How to Become a Social Worker

Social workers assist others in dealing with life issues. The social worker may assist a person or group of people in working through an array of emotional effects resulting from drug or substance abuse, trauma, illness, difficult relations, and other challenging scenarios.

The social worker may work in a medical center, school, hospital, clinic, or another location. The steps to becoming a social worker are:

#1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work

In most states, earning a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work (BSW) is the essential requirement needed to practice as a social worker. Obtaining a BSW degree allows the graduate to interview for service roles, e.g. home counselor or caseworker.

A four-year Bachelor’s degree program offered by an accredited educational institution arms the student with interviewing, case management, and problem-solving skills needed in social worker. The undergraduate social work degree typically includes courses in occupational research, human behavior, and social work practice.

In addition, the Council on Social Work (CSWE) requires the student to perform supervised fieldwork (at least 400 hours) at social service agencies.

#2. Get a Graduate Degree in Social Work

Earning a graduate degree, e.g. a Master of Social Work (MSW), may be necessary to qualify for certain administration, clinical, or school roles. The MSW program typically requires a two-year, full-time study commitment.

The MSW student focuses on foundation courses, e.g. social work practice, professional policy, and human behavior/environment in year one. In the second year, the student receives classroom and hands-on experience in specialized social work fields, e.g. child or community welfare. In addition, the student must perform a minimum of 900 fieldwork hours in their specialty, according to CSWE.

#3. Obtain a Social Work License

U.S. social workers must be licensed. State requirements for social workers vary. In general, there are four general license categories for social workers:

• An advanced generalist social worker must usually have at least two years of supervised experience plus an MSW degree.
• Clinical social worker license requires at least two years of clinical experience plus an MSW degree.
• Master’s social work license requires an MSW degree.
• Bachelor’s social work license requires an undergraduate degree in social work.

All social work candidates must pass a competency examination from the Association of Social Work Boards for their social work license level.

#4. Find a Job in Social Work

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that about 39 percent of social workers work for state and local municipal governments (2016).

Work Environment for Social Workers

Social workers play an active role in their employers’ organization. The social worker knows about his or her community diversity. In a state or local municipal social services office, he or she works with individuals in search of interim support between employers, assists families in search of resources, and assists senior citizens in search of support.

The social worker has the opportunity to use his or her intelligence, skills, and empathy each day. For instance, the social worker must have a solid working knowledge of federal, state, and local programs, including Medicaid, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), and Children’s Health Program (CHiP).

About 682,000 social workers were employed in the U.S. in 2016:

• 318,000 worked as school, child, or family social workers
• 177,000 worked as health care social workers
• 124,000 worked in substance abuse and mental health social worker roles
• 64,000 worked in other social work positions

In 2016, individual and family services employed about 18 percent of social workers; ambulatory health care services employed about 13 percent of social workers; and state, local, or private hospitals employed about 12 percent of social workers.

Key Skills of the Social Workers

The social worker must have a diverse set of cognitive, professional, emotional, and technical skills. Though most social workers are drawn to the career because they naturally possess many of the skills necessary, it is critical for the social worker to refine these skills throughout his or her career. He or she embraces life-long learning.

Some of the required skills to succeed as a social worker include:

