How to Become a Social Worker: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a social worker. Research the job description and the education and licensing requirements and find out how to start a career in social work.

Should I Become a Social Worker?

People interested in helping others work through difficult life situations may want to consider a career in social work. Social workers provide direct services or clinical counseling to help clients assess and change harmful or unhealthy situations. They work in a variety of settings including nursing homes, hospitals, private practices, schools, and community mental health clinics. Caseloads may be heavy, causing stress and long work hours for many social workers. However, social workers can rest assured knowing their services are having tangible benefits for their clients.

In addition, a Masters in Social Work (MSW) is a very versatile degree which can be used as a stepping stool for other career tracks including public health and policy. Most entry-level positions require a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). An MSW is necessary for other positions, including that of clinical social worker. All states have associated licensure or certification requirements. The following table describes some of the typical qualifications necessary for this career.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree; master's degree required for advancement
Degree Field Social work
Licensure/Certification All states have licensure and certification requirements
Experience 1-2 years experience preferred
Key Skills Strong people skills, compassion, organizational, time-management, problem-solving, communication, knowledge of social work and psychosocial practices
Salary (2014) $59,100 (Median annual salary for social workers)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Job postings by employers (August 2012)

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

BSW programs prepare graduates for direct-service positions, such as mental health assistant or caseworker. Coursework includes social welfare policy, social work methods, applied research, child welfare, and social work for the aged. All BSW programs contain an internship or supervised fieldwork component, providing students the opportunity to develop practical skills in areas important to the profession, such as understanding group dynamics, interviewing, decision-making, and problem-solving.

Success Tip

  • Develop strong communication skills. Social workers must develop productive and healthy relationships with their clients and co-workers in order to work effectively. While in school, students can take advantage of internships and supervised fieldwork to learn how to interact with a variety of clients.

Step 2: Consider a Master's Degree

An MSW can be undertaken with any undergraduate degree, though some programs may require certain prerequisite coursework in related areas, such as psychology and sociology, for applicants not holding a BSW. The MSW is required to become a clinical social worker or to work in schools or the healthcare system. These degree programs typically take two years to complete (though some programs offer more flexible 3 and 4-year degree plans) and prepare students for advanced practice in their specialties.

Students in these programs have a variety of concentrations and specialties to choose from, including mental health, families and children, global practice, older adults and families, and behavioral and physical health. Students may expand on professional components of social work, such as clinical assessment, caseload management, and leadership skills. Completion of an internship or supervised practice is required of all MSW students.

Success Tip

  • Gain experience in a high-demand specialty. According to the BLS, social workers in healthcare, mental health, substance abuse, children, families, and schools are expected to have the most favorable opportunities for employment. Working in these areas, even with a BSW, can provide the necessary experience through which to develop a specialty.

Step 3: Become Licensed

According to the BLS, all states have licensure or certification requirements for becoming a social worker. Licenses for non-clinical social workers are usually optional; rules vary for each state and can be found through the Association of Social Work Boards. State licensing requirements for clinical social workers typically involve 3,000 hours or two years of clinical experience along with completion of the MSW.

Step 4: Consider Credentialing

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers voluntary credentialing at three levels for MSW-educated social workers. Each credential has varying eligibility requirements that may include specific hours of continuing professional education, clinical social work experience, and professional evaluations from colleagues.

There are also voluntary specialty certifications for both bachelor's- and master's- educated social workers in clinical social work, healthcare social work, gerontology, and several other areas, which may improve employment prospects.

Step 5: Maintain Licensure and Credentials

Social work licensure and certification, including specialty certification, must be maintained by completing continuing education courses. Requirements for the number of hours and the types of courses that can be taken vary for each state. By maintaining these credentials, social workers will continue to create career possibilities for employment and ensure that they remain employable.

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