How to Become a Social Worker

Portions of the following article were drafted using an in-house natural language generation platform. The article was then reviewed, fact-checked, and edited by multiple members of our editorial team prior to publishing.

Written by: Evan Thompson | Edited by: Jennifer Cuellar | Last Updated: March 2024

Are you considering a career in social work? If you’re passionate about helping others, advocating for social justice, and making a real impact on people’s lives, this could be the path for you.

Becoming a social worker requires certain steps, including specific educational qualifications, field experience, and licensure.

In this guide, we’ll walk you through the process and discuss the different types of social workers, potential career paths, and the salary and job outlook for this rewarding profession.

What is a Social Worker?

Social workers assist individuals and communities in dealing with social and emotional challenges. They advocate for clients, provide counseling and connect individuals with vital resources. Social workers may specialize in healthcare, child welfare, or mental health. They often work within three levels:

  • Micro-level: Direct interaction with clients (micro-level)
  • Mezzo-level: Working with groups or overseeing programs
  • Macro-level: Creating systemic change through policy and research

Social workers typically hold a bachelor’s or master’s in social work from an accredited institution. Social workers hold licensure as well. Licensure requirements vary by state but often include completing supervised work experience and passing a licensing exam.

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How to Become a Social Worker

Becoming a social worker depends on which level you hope to reach. It’s possible to become a social worker with a bachelor’s degree, but a master’s degree opens up further opportunities.

Becoming a social worker involves several key steps, including educational preparation, licensure, and gaining practical experience. Here’s an overview of the process:

1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

The first step to becoming a social worker is to earn a bachelor of social work (BSW) or a related field such as sociology, psychology, or political science. A BSW program typically takes four years to complete and includes at least 400 supervised hours of fieldwork experience.

After earning your BSW, you may qualify for entry-level social work jobs in various settings. However, if you wish to provide more advanced clinical services or work in specialized roles, you will need to further your education by pursuing a master of social work (MSW).

2. Gain Field Experience

Gaining field experience in social work typically involves completing field placements as part of an accredited BSW or MSW program. This practical training allows you to apply the theories and methods learned in the classroom to real-life situations.

You’ll engage in activities and responsibilities under the supervision of seasoned professionals, receive evaluation and feedback, and develop specialized skills pertinent to your area of interest. Most importantly, you’ll accumulate the necessary hours of experience to obtain social work licensure.

3. Obtain Social Work Licensure

Obtaining social work licensure is a crucial step in your journey to becoming a social worker. The process involves completing your social work degree, applying for licensure, and passing the appropriate social work licensing exam.

If you’re aiming for a clinical social work license or a license to practice independently, you must also complete supervised practice. The specific requirements for licensure can vary by state, so it’s important to consult with your state’s regulatory board to understand the specific licenses available and their requirements.

4. Pursue a Master’s in Social Work

Earning an MSW is the next step if you aim to provide clinical services or work in program management or supervisory roles. An MSW degree typically takes about two years to complete and includes at least 900 clinical supervised hours.

Pursuing an MSW opens the door to diverse social work career options, allowing you to work in various settings such as child protection, schools, hospitals, and mental health facilities. The degree also prepares you for specialized practice areas like mental health or child welfare and for obtaining clinical and administrative positions.

5. Consider Specialization and Certifications

Social work is a broad field with numerous specializations that address different populations and societal issues. Once you’ve gained some experience in the field, consider specializing in an area that particularly interests you, such as child and family services, mental health, school social work, or healthcare.

You can also pursue various certifications offered by organizations like the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) to demonstrate your expertise and commitment to the field.

Social Work Licensure Explained

Social work licensure is necessary for those wishing to practice social work professionally. Licensure ensures social workers meet specific educational and work experience requirements and adhere to a professional code of ethics.

Levels of Social Worker Licensure

There are multiple levels of social worker licensure, each with separate educational and clinical requirements. Some of the common levels include:

  • Licensed baccalaureate social worker (LBSW), which requires an undergraduate degree
  • Licensed master social worker (LMSW), which necessitates a master’s degree and allows for broader practice than the LBSW
  • Licensed independent clinical social worker (LICSW) or licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), which allows for independent clinical practice and requires a master’s degree and post-master’s supervised work experience

State Requirements for Licensure

Each state sets its requirements for social worker licensure, including the necessary level of education, the type of social work practice allowed, and the level of supervision required. For example:

  • To become an LBSW in Texas, you need a bachelor’s degree from a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited program and a passing score on the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) bachelor’s level exam.
  • In California, an LMSW, also known as an associate clinical social worker (ACSW), requires a master’s degree from a CSWE-accredited program, a passing score on the California Law and Ethics Exam, and registration with the California Board of Behavioral Sciences.
  • To become an LICSW in Massachusetts, you need a CSWE-accredited MSW, two years of post-MSW experience, and a passing score on the ASWB Clinical level exam.

It’s crucial to consult your state’s social work regulatory board to understand the specific licenses available and their requirements.

Social Worker Salary and Job Outlook

Social workers earned a median annual salary of $55,350, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, salaries vary greatly depending on your specialization area, experience level, and job location.

The job outlook for social workers is generally positive, with the BLS projecting a 7% growth in employment from 2022-2032, which is faster than the average for all occupations. The BLS projects about 63,800 openings for social workers each year on average over the next decade.

Healthcare social workers and mental health and substance use social workers are projected to be in higher demand. This is due to the needs of an aging population, the growing demand for mental health and substance use treatment, and the trend of directing people charged with drug-related offenses to treatment programs rather than incarceration.

Is a Career in Social Work Right for You?

A career in social work can be incredibly rewarding, but it’s not for everyone. It requires a significant level of commitment, a passion for helping others, and the ability to handle high levels of stress and emotional challenges.

If you’re someone who thrives on making a positive difference in people’s lives, enjoys problem-solving, and is motivated by social justice reform, then a career in social work could be an excellent fit for you. If you prefer a more predictable work environment or are uncomfortable dealing with difficult emotional situations, you might want to consider other career paths.

Before making a decision, it’s a good idea to talk to current social workers, do some job shadowing, or even volunteer in a social service setting to get a real sense of what the job involves.

Frequently Asked Questions About How to Become a Social Worker