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What do you want to become?
How to Become a Social Worker
Alternate Career Titles:
Certified Social Worker, Social Services Worker
Social Worker Job Description: Social Workers help people learn how to cope with and solve problems occurring in their everyday lives.
Social Worker Salary (Annual): $50,470
Social Worker Salary Range: $31,790 to $82,540
How Long To Become a Social Worker: 4 to 6 years
Social Worker Requirements: Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work
Become a Social Worker
A Social Worker is a healthcare professional who seeks to help identify people and communities in need of assistance. Their needs can range from mental to emotional to behavioral issues. Ultimately, a Social Worker will assess patient needs, strengths, their situation and support networks available to determine goals to help them cope with and solve everyday problems. Similar to other mental health careers, they will additionally research community resources to refer their patients to, advocate for additional resources, provide psychotherapy services and develop and evaluate programs and services.
Additionally, they will respond to crisis situations (including child abuse scenarios and mental health emergencies), as well as to follow-up with their patients and ensure that their basic needs are being met. Lastly, Social workers must adequately maintain all case files and patient records. Due to the high demands for these services, there are great advancement opportunities for Social Workers. Learn about other careers in social work.
“Being a Social Worker is the most challenging and rewarding career out there,” Rachael Cabral, a Social Worker practicing in Pennsylvania, said. “Social work itself is challenging because you have to deal with people during the most difficult times of their lives. Additionally, the career is rewarding because you can help people through those very times.”
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Education & Training
To become a Social Worker a professional must obtain a Bachelor’s Degree in social work (BW) from an accredited college or university. This degree, which includes supervised fieldwork and an internship to complete, will set a professional up for entry-level social work positions (i.e. Caseworkers, Mental Health Assistant, etc.). However, some entry-level Social Workers enter the field having obtained undergraduate degrees in related fields, such as psychology or sociology.
“You can also get a Bachelor’s Degree in social sociology, psychology, human services or in a related field and get hired afterward doing nonprofit work or case management work. However, you can’t actually use the title ‘Social Worker’ without a degree specifically in social work,” Cabral explained. “I worked as a case manager for three years with a sociology degree after college, but would highly recommend learners get a bachelor’s in social work if they know this is what they want to do.”
She further explained that, when a learner obtains a Bachelor’s Degree specifically in social work, they can then fast-track through a subsequent Master’s Degree program in one year. The benefit of earning a Master’s Degree, which otherwise takes two years to complete, is that, after an additional 2 years of supervised experience, a professional can then use the title of Clinical Social Worker (CSW). This allows them to use clinical assessment and management skills to diagnose and treat patients directly.
“To practice therapy and to become a ‘Clinical Social Worker, also called an ‘LCSW’ in the state of Pennsylvania, you need an additional two or three years of supervision after your LSW. Then you need to take another licensing exam,” Cabral confirmed. “The benefits of getting an MSW are higher-paying positions, the ability to do clinical work if you pursue a clinical concentration and to gain more knowledge about policy and nonprofit management if you pursue a macro-concentration.”
Furthermore, all Social Services Workers should become licensed in the individual state in which they intend to practice in through passing an exam offered by the Association of Social Work Boards.
To advance in this career, Social Workers can be promoted to managers, supervisors, administrators or directors within their respective workplaces or at other facilities. To be considered for such a promotion, professionals must demonstrate a thorough understanding of their role and responsibilities, as well as to show a passion for the field.
Additionally, Social Workers can advance their careers by going back to school in pursuit of their Master’s Degree. After obtaining this degree, and after two years of clinical experience, they can assume the title of Clinical Social Worker (CSW) or Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) allowing them to diagnose patients. Social workers can also enter specialty roles such as that of Child and Family Social Workers, School Social Workers, Healthcare Social Workers or Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers. These sub-specialties come with their own unique cases, but all seek to better the lives of those in need of advocacy or assistance.
“In order to get the hours of supervision necessary to become a Licensed Certified Social Worker, you’d need to make sure you were at an agency that offers clinical supervision at a facility offering direct practice,” Cabral advised. “Also, continuing education is required annually to maintain a license.
