Social workers make a difference in others' lives by providing them with support, connecting them with resources, and ensuring they get referred to professionals who can meet their needs. Social workers can practice in schools, hospitals, and local community organizations.
Read on to learn about common career paths, available degrees, and continuing education opportunities for social workers.
Why Pursue a Degree in Social Work?
Learners can pursue many careers with a social work degree. In addition to social worker, additional jobs include counselor, case manager, nonprofit manager, and social services assistant. The best social work jobs allow graduates to use their skills and talents to help their clients live better lives.
People who enjoy helping others reach their potential often find this work both appealing and rewarding. Empathetic problem-solvers thrive in social work settings, as do individuals who enjoy working with diverse clients.
Professionals who want to become millionaires do not often seek out careers in social work. However, several social work careers offer strong salaries.
Social Work Career Outlook
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 13% job growth for social workers between 2019 and 2029. These professionals earn a median annual salary of $50,470. The following table highlights income for social workers at different career stages.
|Substance Abuse Counselor||$35,560||$38,410||$41,130||$43,560|
|Case Manager, Social Services||$35,400||$37,600||$40,230||$41,100|
|Social or Community Service Manager||$39,830||$43,260||$49,450||$55,480|
Skills Gained With a Social Work Degree
Social work careers value professionals with diverse skills, including communication and management. Accredited social work programs often offer specific courses that help cultivate these particular skills. Students also develop communication, interpersonal, and organizational skills during supervised fieldwork.
The following list highlights several important skills that social workers use daily.
Most social work jobs require professionals to speak directly with patients in one-on-one and group settings. Social workers must be able to discuss sensitive topics in a clear and concise manner and explain how patients can help themselves.
- Interpersonal Skills
Social work professionals must relate to and work with individuals from diverse backgrounds. Interpersonal skills are essential in providing meaningful treatment and guidance for patients. Additionally, social workers interact with patients who display a variety of emotions, so they must prepare for complex or emotionally charged interactions.
Social workers often serve multiple clients at a time. Along with generating required documentation, taking personal notes, and managing additional client paperwork, social workers must maintain an organized system. Social workers also juggle appointments and meeting times at various locations. Organization is essential for helping clients, remaining in good standing with employers, and ultimately enjoying a successful career.
- Emotional Skills
Many social workers work in stressful environments or with patients who have experienced trauma. Effective professionals in this field possess the emotional stability and maturity to deal with taxing conversations and scenarios. While social work programs help train students, some of this emotional stamina comes from personal history and professional growth.
Social work careers can present unique challenges on a daily basis, so professionals in the field need to learn to think on their feet, employ the best social work practices, and solve problems in real time.
Social Worker Career Paths
- Child and Family Social Workers
These professionals help vulnerable children and families. They help families locate housing, apply for benefits, and find childcare services. These social workers may also intervene when children are in danger, neglected, or abused. In some cases, they help arrange adoptions, locate foster families for children, and reunite separated family members.
- School Social Workers
These professionals work directly with teachers, parents, and school administrators to improve student life, academic performance, and social development. They advise students with behavioral issues, including bullying, fighting, and skipping class. They also help develop crisis management and safety services.
- Healthcare Social Workers
Social workers in healthcare offer daily support for patients in recovery who suffer from physical, emotional, or psychological pain. They work with patients' families to cultivate a stronger support system and collaborate with other healthcare providers to coordinate recovery plans and make referrals for other services.
- Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers
These professionals provide therapy for individuals with addiction or mental illnesses. Social workers in this field ensure that clients pursue help with additional services, support groups, and 12-step programs.
How to Start Your Career in Social Work
The minimum educational requirement for a social worker is a bachelor's degree. Professionals with an associate degree in the field may work as aides or assistants. To provide clinical services, social workers must earn a master's degree. All social workers need a state-issued license to practice, and exact requirements vary by state.
Job responsibilities and salary tend to rise as students complete more advanced degrees. Below are several jobs for social workers at each degree level.
