Learn How to Become a Social Worker

Empathy. Dedication. Resilience. If these adjectives describe your character, a career in social work may be a fit for you. In this role, you’ll work with vulnerable people in your community, supporting their physical and mental well-being. 

Where aspiring social workers choose to focus their talents is up to them. From schools to hospitals, there are a variety of options. Whatever your goals, you may have a few questions about the profession from the get-go, like what qualifications do you need to become a social worker? Or, you may be wondering what steps lead to getting a job in social work.

Read on to learn about what your future might look like once you’ve graduated from a social work program. 

Jumpstart Your Career in Social Work, Explore Online MSW Programs:

Earn Your Master of Social Work From Simmons University

Aspiring direct practitioners can earn their MSW online from Simmons University in as few as 9 months. GRE scores are not required, and the program offers full-time, part-time, accelerated, and advanced standing tracks.

  • Prepares students to pursue licensure, including LCSW 
  • Full-time, part-time, and accelerated tracks 
  • Minimum completion time: 9 months


Earn Your MSW Online from Fordham University

Fordham’s skills-based, online MSW program integrates advanced relevant social work competencies, preparing students to serve individuals and communities while moving the profession forward. This program includes advanced standing and traditional MSW options.

  •  Traditional and advanced standing online MSW options are available.
  • There are four areas of focus: Individuals and Families, Organizations and Community, Evaluation, and Policy Practice and Advocacy.
  • Pursue the degree on a full-time or part-time track.


Syracuse University’s Online MSW—No GRE Required

Syracuse University’s online Master of Social Work program does not require GRE scores to apply and is focused on preparing social workers who embrace technology as an important part of the future of the profession. Traditional and Advanced Standing tracks are available.

  • Traditional and Advanced Standing tracks
  • No GRE required
  • Concentrate your degree in integrated practice or clinical practice


Earn Your Master’s in Social Work Online at CWRU

In as few as a year and a half, you can prepare for social work leadership by earning your Master of Social Work online from Case Western Reserve University’s school of social work.

  • CSWE-accredited
  • No GRE requirement
  • Complete in as few as one and a half years


Social Work Job Description

Social workers can be found in many communities. They help people cope with a wide range of stressful and difficult situations, which can create a challenging work environment. Social work careers often include dealing with problems common to the human experience—for example, adopting a child or being diagnosed with a terminal illness

Other social work jobs are more focused. School social workers, for example, help teachers, parents and students get the support they need in the educational sphere. And those known as substance abuse social workers develop treatment plans for clients with drug and alcohol addiction issues and support their families. Child and family social workers may help families find housing or services, such as child care, or apply for benefits.

Depending on the employer and industry, minimum qualifications for jobs in these specialized fields vary. As you plan your future in the field, it’s important to consider all your career options. Entry-level social work jobs may include caseworker positions, sometimes called social and human service assistants. These positions only require an associate degree. Getting a degree in social work—that is, a bachelor’s or master’s degree—are two common pathways to entering the field. These degree programs equip students with the knowledge and skills to function in a variety of roles and settings once they enter the job market. Pursuing an advanced degree, namely the Master of Social Work (MSW), may also help prepare graduates for work in a clinical setting. There are other reasons to earn an MSW, for example, if advancement opportunities and earning potential are particularly important to you. While certain MSW jobs offer above-average salaries, it is important to note that social worker salary depends on the specifics of the job, location and a host of other factors. 

Social Worker Job Titles

You may pursue a number of jobs with a social work degree, each with a different title and specialization. In fact, though all social workers help their clients navigate the problems of everyday life, your day-to-day schedule will likely change depending on where you focus. 

As mentioned, a school social worker helps children with their emotional, developmental and educational needs, and normally works in public or private schools. Child and family social workers cover similar ground but also help families find housing or services like child care. A child and family social worker also intervenes when children are in danger of neglect or abuse at home

Other vulnerable groups have their own specialist support. Substance abuse social workers, for instance, help clients with addiction, providing information on support groups and 12-step programs. Because substance abuse may be accompanied by psychological problems, mental health social workers are sometimes included in the same field, working alongside those who specialize in substance abuse.

Hospital social workers (also called healthcare social workers or medical social workers) are on the healthcare frontline, working in pediatrics, oncology, nephrology, transplant and more. Though they tend to focus on psychological problems, diagnosing and treating emotional disturbances, clinical social workers often work in hospitals, too.

The responsibilities and duties of each type of social worker vary. But you may find there is some overlap, and they might even be compared to other behavioral health professionals. Take the licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) and licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) as an example. They may cross paths in the workplace, but there are some differences between the LMHC and LCSW you may want to keep in mind as you work on your career roadmap.

Degree Requirements for a Career in Social Work

Before you get into studying social work, it’s worth asking: Can I become a social worker without a degree? 

