Introduction to social work
Social work is a profession that helps people meet their basic and complex needs to improve their health and well-being. Social workers need to be able to understand human development and behavior, be familiar with social, economic, and cultural institutions, and know how these 2 sectors interact.
Social workers serve individuals, families, and communities. While their clients can be members of any demographic, many social workers focus on serving vulnerable individuals and communities. In this career, social workers may also participate in research ventures, teach future social workers, or advocate for law and policy changes that improve communities and society.
The 3 types of social work
As a discipline, social work can be split into 3 categories that are based on the type of work, clients, employment setting, degree, and licensure. These categories are based on a theoretical framework referred to as PIE, or people in environment, that was first conceived in the early 1990s to guide social workers in their understanding and assessment of clients, and implementation of the required interventions to address client needs at the individual, social, and community level.
Micro social work
This category is generally refers to one-on-one interventions between the social worker and client, with the most obvious being the therapeutic work of clinical social workers. Micro social work is also school social work where the client is a student who needs professional guidance, or mental health case management of a caseload of clients all living in the community with a diagnosis of a chronic and serious mental illness.
Mezzo social work
Also referred to as generalist, mezzo social work places the client within a social system that must be acknowledged in planning social work interventions. For example, if the school social worker sees a student who reports that she is being abused at home, the social worker needs to decide on the best interventions to maximize the student’s safety and support – while assessing the home environment, notifying relevant school personnel, and reporting the abuse to the appropriate government authorities.
Macro social work
Macro social work focuses on improving the system through research, academia, leadership roles, changes to policies and legislation, and public awareness. This type of social work takes on the big picture, so that many people can benefit from their work. Using the same school social worker featured in the previous sections, an instance of macro social work would be if they meet with the local government to increase funding for teacher training in identifying signs of abuse, or funding for women’s refuges throughout the state.
Social work specializations
With your social work degree, you can specialize in one of several areas. Consider your specific degree, along with your interests, talents and experiences, as you choose a specialization.
Families and children
Strengthen interpersonal relationships and teach parenting skills as you connect struggling children and their parents with beneficial resources. You may serve families who face a variety of disruptive or unusual challenges. Possible careers include:
- Adoption and Foster Care Worker
- Behavioral Therapist
- Child Abuse Investigator
- Childcare Worker
- Family Counselor
- Homeless Shelter Staff
- Youth Counselor
Work with students, teachers, and parents in all levels of education, from preschool to college. As you remove barriers to education, you may help students manage personal, emotional, or behavioral challenges, address bullying and find helpful resources. Possible careers include:
- LGBTQ Services Coordinator
- Social Services Coordinator
- Wellness Coordinator
- Youth Advocate
Assist patients and families in various healthcare settings, including clinics, hospitals, and nursing homes. You could help your clients and their families understand and cope with medical concerns and ensure that your clients receive appropriate care and services from intake to post-discharge. Possible careers include:
- Elder Care
- Group Home Worker
- Hospice Worker
- Medical Social Worker
- Nursing Home Director
- Patient Advocate
Provide therapy or psychological support in healthcare facilities, schools, clinics, or private settings. You may also connect clients to helpful resources. Possible careers include:
- Addictions Counselor
- Community Outreach Coordinator
- Crisis Hotline or Intervention Specialist
- Mental Health Counselor
- Rehabilitation Counselor
- Suicide Prevention Services Director
Work with adults or juveniles in a correctional facility, rehab, probation or parole office, crime prevention organization, or community center. Here, you can support the well-being, education and rehabilitation of incarcerated individuals, advocate for victims, and offer crime-prevention support. Possible careers include:
- Correctional Counselor
- Crime Victim Specialist or Advocate
- Domestic Violence Victim Advocate
- Readjustment Coordinator
- Sexual Assault Educator
Social work degrees and careers
You will need a college degree to practice social work. You can earn an Associate of Social Work (ASW), Bachelor’s of Social Work (BSW), Master’s of Social Work (MSW), Doctor of Social Work (DSW), or Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work (Ph.D.). As you select your educational path, keep in mind that the type of job you are qualified to do can depend on your degree. While an ASW qualifies you for entry-level jobs, you expand your potential for advancement and influence when you pursue a graduate degree.
Next, choose a school that is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). An accredited school employs qualified instructors and meets national standards for a social worker’s education and training. With a degree from an accredited school, you can transfer any earned credits or undergraduate degree to a program where you can earn an advanced degree.
Note that after you obtain your social work degree, you will most likely need to apply for state licensure and complete continuing education requirements.
