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How Do I Become a Social Worker?

Social workers require significant formal education. Learn about the potential degrees, job duties and licensure to see if this is the right career for you.

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Essential Information

Social workers help people deal with issues in their lives. They may help individuals or groups of people to work through the emotional effects of traumatic events, relationship problems, illnesses, substance abuse and other difficult situations. Social workers can work in schools, clinics, hospitals, or many other locations. Becoming a social worker requires either a bachelor's degree or master's degree depending on the level of social service, as well as state licensure for those in clinical or school settings.

Required Education Bachelor's in Social Work (BSW); Master's (MSW) generally required for clinical and school social workers
Other Requirements State licensure
Projected Job Growth (2012-2022) 19%*
Median Salary (2014) $41,159**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **PayScale.com

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree in Social Work

A Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) is generally the minimum requirement to practice social work. BSW degree holders may be eligible for service positions, such as caseworkers or home counselors. These 4-year degree programs equip students with skills in interviewing, problem solving and case management that are necessary for the occupation. Courses may include social welfare, human behavior, social work practice and occupational research. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) also requires programs to incorporate at least 400 hours of supervised field work in social service agencies (www.cswe.org).

Step 2: Consider Graduate School

A Master of Social Work (MSW) degree may be required for positions in clinical and school social work, as well as administrative positions. MSW programs generally take two years of full-time study to complete. During the first year, students focus on foundational coursework, including human behavior and environment, professional policies and social work practice. In the second year, students gain instruction and experience in specialized fields of social work, such as community or child welfare. Students must also complete at least 900 hours of field work in their specializations as mandated by the CSWE.

Step 3: Become Licensed

All social workers in the U.S. are required to be licensed. Requirements vary by state, but there are generally four categories of licensing. Bachelor's licensure requires a BSW degree; master's licensure requires an MSW degree; advanced generalist licensure requires an MSW degree with two years of supervised experience; and clinical licensure requires an MSW degree and two years of clinical experience. Candidates must also pass a 170-question, competency exam administered by the Association of Social Work Board and geared toward their licensing levels (www.aswb.org).

Step 4: Obtain Employment

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 36% of child, family and school social workers were employed in health care and social assistance organizations in 2012 (www.bls.gov). The BLS reports 31% of healthcare social workers were employed in hospitals in 2012. Social workers may find better employment opportunities in cities and suburbs, where most social work positions were located. Those seeking employment may benefit from consulting the National Association of Social Workers, which offers an online career center that connects social workers with prospective employers (socialworkers.org).

Average Salary and Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the job growth for all social workers between 2012 and 2022 will be 19%, faster than the national average for all careers. Social workers in healthcare settings earned an average of $52,520 in May 2013, while child, family, and school social workers averaged $46,060 per year.

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