I knew that I wanted to do clinical work so I learned specialized therapies through continuing education. Getting all in-depth knowledge on multiple therapeutic modules in just a two-year program is impossible, because you get a brief overview of everything during the required coursework.”
Experience & Skills
To be successful in the role of a Social Services Worker, professionals should above-all have strong emotional skills. The career can be emotionally stressful due to the experiences and struggles of patients, but a Social Worker must be able to remain calm and professional in the most difficult of situations. Furthermore, they must use their emotional skills, in addition to communication skills, to develop relationships with their patients to better understand their needs.
“Necessary skills in this occupation are empathy, an open mindset, nonjudgmental attitude, resourcefulness, organization, flexibility, good communication and writing skills,” Cabral said. “You will be talking to a lot of people and writing a lot of notes and documentation.”
Communication skills also enable a Social Worker to listen and interpret the needs of their patients, and to develop effective treatment plans, calls to action or resolutions. Lastly, problem-solving skills are imperative in this role, as the career is essentially based around solving problems. In order to produce positive results, Social Services Workers must be able to develop decisive, practice and innovative solutions.
“When becoming a Licensed Certified Social Worker, experience having worked in a Bachelor’s-level position is helpful before you obtain your Master’s Degree. These positions can also help you be more employable after your Master’s Degree because you’ve already had extended experience in the field,” Cabral advised.
“A Social Worker needs to be empathetic, caring, genuine, humble and personable,” Cabral explained. “These characteristics are integral in order to work with people during difficult times. You need to be able to work with a wide variety of people from different backgrounds, races, genders, religions, cultures and levels of ability, and these personality traits allow a Social Worker to engage with clients effectively.”
Other qualities which make someone ideal for the role of a Social Worker include being kind, understanding and helpful. These professionals should also be organized, to stay up-to-date and aware of their cases, and to be able to manage multiple patient cases at once. Social Workers should additionally have high levels of patience, as working with patients experiencing personal struggles can present challenges itself. These qualities are important in many mental health careers, including that of a Counselor, Psychologist, Psychiatrist and Psychiatric Aide.
For example, allowing a patient time to open up and express their needs can take days, weeks or months depending on the case. Furthermore, Social Workers must genuinely possess the desire to help others. Without this desire, the career will not be nearly as fulfilling.
Most Social Workers are employed full-time and work in office settings. However, especially when employed by a hospital, these professionals may be required to work evenings, weekends or holidays. They are also typically required to attend weekly meetings and potentially be put on-call. When not in the office, Social Services Workers may spend their time visiting patients in clinics, schools or other patient settings. Furthermore, there exists the possibility of working remotely in this role through distance counseling and using video or audio technology to communicate with patients or support groups.
While helping others as a Social Worker is extremely rewarding, the role can also be stressful largely due to under-staffing. Emphasizing with patients and their situations, as well as through “bringing work home” can also lead to increased stress levels in this career.
“A day in the life of a Social Worker varies so much, because you could be working in a school, hospital or healthcare setting, mental health agency, policy or government think-tank, child welfare agency, prison or community resource agency,” Cabral explained. “In the position I currently hold at a hospital, there is no typical day. One day I might have supervision in the morning and see clients for outpatient counseling in the afternoon. On another day, I might be in the hospital attending rounds with the medical team and doing mental health evaluations for patients on the medical unit.”
She added that for those Social Workers who are employed in clinical settings, on average, half of their time is spent meeting with clients face-to-face. The other half of the time they spend documenting conversations, creating service plans, calling other agencies for people involved in a plan of care for a client, searching for resources and making referrals.
“I try not to bring work home with me because I would get too emotionally exhausted, but I know some people do to try to keep up with documentation,” Cabral said. “As long as you learn how to compartmentalize and focus while at work, you can obtain a good work-life balance where you don’t need to bring work home with you.”
Now is a great time to begin the path to becoming a Social Worker! Why? Over the next decade, this career in healthcare is projected to grow 11 percent. This rate is much faster than the average for all occupations, and can largely be attributed to greater awareness around the need for social services (child abuse prevention, mental health counseling, substance abuse support, geriatric care, etc.)