  • Tolerance – Social workers must embrace diversity in their work settings. He or she must respond and approach many different types of clients from different ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic communities. The social worker must approach each client with openness and respect.
  • Empathy – The ability to empathize and understand others on an emotional, intellectual, and cultural basis if an important skill for the social worker. Without empathy or understanding, the social worker can’t effectively assist clients. An empathetic social worker imagines himself or herself in another individual’s circumstances and has the ability to feel or sense some of what that individual is experiencing. The social worker wants to hone and refine his or her ability to empathize with others.
  • Resilience – The social worker is motivated by the opportunity to help others. He or she is client-facing and doesn’t focus on his or her personal needs. The social worker isn’t keeping a “personal score.” Instead, he or she recognizes success by effectively helping others.
  • Communication – The social worker must be an effective communicator. He or she must have the ability to communicate with diverse audiences and in a variety of ways. He or she must also communicate clearly and transparently with clients, colleagues, and employers. Even naturally effective communicators have limits, so it’s important for the social worker to expand his or her written and verbal communication skills over time. He or she will be required to prepare and present written reports for employers, supervisors, agency administrators, and third-party payers.
  • Active Listener – The social worker must be an effective listener. He or she must constantly reflect back what the client says to ensure accurate understanding. In addition, the active listener must establish respect and trust with the client early in the conversation. Active listening enables the social worker to create a therapeutic bridge. The client feels understood and seen by the social worker with excellent active listening skills. Visibility and affirmation are integral components of the therapeutic alliance developed between the social worker and client in the practice setting.
  • Critical Thinker – The social worker knows that his or her clients are complex. The social worker serves clients who may also reach out for assistance in many quadrants of their lives. He or she seeks to understand the whole person. His or her ability to think creatively and critically allows him or her to most effectively assist others.
  • Establishes Boundaries – The social worker may believe that his or her tasks are never really completed. He or she may lack the ability to manage emotional stress. The ability to establish effective boundaries between the social worker and his or her client, the ability to care for the self, and the ability to seek social support from his or her friends, family, and the professional community is necessary to create balance between the social worker’s profession and personal life. The ability to enjoy personal life makes the social worker more effective at work as well.
  • High EQ – Emotional intelligence (EQ) is a crucial skill for the social worker. It is commonly assumed that a social worker has a high level of emotional intelligence, including sensitivity, self-awareness, and empathy for others. Social work may require the social worker to balance knowledge and intuition. It may be necessary for the social worker to regularly “read between the lines.”
  • Organization – The social worker must build and fine-tune case management skills. He or she may need to network with other providers, submit bills and invoices, make phone calls, maintain various collateral relationships, and more. The social worker must offer psycho-social support and clinical case services. He or she is able to prioritize tasks and clients’ needs.
  • Inner Strength – The social worker must be dedicated to task but maintain a core of inner strength. It is essential that the social worker cares for himself or herself. The social worker becomes more effective by strengthening his or her capacities and strengths.

Social work is a meaningful career choice. It allows the social worker to bring his or her best, including education, training, and practice approaches to help others. The social worker’s skills help him or her to support others who have known oppression, trauma, mental illness, social or economic marginalization.

What to Look for When Choosing a School

According to CSWE, the future social worker has more than 600 accredited programs for social work to choose from. There’s no one “best” program for social work. Each student must select the program that best prepares him or her to meet the needs of patients or clients.

Pursuing a social work career requires a financial and emotional commitment. Consider the following to identify an accredited social work program:

1. Consider Interests and Goals to Identify the Necessary Education Level. The future social worker should narrow down the appropriate area of social work to focus on those schools offering programs to best fit his or her career goals. Consider each school’s culture, including direct practice versus research focus:

  • A four-year Bachelor (BA, BSW, BSc, or BSSW) helps the social worker to open the door to many entry-level social worker roles, including mental health worker or caseworker. The social worker can work with 1) children and families to address behavioral problems, neglect, divorce, abuse, or bullying, 2) medical/public health agencies to assist patients in managing stress or illness, 3) community programs provide the social worker with a platform to push for better public health or health care reforms, and 4) patients with drug or substance abuse problems benefit from the social worker’s unique skills. The graduate can pursue social work licenses, such as the LBSW (Licensed Bachelor’s in Social Work).
  • A Master’s program in Social Work (MSW, MPhil, MSS, or MA) is typically a one to two-year commitment. A Master’s degree is necessary for social workers interested in clinical practice or those desiring to work in a direct service setting, school, or other work-related post. The Master’s degree in social work allows the student to focus on a specific concentration, e.g. Child Abuse/Neglect, and facilitates the social worker’s interest in planning, policy making, or administration. The graduate can pursue the Licensed Master’s in Social Work (LMSW). With at least 3,200 supervised clinical hours and a Master’s degree, the social worker can pursue the Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) credential.
  • A Doctoral program (PhD or DSW) require approximately four years for the social worker to complete. A Doctoral student trains to assume a leadership role in social work and wants to advance the profession through 1) research in social program assessment, human development, public administration, psychotherapy/counseling, or social policy, and 2) teaches other students to become social workers.
  • Some social workers pursue a Master’s or Doctoral degree to receive psychotherapy training.

