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Social Worker Career Guide

What is a social worker?

A social worker is a trained professional dedicated to improving the well-being of individuals, families, and communities by addressing social and psychological challenges. They recognize the interconnectedness of personal struggles with broader societal issues and work toward individual and systemic solutions. Their primary mission is to enhance human potential, promote social justice, and protect the most vulnerable members of society.

They operate with a deep understanding of human behavior, the impact of social environments, and the structural barriers that individuals may face. Whether assisting a family in crisis, helping an individual cope with mental health issues, or advocating for policy changes, these professionals are often on the frontline, addressing complex social problems and creating pathways for positive change.

Duties and responsibilities

Social workers’ responsibilities vary significantly based on their specialization and the setting in which they work. At the core, they assess clients’ needs, develop interventions to address them, and provide ongoing support. This might involve individual or family counseling, case management, crisis intervention, advocacy, and more.

For example, clinical social workers, also known as licensed clinical social workers (LCSW), are trained to diagnose and treat psychological issues. On the other hand, child welfare social workers might focus on cases involving child abuse or neglect, aiming to ensure a safe environment for the child.

Many of these professionals also play roles in community development, policy-making, and research. They may advocate for policy changes that address systemic inequalities, raise awareness about community resources, or conduct research to develop evidence-based practices in the field.

Work environment

Social workers can be found in a diverse range of settings, including schools, hospitals, mental health clinics, social service agencies, prisons, and governmental organizations. The environment can often be challenging, especially when dealing with crises, but it can also be deeply rewarding.

While many engage directly with clients, others might work at a macro level, focusing on community outreach, policy development, or administration. Collaboration is a common theme in the profession, often partnering with medical professionals, counselors, educators, and legal professionals to ensure holistic support for their clients.

Typical work hours

Most social workers work full time, often including evenings and weekends, to fit the clients’ schedules. Some employers offer flexible work schedule arrangements, especially for those in settings such as hospitals where 24-hour staffing is required. This flexibility enables them to meet with clients outside of normal work hours, which is often crucial in their line of work. Note that when a client needs immediate help or if an emergency occurs, they should be prepared to work longer hours or be on call.

How to become a social worker

This career guide section outlines the steps to become a social worker. Getting into this field generally involves obtaining specific education, gaining hands-on experience, and acquiring appropriate licensure.

Step 1: Obtain a bachelor’s degree

Your first step should be to acquire a bachelor’s degree. Although a few entry-level social work positions may only demand an associate’s degree, most require a bachelor’s. A degree in social work (BSW) is the most common requirement; however, degrees in related fields, such as psychology or sociology, may be considered for some entry-level positions.

Step 2: Gain voluntary work experience

Gain valuable experience in the field through volunteering. As a volunteer, you can work with communities, individuals, or organizations to provide help and improve their lives. This experience gives students a direct understanding of social work practice while also providing networking opportunities.

Step 3: Obtain a master’s degree

A master’s degree in social work (MSW) is typically required for positions in health settings and is necessary for clinical work. Some schools offer programs specifically designed for students with a bachelor’s degree in areas other than social work. The program usually lasts two years, but some universities offer one-year accelerated programs.

Step 4: Do fieldwork

Complete a practical, on-site practicum that involves supervised work, to meet the requirements of your MSW program. This fieldwork provides valuable hands-on experience, and you’ll get to apply theories and principles learned in class in the real world. This practical experience strengthens your familiarity with organizational processes, giving you insights you can’t get in a classroom.

Step 5: Earn state licensure

Many positions, especially clinical roles, require social workers to be licensed in the state they practice. Most states’ licensure requirements include completing an MSW program and a certain number of hours of supervised work experience. Some states have additional requirements such as exams or ongoing education. It’s vital to check the licensure requirements of your specific state.

Step 6: Keep up with continuing education

After obtaining your license, keeping up with continuing education requirements is important. This ensures that you stay current with recent developments and trends in the field. The requirements vary from one state to another, so you’ll need to adhere to the guidelines of your region. These might include attending workshops or conferences or taking further coursework.

Step 7: Consider specialization

Specialization allows you to further expand your skills and knowledge in a particular area of social work. You might choose to focus on fields like child and family social work, healthcare social work, mental health and substance abuse, or school social work. Establishing your expertise in a specific sector may open up new job opportunities and build a rewarding career.

How much do social workers make?

Social worker salaries will vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. The level of specialization and social needs of the community being served can also significantly impact their compensation.