The vast majority of Social Workers are employed as Child, Family and School Social Workers, followed by Healthcare Social Workers, Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers and others. Additionally, the largest employers of Social Workers are individual and family services, the state government, ambulatory healthcare services, local government and state, local and private hospitals. The state with the highest employment of Social Workers is California, followed by New York, Illinois, Ohio and South Carolina.
“A great website to look at when you’re starting the field and are initially looking for employment is idealist.org. They post a lot of nonprofit, government and social enterprise career listings,” Cabral explained. “That’s where I found my first position out of undergrad which was as a case manager for a local nonprofit.”
She also suggested that professionals seeking Social Worker positions attend career fairs, possibly offered through their educational program or school. Starting out in a role as a Social and Human Services Assistant is another way to yield future social work positions. Furthermore, Cabral suggests networking with as many field professionals as possible during a learner’s internship experience.
“I know so many Social Workers who started as interns at their agencies,” Cabral noted.
The median annual wage for Social Workers was $50,470. While the lowest-earning 10 percent made less than $31,790, the highest-earning 10 percent made more than $82,540 annually. Also, the highest-earning specialties within this occupation are Healthcare Social Workers, Child, Family and School Social Workers and Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers. Furthermore, the highest paying facilities include state, local and private hospitals, the local government, ambulatory healthcare services, the state government and individual and family services. The top-paying states for this occupation are Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Hawaii, District of Columbia and Idaho.
“Don’t expect to get rich in social work, but know that you can make a comfortable middle-class salary, especially with a Master’s degree,” Cabral stated. “Do everything you can to minimize your student debt if you want a career in social work because employment in this industry can result in a struggle to pay off really high debt.”
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
The American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work (ABE) is a credentialing organization for the professional of Clinical Social Work which sets and promotes national practice standards. The organization also publishes position statements, maintains an online directory of certificates and issues credentials for advanced clinical generalists.
The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is an association designed to ensure and enhance the quality of social work education. In achieving this, the association promotes faculty development, international collaborations and research. Additionally, the CSWE promotes individual, family and community well-being, as well as social and economic justice.
The Association for Community Organization and Social Administration (ACOSA) is an organization designed to strengthen community organization and social administration. The goal of ACOSA is to facilitate and support an annual national symposium, promote the development of teaching material, provide a forum for sharing information, facilitate networking and promote community research and literature.
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) is an organization dedicated to enhancing the professional growth and development of participating members, creating and maintaining professional standards and advocating sound social policies throughout the profession.
- Apply to undergraduate degree programs in social work, for a related field
- Find an undergraduate internship
- Once your Bachelor’s Degree is obtained, consider working for 1 to 3 years at a non-profit or government agency to get a feel for the profession, making sure this career is what you really want to pursue
- Research Master’s Degree programs and apply
- Enroll in a Master’s Degree program to become a Licensed Social Worker (LSW)
- If you want to do clinical work and offer therapies, find a position where supervision is possible, helping you become a Licensed Certified Social Worker (LCSW)
All statistics are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meet the professional: Rachael Cabral
Practice: Children’s Hospital
Location: Philadelphia, PA
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
““Develop a plan for self-care. You can’t hold a social work position if you don’t take care of yourself. Set aside time to do the things that make you feel happy and relaxed every week.”
What’s the number one mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“People sometimes enter social work with an ‘I want to save the world’ mentality, hoping to fix people’s’ problems. As Social Workers, we do help with resources and can provide helpful tools and education for people, but we need to realize that sometimes there is no fix to someone’s problem, and this will be the case a lot of times.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“’What’s the hardest thing that you’ve ever had to see in this career?’ And follow up with, ‘How did you deal with that?’”
Why did you choose to become a Social Worker?
“I’ve always loved helping my friends talk through their problems since I was a preteen. I’ve always been a good listener, observant, empathetic, caring and organized. I loved studying social sciences in high school and college, and I love working with people and helping people work through challenging situations. I think my personality just fits well with social work.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Credentialing organizations: American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work, Council on Social Work Education