How to Become a Social Worker

Social workers enjoy rewarding careers working with individuals, families, schools, and larger communities. They work to help solve micro and macro-level problems. At their core, social workers strive to provide ethical and compassionate care to the people they serve. 

It’s undoubtedly a good time to consider pursuing this career. Social workers are increasingly in demand, with the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics indicating that the job outlook between 2021-2031 is expected to grow much faster than average. Here’s what you need to know about this career path.

Education Requirements

Your social work journey begins during your undergraduate college years. Here’s what you can expect: 

Bachelor’s Degree

If you know you want to become a social worker, consider pursuing a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) as your college major. Your coursework will focus on core topics related to human behavior, social work practice, and social welfare policy. 

The typical college student takes between 3-7 years to complete their degree. The length of time will depend on your course load, the ability to take all necessary courses in your major, and any breaks during your school years.

Keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need a BSW to become a social worker. Social workers come from all different backgrounds. Many people major in other disciplines and still choose this career path. If social work is an impacted major at your college, consider degrees in other related subjects, such as psychology, human development, political science, sociology, or early childhood development. 

Master’s Degree 

Most states mandate that social workers have a master’s degree in social work (MSW). However, the specific regulations vary from state to state. Make sure you check your state’s guidelines before enrolling in any program.

It’s important to look for schools with appropriate accreditation. Some states require that applicants graduate from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). This accreditation means that the program adheres to a set of a specific set of rigorous standards. 

On-campus, traditional programs: Many private and public universities have traditional on-campus programs for graduate students. This option requires that you attend classes in person. The average length of a program ranges from 2-4 years.

Online programs: Many schools now feature online MSW programs. These programs offer accessible, flexible paths for students who work full-time or have other responsibilities. Some classes are asynchronous (meaning that you can view and interact with the material at your own pace). Other classes are synchronous (meaning that you must attend lectures at set times). Program lengths are similar to traditional programs, although some schools have expedited, accelerated options. 

Hybrid programs: Many programs combine both in-person and virtual learning for their students. You may have the option to choose between various classes or fieldwork choices. The program length typically ranges between 2-4 years. 

Doctorate Degree

Some social workers advance their education with doctorate degrees. You can either pursue a DSW or Ph.D. option. The DSW heavily focuses on clinical social work practice and supervision. A Ph.D., on the other hand, typically focuses more on research and assessment.

A doctorate degree may yield more flexibility within your career. A DSW, for example, may move into administrative or community service management roles. They may also teach at a university level. A social worker with a Ph.D. often works in research, education, and assessment. They may pursue teaching opportunities at the university or graduate-school level.

Doctorate programs typically take an additional 4-7 years to complete. Some of these programs embed a master’s degree within the coursework. Therefore, candidates with a bachelor’s degree can choose this option straight after graduation. 

Fieldwork Requirements 

Fieldwork- also known as a traineeship, internship, or practicum- is an integral part of becoming a social worker. During this time, you will implement what you have learned in school into real-world experience. You will work under the supervision of a licensed social worker.

MSW programs may require students to complete around 1000 hours as part of their fieldwork experience. Some require additional hours and are in specific categories. It’s most important that you ensure your school’s requirements match your state board’s licensure requirements.

When it comes to fieldwork, a good fit is important. An opportunity that feels right to your colleague may not be the best choice for you. You may need to “try out” a few different sites before finding the right one. Keep in mind that some opportunities are paid, whereas others are not.

States, on average, require around 3,000 hours of supervised work experience before licensure. During this time, you will gain significant hands-on time working directly with clients and their communities. 

Board Exam Requirements 

Most states require social work applicants to complete the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) Social Work Licensing exam. You need to check your state board’s requirements before signing up for this test. This specific exam has 170 multiple-choice questions( 

Not all jobs in social work require licensure. However, licensure typically gives you the best opportunity for building a practice or advancing your career. 

Maintain License Renewals and Continuing Education 

Staying licensed requires keeping your license in good standing. It’s important to avoid any legal infractions and ensure that you are acting ethically in your professional endeavors.

Most states also have specific continuing education requirements. You can typically earn units for attending specific workshops or trainings. This education is intended to keep you informed of the best practices in the field- as well as help you stay on top of new data and trends. 


What Types of Social Workers Are There? 

Social workers provide services in numerous settings. They are essentially found in every corner of community life. Here are some specific specialties in the field:

School social work: School social workers typically work with students, teachers, and other school administrators. They work to ensure students are getting their educational needs met. They may also work to help strengthen academic programs within the institutions or districts.