Highest paying industries

  • Federal Executive Branch – $82,130
  • Scientific Research and Development Services – $77,550
  • Insurance Companies – $72,640
  • Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools – $70,470
  • Hospitals – $66,740

Highest paying states

  • Hawaii – $75,930
  • Connecticut – $70,550
  • New Jersey – $69,780
  • Alaska – $68,890
  • Rhode Island – $67,990

Browse social worker salary data by market

Types of social workers

Below, we highlight the various career types and areas of specialization for social workers. This section will give you an overview of the diverse paths within the field of social work and what each entails.

Clinical social work

Becoming a clinical social worker often involves supporting individuals battling mental health disorders or substance abuse. These professionals usually work with clients to build coping strategies, understand their situations, and create actionable change plans. A license is typically required in addition to a master’s degree in social work.

School social work

As a school social work specialist, you’ll work within educational institutions to help students manage emotional, behavioral, and social challenges that interfere with their learning. Their work might involve counseling, creating individual student plans, and working closely with teachers and parents.

Child and family social work

In this specialty, professionals focus on ensuring the safety and well-being of children or adolescents within their family structure. They may intervene in child abuse or neglect cases and assist with fostering or adoption processes. They work closely with families to provide appropriate resources and establish a positive environment for growth.

Medical and health social work

Within healthcare settings, these social workers play a pivotal role in helping patients navigate the complexities of healthcare systems. They might assist patients and their families in understanding a new diagnosis, work with medical professionals to devise a care plan, or provide therapy for emotional and mental health issues.

Military social work

Military social workers offer assistance and guidance to service members and their families, addressing issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), trauma, depression, and anxiety. Social workers in this field might provide therapy, counseling, and coping strategies while offering constant support to military families.

Mental health and substance abuse social work

In this area of the profession, specialists work with clients struggling with addiction or mental health issues. These social workers offer therapy, develop treatment plans, and connect clients with necessary resources to support their recovery journey.

Gerontological social work

Specializing in gerontological or geriatric social work means working with older adults and their families. These specialists focus on the unique needs and challenges of aging, helping clients navigate healthcare processes, cope with end-of-life issues, or coordinate care services.

Top skills for social workers

This section outlines the primary skills and traits needed for career success as a social worker. Successful professionals in this field typically exhibit a range of communication abilities, emotional resilience, empathy, and organizational skills that help them excel.

Communication skills

Good social workers can convey information effectively and listen attentively. These professionals often need to build trusting relationships with clients, coordinate with other agencies, and advocate for their clients’ needs. All these tasks require excellent verbal and written communication abilities.

Emotional resilience

The role often involves working with individuals in stressful or difficult situations. Therefore, being emotionally resilient helps these professionals manage their emotions, maintain a positive attitude, and continue to support their clients, despite the challenges that may arise.


Understanding and sharing the feelings of others is a key characteristic of effective social workers. Empathy allows these professionals to understand their clients’ experiences and feelings, which is critical for building trust and providing appropriate support.

Organizational skills

Professionals in this field handle multiple cases at once. Each case comes with its unique set of responsibilities, such as scheduling meetings, keeping records, and meeting deadlines. Hence, strong organizational skills are essential for staying atop all these tasks and providing the best service to each client.

Social worker career path options

There are many future career opportunities that a professional in this field can explore. The progression from an entry-level social worker position to advanced roles can be varied, allowing you to specialize in areas of interest. It’s a career filled with avenues for growth and advancement.

One of the most common paths of career progression in social work is moving from a generalist role to a more specialized one. You might choose to work with certain populations like children, older adults, or veterans. Depending on your passion and interest areas, the opportunities are vast.

With several years of experience, you can move into a leadership role such as a team leader, supervisor, or even department director. These lead roles not only offer a chance to influence the strategic direction of your organization, they often come with increased decision-making authority and, in many cases, a higher salary.

If teaching or research interests you, you could choose to enter academia. Many experienced professionals shift their careers toward educating the next generation of social workers or conducting research to better understand the needs of the communities they serve. Both paths require additional qualifications but offer rewarding challenges and the chance to influence the field at a higher level.

For those interested in providing therapy, obtaining licensure to become an LCSW could be on the horizon. This role enables professionals to diagnose and treat emotional, mental, and behavioral issues, offering a direct way to impact individual lives positively.

Today’s social workers are heavily involved in interdisciplinary team approaches for problem-solving, particularly in healthcare settings. Collaboration with doctors, nurses, psychologists, and occupations across the spectrum has become pivotal in providing comprehensive care.

New technologies have also made their mark on the social work landscape. Many professionals now use telehealth services to meet with clients and collaborate with healthcare providers remotely. Integrating new technological tools in social work has been instrumental in overcoming geographical and time constraints, leading to increased accessibility and improved services for clients.

