Social work is a challenging, yet rewarding, career field. No two days are the same, and there are always opportunities to learn more and expand your skills in order to best help your clients. Life as a social worker is anything but boring! However, becoming a social worker isn’t quite as simple as taking a few social work classes for your bachelor’s degree and then applying for a job. There are several other steps you need to take before becoming a professional social worker.
This page will provide a step-by-step guide on how you can become a social worker.
IN THIS GUIDE
- What does a social worker do?
- Get a BSW
- MSW degree
- Fieldwork requirements
- Social work career paths
- Social work licensing
- Social worker salaries
- Expert advice
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What does a social worker do?
At its core, the field of social work focuses on helping others who are in need. This may be as simple as assisting someone in finding assistance to get food and pay their bills that month, or as complex as assisting a victim of a traumatic crime, providing therapy, educating and supporting them through the legal process as they seek justice.
The career field is incredibly varied, even for something that requires at least one dedicated college degree! Social workers assist individuals, families, and communities based on their areas of focus and specialized training.
This means social workers are suitable for jobs including:
- nonprofit organization administrators
- school counselors
- addictions counselors
- child welfare workers
- community organizer
- family therapist
- And much, much more!
Social workers can find employment in a wide variety of institutions and organizations. They might work for nonprofit organizations, hospitals, or government agencies, or open up their own practices to assist clients on an individual basis. As a result, social work can be an extremely rewarding field, in large part because you can tailor your career to what you’re most interested in.
Even within a certain area of interest, such as medical social work, there are numerous opportunities to further specialize such as working with patients with a specific disease, such as cancer. Even within that specialization, social workers can work directly with patients, or their family members, or supervise student social workers, or conduct research on interventions that best help patients and families, or even advocate for changes in policies and laws at a local, state, and national level. The options can seem endless!
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 can take up to eight years of schooling and practical experience in the field before becoming an entry-level social worker.
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 onto the next step of graduate education 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, women’s studies, psychology, or sociology are also fine.
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, in addition to your general education requirements such as English, math and science, you’ll take classes in the following subjects, including:
- human development
- human behavior and social environment
- social work practice techniques such as active listening, interviewing, etc. and
- social welfare policies
There’s an additional advantage to focusing on a bachelor of social work as opposed to a general bachelor’s degree. A few schools offer an accelerated program, which allows students to complete both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work within five years instead of the regular six. This might be a great choice if you already know exactly what you want to do as a social worker. Still, this pathway requires fantastic grades, work experience and a lot of determination.
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 a requirement in many states in order to open private practice.
Just as with bachelor’s degrees, there are a wide variety of both online and on-campus MSW programs for you to pursue. These range from state-level colleges and universities to Ivy League institutions. Regardless of which program you are considering, ensure that the social work program has been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). The CSWE is the only organization to vet both BSW and MSW programs, and determine if the program meets the stringent requirements to become accredited.
Accreditation confirms that the school has provided over a lengthy application and review process that they have the resources (with facilities, instructors and teaching methods and materials) that will adequately prepare students for the challenges they’ll experience in their social work career. Graduates can feel confident that they are truly prepared to enter the field.
You can earn a master’s in social work from a non-accredited program, but it can lead to some hardships if you later decide to obtain social work licensure or return to school to earn a doctorate in social work. Graduating from an accredited program is a requirement for both of these career paths. So it is best to confirm the program is already accredited before you apply and are admitted, in order to avoid having to retake classes or enter another program altogether if you want to become licensed or opt to earn a PhD in social work or a doctorate of social work (DSW) degree.
One of the benefits to earning a BSW over another bachelor’s degree is that most social work programs offer advanced standing status to applicants with BSW degrees. This means that BSW graduates can essentially skip the first year of an MSW program and graduate in half the time as students with another bachelor’s degree. Advanced standing students earn an MSW degree in about a year, whereas traditional standing students (those without a BSW) need two years to complete the MSW.
The above timeframes assume full-time enrollment. However, part-time studies are also available for most programs. This allows you to handle other family or work responsibilities alongside earning a degree.
