What Does IT Take to Become a Social Worker?

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

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Should I Become a Social Worker?

Social workers are typically mature, sensitive and stable individuals who assist others through challenging situations, such as emotional, physical or sexual abuse, unemployment, death, divorce or life-threatening illnesses. Some social workers interact with people on a personal level, while others work on an administrative level. The work is often stressful, and large caseloads or understaffing are the norm.

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Career Requirements

Degree Level A bachelor's degree is required; some jobs, particularly clinical positions, require a master's degree
Degree Field Social work; for social workers holding a bachelor's degree only, a degree in sociology, psychology or a related field may be acceptable
Licensure & Certification Some form of licensure is required in all states (varies by state and by specialty); voluntary certification is available through the National Association of Social Workers (NASW)
Experience Entry-level positions; no experience is necessary
Key Skills Organization, listening, problem-solving and time-management skills; compassion; ability to work directly with different types of people; experience with Microsoft Office and medical software programs, such as electronic medical record software
Salary (2014) $49,150 (average salary for all social workers)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Association of Social Workers, O*Net OnLine.

Step 1: Complete a Bachelor's Degree Program

An aspiring social worker typically starts preparing for his or her career by earning a bachelor's degree. Many students obtain a degree in social work, but programs in sociology and psychology can also provide the necessary education. Bachelor's degree programs in social work commonly include foundational courses that introduce students to different types of social work, including work involving individuals, families and communities. Also standard are courses in social policy, welfare, research methods, diversity and human behavior. A fieldwork component is also required.

Success Tip:

  • Gain a greater understanding of the field through experience. As part of the practicum, students might work with immigrants, foster children, homeless people or the elderly; they may also study abroad. These hands-on experiences can help students select the area of social work that interests them. Social workers may work in schools, government agencies, healthcare facilities or residential facilities, depending on the area in which they choose to specialize. Many social workers focus on working with specific segments of the population, such as children or families, people with physical or mental disabilities, populations that are vulnerable to medical problems or individuals with substance abuse problems. Other social workers work in administration or public policy to develop programs and lobby for changes to address societal issues.

Step 2: Complete a Master's Degree Program

Master's degrees are mandatory for all clinical positions as well as many healthcare and school settings. These programs typically admit students with undergraduate degrees in any major, but students who didn't major in social work may have to take additional prerequisites. Graduate-level social work programs often begin with foundational courses and then focus on more specialized areas, such as clinical practices, policy creation, research or management. Like bachelor's degree programs, master's degree programs in social work also require field education, though there is a heavier emphasis on practical experience in graduate programs.

Success Tip:

  • Join a professional association. Graduate students may wish to join a professional organization, such as the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). Membership in these groups may offer many benefits, including professional development and networking opportunities as well as job search assistance and career resources.

Step 3: Obtain State Licensure

All states require social workers to obtain licensure to work in certain settings. Specific requirements vary by state and specialty; however, most states mandate that individuals wishing to perform clinical work complete at least 2 years or 3,000 hours of supervised clinical practice prior to qualifying for licensure. Licensed social workers must complete continuing education requirements to maintain their credentials. Positions available to unlicensed social workers depend on the state in which they work. Aspiring social workers should research their state licensing requirements before selecting a specialty.

Step 4: Become Certified

Though certification is not required, social workers may consider voluntary certification in their field of work. The NASW offers a variety of certification options, including credentials for clinical social workers, healthcare social workers and child, youth and family social workers. The qualifications for these credentials vary, but generally require a combination of education and experience in addition to a license. Certification may be beneficial when seeking a position in social work; credentials demonstrate expertise and dedication to potential employers.

Step 5: Advance in the Occupation

Social workers can use continuing education opportunities to enhance their knowledge in the field and develop their leadership skills. This will allow them to possibly move into the management side of social work. Training in areas such as communication, management, evaluation and ethics may be beneficial.

Success Tip

  • Consult with mentors. Social workers moving into the management side of social work may have a difficult transition. It's important to lean on mentors or others in similar roles to help navigate this position. Those who have been in leadership roles for longer periods of time may be able to give inexperienced administrators new ideas or perspectives to problems or difficulties that you are facing.
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