However, it’s not only the advancement of technologies and collaborative approaches shaping the profession. The current global focus on mental health is also creating significant opportunities for social workers. There has been a significant increase in demand for professionals capable of providing mental health services and emotional support to individuals and communities.

Employment projections for social workers

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for social workers is expected to grow 9 percent through 2031, faster than the average for all occupations. This anticipated growth is driven by increased demand for healthcare and social services but will vary by specialization.

Social worker career tips

Stay updated with policies and regulations

In a profession driven by laws, regulations, and policies, staying current is vitally important. Changes in these areas can directly affect service delivery to clients and alter best practices in social work. Regularly educate yourself about these changes to avoid falling behind and potentially making mistakes.

Gain field experience

Experience is essential for a social worker. Learn while doing. Grab opportunities to engage in direct service, community organization, and social policy roles. The versatility of your experiences can help you refine your skills and clarify your career aspirations.

Build a professional network

Networking is very beneficial in the human service field. Build relationships with professionals from different domains. These connections could help in sharing expertise, finding resources, or referring clients. Associations that can help expand your network include:

  • National Association of Social Workers (NASW)
  • School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA)
  • American Clinical Social Work Association (ACSWA)

Understand the importance of self-care

The nature of social work can be emotionally challenging. Taking care of your physical and emotional health is crucial to providing quality services. Mindful activities, maintaining a personal life outside work, and seeking supervision or counseling can help avoid burnout and maintain good mental health.

Continue learning and strive for certifications

Commit to lifelong learning. Even after formal education in the field, keep learning and updating your skills and knowledge. Pursue professional development courses, workshops, and conferences. Strive for recognized certifications to prove your competency and commitment. Here are a few recommendations:

  • Qualified Clinical Social Work (QCSW)
  • Certified Social Work Case Manager (C-SWCM)
  • Certified Advanced Children, Youth, and Family Social Worker (C-ACYFSW)

Where the social worker jobs are

Top employers

  • Department of Veteran Affairs
  • New York-Presbyterian Hospital
  • University of Michigan Health System
  • Kaiser Permanente
  • DaVita

Top states

  • California
  • New York
  • Massachusetts
  • Washington
  • Illinois

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • Monster
  • Career Builder


What kind of interpersonal skills does a social worker need?

Due to the nature of this line of work, social workers must have strong interpersonal skills. These include empathy, patience, and an ability to remain calm and collected in stressful situations. Good listening and effective communication skills are vital, as these professionals must understand their clients’ concerns and guide them accordingly.

What certifications are necessary for a social worker?

While the specific certifications required can vary depending on the state and the type of social work one is involved in; generally, a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work is required. Additionally, licensure is often required, which involves passing an exam.

What are the different areas of specialization for a social worker?

Social workers can specialize in various fields, such as child and family social work, clinical social work, school social work, healthcare social work, or substance abuse social work, to name a few. Each sector of specialization focuses on a different population and requires a unique combination of knowledge and skills.

What does the daily routine of a social worker look like?

Social workers often have varied routines based on the needs of their clients; they might provide individual therapy, carry out home visits, or coordinate services for their clients. Their days might also include a significant amount of administrative work, like case management, report writing, and keeping up with relevant policy changes.

What risks does a social worker face?

Social workers often deal with stressful situations and challenging clients. As a result, they may face mental health issues such as burnout and compassion fatigue. There are also potential risks of violence from clients or their family members. They must have support systems in place, both professionally and personally, to mitigate these risks.

What is the role of a social worker in a healthcare setting?

In a healthcare setting, social workers often focus on providing psycho-social support to patients and their families. They also often coordinate community resources, assist with healthcare decision-making, and help navigate through different social and financial aspects related to healthcare. This can include facilitating support groups, counseling patients, or helping patients apply for financial aid.

How can a social worker contribute to the community?

Social workers contribute to the community in several ways. Their primary role is supporting individuals and families through difficult situations. Additionally, they can promote social change and development, cohesiveness, and empowerment on behalf of individuals or groups by advocating for responsive governmental policies. Their work often improves community health, safety, and overall well-being.

What ethics are central to the work of a social worker?

Ethics play a substantial role in social work. Key principles include respect for the intrinsic worth and dignity of individuals, privacy, confidentiality, self-determination, and commitment to social justice. Social workers are often faced with complex dilemmas that require adept ethical reasoning and decision-making.

Is a license required to be a social worker?

Yes, one typically needs to be licensed to work as a social worker. Licensing requirements vary by state but usually involve a combination of obtaining a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work, completing a certain amount of fieldwork, and passing a licensure exam. It’s advisable to check with local regulations to understand the specific requirements.