find comfortable roles as social and community service managers. These professionals work directly with members and other stakeholders in their communities, improve local programs and services, and help create and manage outreach programs for the area.

3. Human Resources Managers

Spiers also considers jobs in human resources to be a good fit for social work degree-holders, stating that their communication skills and empathy can go a long way for them in human resources positions. Most of these professionals work in human resources departments at companies and enterprises. They usually oversee the employees’ benefits programs, equal employment opportunity and sexual harassment issues, hiring processes, and employee disciplinary procedures.

4. College Professor

Leroy-London points out that many social workers can find fulfilling work as teachers or researchers. Social workers can teach classes in their areas of expertise, work directly with students, provide informal personal and academic counseling for their learners, and conduct academic research that contributes to their field. College professors usually possess a master’s degree or Ph.D.

5. Diversity and Inclusion Specialists

Many social workers gain experience working with marginalized populations and people who have historically been excluded from various professional roles across the U.S. workforce. As diversity and inclusion specialists, social workers can help companies acquire employees from diverse backgrounds, including gender, race, socio-economic status, religion, age, and national origin. These professionals also work with executives, managers, and other decision-makers at companies to ensure that businesses meet their diverse workforces’ needs.

6. Business Owner/Entrepreneur

Many social workers possess the interpersonal and communication skills required to become successful business owners. Spiers notes that social work professionals are, “great communicators, empathic, able to view individuals as part of a greater environment/context, and good at identifying and connecting with outside resources to problem-solve.” Successful entrepreneurs often start out by identifying a problem or need in the marketplace and developing the necessary products or services, often through connections to resources and other professionals, to meet those demands.

7. Consultants

The Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies three main types of consultants: management, scientific, and technical. These professionals provide clients who operate businesses or organizations with specialized advice. Consulting jobs require professionals to possess excellent problem-solving, research, and communication skills. Aldridge points out that she developed a variety of business-related research skills as a social worker, including the ability to calculate risk analysis and carry-out extensive quantitative research. Consultants must follow these evidence-based practices to provide their clients with the best advice and guidance.

8. High School Teacher

Social workers develop excellent communication and counseling skills while working directly with clients or patients. These qualities are ideal for those pursuing a high school teaching career. In addition to teaching, these instructors often assist students one-on-one with the struggles of young adulthood and prepare them for life after high school. Experts Spiers and Leroy-London note that social workers often develop excellent leadership skills and an assertive character, which is valuable in the classroom.

Meet Our Contributors

Andrew Spiers

Andrew Spiers

Andrew Spiers is the Director of Training and Technical Assistance for Pathways to Housing PA’s (PTHPA) Housing First University. Spiers joined PTHPA in early 2018 and served as an assistant team leader and team leader before launching Housing First University in October 2019. Spiers holds a master of social service from Bryn Mawr College’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, where he concentrated in community practice, policy, and advocacy. He has taught human services and sociology courses as an adjunct professor at Harcum College and has conducted trainings and workshops all over the country on topics like Housing First, harm reduction, and LGBTQ+ health and wellness.

Stacey Aldridge

Stacey Aldridge

Stacey Aldridge is an LCSW in private practice. She holds an MSW from Jackson State University and a BA in social services from Belhaven University. Stacey has worked in the mental health field since 2011, first as the State Director of Consumer Programs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Mississippi and later as a therapist. In the past, she has worked with clients in both in-patient and out-patient hospital settings. Stacey is passionate about inspiring her clients to build the life they want to lead. She founded the website Inspired Practice, a blog by and for mental health professionals.

Tamara Leroy-London

Tamara Leroy-London

Tamara Leroy-London is an LICSW in Massachusetts. She received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Regis College and her master’s degree in social work from Simmons University. Leroy-London enjoys working with adolescents and adults and specializes in matters related to depression and anxiety. She is passionate about supporting underserved urban communities. Born and raised in a Haitian household, she is fluent in Haitian Creole. She works full time in a community health center and runs a small private practice. Tamara is also branching out to provide consultations, presentations, workshops, and to author books and articles.