Social work is one of the most rewarding fields you can choose to pursue. However, becoming a social worker isn’t quite as simple as studying the subject for your bachelor’s degree and applying for the nearest clinic. There are several other steps you need to take before you can call yourself a professional social worker.
This guide will break down how you can become a social worker in a step-by-step analysis.
Understand what a social worker is and does
A social worker can be a lot of things. The career field is incredibly varied, even for something that requires at least one dedicated college degree! Social workers focus on helping communities or individual people based on their specialty and goals. They study problems and work on solutions by using psychological or sociological viewpoints and concepts.
This means social workers are suitable for jobs like:
- nonprofit organization leaders
- school counselors and administrators
- therapists and mental health specialists
- and much more
Social workers can find employment in a wide variety of institutions and organizations. They might work for nonprofits, hospitals, or government agencies, or come up with their own practices where they assist clients on an individual basis. As a result, social work can be a very rewarding field for lots of people, in large part because you can tailor your career to what you’re most interested in.
However, becoming a social worker requires a lot of hard work. Therefore, you should make sure you want to become some kind of social worker before committing to this path. It’ll take at least a solid decade of schooling and practical experience before you’re settled in your career.
Get a bachelor’s degree
The first step to becoming a social worker, in most cases, is to obtain a bachelor’s degree in the field. Note that you don’t necessarily need a bachelor’s degree in social work to become a licensed social worker (more on that later). But having a bachelor’s degree in social work specifically can provide you with a leg up when you get to the graduate level education part of the process.
Still, you can move on to the next up with any kind of bachelor’s degree that is at least tangentially related to social work. For this reason, bachelor’s degrees in fields like communication, psychology, or sociology are also fine.
In addition to a bachelor’s degree, most social workers find they need a master’s in social work (MSW) in order to practice in a specialized area.
You can obtain either a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field using an online or on-campus program. You’ll want to work hard to maintain good grades throughout your entire schooling so that it’s easier for you to get admitted to a master’s level program and proceed with the next step.
If you do decide to pursue a bachelor’s degree in social work, you’ll take classes in the following subjects and more:
- human behavior and social environment
- social work practices
- social welfare policies
There’s one other advantage to focusing on a bachelor of social work as opposed to a general bachelor’s degree. Some schools allow you to take an accelerated program and complete both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work within five years instead of the regular six. So it might be a great choice if you want to proceed to your own practice or jump in your career ASAP. Still, these pathways require fantastic grades and a lot of determination, and can only be pursued full-time.
Obtain a master’s degree (MSW)
A master’s degree in social work, also called an MSW, is where things really get serious. A master’s degree in this field is a necessity if you want to obtain social worker licensure. Becoming a licensed clinical social worker is an important step (and in some cases required) in some states to practice certain kinds of social work.
Like with bachelor’s degrees, there’s a wide variety of both online and on-campus master’s in social work programs for you to pursue. However, we would recommend finding accredited MSW programs that are pre-qualified by the Council on Social Work Education. In a nutshell, this organization vets various MSW programs, determining whether the content within them will adequately prepare you for the challenges you’ll experience in your social work career. They also provide a plethora of educational and social work study materials.
You can still pursue a master’s in social work without it being accredited by the CSWE. But it might leave a few gaps in your education that will require you to scramble more when it comes time for your fieldwork hours.
Most MSWs take two years to complete, provided you enroll in a full-time capacity. You might be able to complete these in 12 to 18 months if you combine them with an accelerated bachelor’s level program. But you can also complete these on a part-time basis if you need to work or take care of your family at the same time as completing your education.
Furthermore, many of the best MSW programs include fieldwork as a requirement for graduation. This is important in a big boost to your progress toward becoming a social worker because you need several hundred hours of fieldwork before you can take licensure exams. Lots of traditional MSW programs will have you complete around 20 hours of fieldwork over the course of your studies. These are great opportunities to practice your budding social work skills since you’ll be able to take the stuff you learn in class and directly apply it to real-world situations.
However, these may not be available during your program depending on how you’re studying. For instance, you might not be able to reach a clinic where you can do your fieldwork while completing your school if you attend an online program. So you’ll have to do these hours independently on your own time.
