Social Work Career Guide

Social workers can pursue many career paths and opportunities in the field. Explore this social work job guide to learn about duties, salary expectations, and requirements. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Social workers assist individuals facing challenges in their lives and connect them with services and resources. These professionals typically have strong skills in interpersonal communication and problem-solving and a passion for helping others.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median social worker salary is $51,760 per year and projects employment in the field to grow by 13% from 2019-2029, much faster than average.

Depending on their speciality, social work jobs touch people of all ages in various settings, including schools, hospitals, mental health clinics, and community centers. Social workers, especially those working in clinical settings, should hold a license in the state where they work. Most have at least a master's degree in the field; however, some social workers hold a bachelor's.

Read the Specifics:

What Does a Social Worker Do?

Social workers assist people in overcoming difficult periods or transitions in their lives. These professionals accomplish this by assessing their clients' needs, providing support, connecting their clients with resources and programs, and monitoring clients' progress.

Social workers can pursue careers in various specialties, including child and family, school, healthcare, and mental health and substance abuse services. Depending on their focus, these workers interact with different types of people, including adults, children, teachers, family members, and medical professionals. Licensed clinical social workers can provide therapy and counseling services. However, most must get their master's degree and complete two years of supervised experience to gain state licensure.

Social work professionals enjoy rewarding a rewarding career path that positively impacts people's lives. However, social work jobs are often stressful due to high caseload numbers and unpredictable schedules requiring evening and weekend work. Some may find this career path emotionally depleting, as well, since social workers interact with clients who experience difficulties on a daily basis.

As with any occupation, social work requires a specific skill set. In the section below, we discuss several important qualities required to become a social worker.

Key Soft Skills for Social Workers

Social workers must communicate verbally and in writing with various people and groups, including clients and family members, supervisors, and medical personnel.
Active Listening
Listening skills are essential for social workers. These professionals must actively pay attention to what their clients say and ask the right questions in return to promote understanding and trust.
Emotional Intelligence
Social workers often interact with people experiencing difficulties in their lives. In response to high-stress situations, social workers must exhibit patience, empathy, and self-awareness to best meet the needs of their clients.

Key Hard Skills for Social Workers

Case Management
Social workers must handle large caseloads, monitoring their clients' progress and connecting them with the right resources.
Client Assessment
Professionals in the field must accurately evaluate each client's situation, determine their health status, and assess their needs to develop an appropriate service plan.
Social workers must be resourceful and possess strong critical thinking skills to find solutions to their clients' problems, often given limited resources and funding.

A Day in the Life of a Social Worker

On a typical workday, social workers communicate with clients and their families, along with other parties responsible for their clients' health and well-being. These parties may include educational, medical, and mental health professionals.

Social workers may also serve as the point of contact between their clients and other government entities, like the courts or child protective services. Other responsibilities may include:

  • Conducting assessments
  • Developing service plans
  • Monitoring clients' progress
  • Maintaining case files
  • Completing reports
  • Communicating with clients and other relevant parties
  • File management

Professional Spotlight: Dr. JanaLee Wagner

Portrait of JanaLee Wagner

JanaLee Wagner

Dr. JanaLee Wagner is a licensed clinical social worker and has been working in the field for 31 years. She holds a bachelor of science in psychology, a master of social work, and a doctor of social work.

Dr. Wagner has worked in medical, geriatrics, advocacy, grief work, and clinical mental health. Her dissertation was focused on the negative effects of social isolation, long before lockdowns from COVID-19.

JanaLee now runs a successful private practice. Her specialties include life transitions, trauma, and helping women find themselves after controlling relationships. Dr. Wagner is a social innovator and enjoys working with community groups to develop new solutions for complicated social problems. She always maintains the social work paradigms of individuals within their environment and systems.

Why did you enter into social work? What initially interested you about the field?

At my undergraduate school, the social work and psychology departments worked closely together. I therefore took many social work classes and if a minor would have existed, I had all the requirements filled. Social work was in full alignment of my values. The closer I got to the end of my degree, I had to decide what to do next. I was considering going to medical school but my other option was a master's in social work. I opted for social work because I decided I did not want to be on call 24/7. That didn't work out so well. I knew I was meant to be an advocate and a counselor. I found my passion and the flexibility of social work has been really valuable to me.

What roles have you held within the social work realm? How would you describe or compare them?