Courses in MSW programs include, but are not limited to:
- Social work practice methods
- Social work theory
Specialization classes are also taken, depending on the type of work the student is most interested in (working at the individual, family, community or national/international level) and/or specific populations of interest.
Fieldwork or practicum hours are another graduation requirement for CSWE-accredited programs. This is when a student works in an approved agency under the supervision of an MSW-educated social worker in order to gain hands-on experience in the field. MSW students complete anywhere from 600-1000 hours of practicum during their program.
This provides excellent experience in the field and the ability to be trained with real clients by an actual social worker. Here you are able to practice your budding social work skills since you’ll apply what you’re learning in class and directly apply those lessons to real-world situations. Fieldwork can also help you narrow down the areas in which you’d like to practice after graduation. In some cases, fieldwork can also identify which populations or settings you definitely do not want to work in.
Fieldwork placements are typically in a local agency. If you are attending classes in-person, the program will likely have a long list of approved agencies from which you can apply to complete your practicum hours. If you are enrolled in an online program, you may need to do some legwork to identify potential agencies in your community, and work with the school to get their program and agency approved.
Once placed in a practicum setting, you will spend a few hours at the organization every week over the course of the semester. Some placements are for an entire school year, so be sure to confirm if this will be a semester or year-long placement before agreeing to complete your hours there.
If you are undecided about a career path, it may be better to complete two practicum placements at separate settings in order to gain experience with different populations. If you know for sure that you want to become a school social worker, then completing a year-long placement at a school makes the most sense and will provide the necessary experience.
Graduation from a CSWE-accredited program requires successful completion of all coursework, sometimes with a specific grade point average (GPA) and successful completion of fieldwork hours.
After graduation, you are eligible to enter the workforce as a social worker. Your first position will likely be one with ever-increasing tasks and responsibilities as you gain experience. You will not be able to provide therapeutic services to clients until you are licensed in your state to do so. This is a process that cannot be started until after your graduation from an accredited MSW program. This guide will review the process of applying for social work licensure in detail in just a bit.
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 fieldwork hours 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.
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.
Select a career path
Once you’ve graduated with your MSW, you can then pursue employment as a social worker. There are several career paths available to you based on your prior education, your personal interests and experience. Below are just a few examples.
- Macro social work – this type of social work focuses on creating policy changes for communities, regions, states and even nationwide. 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 lead a nonprofit social work organization at some point.
- 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 patients awaiting an organ transplant to deal with their current health crises, to process the emotions that are experienced during this time, support the patients’ caregivers, and ensure the patient has the supports in place to return home after they have received the new organ and recovered from the transplant surgery. Medical social work has some similarities to clinical counseling, which is discussed later, although it focuses less 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 to assist with conflict mediation, bullying prevention, and improving the mental health of students.
- Clinical social work – you can start your own practice as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). In this setting, you’ll help patients one-on-one and assist them in dealing with mental illnesses, individual or family conflict, etc. You can work with individuals, couples, families, and groups as a licensed clinical social worker.
Get your state license
State licensure requirements vary from state to state. Obtaining a state social work license enhances the perception of professionalism and provides accountability. The primary requirements include:
- a master’s degree in social work from a CSWE-accredited program
- either two years of full-time supervised work or a set number of supervised clinical experience
- passing 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 therapeutic services to their clients. 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. Licensure is available for bachelor’s level-educated social workers, but is extremely limited in the type of work that can be done. For instance, you can become a licensed social worker associate provided you have an associate degree in social work and have completed 1,000 hours of board-approved education in social work. This type of licensure may allow you to get certain entry-level jobs in social work, but you’ll eventually need additional education and training to become a “real” social worker.
This level of licensure is not available in all states, and the license may not be transferable if you were to move to another state. Additionally, these lower education level licenses don’t allow you to open your own practice and help patients individually.
Supervision entails working with a licensed clinical social worker to provide guidance and feedback on building your social work skills. Sometimes this occurs at no cost at your job, but oftentimes is completed outside of your place of employment. Clinical supervisors can charge a flat weekly fee for supervision, but most charge on an hourly basis, with fees of up to $100/hour of supervision.