Aside from fieldwork hours, you should also keep an eye out for any internship or work experience opportunities that might benefit you during your time at school. These are invaluable experiences that allow you to gain work experience that you can place on your resume to make it easier to find employment after graduation. They’re also great chances to see what kind of field you want to specialize in as you complete your master’s degree.
Finish fieldwork requirements
You’ll either complete your fieldwork requirements as part of your accredited MSW program or you’ll need to finish those fieldwork hours on your own time. These are creditable hours where you visit a clinic or another social work location and are supervised as you perform practical duties and learn how to “be” a social worker. Many other medical fields have similar requirements in order for their professionals to acquire licensure.
Fieldwork will usually take place at a facility that is geographically close to your school. If you take an online program, you’ll normally be given a choice of several nearby facilities that you can commute to on certain days of the week for a few hours each time.
As mentioned, traditional MSW programs will include 20 hours of fieldwork over several days throughout the week during both years of your studies. The program is also usually tailored to whatever state requirements demand for fieldwork hours. The exact amount will vary, but expect to need between 1000 and 2000 fieldwork hours before you have enough to apply for state licensure.
Again, consider what kind of fieldwork you complete or what field hours to sign up for, as these can affect what social worker specialty you want to focus on.
Get your state license
State licensure is required if you want to become a practicing social worker in your state. There are two main types of social work licenses that you can pursue.
However, either type will usually require:
- a master’s degree in social work
- either two years or a set number of supervised clinical experience
- that you pass a licensure exam
You need to obtain clinical licensure if you want to become an LCSW or licensed clinical social worker. As the name suggests, a clinical social worker is someone who is licensed to provide clinical services to their patients. This includes psychotherapy, general counseling, and other social work where the goal is to directly help an individual person, family, or small group.
Say that you want to become a school counselor or run your own private social work practice. You’ll need a clinical social worker license in this case.
Can you achieve licensure for lower education requirements?
Yes. But the majority of social worker positions require you to have a master’s degree and have an appropriate license for that level of education. For instance, you can become a licensed social worker associate so long as you have an associate degree in social work and have completed 1000 hours of board-approved education in social work.
These may allow you to get certain entry-level jobs in social worker fields, but you’ll eventually need to move up the educational ladder to become a “real” social worker. Additionally, these licenses don’t allow you to open your own practice and help patients individually.
The licensure test
The licensure test requirements and exact content will vary from state to state and the level of licensure your pursuing. However, most of the tests are pretty similar to one another.
For instance, the Massachusetts master’s exam to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) requires you to submit an application for the exam to the board before doing anything. They’ll review your educational level and make sure you’re qualified to take the exam. This also includes a fee, usually over $150.
After being approved by the board, you’ll be able to take the test after registering for an approved date and licensed testing location. Testing locations are normally found at local universities or clinics.
The Massachusetts exam, for example, consists of a four-hour multiple-choice test with 170 questions. The exam also requires another fee of $230. Provided that you pass the test, you’ll get your LSCW license shortly thereafter and be licensed to practice social work in a clinical context within the state of Massachusetts.
What about transferring to another state?
If you want to practice social work in a state other than the one in which you currently have licensure, you’ll need to take another licensure exam for that state. You’ll also need to pay any extra fees. So we’d heavily recommend that you consider where you want to pursue social work before obtaining your license.
You can obtain your education for social work anywhere; the only thing that matters for state licensure is where you take the test. This is because each state has slight differences in what they want their clinical social workers to focus on.
Even after obtaining your license for the first time, you’ll need to periodically renew the license. The purpose of this is to ensure that all licensed social workers remain up-to-date on current best practices for this medical field. The requirements for this “continuing education” will vary from state to state depending on the local social work board.
Some states might require that you study new or up-to-date practices for a set number of hours every year. Others might require you to take classes at local universities every couple of years.
You’ll need to renew your license every two years regardless of state. You can find more about the exact licensure renewal requirements by visiting the National Association of Social Workers website.
Pick a career path
Once you’ve acquired licensure and finished all your educational requirements, you can then pursue employment as a real social worker. There are several career paths available to you based on your prior education, the type of licensure test you took, and your personal interests.
