Social Work 101: How to Become a Social Worker

Social worker shows name tag at door of clientMost people drawn to a career in social work have a desire to help those in need. Social workers serve the community by helping people solve and cope with problems in daily life. Clinical social workers may also diagnose and treat mental health conditions, behavioral problems, and emotional issues, similar to therapists and counselors.

Just as social workers can take on many different roles in their field, there is no single route to a career as a social worker. If you are considering a career in social work, be sure to educate yourself in order to determine the best option for you.

1. Pave Your Path in Social Work

If you are considering becoming a social worker, you can start by learning everything you can about the field. Some ways to learn more about what social workers do include researching online, going to a local library, speaking with a college recruiter, or shadowing a licensed social worker for a day.

Next, examine your aptitude for the career. An effective social worker will typically have high levels of compassion and empathy, strong interpersonal and listening skills, well-developed organizational and problem-solving skills, and good time management.

Although it is not necessary to decide on an area of interest immediately, it may help to research different specialties within social work. Some of these include:An effective social worker will typically have high levels of compassion and empathy, strong interpersonal and listening skills, well-developed organizational and problem-solving skills, and good time management.

  • Child and family social workers
  • Clinical social workers
  • School social workers
  • Healthcare social workers
  • Geriatric social workers
  • Hospice and palliative care social workers
  • Medical social workers
  • Mental health and substance abuse social workers

2. Find the Right Program for You

When choosing a social work program, it may be helpful to envision a path for your career. Do you want to work in a hospital, public school, or at a non-profit? Do you see yourself more in advocacy or policy change, mental health care, private practice, or the military?

The right program for you will depend upon your chosen path. For example, if you’re interested in clinical work, a program with a clinical concentration may be the best fit.

Most entry-level positions will require a bachelor’s degree in social work, though some will accept a related field such as psychology or sociology. To work in the clinical field, a master’s degree is necessary.

In some states, baccalaureate social workers can obtain licensure, but most require a master’s degree. In addition to licensing requirements, there are other advantages of pursuing an advanced social work degree. Master’s level Social Workers (MSWs) often have higher salaries and more career opportunities.

For anyone wondering what steps are involved in becoming a social worker, GoodTherapy.org has designed a clear path to follow. Infographic by Hannah Johnson

3. Prepare for Admission

Once you have decided on a program and a school, fully understanding and adhering to the admission requirements can make you a competitive candidate. You will need letters of recommendation from people who have known you for at least six months and can easily speak to your skills and attributes.

Volunteer work is an excellent way to show commitment and propensity for social work. Many human service agencies have volunteer opportunities to gain valuable experience. Some students interested in social work choose to volunteer for AmeriCorps, a national community service organization that provides small stipends and education awards in exchange for a service commitment.

An accredited social work undergraduate degree is not necessary for admission to a graduate-level social work program. Any undergraduate degree can be sufficient, but a related field may be preferred.

You can view the directory of accredited social work programs from the Council on Social Work Education here.

4. Finance Your Education

Education can be an expensive investment. Considering financial aid options long before the start of a program can help you get your finances organized. You may qualify for grants, scholarships, or student loans, and some employers may even provide educational assistance. The government also has a student loan forgiveness program available to those who work in the public service field.

5. Work under Supervision after Graduation

In most cases, you will need to work under board-approved supervision for a period of two to three years or 3,000 hours after graduation before applying for state licensure. After receiving a master’s degree, all states require some form of practice for independent clinical licensing if you intend to eventually work in private practice.

Many states require a period of supervised work even for non-clinical positions such as administrative work. It may be necessary to check with your state licensing requirements and your admitted program to know for sure what your requirements will be.

6. Take State Licensing Exams

What is a social worker? GoodTherapy.org answers this question and others about social work.

Infographic by Hannah Johnson. Click image to enlarge.

To become a licensed social worker, learning the licensure requirements in your state is a key step. In the past, many jurisdictions would accept bachelor’s degrees in related fields without accreditation, but most states are moving away from this and do require an accredited degree from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) or foreign equivalent for licensure. For those with bachelor’s degrees not CSWE accredited, a master’s degree in social work from an institution that is accredited may be necessary.

In addition to educational requirements, you will also need to work under supervision, take an exam, and possibly be fingerprinted in some states. You can check your state’s requirements here.