Note that after you obtain your social work degree, you will most likely need to apply for state licensure and complete continuing education requirements. These requirements vary by state and depend on your job position. Review and understand these details before you select a degree.
Becoming a licensed social worker (LSW)
Earning a social work degree is only the beginning of your career. Next, obtain a license that verifies you have met specific educational and training requirements, understand the industry’s ethical standards, are qualified and competent to work as a social worker. The licensure options and process vary by state, so do your research to decide which license you wish to apply for.
In some cases, you can find employment in the social work field even if you do not have a license. Review your state’s licensing exemptions to determine if you can practice your desired job without a social work license. In some states, unlicensed social workers can find jobs in schools, foster care agencies or local governments and as caseworkers or social services assistants.
Social workers who wish to obtain licensure may apply for a non-clinical or clinical license. The type of license you get depends on your education and experience.
Non-clinical licensure includes 3 options.
Licensed Social Work Associate (LSWA)
Apply after you earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in social work. Your LSWA license qualifies you to work entry-level jobs in non-clinical settings under the supervision of an LSW, LCSW or an LMSW professional.
Licensed Social Worker (LSW)
Apply after you earn a BSW or bachelor’s degree in another field and achieve a certain number of hours working under the supervision of an LSW. With your LSW, you can provide non-clinical case management and administrative services.
Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)
Apply after you earn an MSW. Technically the LMSW is relevant to social workers employed in non-clinical healthcare settings. As noted below, LMSWs also have some scope to provide therapy and counseling to clients under the direct supervision of a LCSW.
Clinical licensure includes 2 options
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW). Obtain a master’s degree before applying for LMSW, which may require you to take an exam and document supervised work hours. This license allows you to perform clinical social work under the direct supervision of an LCSW.
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). Obtain an MSW or DSW and gain at least 2 years of supervised clinical experience before you apply for an LCSW. With this license, you may work in hospitals, treatment facilities, socially-oriented agencies, and private practice.
The cost of earning a social work degree
Many factors determine the cost of earning a social work degree. The specific school, program, classes, and degree you choose, plus how long it takes you to finish your degree, affect how much you are paid.
Begin your cost calculations by choosing a school that is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). With this step, you ensure you can transfer the credits or degree you earn to an advanced degree program. Accreditation also ensures you gain the training you need to practice social work and uphold the industry’s ethics, mandates, and standards.
Additionally, review the school’s reputation, social work program, available coursework, and job placement history before you select a school. Discern if you will learn all the information you need for your desired profession and if the school offers adequate classroom and fieldwork training. Also, make sure you want to work with the staff as a student and potential teacher’s assistant, which may be a possibility when you pursue graduate degrees.
Tuition costs depend on the type of school you choose, such as in-state, out-of-state, public, or private.
Next, evaluate tuition costs and other fees. Tuition costs depend on the type of school you choose, such as in-state, out-of-state, public, or private. Consider if you plan to live on-campus or off-campus or complete an online program, too. Other costs include books, labs, and expenses like transportation and incidental living expenses.
Generally, you can expect to pay about the same amount per year whether you’re studying to obtain your undergraduate or graduate degree. In 2020-21 school year, the average cost of tuition and fees for a bachelor’s degree was $10,560 at in-state public schools. Expect to pay an average of $37,650 to earn the same degree at a private college. According to the National Center for Education Services, tuition for a master’s degree costs an average of $13,800 annually at public schools and $36,300 at private schools. The cost of a doctoral program varies greatly depending on school, program, and availability of assistantship positions. Contact the finance office for accurate information on the cost and to ask about available financial support for students at all levels.
Finally, factor in the costs of licensure and continuing education. Licensure fees depend on your state’s specific requirements, which you can find on the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) website. Continuing education costs vary based on the class or course you select.
To reduce the total cost of your education, apply for financial aid. You could receive assistance based on your location, age, specialty, and other factors. You may qualify for scholarships, grants, fellowships, and work-study programs, too.
Career projections and salaries
The salary you can earn as a social worker depends on your degree, experience, specialization, location, tenure, and other factors. While many social workers choose this career path because of their interests, abilities, and altruism, salary information can help you choose the educational and job paths that ensure you can make a difference and a living in this career.
According to BLS, in 2020 the median annual salary for a social worker was $51,760. This figure encompasses a range of $33,020 to $85,820. Around 713,200 social workers were employed in the U.S. in 2020. That figure is expected to grow to 803,800 by 2029. From 2019 to 2029, the career field is expected to grow by 13% with slight differences depending on which specialty you choose.