Types of Social Workers

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. Social workers often have very different roles depending on their areas of expertise, their 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.

Whether you’re looking to help the medically compromised or those suffering from severe mental health problems manage their conditions or advocate for better health care policies, an online Master of Social Work from the University of Nevada, Reno can provide real-world insight and technical competencies you need to address complex problems in diverse populations.

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

Social Worker Overview

Social workers help individuals and communities cope with everyday problems that negatively impact their quality of life. Some professionals focus on improving public health programs in underserved communities, such as helping uninsured citizens sign up for health care coverage. While others provided direct clinical care to the population they serve. 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 (BLS) categorizes social workers into four distinct groups based on their area of expertise:

  • Child, family, and school: Social workers in this group focus on protecting children’s well-being 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.
  • Health care: Social workers in this category support individuals and families that are adjusting to medical treatments. They work with diverse communities and people of all ages who struggle to understand how their health conditions will impact their overall lifestyles.
  • Mental health and substance abuse: Professionals in this role work closely with clients 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. These social workers provide case management and/or physcotherapeutic services.
  • 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 health care policy may need to meet with local community members, government officials and medical practitioners to gauge and evaluate whether a particular program is effective.

It’s worth noting that many social work careers come with different academic and professional requirements. For example, every clinical social worker must be licensed by their state’s regulatory board, which requires a Master of Social Work degree, according to the Association of Social Work Boards. While other positions may not call for formal licensure, most professionals in the field possess a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work from accredited social work programs.

The labor market looks promising for social workers, with positions in the field expected to grow by 12% between 2020 and 2030, according to BLS data. Most professionals in the field work for nonprofit organizations, private practices, public medical facilities, community development organizations and government agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services and the Social Security Administration. Social workers had a median annual salary of $51,760 in May 2020, according to the BLS. Those working in federal and state hospitals tend to earn higher salaries.

A social worker meets with a client.

Social Worker Careers

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 among 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 types of 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 all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Even in well-developed countries such as ours, many children lack the basic necessities of life, such as food, shelter, clothing and health care. According to research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 15% of children in the U.S. live in food-insecure homes. In some cases, this lack of resources is compounded by dysfunctional living arrangements, ranging from abusive family members to parents struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction.

Social workers specializing in child welfare focus 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 them improve their poor living conditions and advocate for their child’s best interests, though many also work with children who have special needs or behavioral or mental health 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 for maltreatment or abuse
  • Directing periodic evaluations to check on family progress
  • Locating foster homes for children who are at high risk of abuse

Unsurprisingly, child welfare social workers need to build a strong rapport with children. So, 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 training on how to recognize the subtle signs of child neglect and abuse. Keep in mind, child welfare social workers can confront emotionally overwhelming situations, as some cases deal with disturbing abuse and trauma.

Psychiatric Social Workers

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

Of course, where you end up working will have a significant impact on the types of responsibilities you’ll have as a psychiatric or behavioral health 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 therapies. Other key tasks include:

  • Managing client files and records for those with severe mental illnesses
  • Counseling client and family members about available care options
  • Conducting psychotherapy, social rehabilitation, and crisis intervention activities
  • Assessing clients psychological needs through interviews and observations
  • Developing individualized treatment care plans for each client
  • Providing discharge plans and case management

It’s important to note that taking on clinical-focused social work may require you to obtain formal licensure from your state’s licensing board. This process helps ensure social workers have the clinical 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 like the other subfields are often compassionate and detail-oriented, which allows them to develop positive relationships with clients 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 health care 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 geriatric and hospice care. No matter where your interests lie, you’ll likely need a master’s degree in social work to qualify for these types 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 other clinicians about nonmedical factors that may impact a patients’ health and well-being
  • Educating patients about relevant health care services and community resources
  • Coordinating discharge planning activities and exit interviews
  • Providing individual and group counseling 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. That said, if you’re interested in helping physicians and other health care providers and patients communicate more effectively, this subfield may be the right fit for you.

Health Care Social Workers

Health care social workers educate individuals and communities about important health challenges, medical services, and preventive 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. Health care social workers tend to fill a variety of roles within their organizations, often acting as health advocates, educators, advisers, and project managers. They provide psychosocial counseling for those suffering from chronic illnesses, make referrals to medical specialists, help uninsured patients sign up for health care coverage and much more.

While their responsibilities tend to be more administrative in nature, many health care social workers are active in improving the health care system as a whole. They often work closely with government officials and private companies to ensure underserved communities have access to high-quality health care 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 health care 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 health insurance 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.

The University of Nevada, Reno offers a unique online MSW that prepares graduates with the real-world insight and technical knowledge needed to start a social work career. The fully accredited program trains students for any level of practice, including clinical social work.

Learn how various types of 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, and helping communities overcome forms of structural oppression and more.

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

Recommended Readings

Alternative Careers for Social Workers Outside the Traditional Work Setting

How to Deal with Ethical Dilemmas in Social Work

What Can I Do with a Master’s in Social Work?


Association of Social Work Boards, Getting Your First License

National Association of Social Workers, Types of Social Work

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

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Key Statistics & Graphics

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, HHS Careers

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