I began working with children and families. I found it was really hard to leave the faces of the children at work, so I switched to the other spectrum and worked with geriatrics. I loved that. I worked in a nursing home as the director of social services for many years. I was able to build clinical programs as well as advocate for the families and patients. I worked into a higher management role and could have become an administrator, but I wanted to maintain clinical practice.

I did hospital, home health, and hospice social work for a time. There, I provided quick interventions and case management, and then moved on to the next patient. Discharge planning was really challenging. I had to coordinate with community providers and vendors to make sure all the patient's needs were met the moment they arrived home. It took building strong relationships with the doctors, nurses, and community services. I liked the quick pace but missed the strong trust relationships.

I also worked as the mental health provider on a specialty medical team for the Veteran's Health Administration. Our team provided outpatient services in the veterans' homes. Most of our patients stayed with us until their death, so it was years of service to the same individuals and their caregivers. I was able to do some deep trauma work because the trust relationship was so strong. As part of the medical team, I was able to share my expertise and learn a lot from the other team members. We practiced, in real time, treating a patient as a whole: mind, body, and spirit.

Throughout my career, I have always done clinical as well as the other social work duties. I finally decided to focus on that aspect completely and now run a private practice. My focus is on the clinical needs of each individual as they come in. We get deep into psychotherapy with the great social work fun flare. Every week my clients leave with a technique to practice as they work toward their goal of becoming their own therapist. I am proud to say I have graduated several who continue to maintain their mental health utilizing the skills they learned in therapy.

Another social work role I have played is teaching. I was able to teach undergraduate and master's-level social work students, specifically in geriatrics and long-term care. It was an honor to pass on my experiences and encourage more students to serve this high-need group.

Social work is a very flexible career, and I have been fortunate enough to receive a variety of experiences. They all hold the underlying premise that individuals, couples, and families are affected by their whole environment and real change comes from addressing all aspects.

What did your typical workday look like within those various roles?

While working in the hospital or nursing home, I had a set 40-hour workweek but could flex my hours a little. I was able to therefore change my workday to fit the schedule of my children's school schedule as they grew. I also carried a beeper or cell phone to answer on-call questions at all times.

While working on the medical team for the VHA, they set my eight-hour-a-day schedule. There was no on-call work. When I needed to change my schedule, I had to submit how it would benefit the veterans I served and was able to get the changes approved. During my last year there, I worked four 10-hour days.

Besides the hour changes, the days were fairly similar when working in the medical world. Upon arriving at work, I checked for any needs that occurred since I was last there. I prioritized needs and created the day's plan. Rarely did that plan happen. Most of the time, something with a higher need would come up during the day. I'd deal with that, then go back to my plan. Documentation was often squeezed in between the needs and issues as they arrived. There was a lot of overtime simply to complete paperwork. But I actually enjoyed it.

In private practice, I set my schedule. I am currently working three and a half days a week. I see 4-6 clients each day. The difference in purely clinical work, either in private practice or for an agency, is your day is scheduled. You address the client in front of you, document the encounter, and then go to the next scheduled appointment.

What are some of the most rewarding aspects of working in social work?

The most rewarding aspect of working in social work is when a patient or client says to me, “No one has ever taken the time to just listen before.” I know I'm good at that. I also know I have made a difference in so many lives. These differences build out from the individual or couple I am working with to their families and friends.

I have also had some amazing experiences being an advocate for those who couldn't speak for themselves. I helped a woman get the hip surgeries she needed to spend her last 15 years walking instead of in a wheelchair and in pain. I saved one individual from having an amputation he did not want and was able to use that foot again. I have assisted to save the relationship between an adult daughter and her mother after they had not spoken for two years. I have listened to a war veteran tell his traumatic story and cry for the first time in his life, then gain the strength to face it and move on. The stories of rewarding aspects are endless.

What are some of the most challenging aspects?

The most challenging aspect was standing up for my profession and expertise. I entered medical social work when it was really new. We had not gained our respect yet. I had to fight and earn my way there.

Another challenge has been helping others see the value in differences. The differences may be race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. No matter the difference, all individuals always have something to share because of their differences.

The other big challenge has been holding my bosses accountable to our code of ethics. Other professionals I have worked with have similar codes of ethics, but social workers tend to be the conscience wherever we go. Sometimes that has not made me very popular, but it has always brought me respect.

What degree did you pursue for this career, and why?

My initial interest was psychology. I chose psychology to have the ability to understand the human psyche and provide counseling services, eventually. My initial plan was to go to medical school.

