By Megan Whitenton
Reviewed by Melissa Russiano, LCSW, LISW
Published on September 2, 2021
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
- Meet With Clients: Social workers must be flexible in meeting the needs of diverse client types.
- Connect Clients With Resources: Social workers often help clients find and access public services like food stamps and housing vouchers.
- Provide Emergency Care: Clinical social workers can help diagnose mental health issues and direct clients and their families to emergency healthcare providers.
- Develop Clinical Assessments/Recommendations: Social workers help tailor available public services to each client based on their professional evaluation and recommendations.
- Connect Clients With Other Social Services: Social workers regularly communicate with fellow public service providers to track progress of their clients' cases.
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:
- Family Services
- Healthcare Social Work
- School Social Work
- Domestic Violence Prevention
- Aging Services
- Mental Health and Substance Abuse
- Introduction to the Welfare System
- Diversity and Multiculturalism
- Social Work in Tech Culture
- Introduction to Social Work
- Professional Social Working
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
- 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.
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker/Licensed Independent Social Worker: LCSW/LISWs diagnose and help treat mental disorders in individuals and families.
- School Social Worker: These professionals help students improve performance and overcome challenges in school.
- Healthcare Social Worker: Healthcare social workers help patients adapt their daily lives to challenging diagnoses and post-op rehabilitation.
- Child and Family Social Worker: These social workers help protect children from abuse and neglect and connect families to supportive public services.
- Mental Health and Addiction Social Worker: Social workers in this specialization provide support for clients suffering from addiction and mental disorders.
Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Social Worker
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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