How to Become a Social Worker

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By Megan Whitenton

Reviewed by Melissa Russiano, LCSW, LISW

Published on September 2, 2021

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Social workers provide an honorable public service, assisting clients in need of resources and support, as well as empowering clients on a clinical level. Critical responsibilities include advocating for individuals, children, and families and connecting them with education, healthcare, and financial support services.

Social workers practice in community organizations, schools, and healthcare facilities, in addition to private practice outpatient settings.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 13% job growth for social workers between 2019 and 2029. This rate is much faster than the national average and bodes well for students entering the profession.

What Is a Social Worker?

Social workers help clients find solutions to problems affecting their daily lives. They often assist clients in locating and pursuing resources including housing, healthcare, and food stamps.

Clinical social workers may also evaluate and diagnose mental health issues. A master's degree in social work and two years of supervised professional experience qualify students for a state-issued license, a universal field requirement for clinical social workers.

What Does a Social Worker Do?

Social workers help their clients cope with a variety of behavioral, mental, and emotional issues. Clinical social workers are qualified to diagnose and treat these issues in individuals, children, and families. Many clinical social workers specialize in treating children and work in schools.

Other social workers specialize in healthcare, mental health, and addiction. They offer support through public and community services like childcare, housing, counseling, and rehabilitation. The best social workers are empathetic and compassionate, with excellent communication, organization, and problem-solving skills.

Social Worker Responsibilities

Social Worker Job Demand and Salary

Between 2019 and 2029, the BLS projects a 13% employment increase for social workers, a rate much faster than the average for all occupations (4%). Mental health and substance abuse social workers enjoy even higher projected job growth at 17%, as addiction treatment increasingly replaces jail time.

Employment for child, family, and school social workers is projected to grow 12% and healthcare social work is projected to grow 14% during the same period.

Median annual wages for social workers in different specialties also vary slightly, according to the BLS. The median annual salary for all social workers was $51,760 in 2020, with the majority employed in local government and ambulatory health services industries. Healthcare social workers earned some of the top salaries in social work, making a median salary of $57,630 in 2020.

How Do I Become a Social Worker?

Most social workers earn a master's degree to enter the field. Clinical social workers need a master's degree along with two years of supervised professional experience and a state-issued license. Social workers with a bachelor's degree may qualify for administrative or assistant positions.

Complete a Bachelor's Degree in Social Work

While clinical social workers typically need a master's degree, graduates with a bachelor's in social work may qualify for entry-level administrative jobs like caseworker, mental health assistant, and social work assistant. Employers may also accept psychology or sociology degrees. Some bachelor's degree-holders pursue jobs in nonprofit administration or seek junior-level counseling experience.

Admission into a bachelor's program in social work typically requires a minimum GPA of 2.5, emotional maturity and professionalism, and a personal statement outlining a desire to work in social services. Some schools require ACT or SAT scores.

Many bachelor's programs in social work are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) to ensure the program adequately prepares social workers for professional practice. Earning your degree from an accredited bachelor's program is required for acceptance into a master's program in social work.

The best bachelor's programs introduce students to core social work principles, values, and skills, and include an internship or practicum element. Popular concentrations include the following:

Typical Courses

Consider a Master's Program in Social Work

Prospective clinical social workers in any specialization should earn a master's degree and complete two years of supervised training to pursue a state-issued social work license. While bachelor's degree-holders are limited to entry-level and support positions, graduates of a master's program can pursue direct service occupations like clinical social worker and counselor.

Like a doctor or psychiatrist, social workers must be licensed to ensure they meet the highest standards of social work practice in the United States. CSWE-accredited programs are especially sought-after among aspiring social workers preparing to launch their career. Most master's programs in social work explore research, evaluation, and financial management in human services.

Schools do not always require master's applicants to hold a bachelor's in social work, though some advanced-standing programs require prospective students to hold a CSWE-accredited bachelor's degree. Other programs accept related undergraduate majors in fields like sociology, psychology, and human biology, subjects also frequently explored in core master's curricula.

Master's programs emphasize field experience through an internship or practicum. Students can choose from a variety of concentrations in preparation for a career in direct practice social work as a generalist or specialist, or in high-level public services administration. Popular concentrations include the following:

  • Community Development and Management
  • Administrative Leadership
  • Children and Family Services
  • Direct Practice
  • Advanced Generalist
  • Mental Health and Adult Social Services

Typical Courses

  • Social Work Research Methods
  • Clinical Assessment and Diagnosis
  • Group Intervention Theories and Methods
  • Grant Writing and Resource Development
  • Program Evaluation

Establish State Licensure

Clinical social workers, or social workers qualified to diagnose and treat mental health issues, are required to hold a license to practice in all 50 states. Most states also require nonclinical social workers to hold licensure or certification. Licensed clinical social workers must complete a master's degree in social work and at least two years of supervised clinical experience and pass the licensing exam.

The Association of Social Work Boards issues licenses by state. Each state's board maintains specific requirements for state licensure in social work. Many states require licensure candidates to hold a CSWE-accredited degree. Some states award licenses to bachelor's degree-holders, offering an advantage to social workers seeking entry-level employment.

Employers typically require that candidates hold a license in clinical social work for direct service positions as practitioners in the field. Licensed clinical social workers or licensed independent social workers (depending on your state) enjoy maximum benefits, including the broadest job opportunities, greater eligibility for senior positions, and top salaries.

Social Work Jobs

Social workers equipped with a master's degree, supervised experience, and a state-issued license can pursue their choice of specializations. Social workers often pursue clinical practice or specialize in school, healthcare, child/family, or addiction and mental health services.

Social workers may also qualify for positions in counseling and nonprofit management, but the best social work field depends on the individual.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Social Worker

How long does it take to become a social worker? true

Considering the education and field requirements for this career, eight years is a reasonable estimate, though this timeline can vary by specialization. This estimate includes six years completing bachelor's and master's degrees and at least two years of supervised clinical experience to earn a license.

Do social workers get paid well? true

Social workers earn a stable salary with longevity in multiple industries. According to the BLS, social workers earned a median annual wage of $51,760 in 2020, with local government and healthcare social workers among the highest earners in the field.

Is being a social worker hard? true

Like any rewarding career, social work requires a commitment of time and concentration over the long term. Core courses in social work programs develop critical skills like empathy, communication, and active listening, preparing those naturally suited to become public servants for fulfilling work.

What are the disadvantages of being a social worker?

Social workers must practice self-care to avoid feeling overwhelmed and emotionally drained on a regular basis. As public servants in high demand, social workers often carry a large caseload and may experience emotional exhaustion on the job.

Is there a risk in social work?

Yes, social work inherently involves some risk; however, the best social work programs train students to identify and mitigate potential risks as part of their job. Ethically sound social workers can evaluate each case to provide support for their client while minimizing their own risk in the process.

Reviewed by:

Melissa Russiano is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice that has organically developed into a specialty helping working professionals. Russiano has a proven track record helping professionals avoid burnout in a unique way that holds clinicians accountable through laughter, tears, blunt (yet very supportive) feedback and quirky analogies that are grounded in solid theoretical research. Russiano practices solely in a virtual setting in the states of California, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. In addition, Russiano is a professor at Simmons University online, imparting her experiences and knowledge in the field to graduate social work students.


Feature Image: Klaus Vedfelt / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Need a career change, but don't know where to start? Learn ways to explore new career options and decide the right path for you. COVID-19 has made career planning more uncertain than ever. Learn how to prepare yourself to face any challenges that may disrupt your professional journey. As social work continues to grow, degree-holders can apply their skills in either a traditional social work career or one of eight related emerging roles.

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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