Bachelor's Degree in Social Work
Professionals with a bachelor's degree in social work understand social welfare policies, human behavior, social work ethics, and clients with diverse backgrounds. These skill sets prepare social workers for entry-level positions in administrative and counseling roles, including as probation officers, human services specialists, case management aides, and community outreach workers.
With experience, online social work degree holders can move up to managerial positions, increasing their earning potential. Since this degree prepares students for careers in which they work directly with communities and people of all backgrounds, many schools recommend learning a foreign language.
What Can You Do With a Bachelor's in Social Work?
- Substance Abuse or Behavioral Disorder Counselor
These counselors develop care and treatment plans for clients with alcohol and drug addictions and behavioral issues. They work in health facilities such as community health centers, hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, and mental health clinics.
- Social or Community Service Manager
These social workers improve public programs and services, analyze pertinent data, increase awareness of local and regional resources, and advocate for support and funding. They help children and the unemployed and act as a liaison between upper management and staff at their organizations.
- Case Manager, Social Services
Case managers handle multiple social work cases at a time and ensure that they meet clients' needs. They need excellent interpersonal and communication skills to support their clients and create treatment programs. They make sure that clients engage with social service resources, especially those associated with the social worker's employer. These workers may also take on managerial roles.
- Social Services Director
These directors serve their employers in leadership roles and often oversee social services staff members. They control client admission to their organization and orchestrate client transfers to other social work professionals. In some cases, they serve as the public face of their organizations and disseminate information about the services and resources they offer.
Master's Degree in Social Work
While you gain significant experience and training in a bachelor's program, a master's degree in social work prepares you for more specialized work and increases your earning potential. This degree, which typically takes 2-3 years to complete, helps students progress toward careers in clinical, administrative, and managerial roles.
Online MSW programs cover topics such as mental health, social work and education, clinical social work, and social work in school systems. These specialty areas allow students to focus on one or two major topics in the field and can determine the trajectory of their career upon graduation.
What Can You Do With a Master's in Social Work?
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker
These mental healthcare professionals offer counseling, therapy, and practical prevention of mental health issues. LCSWs work in hospitals, clinics, and private practices and must hold a master's degree before taking the licensure exam in all states. In addition to this requirement, master's programs ensure that professionals complete necessary training and experience through supervised clinical practica and internships.
- Director, Nonprofit Organization
Directors oversee all of the programs run by an organization, manage and coordinate staff members, and help organize daily activities. They serve as the spokesperson and leader of their nonprofit by speaking at public events, working with the board of directors, and communicating with the media. Directors may also assume some responsibility for garnering financial support from individuals or organizations.
- School or Career Counselor
Counselors work in elementary, middle, and high schools, interacting directly with students, their parents, faculty, and staff. They help students overcome social and behavioral issues and develop education programs to teach students about drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and other health hazards. They work with school administrators to improve the quality of life and the learning environment at the institution.
Doctoral Degree in Social Work
For those who wish to pursue education beyond a master's degree, there are two types of doctoral degrees in social work: the doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) and the doctor of social work (DSW).
In most cases, graduate students pursue these advanced degrees to prepare for careers in research and teaching, including jobs as professors and researchers at colleges, universities, and private institutions. Doctoral degree-holders also qualify for leadership and other advanced roles in clinical fields.
A doctorate degree does not qualify you to earn a higher or more advanced license. Rather, an online phd in social work can help graduates become experts in a particular field and provide unique opportunities to work with and learn from distinguished educators in the field.
What Can You Do With a Doctorate in Social Work?
Professors teach and conduct research at colleges and universities. Doctoral degrees prepare students for positions that feature teaching, academic research, or a combination of the two. Many academic departments rotate experienced teachers through leadership roles in various committees. These teachers typically advise and guide students in addition to teaching classes in their specialty area.
- Department Chair - College/University
Department chairs serve as the leaders of their respective academic department inside a college or university. They supervise their faculty members, collaborate with university administrators, and maximize their department's resources. Doctoral programs prepare learners for leadership roles in which they advise students and fellow faculty members and adjust curricula as needed.
How to Advance Your Career in Social Work
After earning an initial degree, social workers can take several different steps to advance their careers. After working in the field for several years, some social workers go back to school and earn an advanced degree. Others feel that pursuing an online certificate best serves their needs. Still others work with a career mentor and take free online courses.
