Requirements for a Career in Social Work

What do you need for a job in social work? Discover requirements to enter the field and learn how you can get your career in social work started.

portrait of Doug Wintemute
by Doug Wintemute

Published October 20, 2022

Edited by Margaret Weinhold
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Requirements for a Career in Social Work
Image Credit: Maskot / Getty Images


Did you know that according to the National Association of Social Workers, social work officially began in 1898? And now over a century later, social workers manage more than 60% of all mental health treatment in the country. Social workers and their services can be found in community support centers, healthcare clinics, and schools.

Below, learn more about the requirements for a career in social work and examine the different social work degree levels and specializations. Discover the certification and licensure requirements for the field, too.

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What Are Common Social Work Careers?

Social workers give support to individuals and communities in many different ways.

They can offer general services and support or work in a more specialized role. Social workers can work with certain cases, like mental health and substance misuse, or demographics, such as children and families.

As a result of the many specializations social workers can pursue, they can work in diverse environments. These professionals can work for state and federal government agencies, family services, schools, and healthcare organizations.

They may work with clients directly or behind the scenes in program or policy development.

Social worker titles, capabilities, and requirements differ by state. For example, clinical social workers can provide treatment and diagnosis to patients. These professionals may offer therapy and counseling services as well.

In addition to careers in social work, social work degrees can lead to positions in other community and social service occupations.

These may include roles in correctional treatment, community organization management, and mental health counseling. Graduates can even apply their social work skills and education to interdisciplinary fields, such as business or healthcare.

Clinical vs. Direct Practice Social Work

It's important to know the difference between clinical vs. direct practice social work.

While professionals in these fields provide overlapping services, their focus, scope of practice, and educational requirements differ considerably.

Direct practice social workers connect individuals and communities in need to the appropriate services and resources. But clinical social workers offer direct treatment services, such as diagnosing mental health issues and developing therapeutic plans.

Clinical social workers also need more education, typically a master's degree with a significant practical component. This qualifies them for the national certification exam and state licensure.

Which Degree Should You Get to Become a Social Worker?

Social work degrees are available at the associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral levels. And graduate degrees qualify you for more responsibilities and advanced careers.

Take a look at what these programs cover and what opportunities they bring.

Associate Degree

An associate social work degree typically features two years of studies in the fundamentals of social work and general education.

The programs often cover the principles of psychology and sociology, plus an introduction to social policy.

Associate degrees can lead to entry-level careers, such as social service assistant roles, but they also serve as stepping stones to further studies.

Plus, associate degree programs are generally more affordable than bachelor's and graduate programs. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), tuition at public two-year schools cost an average of $3,500-$8,260 per year, whereas tuition at public four-year schools cost an average of $9,380-$27,090 during the same period.

Associate degree programs can also act as stepping stones to four-year degree programs, as credits often transfer.

Bachelor's Degree

A bachelor's in social work (BSW) program can provide students with the knowledge and skills they need for generalist and nonclinical social work careers.

Degree-seekers learn about the pressing social issues, policies, and practices that impact the field. They also develop a foundation for clinical social work and complete a practicum, usually of more than 400 hours.

BSW programs may include concentrations in areas like child and family services, behavioral health, and addiction.

The average annual tuition was $9,380 at four-year in-state public schools and $32,830 at four-year private schools during the 2020-2021 academic year, according to the NCES.

Master's Degree

A master's degree in social work (MSW) prepares students for direct practice leadership positions and clinical social work positions.

Students learn various approaches for individuals, groups, and communities. Master's students study advanced social policy, human behavior, and populations at risk.

Most MSW programs feature two years of studies and an extensive supervised clinical practicum of 900 hours or more.

Students receive practical training in assessing, diagnosing, and treating patients. Aspiring clinical social workers graduate and continue their supervised clinical hours until they meet their state's certification and licensure requirements.

According to the NCES, the average annual tuition for graduate school was about $19,790 in 2019-2020.

Doctoral Degree

At the doctoral level, students have two social work degree types to choose from: a Ph.D. and a DSW. Ph.D. programs feature more theoretical studies and research, whereas DSW programs feature more supervised practical work and applied research.

Ph.D. graduates typically enter postsecondary teaching positions in research and development, while DSW graduates pursue leadership and clinical roles.

The programs can also differ in length, with Ph.D. programs running between 4-6 years and DSW programs between 3-5 years.

Ph.D. students usually create their own specializations based on their interests. But DSW students may have more formal options, such as behavioral health, advanced clinical studies, and administrative leadership.

DSW graduates usually qualify for certification exams and licensure directly but may need additional supervised clinical hours.

Required Fieldwork

According to the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), all accredited social work programs feature specific fieldwork requirements.

At the bachelor's level, programs need to feature a minimum of 400 supervised hours. At the master's level, programs need a minimum of 900 supervised hours.

The fieldwork requirements vary by state to qualify for clinical social worker licensure.

According to the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), most states require professionals to complete at least 3,000 hours of supervised experience, though it can range between 1,000-5,500 or more hours. States may also require a certain number of hours working in direct contact with clients, typically between 750-3,000 hours.

Required Exams and Licensure

After completing their degree and supervised clinical hours, prospective social workers can apply for state licensure and register for the ASWB examination. This 170-question exam tests candidates on entry-level practice competencies.

Most test-takers who pass the exam will be contacted about the status of their license. Some states require candidates to submit additional information afterward.

Social workers then need to renew their licenses every two years, a process that usually requires a state-specific number of continuing education credits.

What to Include in Your Social Work Resume

  • Experience: Outline all your relevant experience, focusing primarily on responsibilities that relate to the desired position. Rather than listing common job tasks, highlight the accomplishments that make you stand out. Include all volunteer and relevant internship experience as well.
  • Education and Credentials: Detail your education beginning with the most recent and most advanced degrees. List out your social work credentials as well, including certifications and licensure.
  • Achievements: Spotlight any achievements earned throughout your studies and work experience, including awards, scholarships, and special recognition.
  • Skills: Create a skills section with abilities that align with social worker requirements. Consider skills that are above and beyond the basic expectations of professionals in this field.

Frequently Asked Questions About a Career in Social Work

What is the highest-paid social work job?

Social and community services managers have the highest-paying social work job. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for these professionals was $74,000 in May 2021. And the top 10% of these managers made more than $118,650.

The wages for social and community services managers also vary by industry.

Among the top employers, local government managers paid social workers the highest salaries at a median of $93,420. Religious organizations paid $70,960, individual and family services paid $63,260, nursing and residential care facilities paid $60,590, and community services paid $60,590.

What skills do you need to be a social worker?

Social workers can possess many unique skills, but they usually share a few common characteristics, including critical thinking, communication, and interpersonal skills.

These skills are fostered through experience in social work programs and practical settings where professionals learn support strategies for individuals and groups.

Social workers also typically have high emotional intelligence, including compassion, empathy, and good listening abilities.

They should also have strong time-management and organization skills. And they have cultural awareness and an understanding of common emotional and behavioral issues, too.

How many years do you have to study to be a social worker?

The amount of study required to be a social worker depends on your desired level of social work and where you live.

According to the BLS, direct practice social workers typically need a bachelor's degree at minimum. These programs usually take four years to complete.

For a licensed clinical social worker role, candidates need a master's degree and about two years of postgraduate supervised clinical experience. This means it takes about six years of education and two years of work for a total of eight years to become a social worker.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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