- Social workers need at least a bachelor's degree and many have a master's degree in social work.
- All social workers need a license to practice.
- The requirements to become a licensed social worker vary across states.
- Before starting a social work program, research your state's rules and your school's accreditation status.
Serving others, defending social justice, and advocating for the dignity of every person: these are a few of social work's core values defined in the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) code of ethics. Some people aspire to become social workers because they want to make a difference.
Social workers dedicate years to schooling plus thousands of hours doing fieldwork and studying for licensing exams. They work behind the scenes filling social work jobs to support people in need. Social worker salaries vary widely, from $30,000 to $85,000 or more.
In this article, we cover how to become a social worker. We'll explain the necessary education and exams you'll need to pass.
What Does a Social Worker Do?
Social workers operate in clinical and non-clinical settings. Each setting has different responsibilities and needed expertises. As some examples, a social worker might:
- Help people find resources, like housing and healthcare services
- Support people coping with trauma, loss, or illness
- Diagnose and help treat mental health issues
- Develop policies for organizations to better serve people
- Evaluate intervention and rehabilitation programs
Steps to Become a Social Worker
Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree in Social Work or a Related Field
Most social work jobs require at least a bachelor's degree. Some aspiring social workers pursue a bachelor's of social work (BSW) degree. Others study a related field, such as psychology or human development.
The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) requires BSW students to complete 400 hours of practicum or supervised internship. In a practicum, you will work at an agency, hospital, or another setting. You will observe licensed social workers and perform some duties under supervision.
In 2020, first-year bachelor's degree students' annual tuition and fees averaged $9,400 at public four-year colleges and $36,700 for private nonprofit colleges, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Step 2: Apply for an Entry-Level Social Work Job
With your bachelor's degree, you can apply for non-clinical social work jobs, such as a case manager or addiction counselor. In most states, you will first need to register and pass an exam to become a licensed baccalaureate social worker.
Step 3: Earn a Master's Degree in Social Work
There are different master's degrees for social workers. The master of science in social work and master of science in social administration prepare you for careers in research and policy. The master's of social work (MSW) prepares students to become clinical social workers. So, if you want to work in therapy, you'll need an MSW.
MSW students also complete a 900-hour practicum or internship doing supervised fieldwork.
MSW programs typically last two years. However, if you have a BSW, you may earn your MSW in less time by placing out of intro classes. On average, annual graduate school tuition and fees were about $19,790 in 2019-2020. At public schools, the average tuition and fees came to $12,410 that year.
Step 4: Become a Licensed Social Worker
To legally provide clinical services to people without supervision, you need to gain licensure in your state by passing an exam. The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) develops licensing exams for social workers, covering:
- Human development
- Diagnosis, general medication information, and treatment planning
- Psychotherapy and case management
- Professional ethics
States have different rules about required fieldwork for licensed social workers. Jump below to learn how to become a licensed social worker in your state.
Step 5: Start Your Social Work Career — and Keep Growing
The work's not over once you become a licensed social worker. Social worker licenses expire after 1-3 years. To keep yours up to date, you must participate in approved continuing education courses.
Beyond that, to expand your social work career, you could:
- Earn Extra Credentials: Deepen your skills in a focus area and demonstrate your expertise by earning NASW Speciality Credentials.
- Complete a Doctorate in Social Work: Break into careers in leadership at social work schools or policy and research institutes with this advanced degree.
- Start a Private Practice: You don't have to work for an agency. If you're an entrepreneur at heart, you can start your own social work private practice.
How to Become a Licensed Social Worker in Your State
Beyond passing the ASWB exam, states have different requirements to become a licensed social worker. States typically require social workers to log thousands of hours of professional experience before becoming licensed.
Usually, clinical social workers also must log hours doing:
- Direct Supervision: Time spent face-to-face with a supervisor, being observed by a supervisor, or following detailed instructions.
- Direct Client Contact: Time spent interacting with a client or patient face-to-face.
Social worker licenses expire every 1-3 years. You can keep your license up to date by participating in continuing education. Check out how to become a licensed social worker in your state.
What to Know Before Becoming a Social Worker
Before you commit to a social work program, consider the following:
School accreditation means an agency has approved a school's curriculum for meeting certain quality standards. The CSWE accredits bachelor's and master's programs in social work. You must attend a CSWE-accredited school to be eligible for social work licensure in any state. If you attend a non-CSWE-accredited program, you cannot be licensed and must repeat your entire program at a CSWE-accredited school.
Specialization or Concentration
Social workers specialize in various settings — anywhere people need help overcoming challenges.
For example, you may want to work with specific populations, such as:
- Children and families
- The elderly
- Immigrants and refugees
- LGBTQ+ communities
Or, you may choose to work on issues facing individuals, families, and communities, such as:
- Family separation
- Substance misuse
You don't need to know your focus area when starting your education. However, knowing your interests can help you choose a school with courses and experts in that concentration.
You can go to school for social work online. Benefits of online learning include being able to log into a virtual classroom from anywhere in the world. In addition, some programs allow you to watch lectures and complete assignments when you choose. This allows you to complete your program will also navigating a career and/or family responsibilities.
Online students still must complete fieldwork. So before you commit to an online social work school, find out if you can complete supervised fieldwork in your area. There are a few programs that will allow for virtual fieldwork in rural areas. Make sure to confirm the school you are applying to will consider a virtual placement prior to applying.
Many social work jobs require advanced degrees. Paying for your schooling adds up. The total cost of tuition and fees for a four-year bachelor's program and two-year master's could be quite high.
However, there are scholarships for social work students to help cover costs.
You might want to pursue social work because you want to help people. However, the job's long hours can come at a personal cost.
It can be challenging for some social workers to maintain a healthy work-life balance. You may want to consider in advance what you'll be willing to do, such as working evening and weekend hours if a crisis comes up. If you think setting boundaries will be difficult for you, you may want to talk it through with practicing social workers to figure out strategies you can use to make sure you avoid burnout.
Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Social Worker
Some social work jobs only require a bachelor's degree, like becoming a case manager. Other social work positions require a master's degree. However, you need a license to diagnose and treat mental health issues in clinical settings. Licensed clinical social workers must pass an exam and complete thousands of hours of experience after obtaining a master's degree.
In addition, social workers need to follow the NASW code of ethics and have a motivation for the work.
It typically takes four years to complete a bachelor's in social work. A BSW qualifies you to work as an addiction and mental health counselor, social services case manager, or community service manager.
The fastest way to a master's in social work is by completing a BSW. Graduates of BSW programs can sometimes accelerate their MSW by placing out of introductory and other prerequisite courses.
Social workers need at least a bachelor's degree. However, you can assist social workers in healthcare, education, and other social service settings without a degree. Social service jobs that do not require a bachelor's degree include social and human service assistants and community health workers.
Becoming a social worker can be a long and tiresome process.
Keep in mind that social workers deal with other people's problems daily. They counsel people through their worst moments and sometimes see their clients backtrack. If you are determined to become a social worker, it's crucial to develop coping skills and a solid support system to help you through tough times during school and beyond.
Feature Image: ljubaphoto / E+ / Getty Images
Micro, Mezzo, and Macro Social Work: What's the Difference?
Best Online Social Work Programs of 2022
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.
Compare your school options.
View the most relevant school for your interests and compare them by tuition, programs, acceptance rate, and other factors important to find your college home.