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What Is Social Work?

Social work is a profession that centers on supporting communities, families, and individuals. The field aims to foster an understanding of human development, social interactions, and cultural institutions. A career in social work might mean providing therapy and assistance for individuals and families or for larger groups like schools, prisons, and hospitals. Professionals also work at the macro level, dealing with policy, research, or community advocacy.

The primary purpose of social work is to promote well-being, address social injustices, and offer support. For example, social workers can help communities address poverty, unemployment, homelessness, and substance misuse. Explore the resources below to learn more about a degree and career in social work. Many individuals wishing to pursue a career in a social work earn their MSW from an accredited university.

How to Become

Frequently Asked Questions About Social Work

What does a social worker do?

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Social workers are helping professionals who assist vulnerable populations, helping people find and access solutions to everyday problems. Often, individuals are motivated to pursue social work because they want to help others or make a difference at a personal level.

Generally, social workers are responsible for connecting people with resources, including social services. Clinical social workers also assess and treat behavioral, emotional, and mental conditions.

Social work is not limited to one setting. For instance, school social workers who advocate for students often work in schools, whereas healthcare social workers may work in hospitals, clinics, and hospice settings.

What degree is best for social work?

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The best social work degree depends on a student's career goals.

A bachelor of social work (BSW) provides students with foundational knowledge of different topics, such as social welfare policy and human behavior. Social workers with a BSW can qualify for entry-level administrative positions, including case manager, probation officer, and child welfare specialist.

Students who want to work in a clinical setting must complete a master of social work (MSW) program. An advanced curriculum and required supervised fieldwork prepare graduates to address social welfare policy. An MSW can qualify graduates to take on roles like medical social worker and mental health social worker.

What field of social work pays the most?

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Social workers employed by local government agencies typically earn the most, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These professionals took home a median annual wage of $57,660 in May 2020. Local government positions include case manager and community social worker.

The next highest-earning social work industry is ambulatory healthcare services. In this industry, the median annual wage was $52,850 in 2020. Standard positions in ambulatory healthcare services include ambulatory care social workers and medical social workers.

Additionally, as of May 2020, state government social workers made a median annual salary of $49,860. Job titles in this industry include family service specialist and human services manager.

Are social work degrees hard?

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The difficulty of a social work program depends largely on the individual student. What one person may find hard, another may find easy. Students who find their social work coursework difficult may be able to get support at their school's tutoring center.

That said, social work degrees do present unique challenges. Compassion fatigue is prevalent amongst many helping professionals. Compassion fatigue, also called secondary traumatic stress, is characterized by high levels of psychological stress, emotional exhaustion, and anxiety. Students completing their clinical training — who have yet to fully develop their on-the-job skills — are more likely to experience compassion fatigue.

How many years does it take to become a social worker?

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It usually takes about six years of postsecondary education to become a licensed social worker. This includes four years to complete a bachelor of social work program, which also features at least 400 supervised hours of required field experience.

In addition, many social workers pursue a master of social work degree so they can practice clinically. It takes about two years to complete an MSW program, including a required minimum of 900 hours of supervised field experience.

More time may be needed to meet state-specific licensure regulations.

How do I get into social work?

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First, determine whether you want to become a clinical social worker. Entry-level social workers can create meaningful change and only need a bachelor's degree and a state-issued license, depending on their location. Alternatively, clinical social workers must earn a master's degree in social work. Graduate-level training prepares social workers to assess, diagnose, and treat behavioral, emotional, and mental issues.

Next, find and enroll in an accredited school. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the governing body recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation that sets standards for social work education in the United States. To meet licensure requirements, many states require social workers to graduate from a CSWE-accredited school.

Finally, to become a licensed social worker, you'll need to complete your state's licensure requirements. This often includes attending an accredited school and passing a social work licensing exam delivered by the Association of Social Work Boards.

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