Supervision requires meeting with the social worker both individually and in group settings to talk about your work, role playing to develop specific skills and processing the emotions that often arise from working with clients who are struggling through some very difficult situations. Supervisors can give insight on a variety of areas including, but not limited to:
- special techniques to use with difficult clients
- where to get additional training on specific social work interventions or therapeutic modalities
- evaluating your self-awareness skills to ensure you’re not headed for burnout and
- how to prepare for licensure exams
Required supervision hours vary from state to state. In Kentucky, for example, supervision must total a minimum of 200 hours, which includes individual supervision of no less than 2 hours every 2 weeks during clinical social work practice. California’s requirements include 3,000 hours of supervised experience over a minimum of 104 weeks before being eligible to apply for the licensing exam.
Most clinical supervisors charge by the hour to supervise you and your work. Be sure to budget for this expense.
The licensure exam
The licensure test requirements and exact content will vary from state-to-state However, most of the tests are pretty similar to one another, and non-state-specific study guides are available to help you prepare for the exam.
Before registering for the exam, you must submit an application and the requisite application fee to the state licensing board. The application will include documentation that you have completed all of their requirements prior to sitting for the exam. This includes transcripts from your accredited MSW program, documentation from the social worker providing your supervision, criminal background check results, references and any other items the state requires. At least one reference must be from someone already licensed as a social worker (often this is the social worker who provided your supervision hours).
After your application is approved by the state licensing board, you’ll be able to take the test after registering for an approved date and licensed testing location, and paying the exam fee. Testing locations are typically found at local universities or community testing centers.
The Massachusetts exam, for example, consists of a four-hour, multiple-choice test with 170 questions. The exam fee currently is $260. Provided that you pass the test, you will owe the state another $82 in licensure fees. Your LCSW license will arrive by mail shortly thereafter and you’ll then be officially licensed to practice clinical social work within the state of Massachusetts.
What about transferring my license 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. There is a national licensing exam which is recognized by most states, but this process requires an additional application and fees.
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 application and exam requirements.
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 the field. The requirements for continuing education will vary from state to state. Regardless of the number of continuing education credit hours required each year, you’ll need to renew your social work license every two years. You can find more about the exact licensure renewal requirements by visiting the National Association of Social Workers website.
What can social workers expect to make?
Social workers provide innumerable 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 $51,760 each year. This is close to the national average, and this career encompasses a wide variety of social work positions. Furthermore, the career field is estimated to grow at a much faster rate than average: 12 percent over the next 10 years. This translates to another 89,200 jobs by 2030. This indicates that the field of social work provides great job security and at a strong salary.
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 $51,340 per year as well. Therapists who are licensed and own their own practices can earn well over this amount. This field is expected to grow by about 16 percent 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 $58,120 every year and job growth in this field is likely to expand by 11 percent 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 $69,600 every year and are set to grow by about 15 percent 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 stellar practicum or gained valuable work experience in the field in between your bachelor and masters degrees.
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, and/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 (MSW), which includes a minimum number of fieldwork hours
- Apply for jobs and gain experience
- Complete supervision while working and preparing for the state licensure exam
- Pay the necessary fees and pass your state’s licensure exam
- Start applying for jobs within the state you’re licensed for
- Maintain licensure by completing continuing education hours and any other requirements set forth by the state licensing board
Becoming a social worker requires navigating through a long and rigorous process designed to ensure that only the best trained and experienced social workers serve individuals, families, communities, and the nation. 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 a decent paycheck. It’s about helping others and enriching your community through care, attention, and education and feeling a great sense of personal accomplishment and pride in the career field that you’ve chosen. We hope you’ll consider pursuing the challenging and rewarding field of social work as your career!
Expert advice on becoming a social worker
- What do you think is the most important thing for social work students to be aware of while they prepare for a career in social work?
- What do you think is the most useful training for social workers?
- If you had to break all of social work down into fundamental skills, what would they be?