How to Become a Social Worker

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Social work is an incredibly diverse and expansive field that sees professionals working with individuals, couples, families or groups. 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 in their homes.

The decision to become a social worker is not one that should be taken 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, the social work role comes with unique issues and challenges that professionals must work through to achieve success with their clients.

Students researching how to become a social worker should know that to  University of Nevada, Reno’s Online Master of Social Work (MSW) has been designed to prepare graduates with the skills, experience and expertise to work as professional social workers, and be supportive and nurturing members of the field.

Steps to Become a Social Worker

A career in social work, particularly in a clinical role, requires the right education, training and certification.

Education Requirements

While some employers require applicants for entry-level positions to have a bachelor’s degree specifically in social work (BSW), many hire applicants with a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as psychology.

However, pursuing advanced or clinical roles requires a master’s degree in social work from an accredited college or university. Some programs will apply undergraduate social work class credits toward your MSW. No MSW program requires applicants to have a BSW — people from all different undergrad backgrounds may apply to social work programs.

Licensing Requirements

Candidates interested in becoming licensed social workers must ensure their master’s program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). After completing an MSW, graduates must also undergo approximately two years of supervised practice within a clinical setting, then pass an exam approved by the Association of Social Work Boards.

Most full-time students find they can complete a bachelor’s in social work degree in approximately four years, and earn their master’s in social work in approximately two years. This means that aspiring licensed social workers should prepare themselves for at least six years of schooling and two additional years of supervised practice before they can sit for a state licensing exam.

Social Work Curriculum

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

  • 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 help them engage with, motivate and empower their clients, enabling these individuals to change and improve their habits and interactions. Students will also learn to support leadership; analyze data and leverage research results for critical decision-making; promote the well-being of individuals, groups and families; and support efforts for social and economic justice.

Finally, the knowledge and experience students learn through an MSW program also allows them to navigate the diverse, quickly-changing and often nuanced practices and concepts in the social work field.

Social Worker Salary and Job Growth Projections

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that overall employment of social workers is projected to grow by 13% between 2019 and 2029. This is much faster than what’s projected for all other occupations, though growth will vary based on specialization.

For example, while employment of mental health and substance abuse social workers is expected to rise by 17%, positions for child, family and school social workers are projected to rise by 12% during the same reporting period. Still, the overall job market for individuals interested in how to become a social worker is strong.

The BLS reports that as of May 2020, the median annual wage for social workers was $51,760, with those in the top 10th percentile earning annual salaries of approximately $85,820. Salary ranges can vary based on factors such as the type of employer (public, private or nonprofit), geographical region and experience level.

Is Social Work Right for Me?

In a recent interview, University of Nevada, Reno Professor Shadi Martin pointed out that the social work field is rapidly growing and there are considerable opportunities for graduating students. However, this work does offer a balance of both challenge and fulfillment.

“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 interested in the profession should consider the role’s responsibilities. The BLS reports that regular duties of social workers include:

  • Identifying individuals, groups or communities in need of social services support
  • Assessing individual or group client conditions (including physical and mental health) as well as the situations and challenges impacting their lives and goals
  • Providing clients with the knowledge, motivation and empowerment to change life situations or improve themselves in the face of challenges such as mental illness, physical illness, divorce and unemployment
  • Researching and supporting community resources such as health care, child care and public welfare services
  • Providing responsive services in critical situations including mental health emergencies and child or spousal abuse
  • Establishing and analyzing programs and social services to support clients and the community

In addition to learning more about social work’s requirements and responsibilities, it can also be helpful for students to hear 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 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 how to become a social worker, read Dr. Martin’s full interview.

Pursue an Advanced Education in Social Work

If you’re interested in pursuing a role in the diverse field of social work, consider the University of Nevada, Reno’s comprehensive online Master of Social Work. The degree program can prepare you to help a wide range of clients navigate and solve complex social and environmental challenges. The degree includes coursework in fields including social work administration, social welfare policy, and therapeutic interventions to help you gain the necessary skills to make a difference in your community.

Suggested Readings

Understanding the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work

How Social Workers Improve the Quality of Life in Nursing HomesWhy Is Mental Health Important to Social Work?


Council on Social Work Education,


University of Nevada, Reno,

Interview with Professor Shadi Martin

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers