Types of Social Workers and What They Do

Are you interested in a hands-on career that allows you to support your local community? The field of social work offers a diverse spectrum of employment opportunities for those with the right skills, knowledge and experience, but finding the perfect career path can be challenging. For one, social workers often have very different roles depending on their areas of expertise, personal interests, and the organizations they work for. So before you commit to a particular specialization, it’s important to learn about different types of social workers and their day-to-day responsibilities.

First, it’s worth noting that many social work careers come with different academic and professional requirements. For example, every clinical social worker needs to be licensed by their state’s regulatory board, according to the Association of Social Work Boards. While there are plenty of positions that may not call for formal accreditation, most professionals in the field possess a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work

Whether you’re looking to help chronically ill patients manage their conditions or advocate for better healthcare policies, a online Master of Social Work from the University of Nevada, Reno can provide the real-world insight and technical competencies you need to address complex problems in diverse populations. This MSW program is designed to prepare students for any level of practice, including clinical social work, and is fully accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. Learn how today’s social workers empower individuals and communities by promoting social and economic justice through research, policy and education. No matter where your career aspirations lie, an MSW can help support your long-term goals by providing in-depth instruction on therapeutic interventions, evidence-informed practice, structural oppression and more.

But what do social workers actually do, and how can students find career paths that align with their professional goals?

A brief overview of the social work field

Social workers help people and populations cope with everyday problems that negatively impact their quality of life. Some professionals focus on improving public health programs in underserved communities, while others help uninsured citizens sign up for healthcare coverage. Ultimately, the type of work you’ll perform depends on the specific social issues you’re trying to address and the kind of organization you work for.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics categorizes social workers into four distinct groups based on their area of expertise:

  • Child, family, and school: This form of social work is focused on protecting the well-being of children through family outreach, public education and government programs. They often work to strengthen parenting skills, prevent child abuse, and find safe homes for children who are unable to live with their biological parents.
  • Healthcare: Social workers in this category support individuals and families that are adjusting to new medical treatments and medications. They work with diverse communities and people of all ages who struggle to understand how their conditions will impact their overall lifestyles.
  • Mental health and substance abuse: Professionals in this role work closely with patients who are suffering from mental illnesses or drug dependencies, often in clinical or criminal justice settings. They help individuals cope with their conditions and ensure they have access to the resources they need to lead healthier, happier lives.
  • All other social workers: Some roles in the social work field are much harder to characterize, as their responsibilities can span across a range of different employment settings. For example, social workers who specialize in healthcare policy may need to meet with local community members, government officials, and medical practitioners to gauge whether a particular program is effective.

Social workers of all types are currently in high demand across the labor market, as overall employment in this field is expected to grow by 11% between 2018 and 2028, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most professionals in this field work at nonprofit groups, private practices, public medical facilities, community development corporations, and government agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services and the Social Security Administration. In terms of pay, the median annual wage for social workers stands around $49,470, according to the BLS, though professionals working in federal and state hospitals tend to earn higher salaries.

Exploring different types of social workers and what they do

While the diverse nature of social work can make it difficult to select a career path, it’s also what makes this field so unique and rewarding — collaboration between professionals with different specializations is crucial, as no single expert will have all the answers. To help you narrow down your options, let’s take a closer look at a few popular social worker roles you might want to consider. Keep in mind, the social work field is full of distinct employment opportunities, so there are likely several interesting career paths that aren’t mentioned in this list.

Child welfare social workers

As their title suggests, child welfare social workers are wholly concerned with the health and well-being of children from any and all cultural and/or socioeconomic backgrounds. Even in well-developed countries, many children lack the basic necessities of life, such as food, shelter, clothing, and healthcare. According to research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 11 million children in America live in food insecure homes. In some cases, this lack of resources is compounded by dysfunctional living arrangements, from abusive family members to parents struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction.

Social workers specializing in child welfare are focused on supporting children in these and other difficult situations through hands-on assistance, social programs and (in some cases) the criminal justice system. They often partner with families in need to help improve poor living conditions and advocate for their child’s best interests, though many also work with children who have special needs or behavioral problems. Government-employed social workers often serve as case managers, while those working for nonprofits typically focus on community outreach and awareness campaigns. Some of the common duties child welfare social workers perform include:

  • Investigating reports of child neglect and abuse
  • Interviewing children, parents, teachers, and other family members
  • Conducting home visits to assess a child’s level of risk
  • Directing periodic evaluations to check on family progress
  • Locating foster homes for children who are at high risk of abuse

Unsurprisingly, most child welfare social workers are great with children. As such, success in this role often requires a high level of patience and an understanding of how behavioral issues at school may reflect problems at home. Luckily, most social work degrees offer at least some training on how to recognize the subtle signs of child neglect and abuse. Keep in mind, this profession can be quite emotionally overwhelming, as some cases will be more extreme than others.

Psychiatric social workers

Psychiatric social workers provide mental health services in both clinical and nonclinical settings, though many choose to seek out accreditation that allows them to take on active roles in diagnosing and treating mental illnesses. They help patients of all ages and backgrounds cope with their conditions, make healthier life decisions, and obtain the resources they need to effectively function in their community.

Of course, where you end up working will have a significant impact on the types of responsibilities you’ll have as a psychiatric social worker. Professionals at inpatient clinics often perform psychological assessments during intake, help create discharge plans, and collaborate with psychiatrists and other medical experts on direct patient care. In contrast, social workers at outpatient clinics may focus on educating patients and family members about mental illness, referring individuals to inpatient services, and conducting group therapy. Other key tasks include:

  • Managing patient files and records for those with severe mental illnesses
  • Counselling patients and family members about available care options
  • Conducting psychotherapy, social rehabilitation and crisis intervention activities
  • Assessing patients’ psychological needs through interviews and observations
  • Developing individualized care plans for each patient

It’s important to note that taking on clinical-focused social work may require you to obtain formal accreditation from your state’s licensing board. This process helps ensure social workers have the medical knowledge and technical expertise needed to treat a range of mental illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, alcoholism, and much more. Professionals in this social work subfield are often compassionate and detail-oriented, which allows them to develop positive relationships with patients and work toward long-term solutions.

Medical social workers

Medical social workers are typically found in clinical settings, such as hospitals and rehabilitation centers, where they prepare patients for life outside of medical institutions. These types of social workers leverage their understanding of public health and the healthcare system to improve medical outcomes and overcome obstacles in long-term patient care. In many cases, medical social workers act as case managers for patients grappling with serious conditions, including terminal illnesses, physical disabilities, drug addictions, and more. They also offer a range of psychosocial counseling and medication adherence services to help patients keep up with their treatment schedule and practice healthy behaviors at home.

Compared to other social work subfields, this career path is often highly specialized and may require you to seek out a clinical practice license. For example, some medical social workers focus on assisting patients who are awaiting organ transplants, while others concentrate on geriatic and hospice care. No matter where your interests lie, you’ll likely need a master’s degree in social work to qualify for these sort of high-impact roles. Professionals in this field also regularly collaborate with other clinical and non-clinical staff, making strong interpersonal skills essential to your success. Some other common responsibilities include:

  • Assessing patients’ medical, emotional, social, and financial support needs
  • Informing clinicians about non-medical factors that may impact a patients’ health and well-being
  • Educating patients about relevant healthcare services and community resources
  • Coordinating discharge planning activities and exit interviews
  • Provide individual and group counselling opportunities

Unlike other roles in the social work field, this position works directly with patients in real-world medical settings. As such, pursuing a career in medical social work can be challenging, especially for students who may be squeamish or unfamiliar with modern treatment practices. That said, if you’re interested in helping doctors and patients communicate more effectively, this subfield may be the right fit for you.

Healthcare social workers

Healthcare social workers educate individuals and communities about important health challenges, medical services, and preventative-care strategies. Whereas many medical social workers spend their time supporting critically ill patients, professionals in this subfield are focused on promoting health initiatives and changing unhealthy behaviors. Healthcare social workers tend to fill a variety of roles within their organizations, often acting as health advocates, educators, advisors, and project managers. They provide psychosocial counselling for those suffering from chronic illnesses, make referrals to medical specialists, help uninsured patients sign up for healthcare coverage, and much more.

While their responsibilities tend to be more administrative in nature, many healthcare social workers are active in improving the healthcare system as a whole. They often work closely with government officials and private companies to ensure underserved communities have access to high-quality healthcare services and social programs. By addressing these and other barriers, professionals in this social work subfield are able to effect real change at an institutional level. That said, most healthcare social workers focus on helping individuals and families navigate the complex world of health insurance. Some common responsibilities for this role include:

  • Educating communities about risk factors for chronic illnesses
  • Guiding uninsured patients through the healthcare application process
  • Explaining treatment options to patients and family members
  • Promoting healthy behaviors through public outreach campaigns
  • Helping patients enroll in social programs that offer financial support.

While a bachelor’s degree in social work may allow you to pursue entry-level positions in this field, most employers prioritize candidates with advanced degrees from an accredited institution. Other key qualifications include a knowledge of public health principles, strong communication skills, compassion for others, and an interest in working toward social and economic equality.

Launch your social work career with an MSW from UNR

Finding the right career path in the social work field starts with a careful consideration of the different specializations and employment opportunities available to you. And while there is plenty of information online, the best way to make a well-informed decision is to learn about social work firsthand. By earning a Master of Social Work from the University of Nevada, Reno, you can assemble the real-world insight and technical knowledge you need to start your social work career on the right foot. This unique MSW program is offered entirely online and is designed to prepare students for a range of social work subfields, including those that may require licensure.

To find out more, explore the online MSW degree page or reach out to an admission representative today.


Suggested Readings

The Differences Between a Social Worker and a Psychologist

Social Work vs. Sociology: What’s The Difference?

Social Worker vs. Therapist: Understanding The Similarities and Differences

University of Nevada, Reno, Online Master of Social Work



About Licensing and Regulation – Association of Social Work Boards

Careers in Social Work: Outlook, Pay, and More – U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Social Workers – U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Food Security in The U.S. – U.S. Department of Agriculture

Where to Work at HHS – U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

What VA Social Workers Do – U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs

Types of Social Work – National Association of Social Workers