My master's is social work. I chose this because insurances recognize an MSW (master of social work) for independent practice, whereas a master's-level psychology [degree] is required to work under someone. Social work had more options available than continuing in psychology.

My doctoral degree is a DSW (doctor of social work). I didn't need another degree to allow licensing, I already had that, but I wanted to expand my career options. The DSW allowed me to dive deeper into social work from a different perspective.

How did your degree prepare you for your role?

Psychology was my bachelor's. I am very glad I did so, because I had a background many social workers did not in the master's program. My psychology background has continued to serve me throughout my career.

My MSW is the degree that awarded me the ability to get a license in independent social work. With an MSW and LICSW (licensed independent clinical social worker) license, I have been able to practice independently and bill insurances. I feel the combination of psychology and social work has awarded me the ability to approach clinical practice with a well-rounded understanding of individuals.

I am super glad I went the direction of a DSW. My program was clinical with a focus on social innovation. I learned so much about building programs that really work for the social issues we face. I also was able to change my mindset as far as macro social work is concerned and have used this knowledge to build a new program for women who have been in controlling relationships.

What do you think helped you most on your journey to become a social worker?

The one thing that helped me the most on my journey to becoming a social worker was amazing people, advocates, and mentors. It has been the relationships with highly professional people that has allowed me to have the confidence and ability to get where I am.

What advice would you give to students considering pursuing a career in social work?

Don't consider it, do it! Social work has so much to offer. You can work in so many different areas with the one degree. If you need to pivot in your career, you don't have to go back to school to do it. Social workers have changed so many lives for the better. We need more social workers as we work to solve the intense issues of our day. We need those who understand the value of a human, the whole human. Social workers are the experts in this area.

Find a social worker you can shadow. Often what we do cannot be explained but needs to be seen. If you have an interest in an area, from children and families to computer work, policy to management, forensics to clinical, find a social worker in that area and spend a day with them. See if it grabs your passion. Social work starts from the passions within.

Types of Social Workers

Social workers work with clients of all ages in several different specialities, including child and family, school, healthcare, and mental health and substance abuse. While individuals with a bachelor of social work (BSW) may work in entry-level roles, most employers require that applicants have a master of social work (MSW) and state licensure. Social workers treating and diagnosing mental health conditions must be licensed as a clinical social worker (LCSW).

Description Required Education Licensure and Certification Requirements Career Titles Within This Specialization
Child and Family Social work jobs in this field entail work with families to ensure their children's well-being. These social work professionals also investigate neglect and abuse, connect families with community services, and may arrange for foster care or adoption. BSW or MSW Varies by state Adoption social worker, Child Protective Services social worker, family protection specialist, foster care social worker, case manager, case worker
School These professionals primarily work with parents, teachers, and school administrators to support students and ensure their needs are being met psychologically and academically. Social workers may address issues such as bullying, truancy, and teenage pregnancy. BSW or MSW Varies by state School social worker, case manager, case worker
Healthcare Healthcare social workers provide patients with information and counseling to help cope with disease or illness. They connect patients to resources and support groups and help them transition to normal life after extended hospital stays. MSW LCSW Clinical social worker, medical social worker, oncology social worker, geriatric social worker
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social work jobs in this speciality provide therapy to individuals experiencing mental health, trauma, or substance abuse issues. Social workers also monitor their clients' progress and connect them with mental health services. MSW LCSW Clinical social worker, clinical therapist, mental health therapist, substance abuse counselor

Sources: BLS, O*NET

Social Worker Salary and Job Outlook

Social work careers have a strong job outlook. The BLS is projecting a 13% employment growth from 2019-2029, which is much faster than average. The demand for social workers in healthcare and mental health and substance abuse services is projected to grow at the fastest rate, thanks to increased government funding in this sector and more people seeking treatment.

In particular, LCSWs have stronger job prospects than those with only a BSW or MSW since they can provide counseling to help treat mental health conditions. To become an LCSW, individuals must obtain their MSW, complete two years of a supervised practicum, and obtain licensure in their state.

The BLS also reports that social workers earned a median annual salary of $51,760 as of 2020 with professionals in the highest percentiles earning over $85,820 annually. The top-earning industries are in local government (not including education and hospitals) and outpatient healthcare services.

Annual Median Salary


Source: BLS

Next Steps on the Career Path

Social workers with a master's degree in social work and state licensure can pursue a wider array of job opportunities in the field. They also earn higher salaries and take on more responsibilities than individuals with just a bachelor's.

