What Is Social Work? A Complete Guide to Social Work Degrees and Jobs

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What Is Social Work Exactly?

If you’re interested in positively impacting people’s lives, social work can be a rewarding and fulfilling career path. Social workers work with individuals, families, and communities to address challenges and improve their well-being.

On a day-to-day basis, social workers might assist clients with finding housing, navigating the healthcare system, or coping with mental health issues.

They also advocate for policy changes to address social injustices and help build stronger, more resilient communities.

Careers in social work mostly vary by demographic and community. You can pursue clinical social work, school social work, healthcare social work, and community organizing.

Some social workers work in private practices, whereas others work for government agencies and nonprofits.

What Types of Social Work Degrees Are There?

Most social work careers follow a similar educational path. For entry-level positions, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree in social work.

To earn licensure and work in a clinical setting, you’ll need a master’s degree in social work. A social work doctoral degree can lead to advanced leadership and research positions.

Bachelor of Social Work (BSW)

If you want to work in social work, you’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree. In a BSW program, you’ll learn about the various challenges communities face, the resources available to them, and how to facilitate access.

Classes you might take include human behavior, social policy, philosophy of social work, research methods, and social work communication.

Common Career Paths for BSW Grads

Case worker

Community outreach specialist

Mental health assistant

Support services specialist

Master of Social Work (MSW)

A master’s in social work can help advance your career and prepare you for clinical social work roles. With a master’s degree, you’ll have advanced knowledge and skills in social work, administration, and policy practice.

Additionally, you’ll have the opportunity to specialize in a particular area of social work, such as children and families, mental health, social justice, substance misuse, trauma, and aging.

Classes might cover topics such as advanced practice with individuals and families, diversity and oppression, and social work research. You’ll also get hands-on experience through required fieldwork, in which you’ll work with real clients under the supervision of a licensed social worker.

Common Career Paths for MSW Grads

Child welfare social worker

Clinical social worker

Forensic social worker

Hospital social worker

Public policy advocate

Substance misuse and addiction counselor

Doctorate in Social Work

A doctorate in social work — either a doctor of social work (DSW) or a Ph.D. in social work — is the highest level of education you can achieve in the social work field.

Whereas a DSW focuses more on social work practice, a Ph.D. in social work centers on social work theory and research.

In a doctoral program, you’ll take advanced courses covering leadership, policy and advocacy, and program evaluation. You’ll also complete research projects that allow you to contribute to the body of knowledge in social work.

Graduates can become professors, earn leadership positions, or dedicate their careers to research.

Why Accreditation Matters for Social Work Programs

When a college is accredited, it means an independent accrediting agency has vetted the school’s curriculum, faculty, and student resources. Accreditation agencies have established standards that ensure you receive a quality educational experience.

Accreditation is also important for receiving federal financial aid, earning professional licenses, and attending graduate school.

Legitimate accreditors will be recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Students can search databases on either site for their prospective school or program to check its accreditation status.

It is important to note that if a university is in the accreditation process, there is no guarantee it will be approved, which could pose an issue at graduation and impact your career prospects.

Be sure to look for programmatic accreditation when researching potential social work programs. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is a CHEA-recognized accreditor that evaluates the credibility of social work programs.

What Kinds of Social Work Jobs Can You Get?

Overall, community and social service occupations are projected to grow 10% over the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Most social workers work in individual and family services, for the local government, and in healthcare services. You’ll need a master’s degree to qualify for clinical roles, but a bachelor’s degree should suffice for most entry-level positions.

Social work professionals with bachelor’s degrees can earn an annual salary above the median annual wage for all occupations ($45,760). For social workers overall, the highest 10% earned around $82,840 per year in 2021.

Although social work may not be the most lucrative career path, many find it personally rewarding to help rebuild communities and improve lives.

Social Work Jobs & Salaries
Job Median Annual Salary (May 2021) Job Growth Rate (2021-2031) Minimum Education Required
Social Workers, All Other $61,190 3% Bachelor’s or master’s
Healthcare Social Workers $60,840 11% Bachelor’s or master’s
Child, Family, and School Social Workers $49,150 8% Bachelor’s or master’s
Mental Health and Substance Misuse Social Workers $49,130 11% Bachelor’s or master’s
Community Health Workers $46,590 16% Bachelor’s
Social and Human Service Assistants $37,610 12% High school diploma

Source: BLS

Do You Need Licensure to Become a Social Worker?

Licensure is a way for states to regulate social work practice and ensure that only qualified individuals provide services to the public.

The requirements for social work licensure vary from state to state. Generally, though, you’ll need an MSW degree from an accredited program in addition to completing a certain amount of supervised work experience.

Check with your state’s licensing board to apply for social work licensure. Typically, you must take an exam, like the Association of Social Work Boards, to demonstrate your knowledge and competency in social work practice for all levels of licensure.

Registration and exam fees can vary but normally cost around $250. You’ll also need to renew your license regularly, often every two years, with each state requiring Continuing Education Units (CEUs) to complete the renewal process.

What Social Work Certifications Can You Get?

Certifications aren’t required to become a social worker, but they can help advance your career and increase your expertise. Available certifications qualify social workers to work with specific populations or in certain industries.

The National Association of Social Workers can help you find social work certifications. You can also inquire with your school or place of work about recommended certifications.

Some common social work certifications include:

  • Certified Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs Social Worker
  • Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology
  • Certified School Social Work Specialist
  • Certified Social Worker in Healthcare
  • Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Social Worker
  • Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families Social Worker

Certifications often need to be renewed annually. As you earn expertise in the field, you can qualify for more advanced social work certifications.

Frequently Asked Questions About Social Work

What degree is best for a social worker?

The best degree for a social worker depends on your career goals and your state’s licensure requirements.

A bachelor’s in social work is a common starting point for entry-level positions, while a master’s in social work is typically required for clinical social work and advanced practice.

A doctorate in social work best suits those interested in leadership, teaching, or research roles.

Is a degree in social work difficult?

Getting a degree in social work can be challenging but also highly rewarding. If you are passionate about the subject, taking coursework in social work should excite you.

If you’re intimidated by the idea of clinical work and counseling, the degree could prove more difficult. You’ll have to complete fieldwork or internships to gain practical experience.

What field of social work pays the most?

Healthcare social workers earn the most of all social workers, with an annual median salary of $60,840, according to the BLS. Researchers in the social work field also tend to earn higher salaries, along with clinical social workers, professors, and administrative and leadership positions.

How do I start a career in social work?

Your social work career can begin while you’re completing your education. Most social programs require a certain number of hours of fieldwork. You’ll graduate with the internship and clinical experience necessary to land an entry-level social work job.

Is a career in social work worth it?

A career in social work can be very rewarding and fulfilling for those passionate about helping others. If you enjoy making a positive impact on people’s lives, then social work may be worth it for you.

On the other hand, the work can be emotionally challenging, and compensation is generally not as high as it is in other fields. But if you’re in it for the right reasons, social work can be a fulfilling career choice.