The social work field is one of the most diverse employment sectors for today’s job seekers, offering a variety of career opportunities for those with the right educational backgrounds and work experiences. Social workers play a key role in improving the quality of life for people of all ages, genders, cultural heritages and economic statuses, with a particular focus on underserved communities. They advocate on behalf of individuals and groups, provide hands-on mental health counseling and help people solve problems that impact their health and well-being. While most social workers are employed in traditional settings — hospitals, mental health clinics, nursing homes, etc. — they can leverage their expertise and skills to explore alternative career paths that fall outside typical practice areas.
Students and established professionals may wonder what you can do with a social work degree besides social work. Many of the competencies gained through social work degrees can be applied in other areas, from human resources to health education and beyond. Those who have earned a master’s degree in social work and have at least some real-world experience in the field tend to have more options to choose from. This is because advanced degrees offer a strong foundation in social work practice and opportunities to develop abilities that span multiple disciplines. For example, the online Master of Social Work program at the University of Nevada, Reno teaches students how to apply health program evaluation, therapeutic interventions, social work administration and other key topics in their work. Using this knowledge, social workers can expand their careers outside the realm of social services and case management.
Before we dive into alternative career paths for social workers, it may be useful to review the top skills and characteristics one can gain from a social work degree.
How Social Work Degrees Can Prepare You for Alternative Careers
Although every social work degree is structured differently, many programs offer courses that align with other professions and areas of study, including psychology, public health, education and business. For example, clinical social workers typically learn about mental illness, substance abuse and treatment planning as part of their core curriculum. These focus areas are essential to human services jobs where social workers provide hands-on mental health counselling or advocate on behalf of their clients. Other key skills and competencies students can develop through social work degrees include:
- Communication skills: Social workers are compassionate and effective communicators who understand how to adapt their speaking and writing to different audiences. This is particularly important when working with underserved communities that lack access to health information and community resources, as well as with individuals who may not speak English fluently. Communication skills are in high demand in almost every industry, allowing social workers to transition to roles that involve public education, outreach and advocacy.
- Critical thinking: Problem-solving is at the heart of many social work jobs, especially those in clinical settings. Social workers develop practical and innovative solutions that help their clients overcome obstacles in their lives, from unemployment and homelessness to substance abuse. The ability to think critically about complex problems and weigh the available options is valuable to employers across industry lines, including in health care, public health and even criminal justice.
- Research experience: Some social workers conduct research into social services and their impact on specific populations. As the National Association of Social Workers explains, this research is often used to influence social policy by bringing a person-in-environment perspective to the table. This, in turn, helps lawmakers craft legislation aimed at eliminating health inequalities and improving access to health care resources. Social workers with experience in policy review are well positioned to move into analyst roles at health care facilities, nonprofit groups and community health organizations.
- Social responsibility: Social workers operate within an ethical framework that helps guide their decision-making and advocacy for health and economic equality. This emphasis on social responsibility is at the core of their work, allowing them to hold organizations accountable when they fail to deliver equal levels of care and attention. This trait is becoming increasingly important as businesses seek to make their operations more ethical, notes Brandon Stapper, CEO of Nonstopsigns and Inc. contributor. This includes reducing companies’ carbon footprints, supporting social justice initiatives and combating racial bias in hiring practices.
These are just a handful of skills and traits students can learn through their studies and work experiences, yet they help paint a clearer picture of what you can do with a social work degree besides social work. Next, let’s take a look at alternative career paths aspiring and practicing social workers may be interested in.
Possible Career Paths for Social Work Graduates
Social work graduates looking to expand their career opportunities should explore positions in a wide range of industries and work settings rather than focusing on a narrow channel of job openings. According to the global recruitment agency Randstad, companies are starting to recognize that the expertise of social workers is invaluable for navigating complex employee-related issues, including workplace equality, diversity and inclusion, work-life balance and incidents of sexual harassment. At the same time, public institutions and nonprofit organizations are always looking for talented and compassionate individuals to improve relationships with local community members.