2. Identify Time Commitment. The future social worker should consider the time commitment necessary to achieve the schools’ curriculum requirements. It’s possible to obtain a Diploma in Social Work at a community college in two years or a Master’s degree (LMSW/LCSW) in six to eight years.

3. Consider Class Training or Instruction Options. Not all students have the option to attend school full-time. A future social worker with a current full-time job may choose an online program with part-time enrollment. The student should also learn about potential internship, mentorship, or clinical training opportunities.

4. Competitiveness Level. Before choosing a social work program, it is important for the student to assess the level of competitiveness. The future social worker should evaluate his or her likelihood of acceptance to the program before submitting an application. Students with real-world experience (as a volunteer or paid employee), research, or direct service experiences may be attractive candidates.

5. Reputation of the School’s Social Work Program. Ask questions about the school’s reputation to consider the value of the degree in the working world. A degree from a certain program can support the future social worker’s career goals. Consult with student services, social worker professionals in the target community or work sector, and alumni of the program. Ask about job search assistance and networking opportunities. Read faculty biographies, read published works, identify social worker research leaders from the school, and note the schools with close ties to social services agencies.

6. Review accredited programs at CSWE.

7. Review U.S. News & World Report ranks of the most competitive social work programs.

8. Know the cost of Social Work Programs. The average tuition and fees to attend an accredited social work program ranges from about $22,000 (two-year programs) to $70,000+ for a graduate degree. Grants, work-study programs, financial aid, and scholarships may be available to those who qualify.

Career Concentration and Specialization for the Social Worker

Schools of Social Work typically offer at least two concentration areas to the future social worker. He or she must ensure that the school offers the concentration that best meets his or her career interests and future goals. Concentrations may include:

  • Services in Health
  • Services in Mental Health
  • Services in Children and Families
  • Clinical Social Work
  • Services in Families and Aging
  • Social Programs Administration
  • Social Work Planning and Management
  • Social Work Practice in the Educational Setting
  • Social Work Practice in Industry
  • Occupational Social Work Practice

Dual degree programs may be available to the future social worker. These programs allow the social worker to focus on two degree programs at the same time, such as 1) Social Work – Urban Planning, 2) Criminal Justice – Social Welfare, 3) Social Work – Law, 4) Social Work and Sociology, 5) Social Work – Jewish Studies, 6) Social Work – Business Administration, and 7) Social Work – Public Health.

Social Worker Salary

BLS reports that the average social worker earned $46,890 (May 2016). The lowest-paid social workers earned an average $28,800, but the top 10 percent of social workers earned more than $78,500 per year.

Why Become a Social Worker?

There are many reasons to become a social worker. Some individuals are drawn to social work because a caring social worker helped him or her in the past. Perhaps the social worker helped a family member to overcome challenges associated with aging, temporary job loss, illness or drug addiction. The future social worker wants to “pay it forward” by helping others to overcome their struggles.

The future social worker may be attracted to a certain field of social work. Other future social workers simply know how much they enjoy working with others. He or she wants to make the world a better place.

Social workers also enjoy connecting with fellow social workers and colleagues. The strong teamwork environment helps all members know it is easy to ask for help from a colleague or team member at any time. The social worker and his or her co-workers align to solve any complex problem that occurs.

The student in search of giving back to his or her community, great benefits, reliable income, and helping others in need may be a good fit for social work.