How to Become a Social Worker: Determining if It’s The Right Path for You

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Young family in therapy with a social worker


Social work is an incredibly diverse and expansive field that sees professionals working with individuals, couples, families or groups. What’s more, these professionals can operate in a variety of settings and capacities, including in rural and urban areas, within specific health or government institutions, or with clients at their homes.

The decision to become a social worker is not one that students and professionals should take lightly. This career path can be incredibly rewarding, especially for individuals with a passion for providing support and helping others through difficult times. At the same time, though, the social work role comes with its own unique issues and challenges that professionals must be aware of and work through in order to achieve success with their clients.

A program like University of Nevada, Reno’s Online Master of Social Work can prepare students with the skills, experience and expertise required to work as a professional social worker, and be a supportive and nurturing presence in the field.

Education requirements: Degree in social work

Becoming a social worker requires at least a bachelor degree in social work. However, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics pointed out, many social workers today – and especially clinical social workers – have a masters in social work in addition to an undergraduate degree. These educational achievements must also come from a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited institution. Many employers also require at least two years of experience, after completion of a masters-level social work program, within a clinical social work setting.

Clinical social workers must also pass a licensure exam in order to practice within their state.

As such, it can take several years for professionals to complete the necessary social worker requirements for this career role. An undergraduate bachelor of social work typically takes students four years to complete, and the masters in social work takes about two years. This means students should expect to study and prepare themselves for at least six years, and potentially spend an additional two years working in a supervised professional setting.

Typical curriculum study

Many professionals in this role achieve a master’s in social work ahead of pursuing their careers. This continuing education builds on the skills learned during a bachelor degree in social work. Typical masters social work programs encompass foundational, or core, courses as well as concentration, or more specialized courses. These can cover topics including:

  • Methods of social work with individuals
  • Methods of social work with groups
  • Methods of social work for organizations, communities and legislatures
  • Methods of social work with couples and families
  • Structural oppression
  • Social work administration
  • Strategies for family therapeutic intervention
  • Health and environmental factors

Through these courses, students learn skills that enable them to engage with their clients, motivate and empower them, support leadership and enable others to change and improve their habits and interactions. Students will also learn to analyze data and leverage research results for critical decision-making, promote wellbeing of individuals, groups and families, and support efforts for social and economic justice. Finally, the knowledge and experience students learn through a MSW program also allows them to navigate the diverse, quickly changing and often ambiguous practices and concepts within the social work field.

Determining if it’s right for you

As University of Nevada, Reno Professor Shadi Martin pointed out, the social work field is rapidly growing and there are considerable opportunities for graduating students. However, this work does come with obstacles for professionals.

“Being a social worker is challenging, yet very rewarding,” Martin said. “It reminds me of the old slogan for the Peace Corps, ‘the toughest job you’ll ever love.’ That’s how I think about social work. It takes a lot out of you, but it’s also enormously rewarding because of the difference we make in the lives of individuals through our micro practice, and the larger population through our macro policy practice.”

Those considering this role can better determine if this is the right choice for them by learning about the role of a social worker and the responsibilities included. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics explained, social workers regularly take part in activities like:

  • Identifying individuals, groups or communities in need of the support of social services.
  • Assessing individual or group clients’ condition (including physical and mental health) as well as their surrounding situations, strengths and challenges impacting their lives and goals.
  • Provide clients with the knowledge, motivation and empowerment to adjust to changing life situations or improve themselves in the face of challenges like mental illness, physical illness, divorce, unemployment or other problems.
  • Research and support community resources like healthcare, childcare and public welfare services.
  • Provide response services in critical situations including mental health emergencies, child or spousal abuse or other issues.
  • Establish and analyze programs and social services to support clients and the community.

Besides learning more about social work from the perspective of the role’s requirements and responsibilities, it can also be helpful for students to speak with or read information from those in the industry.

In her interview, Professor Martin raises some important points about social work, the broad nature of the industry and the array of different aspects that this career path can include.

“Social workers solve complex problems,” Martin noted. “They are uniquely equipped to tackle these complex problems because of their multidisciplinary education…While it is difficult, challenging work on many different levels, it is truly meaningful. You can talk to any social worker, and they’ll have numerous stories of great satisfaction when they helped turn someone’s life around.”

To learn more about social work, read Dr. Martin’s full interview, and check out our website for details on the comprehensive Online Master of Social Work program from the University of Nevada, Reno.


Suggested Readings

Understanding The 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work

How Social Workers Improve The Quality of Life in Nursing Homes

University of Nevada, Reno, Online Master of Social Work



Interview with Professor Shadi Martin

Bureau of Labor Statistics – Social Workers