Here are a few ways professionals can apply their social work degrees to alternative career paths:
Promote Healthier Lifestyles as a Health Educator
Health educators plan, research and develop informative materials that help individuals and communities lead happier, healthier lifestyles. They teach others about nutrition, exercise, mental health and chronic illnesses by creating infographics, blogs, videos, social media posts and other resources. The goal of this profession is to empower people to take charge of their own health and well-being, and to encourage them to avoid unhealthy habits, like smoking and substance abuse. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of health education specialists is expected to grow 13% between 2019 and 2029, which is much faster than the national average for all occupations.
Since many social workers already have experience with health promotion and education, transitioning to this role is often seamless. Social work graduates can apply their communication skills, compassion and problem-solving expertise to craft engaging content that speaks to the widest possible audience. These types of awareness campaigns are produced by government agencies, nonprofit groups and private health care organizations. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched the RX Awareness initiative back in 2017 to help state officials combat the ongoing opioid epidemic. This campaign used storytelling and real-life accounts to highlight how devastating opioid addiction can be for individuals, their families and the surrounding communities. Social workers help make an impact by leveraging their own experiences and bringing the human element to the forefront of public awareness.
Support Local Neighborhoods as a Community Health Worker
The field of public health has a lot of overlap with social work career paths, especially when it comes to face-to-face counselling and community engagement. Community health workers help bridge the gap between specific populations and the health care systems that support them. In most cases, community organizers work with people on the local level and provide support for both medical and non-medical issues. According to the CDC, social determinants of health — age, income, location, employment status, etc. — have a direct impact on the quality of life and health outcomes of countless people in underserved communities. By considering these determinants, community health workers can actively support those who lack equal access to social services, affordable health care and mental health resources.
Social workers with case management experience can bring a lot to community health roles, particularly when it comes to serving culturally diverse populations. Their critical thinking skills are essential for advocating on behalf of underserved communities and tailoring their guidance to groups of individuals with shared beliefs, values and behaviors. For example, community health workers could help eligible residents in a particular neighborhood apply for Medicaid or Medicare. Of course, explaining how these programs work requires strong communication skills and a knack for translating complex ideas into simple concepts. According to the BLS, employment of community health workers is anticipated to grow 13% between 2019 and 2029, meaning there are plenty of opportunities for today’s social workers to make a career change.
Advocate for Health Care Equality as a Health Policy Analyst
Public health legislation plays a leading role in modern health care systems by setting evidence-based standards and practices that address the social determinants of health. However, many laws and regulations fall short of eliminating health disparities and providing equal access to underserved communities. Health policy analysts evaluate current and proposed legislation at the local, state and national levels to understand the impact on individuals and diverse populations. What works for large urban areas is often not as effective in small, rural communities. As such, health policy analysts must carefully consider how the needs of disparate groups can be supported through policy creation, program development and the improvement of social services.
Social workers have an intimate understanding of how environmental, cultural and socioeconomic factors can impact health care delivery and the well-being of individuals. This context is crucial for evaluating the effectiveness of human services, assessing health-related policies and advocating for new legislation. Additionally, many social work degrees offer in-depth instruction on social work methods within community organizations and legislatures. When paired with critical thinking skills, this foundational knowledge can help social workers transition to policy analyst roles focused on research, data gathering and program development.
How an Online MSW Can Help Social Workers Expand Their Career Opportunities
Whether you’re interested in joining the social work field or exploring similar career paths suited to your talents, the online Master of Social Work program at the University of Nevada, Reno can help you develop the knowledge, skills and experience you need to make a real difference. This unique MSW degree is structured around advanced generalist practice, allowing students to explore the interconnections between social work, public health, psychology, education and business.
Alongside traditional social work jobs, this online master’s degree program can help prepare you for alternative roles at community organizations, for-profit companies and government agencies that involve health education, research, advocacy and policy analysis.