In several states, you will need to take the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) master’s exam before or after graduation. After completion of all other requirements, you will then take a clinical or advanced generalist exam if necessary.

7. Obtain an Optional Credential

The National Association of Social Workers offers an Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW) certification. It is not the same as licensing and does not give any legal authority to practice in any state, but it does provide an additional credential to add to a resume. In some cases, the certification may make it easier to receive a new license in a new jurisdiction.

8. Get Hired

Once you have completed your education and licensing requirements, you’re ready to look for social work jobs. Networking can be helpful for getting to know others in the industry, and spending time perfecting your resume and using all resources available to you can make it easier to land your first social work job or start your own clinical practice. For anyone in a therapist or social work career, staying involved in the community and keeping up with your continuing education requirements can help maintain your licensure and expand your knowledge.

References:

  1. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2015, December 17). U.S. Department of Labor. Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition. Social Workers. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm
  2. Council on Social Work Education. (CSWE). (n.d.). Directory of Accredited Programs. Retrieved from http://www.cswe.org/Accreditation/Accredited-Programs.aspx
  3. Federal Student Aid. (2015, December). Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Questions and Answers for Federal Student Loan Borrowers. Retrieved from https://studentaid.ed.gov/sites/default/files/public-service-loan-forgiveness-common-questions.pdf
  4. National Association of Social Workers (NASW). (n.d.). Become a Social Worker: Starting out. Retrieved from http://www.socialworklicensure.org/articles/become-a-social-worker.html#context/api/listings/prefilter
  5. National Association of Social Workers (NASW). (n.d.). Social Work License Requirements. Retrieved from http://www.socialworklicensure.org/articles/social-work-license-requirements.html

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  • 8 comments
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  • jonas

    jonas

    March 29th, 2016 at 10:45 AM

    I have always thought that this could be something that I would like to do. Thanks for all of the details.

  • Laurel

    Laurel

    March 29th, 2016 at 3:52 PM

    While I think that it is a great idea to post for your readers all of the educational steps that you have to take to become a social worker, I don’t think that any of that makes a difference if you are not really cut out for the job. It is a tough one, you have to see and hear and deal with a whole lot of really bad things as well as good things and it takes a special kind of person to fulfill this as a career.

  • josey

    josey

    March 29th, 2016 at 5:50 PM

    I have always wanted to do something like this but finances have always held me back. I am not sure how to even start the whole college process at this point in my life because there are kids and bills etc. I think that this is where my strengths could really shine, but I don’t know, I am not sure that I can ever break through my fear of taking that first step.

  • Anjelica

    Anjelica

    March 30th, 2016 at 4:00 PM

    The coolest thing about this field of study is that there are really no limits with what you can do with it. This is something that you can do the bare minimum of education and get to work with people doing the thing tat you love, or you can pursue your education even further and expand those horizons far past what you may have thought about it at first. It is one of those fields where yes, it takes a special person to excel, but if you are that person and you enjoy helping others through good times and bad, this could be something that you may wish to consider.

  • bryan

    bryan

    March 30th, 2016 at 6:04 PM

    I would love it if you could do more in this series like this, with different career choices each time. Even if it had nothing to do with this field, I think that it would give many of us a little food for thought, see what’s out there and what our professional options could be

  • Amanda D

    Amanda D

    March 31st, 2016 at 8:39 AM

    I grew in and out of foster care, not the best learning environment but I think that I made it out all in one piece and mainly because of my social worker who would always check in with me, sometimes on a daily basis to see how I was doing. She became more like a mom to me than my own mother and even more than some of the parents I was living with at the time. Those people would often change but she was the one thing that always remained a constant in my life even today and I am thankful for having had her.
    As a social worker you might not always feel like you are making a difference to someone but believe me, there is someone out there w ho needs you and appreciates all that you do.

  • ted

    ted

    March 31st, 2016 at 11:59 AM

    What a wonderful story Amanda D. It is good to know that there ARE still good people out there helping others

  • Jocelyn

    Jocelyn

    May 17th, 2018 at 10:33 AM

    My sister has always wanted to help those in need and is considering a career as a social worker, and I want to help her achieve this goal in anyway she can. This article was extremely helpful in providing tips on how to become a social worker, and I especially liked your tip on how networking can help you find social work jobs after you’ve completed your education and licensing. Thanks for the great article, I’ll be sure to pass this advice onto my sister to help her become a social worker.

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