In short: yes. Though social worker degrees typically allow you to pursue a variety of jobs with potential opportunities for specialization and above-average salaries, becoming a case work aide may be viable if you want to work without graduating from a full degree program. If you do want to study but are short of time or money, an associate degree in social work allows you to cover the basics, qualifying you for entry-level work as a case manager, social services assistant or other jobs.If you’re looking for a deeper dive into this field, you could also go for a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). A social work bachelor’s is not always required to enroll in a social work graduate degree program, but you may find it useful as you build up your knowledge in the field or if you decide to later enroll in an advanced standing Master of Social Work program—an option available to those with a BSW from a program accredited by the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE). Bachelor’s degrees can be completed online.

So, how many years is a social work degree program? In general, BSW programs last around four years (though they can be completed faster), while an MSW or social work master’s can take as little as one year. There are also accelerated dual degree options that allow you to earn your BSW and Master of Social Work simultaneously— usually in four to five years. Unable to attend in-person classes? Some MSW programs are available online, and the coursework is typically the same as what is offered in on-campus programs. 

Alternatively, some people complete a Doctor of Social Work (DSW), which may take four to five years. Advanced degrees generally let you do more specialized work, even if you’re transitioning to a social work career, qualifying students for titles including clinical caseworker.

Four Steps to Becoming a Social Worker

Here are four common steps you can take to become a social worker, though it’s important to understand that every journey is different—depending on your budget, location, background and experience: 

Step 1: Complete Bachelor of Social Work Degree

Some students begin their social worker education and training with a BSW, taking general education courses and more specialized modules. These normally cover various topics from the Ethics of Social Work to Human Behavior. You may also begin to focus on specific areas, like substance abuse. Offering a grounding in your chosen profession, a BSW may help you expedite your education. Advanced standing degrees, which allow you to complete an MSW more quickly, require applicants to have completed a BSW first.

Step 2: Complete Master of Social Work Degree

After completing a BSW—or a degree in a related field—some students choose to pursue an MSW. Though the specifics vary by institution, social work master’s requirements typically include meeting a minimum GPA in your undergraduate course. Then, you’ll fully specialize in your areas of interest. For example, some MSW programs focus on clinical mental health, teaching students how social and economic factors impact well-being. Others train you to work with children, keeping them safe and liaising with parents. 

MSW programs include a minimum of 900 hours of supervised field experience, allowing students to put lessons from the classroom to use.

Step 3: Obtain Licensure

Once you’ve finished studying, you can pursue licensure. The specifics vary by state, but there are two common paths for those with a master’s-level degree: becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) or a licensed master social worker (LMSW). You can become an LMSW just by completing an MSW program (if accredited by the CSWE). However, there are social worker training requirements for LCSWs—you’ll complete two years of post-master’s direct clinical social work experience.

Step 4: Obtain Certification

To boost their opportunities, some social workers may decide to obtain social worker certification in their chosen field. To get your certification through the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), you will often need an MSW and some paid experience in your particular specialization, among other requirements. There are a number of specializations to choose from, including case management, education, healthcare, family services, gerontology and addiction.

Social Worker Demand Outlook

If you’re considering a social work career, you may have started researching social worker demand across the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of jobs for social workers will increase 12% from 2021 to 2031, which is much more than the average for all occupations. 

You see a similar trend in particular specializations. For instance, the BLS estimates there will be 17% more mental health and substance abuse social worker jobs from 2019 to 2029, while child, family and school social worker jobs will increase by 12%. 

Social Worker Shortages

Depending on location and specialization (among other factors), there may be shortages in the number of social workers in your community. The National Center for Health Workforce Analysis [PDF, 463 KB] projects shortages of more than 10,000 full-time mental health and substance abuse social workers by 2025.  

Social Worker Salary Information

In 2021, social workers earned a median annual wage of $50,390, according to the BLS. That number may rise depending on the specialization. For example, the BLS notes that healthcare social workers earned a median annual salary of $56,750 in 2019. 

Your pay will also depend on your location. For example, the BLS found that child, family, and school social workers earned over $68,660 in New York in 2021, but $39,350 in Kentucky

It’s also important to understand the number of hours you’re likely to work before taking a job. Because they work during the school year, for example, some school social workers may not work during vacations—which may naturally affect their pay if they’re not salaried workers. 

Affiliations and Resources for Social Workers 

There are a number of resources available online if you want to learn more about social work. We’ve listed a few of them below. Aspiring social workers can also refer to our comprehensive resources guide on social work.

Is Being a Social Worker Worth It?

Social work may be worthwhile for you—especially if you complete a well-regarded Master of Social Work degree program first. With your education and training, you may pursue opportunities in a range of settings and have the chance to make meaningful improvements in the lives of clients. However, it’s important to understand that becoming a social worker is a personal decision. 

Last Updated May 2022