The following sections cover the options available to social workers who want to continue growing in their roles throughout their careers.
Certifications and/or Licensure
Any social worker who plans to work in a clinical position (e.g., mental health counselor or clinical social worker) must hold a license in the state in which they practice. Many states now require non-clinical social workers to also hold licensure.
The type of licenses available varies by state. Specific licenses, such as licensed clinical social worker, are not available in every state. States offer different types of licensure based on the degree each applicant holds and the type of social work they plan to practice.
Each state sets its own licensure requirements. Students should speak with both their program mentor and their state's board of social work to learn about specifics. Most require learners to earn a minimum of a bachelor's degree, meet practicum/fieldwork requirements, and pass an exam. Some states require a master's.
After working as a social worker for several years, some professionals may decide to take their career to the next level. While many social workers think of completing an advanced degree as the only option, several other paths merit consideration.
Many colleges and universities now offer online and in-person certification programs that take less time than a full degree. These programs introduce learners to a specialized and/or niche topic in the field. At Colorado State University, for example, distance learners can pursue an online preK-12 school social worker postgraduate certification.
Students seeking an alternative option may want to consider taking free social work courses offered by universities throughout the world. These courses vary in length, and students can sometimes pay a small fee to receive a certificate after completing the course.
Even after leaving school, social workers can continue sharpening their existing skills and learning new ones. By completing continuing education units, social workers can maintain their licenses while learning about contemporary topics and issues.
Networking offers the opportunity to meet other professionals in the field and learn about potential social worker job openings.
Joining a professional organization can help social workers find leadership opportunities, join local/regional chapters, and receive mentoring from more experienced professionals in the field. Many of these groups also provide in-person and online training alongside annual conferences.
How to Switch Your Career to Social Work
Professionals in other fields may decide they want to change their career to social work. In most cases, career-changers must earn an additional degree. A professional with a degree in health and human services, for instance, usually will not meet state licensure requirements for social workers. However, individuals in a closely related field may be able to meet requirements by completing a certificate or additional training instead of a full bachelor's or master's program.
Individuals who already hold a bachelor's degree often decide to pursue a master's in the field to gain the skills and qualifications needed to get a license. These programs prepare graduates for licensure through practica and internships in the field.
Where Can You Work With A Social Work Degree?
- State, Local, and Private Hospitals
Social workers in hospitals and other care facilities offer clinical services to patients across the recovery spectrum. They also offer support for patients' families and friends.
- Local Government
Government social workers offer homeless services, counseling, burial services, social data analysis, and life management skills training.
- Ambulatory Healthcare Services
These professionals work in healthcare facilities that specialize in treating specific conditions. Social workers interact directly with patients, arrange in-home care, and discuss life changes that may occur as a result of an injury, condition, or disease.
- State Government
Social workers at the state level help organize and run state-sponsored services and programs to benefit the public. These programs cover mental health, social justice, social services, child welfare, and criminal justice.
- Individual and Family Services
These social workers provide guidance and counseling for individuals and families around their communities. They work at welfare agencies, youth shelters, nonclinical facilities, and nonprofit organizations. While careers in this field are emotionally taxing, many social workers experience a great sense of purpose and accomplishment.
Interview With a Professional
Susan Youngsteadt graduated from North Carolina State University with a master's in social work in 2016. She has more than six years of experience working with youth and adults in various agency settings.
Youngsteadt is a licensed clinical social worker associate and currently practices as a family centered treatment (FCT) therapist for a private community mental health agency in Raleigh, NC.
- Why did you choose a degree in social work? Was this something you were always interested in?
I always knew I wanted to work with families. I can specifically remember writing a poem in 9th grade English class about wanting to become a marriage and family therapist.
Now, my specific job title and end goal may have shifted slightly over the years (I do not have my LMFT), but I still work with families and truly enjoy it. I plan to work with children, adolescents, and families in some format for the foreseeable future.
My parents were both registered nurses when they met. My mother and father instilled in me a desire to help others and to give back. My parents always gave more than they took and made it a point to instill these values into me growing up.