- Macro Social Work – this pathway will have you focusing on creating policy changes for local or statewide communities. If you want to affect social work change in a legislative context or influence governors, representatives, and other politicians, you’ll likely want to pursue this field. It’s also a viable path if you want to run a nonprofit social work organization at some point
- Clinical Social Work – you can start your own practice or work for a medical center is a licensed clinical social worker. Regardless of the exact setting, you’ll help patients one-on-one and assist them with diagnosing and dealing with mental illnesses. You can also pursue counseling for individuals as a licensed clinical social worker.
- Medical Social Work – many hospitals and medical centers need social workers. In this setting and career path, you’ll help families and support various patients during immediate crises and the aftermath. For instance, you can help cancer patients recover their morale or make peace with their affairs. This is very similar to clinical counseling, although it’s less focused on diagnosing and treating mental illnesses or dysfunctions.
- School Social Work – this is the career path for you if you want to become a school counselor. You’ll work directly with young people and their families, as well as school staff, and assist with conflict mediation, bullying prevention, and improve the mental health of students.
Ultimately, each of these career paths can be valuable and can provide a sense of meaning and a compliment to your life. They’ll also provide real help to those you interact with. Consider each path carefully as you proceed through your education choose your licensure fieldwork hours. This way, you’ll be prepared for your ideal career when everything is done.
What can social workers expect to make?
Social workers provide lots of benefits to society, and they enjoy a generally positive employment outlook as a result. Let’s break down what you can expect to make as a social worker across several different possible careers:
General social worker – According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, generalist social workers make an average salary of around $50,000 every year. This is a bit higher than the national average, and this career encompasses a wide variety of social work positions. Furthermore, the career looks to be growing at a much faster rate than average: 11% over the next 10 years. This will translate to another 81,000 jobs by 2028. All this is to say that becoming a social worker is a great idea if you want job security.
Marriage or family therapist – This type of social worker focuses on helping families and married couples negotiate through problems, deal with mental health crises, and strengthen their relationships. Many of them may work in private practices or in mental health centers. They earn an average salary of around $50,000 per year as well, and they’re expected to grow by about 22% over the next 10 years.
School and career counselor – These professionals work at schools, colleges, and career centers to help students and adults develop the skills and tools they need to succeed. They can help people figure out what career path is right for them, leading to more enriching lives overall. Additionally, school career counselors can help younger students in the day-to-day with bullying or social pressure. School and career counselors make an average of $57,000 every year and are likely to grow by about 8% over the next 10 years.
Social and Community Service Managers – These social workers focus more on communities and helping nonprofit organizations. They can assist with building and running social service programs, help communities set up their own support systems, and serve as local government leaders. Such individuals make an average of $67,000 every year and are set to grow by about 13% over the next 10 years.
As you can see, virtually every imaginable career path for a social worker leads to financial stability and excellent job prospects. You’ll almost certainly have to start at the bottom of the career ladder wherever you end up employed, unless you had a fantastic internship or work experience session while in school.
Regardless, there should be a lot of room to move up in the social work sphere over the next decade. This is great for job security overall; more social workers will be needed rather than fewer, so there should always be an opportunity to improve your practice, earn more money, or get a promotion.
So, all in all, these are the steps you need to take to become a social worker:
- Obtain a bachelor’s degree in either social work or a related field
- Obtain a Master’s of Social Work
- Finish a required number of fieldwork hours, usually between 1000 in 2000
- Finish any other requirements to acquire state licensure
- Take your state’s licensure exam and pay any fees
- Start applying for jobs within the state you’re licensed for
- Maintain licensure by taking another licensure exam every two years and/or by completing continuing education programs
Becoming a social worker requires navigating through a long and rigorous process designed to ensure that only the best people end up becoming the social workers that influence communities, schools, and medical practices. But it’s all worthwhile in the end. If you can make it through all these requirements, you’ll qualify for jobs that are stable, well-paying, and satisfying on a personal level.
Being a social worker isn’t just about, decent paycheck. It’s about helping others and enriching your community through care, attention, and education. We hope you’ll consider pursuing social work as your career!