Where Can I Work as a Social Worker?

Social work jobs encompass a variety of settings, including community centers, government agencies, hospitals, out-patient clinics, long-term care centers, and schools. The BLS reports that as of 2019, most social workers worked in the child, family, and school sector, followed by healthcare and mental health and substance abuse services.

Social workers find employment in every state, but most work in heavily populated urban areas. States with higher employment levels for social workers do not always pay the highest wages. For example, California employs the most social workers in mental health and substance abuse and child, family, and school services. However, the top-paying states for these sectors are New Jersey and Washington, D.C., respectively.

How to Get Into Social Work

Becoming a social worker typically requires several steps, including education and licensing requirements. Most social workers have a master's degree and 1-2 years of field experience. All states require clinical social workers to obtain a license, while most states require licenses for non-clinical social workers.

Generally, you will need to complete the following steps to become a licensed social worker:

  1. Get your BSW (or related) degree
  2. Get your MSW degree
  3. Apply for your state license
  4. Pass your licensing exam
  5. Complete continuing education requirements

Education Requirements for Social Workers

The first step toward becoming a social worker is to earn a bachelor's degree in social work or a related field, such as psychology or sociology. BSW programs often integrate supervised practicums or an internship within the curriculum to help students gain experience in the field.

Individuals who want to increase their pay, job prospects, and level of responsibility can consider pursuing a master's degree in social work. A BSW is not required to begin a master's program, but applicants may need experience working in the field. MSW students take advanced courses and complete around 1,000 hours of supervised field work. Graduates can then obtain licensure in their state.

Social workers may also complete a doctorate in social work. A DSW degree allows graduates to advance in their social work careers and pursue leadership positions in administration, in organizational policy, or within their specialty.

License and Certification Requirements for Social Workers

Since licensing requirements for social workers vary by state, candidates must check their state's licensing boards for more information. Generally, most states require social workers to complete master's or doctoral degrees in the field before earning licensure. The process to obtain a license involves submitting an application and passing an examination.

All states require that clinical social workers obtain licensure. LCSWs provide mental health counseling to clients either in clinical settings or independent practices. While LCSW credentials and requirements vary across state boards, candidates must typically complete two additional years of supervised practice and pass a licensing exam.

Another option for practicing social workers is to obtain certification within their speciality. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers the following credentials for social workers with either BSW or MSW degrees to help advance their careers.

Required Experience for Social Workers

To succeed in their roles, social workers must be strong communicators, expert relationship-builders, and passionate about helping others in the community. Many social work jobs require at least 1-2 years of field experience in addition to a college degree.

Accredited BSW and MSW degree programs allow students to further their education and acquire job experience at the same time. Learners complete required field work and practicums integrated into the curriculum. Practicums require around 200 hours at the bachelor's level and 1,000 hours at the master's level of supervised field work.

Frequently Asked Questions

What kind of jobs can you get with a social work degree?

Social workers provide information and services to people of all ages across various settings, including schools, homes, clinics, and hospitals. Some job titles include case worker, case manager, child and family social worker, and mental health and substance abuse social worker.

What's the highest-paid social work job?

Some of the highest-paid social workers work in the federal executive branch and general medical and surgical hospitals. These professionals earn median salaries of $82,490 and $75,270, respectively. Having at least an MSW degree can qualify you for higher-paying careers in social work.

Is social work a good job?

Yes, for the right candidates. According to the BLS, social workers enjoy strong job prospects, especially for those with master's degrees and state social worker licensure. Individuals with a passion for helping others and a high degree of emotional intelligence often have rewarding careers as social workers. However, this role can be stressful and professionals may need to work evening and weekend hours.

How do I start a career in social work?

The first step is to get your bachelor's degree in social work or a related field like psychology and sociology. You can then obtain your MSW and apply for licensure in your state. While you can have a social worker career with just a bachelor's degree, most professionals have a master's degree in the field.

Social Work Resources and Professional Organizations

  • NASW provides social workers with credentialing programs to advance their careers. The association also offers job listings, research, and workplace standards for various specialties within the profession.
  • ASWB provides various regulatory support and resources to the social worker profession, including licensing information, exams, research, and continuing education opportunities.
  • CSWE is a national education association that accredits bachelor's and master's degree programs in social work. The council also provides professional development opportunities for social workers.
  • ACOSA is a professional association that advocates for education, research, and community organization within the social work profession.

Feature Image: Valeriy_G / iStock / Getty Images Plus

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