I was also blessed with the opportunity to have a high school guidance counselor who made a tremendous impact on my life. She was part of my inspiration to pursue a degree in social work and work with adolescents.
I did not always know I needed to have a degree in social work to do the type of work I wanted to do. In my undergraduate program, my adviser explored options with me and provided me with the information on how obtaining a master's of social work would allow me to have broad options when working with children and families, as well as be able to provide therapy in a clinical setting.
I obtained a nonprofit management studies minor from North Carolina State University as well, and knew social work would allow me to pursue that passion of mine.
- What were some of the most crucial skills that you gained in your MSW program that apply to your job on a day-to-day basis?
This is a tough question. Thinking back to my time in my MSW program, the first skill that comes to mind is humility.
I learned how to admit I did not know everything, and I needed to work together with other people to achieve the same goal: helping others. I learned how to give myself a break. I have always been someone who found school important and dedicated a lot of time to academic performance.
My MSW program taught me to place more value on the learning experience and to know my personal limits. I would exhaust myself and then be unable to give my best to certain parts of the program.
I gained the skill of validation and affirmation when working with others. We focused a lot on active listening skills, which is crucial in the field of social work where many individuals simply want to be heard.
On a day-to-day basis, I would have to say the skills of validation; active listening; affirmation; normalizing thoughts, feelings, and experiences; and asking open-ended (instead of close-ended) questions were all gained from my time in my MSW program and the internship experiences. Making connections also stands out as a crucial skill. Networking is key in the field of social work.
We all have similar goals with a root in wanting to support others in our community. Working together and getting to know people in other agencies and positions has been hands down one of the most important skills I gained. I learned how to search for resources in my community.
Or, in other words, I learned how to do more than simply Google something and hope I found the answer I needed.
- You earned an undergraduate degree in psychology. Is it necessary/do you think it's important for MSW students to have this kind of background going into their master's program?
I chose to earn a degree in psychology because the human mind has always fascinated me. I do feel this undergraduate degree, along with a minor in social work, was helpful for me going into a master's program for social work.
Do I feel it is necessary? No. In my cohort, there were individuals with a variety of backgrounds, all with so much to offer. We had people with backgrounds in business, sociology, and communication. All of these backgrounds have something to bring to the table in the field of social work.
I honestly believe that if all MSWs had the same background in regards to undergraduate education, we would not be as diverse and would put ourselves in a situation where we all thought the same. We need different perspectives, pulling from a variety of academic fields.
I do believe having an understanding of the needs within your community, a desire to help others, and a willingness to learn and serve others are key to obtaining an MSW. Many individuals who I have had the opportunity or pleasure to work with or attend school with had an experience in their childhood or adulthood that led them to pursue social work.
- What are some of the greatest challenges you face in your practice? What advice would you give to students considering this line of work?
In my current role, I practice as a FCT clinician at a private community mental health agency. This would be considered clinical, direct practice work where I see families and individuals face-to-face and provide therapeutic services.
Some of the greatest challenges I face in my current practice include having a solid work/life balance and healthy boundaries when it comes to work. My current position is considered "24/7 crisis," meaning if one of the families on my caseload is experiencing a crisis, they are able to reach out to me anytime for support.
Now, that does not mean that I absolutely 100% must answer. Everyone understands us clinicians have personal lives. We use a phone tree and have an emergency crisis plan in place for these situations.
However, we are expected to do our due diligence in making ourselves available to a family when a crisis occurs. So in a sense, I am always “on." I have found it challenging to turn my work “off" when I get home in the evenings or on weekends, when I always feel as though there is something I could be doing or a family may call needing assistance.
Over time, I have become more comfortable with placing firm boundaries on myself for when I need to put work away and be present in my personal life, along with placing boundaries with families that I serve. This includes providing families with a good crisis plan for if I am unavailable to respond to the family right away.
These boundaries include putting my phone down and not feeling obligated to answer every work-related email the minute it comes through. It is a challenge not to feel responsible for doing everything you can to help your families out, which can truly impact your personal life if good boundaries aren't in place.