Policy and planning: Social workers may assess various programs and regulations within a facet of society. They might work with political parties or other community leaders to test new programs or gather important data.

Occupational and employee assistance social work: EAP social workers may work with organizations and large companies to boost morale and productivity. Sometimes they also advocate for employees for better compensation, improved work-life balance, and unionization efforts.

Healthcare: Many social workers are employed by hospitals and nonprofit medical clinics to act as liaisons between patients and providers. They may also support improving medical programs, particularly as they pertain to emotional health.

Developmental disabilities: Social workers often work as advocates for patients with developmental disabilities. They may help them locate resources, seek specific services, or better understand their legal and financial rights.

Child welfare: Child welfare social workers aim to serve the best interest of minors and their families. They may need to intervene directly with children to help them if they are living in unsafe environments. They also often connect children and their families to appropriate mental health and financial support programs.

Administration/management: Social work administrators take leadership roles by providing advocacy. They work within legislation and strive to commit to societies strengthening their values and resources. 

How Much Do Social Workers Make?

In 2021, the median pay for a social worker was $50,390 per year or $24.24 per hour. Your pay rate depends on numerous factors, including location, specific job responsibilities, additional education, and years working in the field. Typically, social workers in managerial roles or private practice earn the highest salaries. 

How Long Does It Take to Become a Social Worker? 

It depends. After graduating college, the social career track takes an additional 6-10 years. This length of time is based on:

  • Whether you go right to graduate school after finishing college
  • Full-time or part-time graduate school status
  • Fieldwork requirements
  • Passing your board exams
  • Other personal factors (taking time off, having children, legal issues, choosing to only work part-time, etc.)

What Are the Main Differences Between Social Workers and Therapists?

A therapist is a generalized name for many mental health professionals providing therapy. Therapists generally have specialized degrees in marriage and family therapy, counseling, social work, or mental health. For this reason, some social workers call themselves therapists.

Social workers often focus on connecting resources and locating outside support when assisting clients. They may work hand-in-hand with government agencies, schools, and federal assistance programs. Many of them also act as advocates and may work with the court system.

Therapists typically assess, diagnose, and treat mental health conditions. While they may also connect with external resources and provide advocacy, they tend to focus primarily on changing thought patterns and improving one’s emotional well-being.  

Can Social Workers Prescribe Medication?

Social workers generally cannot prescribe medication. Only psychiatrists and some psychologists with additional training can prescribe medication. It’s common for social workers to work closely with medical providers to help clients adhere to their medication treatment plans. 

What Skills Should Social Workers Have? 

Social workers need advanced education and training to work in their positions. With that in mind, it certainly helps to have a specific skill set rooted in compassion, advocacy, and curiosity. Here are some significant assets to consider:

Compassion: As a social worker, you will be helping some of the most vulnerable populations. It’s important to have patience, kindness, and respect in the work you do. At times, your compassion will be tested. But it’s essential that you remember that you are in a career that aims to serve and help others. 

Boundaries: While compassion is undoubtedly important, boundaries are also just as essential. Without boundaries, you risk overworking yourself or blurring your professional lines. Boundaries allow you to work within your scope and ensure that you are giving clients the care they deserve.

Desire for change: Social workers fundamentally strive to improve our society. It’s important to advocate for your clients- as well as for a better world. This desire fuels passion and allows you to provide meaningful work for the people you serve. 

Introspection: You will be challenged in this career often. You may, at times, feel uncomfortable reflecting on how your work triggers your own personal issues. Being introspective- and choosing to actively work on bettering yourself- is important for avoiding burnout and remaining effective in your role.

Interpersonal skills: You will rarely work alone in this job. In fact, a good part of your day will be spent coordinating, advocating, talking, and providing clinical services to people. For this reason, it’s important to be skilled in active listening, building rapport, validating others, and striving to make people feel safe.

Final Thoughts 

A career in social work is both rewarding and challenging. Each day will likely be unique, and no two social workers will have the same set of responsibilities. The work constantly evolves. That said, as we become increasingly more aware of the role of mental health in community wellness, it’s likely this field will continue expanding. 

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Disclaimer: This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your healthcare provider. This is only a brief summary of general information. It does NOT include all information about conditions, illnesses, injuries, tests, procedures, treatments, therapies, discharge instructions or lifestyle choices that may apply to you. You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

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