Social work is a diverse, expansive field that sees professionals working with individuals, couples, families and groups from all walks of life. These professionals 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.
Social work can be incredibly fulfilling, especially for individuals with a passion for helping others facing hardship. Students who are interested in social work should explore advanced degree programs designed to provide graduates with the expertise, skills and experience to pursue this rewarding career path.
Seven Steps to Becoming a Social Worker
A career in social work, particularly in a clinical role, requires the right education, training and certification. Social workers generally need at least a bachelor’s degree in social work to enter the field. A Master of Social Work (MSW) is necessary to become a clinical social worker.
The timeline for becoming a social worker varies, depending on an individual’s educational background and which program they choose. However, most full-time students find they can complete a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) in approximately four years, and then earn their MSW in approximately two years. This means that aspiring clinical social workers should prepare themselves for at least six years of schooling, followed by two years of supervised practice, before they can sit for a state licensing exam.
Here’s how that timeline breaks down.
1. Complete a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work or a Related Field
A BSW is the starting point for many professionals in the field. Program curriculum covers the social and behavioral sciences, and typically includes a field education component. Additionally, a BSW will introduce students to social work’s ethical underpinnings, including justice, equality and compassion.
While some employers require applicants for entry-level positions to have a bachelor’s degree specifically in social work, many hire applicants with a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as psychology.
While a BSW allows professionals to get a foot in the door, it’s not sufficient for students who want to become clinical social workers. For these students, the next step is a master’s degree in social work from an accredited college or university.
2. Earn a Master’s Degree in Social Work
Some graduate programs apply undergraduate social work course credits toward an MSW. This can potentially speed up the process of obtaining a master’s, as the coursework builds on the skills learned in an undergraduate program.
However, people from a host of different undergraduate backgrounds may choose to apply to MSW programs.
Typical MSW programs include foundational courses as well as concentration courses, which focus on specialized areas. 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 gain from an MSW program also allow them to navigate the diverse, quickly changing and often nuanced practices and concepts in the social work field.
3. Complete Fieldwork Hour Requirements
Fieldwork is one of the most important steps in becoming a social worker, and is essential for earning clinical licensure.
Students carry out fieldwork in a placement based on their specialization, such as generalist, direct practice or clinical social work. Working under the supervision of a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), students gain practical experience working with clients in various settings.
Each state licensing board determines how many hours of fieldwork are required for licensure. Students should check with their state board to ensure that they meet those requirements.
4. Pass the ASWB Examination
After earning an MSW and completing approximately two years of supervised practice in a clinical setting, graduates must also pass an exam approved by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB).
The ASWB offers several exam categories:
- Associate. This exam is offered in jurisdictions that issue licenses to individuals who don’t hold a social work degree.
- Bachelors. This exam covers basic concepts and practices.
- Masters. This exam covers specialized knowledge and advanced practice skills.
- Advanced generalist. This exam covers nonclinical knowledge.
- Clinical. This exam is for social workers who want to practice as clinicians.
5. Apply for State Social Work Licensure
Once graduates complete their supervised practice experience and pass the appropriate ASWB exam, they can apply for licensure. Licensing requirements vary by state, so social workers need to know their jurisdiction’s requirements. For example, the Delaware Division of Professional Regulation requires that social workers seeking licensure provide the following:
- FBI criminal background check
- Child protection registry consent form
- ASWB score verification
The length of the licensing process depends on the state.
6. Choose a Social Work Career Path
Social workers have many career options. Some may work in criminal justice or corrections with juveniles or adults in the justice system. Other career settings include schools (school social worker, clinical social worker, counselor), hospitals (behavioral health professional, patient care coordinator) or assisted living facilities (geriatric social worker).
7. Advance Your Practice Through Continued Learning
Learning doesn’t stop once someone has become a social worker. Licensed social workers must take continuing professional education (CPE) courses each year to maintain their license. For example, in Texas, social workers must complete 30 hours of CPE every two years. At least six of those hours must be in ethics training. Social work supervisors must complete three hours of supervisory skills and strategy training every two years.
Each state’s requirements may differ.
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 9% between 2021 and 2031. This is faster than the projected growth for all other occupations (5%), though growth will vary based on specialization.
For example, employment of mental health and substance abuse social workers is expected to grow by 11%, while positions for child, family and school social workers are projected to increase by 8% during the same period.
The BLS reports that as of May 2021, the median annual wage for social workers was $50,390. Salary ranges can vary based on factors such as the type of employer (public, private or nonprofit), location and experience level.
Is Social Work Right for Me?
In a recent interview, the University of Nevada, Reno professor Shadi Martin pointed out that the social work field is rapidly growing and that considerable opportunities are available for graduating students.
“Being a social worker is challenging, yet very rewarding,” Martin says. “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 the following:
- 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 or 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 be helpful for students to hear from those in the industry. In her interview, 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 notes. “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 Martin’s full interview.
Pursue an Advanced Education in Social Work
If you’re interested in earning an advanced degree as one of the steps to becoming a social worker, explore the University of Nevada, Reno’s comprehensive online Master of Social Work. This degree program can prepare you to help clients navigate complex social and environmental challenges. The degree includes coursework in social work administration, social welfare policy and therapeutic interventions to help you gain the necessary skills to make a difference in your community.