Advice I would give to students considering clinical work: I would suggest exploring setting boundaries within yourself for work life and personal life. You can do this by exploring how you set boundaries now with your friends and family, etc.
I would also suggest exploring what you are capable and willing to do when working with families, being honest with yourself. Are you willing to work on weekends, take calls later in the evening, or potentially move your schedule around at the last minute?
Being transparent and honest with yourself and what you are willing to do when working with families can be a tremendous help when looking for clinical positions right out of an MSW program. Make sure to ask about work/life balance in job interviews with enhanced or crisis service positions.
- What was the job search like after completing your degree? Did you feel fully prepared when making the transition from school into practicing?
I completed my degree in May 2016. During the last few months of our graduate program, we were encouraged to begin the job search. Advisers and professors alike would provide feedback on resumes, cover letters, and field questions on job postings.
We were also encouraged to reach out to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) staff, specifically the individual who provided resume assistance. She was a huge help in feeling prepared for the job search.
The job search was somewhat confusing, as I personally was not sure on the exact path I wanted to take right out of school. I knew I simply needed a job. I wanted to work with children and families, but wasn't sure if I wanted to work in a private or public setting, in clinical versus more macro, etc.
The job search proved overwhelming at first, but once I was able to sit back and truly think about what I wanted to do and what would make me happy, then it felt much easier to look for certain positions in the area.
When making the transition into practicing in a full-time job, I can say it was not an easy transition for me. I initially struggled to find my groove and a schedule I was comfortable with. I went straight into my master's program from undergrad, so I had been in school for six years.
No longer having class or a paper due was unusual to me and took longer to get used to than I would have anticipated. I feel that continuing to work all throughout my undergraduate and graduate programs did help in feeling less of the impact in working full time.
- What additional advice would you give to prospective MSW students?
Have a support system or begin the process of solidifying your support system. MSW programs involve a lot of self-reflection and introspective work. You will learn a lot about yourself as well as others in your cohort/classes. You will study tough but relevant topics that can weigh you down and overwhelm you. Developing a good self-care routine is also highly recommended.
You will need to take care of yourself. I know for me, I wanted to give everything I had to my MSW program. My cohort playfully turned the MSW acronym into “must save world." This rang very true for me. I was constantly on the go, working and going to school while completing my internship.
Developing a self-care routine where I replenished myself allowed me to give more to my program and the agency I partnered with. It can be anything from weekly nights with your friends, reading a good book, hot baths with a candle, a glass of wine or two, whatever works for you.
This is also a great piece of advice that will follow you into the professional field once you complete your MSW program.
Resources for Social Work Majors
Social work students and professionals alike can benefit from several resources that support continued professional growth. Joining a professional organization can boost job prospects for current and aspiring professionals, as can staying-up-to-date on the industry through academic journals and publications. Below are a few popular resources for social work majors.
- Professional Organizations
National Association of Social Workers: NASW is the largest professional association of social workers in the world, boasting a membership of over 140,000 students and professionals. Members can take advantage of continuing education and networking opportunities, read up on current news and research, and browse a job board.
Clinical Social Work Association: Clinical social workers work on the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of illnesses, behavioral and mental health issues, and emotional disturbances. This association brings together practicing social work practitioners and provides professional support in the form of advocacy, current events coverage, and a jobs board.
School Social Work Association of America: SSWAA offers professional development, news coverage, and networking opportunities to school social workers.
National Organization of Forensic Social Work: NOFSW creates industry standards for forensic social workers, provides educational materials, encourages original research, and advocates for the profession where necessary.
Society for Social Work Leadership in Health Care: This society brings together healthcare social workers and promotes best practices in the field. Members can take advantage of frequent networking opportunities, continuing education options, and discounts on educational products.
Association of Oncology Social Work: AOSW promotes awareness of the psychosocial aspects of cancer, encourages new research, advocates for patient and caregiver needs, and liaisons with other professional associations. The association offers conferences and professional development opportunities.
- Open Courseware
Foundations of Modern Social Theory - Yale University: This class familiarizes students with the major schools of thinking in sociology. Lecture topics include Marx on class and exploitation, Freud on sexuality and civilization, and Montesquieu on division of power.
Social Attitudes and Public Opinion - University of Massachusetts Boston: In this course, students explore theories of attitude organization and change, along with external variables like mass media, school systems and familial structure. Learners also discuss public opinion and its relation to politics.
Aging and Disability: Transitions into Residential Care - The Open University: This course addresses the issues that individuals and families face when choosing to move an elderly family member into a residential care facility. Students explore the role of social workers during this transition and how they can impact a patient's quality of life.
Substance Abuse and the Family - University of Massachusetts Boston: This course addresses substance abuse and how it affects the way families function. Students explore community resources for social workers and coping strategies for families dealing with substance abuse.
Open Access Journals
Journal of Social Work Education: This peer-reviewed journal publishes four times per year. Articles explore topics such as education in social work, distance learning, and the need for trauma training in typical curricula.
Social Work: Published by NASW, this journal strives to continually improve the practice of social work and promote original research. Social Work is free to NASW members.
Journal of Forensic Social Work: Published by NOFSW, this journal includes original research and literature reviews that discuss topics like domestic violence, criminal proceedings, child welfare, custody, and expert witness requirements.
Journal of Psychosocial Oncology: This publication covers news, current events and ongoing research in the psychosocial treatment of cancer patients. Free to members of AOSW, this journal publishes articles that explore the psychological needs of hospice workers, patient education, family involvement, and pediatric cancer patients.
Advances in Social Work: This journal examines current events, research, and challenges that social workers face. Intended as a forum for the exchange of scholarly research and ideas, this journal is published twice per year, with occasional special issues. Past articles have covered topics such as community-based mental health providers in disaster scenarios, the challenges of a green society, human trafficking, and global violence against women.
Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research: This peer-reviewed journal is dedicated to original research in social work and its allied professions, particularly research that drives change in public policy. The journal is published quarterly. Past articles have covered outcome assessment for violent female offenders, predictors of gang involvement, the relationship between immigrants and welfare reform, and sexual expectations of urban youth.
Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason: French philosopher Michel Foucault explores a fundamental sociological question: what does it mean to be insane? Beginning in the Middle Ages, this book examines changing definitions over time, as well as how different societies ostracized those deemed to be crazy.
Days in the Lives of Social Workers: This book includes interviews with 58 social workers, each of whom has something different to offer the reader.
Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror: Author Judith Herman tackles the problems unique to victims of trauma and assault, using the lens of social context to understand private horror.
Where to Start and What to Ask: An Assessment Handbook: Assessment of clinical status is a key step in addressing the needs of any patient. This practical, no-nonsense book covers best practices in patient assessment in the clinical environment.
Beginnings, Middles, & Ends: Sideways Stories on the Art & Soul of Social Work: Written by social worker and educator Ogden Rogers, this book chronicles his journey through his career and delivers nuggets of wisdom he learned along the way.
Online Industry Magazines
The New Social Worker: Published four times per year, this magazine is a complete career resource for social workers. Articles cover research, current events, best practices, careers, and technology. The magazine also publishes book reviews, poetry, art, and feature stories.
Social Work Today: This magazine publishes reviews of current field research, coverage of regulatory and legislative issues, book reviews, and career information. Feature articles cover topics such as PTSD and cancer, the use of tobacco by the mentally ill, and living with dementia.
Social Work Helper: Founded in 2011, this publication shares progressive news and information. The magazine targets consumers and service providers. Features cover topics such as teens and alcohol, as well as crowdsourcing for nonprofits.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is social work a good degree?
A social work degree is a great option for people who want to use their time and talents to help others. New social workers enter a field with high demand. The BLS projects 13% job growth for social workers between 2019 and 2029.
- What field of social work pays the most?
According to the BLS, healthcare social workers earned a median annual salary of $56,750 in 2019. Local governments paid social workers $55,500, while state governments paid $49,100.
- What are the career opportunities for social work?
Social workers can work in hospitals and clinics; schools and career services; the military; and local, state, and federal governments.
- What careers are similar to social work?
Social work often involves counseling, therapy, and psychology. The field also resembles human services, community development, and human development and family studies.