Social work – degrees, programs and careers

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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

 

Schools

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

 

Healthcare

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

 

Mental health

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

 

Corrections

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.

Complete a 2-year associate in social work (ASW) degree to qualify for an entry-level direct services job, or before pursuing additional undergraduate training. 

ASW prerequisites

You need to complete several requirements before you can apply to attend a CSWE-accredited school that offers an associate in social work degree. First, earn a high school diploma with a reasonable GPA or a GED equivalent. Then complete a college application and submit a suitable SAT or ACT score, personal essay, and letters of recommendation. 

ASW coursework 

In an ASW program, students are expected to complete 60-90 credits in general education classes. Degree completion also requires you to take psychology, sociology, human behavior, human welfare, and related social work courses. 

ASW careers

An ASW degree equips you to work in a supportive position. With an ASW, your career options include: 

Case manager assistant — Help case managers monitor treatment and obtain services for clients in homeless shelters, hospice care, substance abuse treatment facilities, mental health settings, among other facilities.

Community outreach worker — In an outreach position, you can make a difference as you organize educational events, fundraise for programs and teach classes about poverty, child abuse, social justice, and other relevant topics. 

Gerontology aides — Serve elderly clients in private homes or nursing homes. Your duties could include light housekeeping, cooking, bathing, transportation, and companionship. 

Preschool teacher — Nurture, monitor, and teach children under 5 in daycare, community center, or private or public school. 

The 4-year Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree teaches you the basic foundational principles of social work. 

BSW prerequisites

Choose a CSWE-accredited school for your bachelor’s in social work. Before applying, earn a high school diploma with a reasonable GPA or a GED equivalent. Many schools also require suitable SAT or ACT scores, a completed application, letters of recommendation, and a personal essay. 

BSW coursework 

Earning a BSW requires you to complete 120 credits in an accredited program. Classes generally include general study courses and specialized classes related to social work, such as human behavior, sociology, psychology, crisis intervention, cultural diversity, social welfare policy, and communication classes. 

Before graduation, expect to complete supervised fieldwork, which is real-life experience performing social work in a community setting.

BSW careers

Use your BSW to provide direct services basic care and help clients manage in non-clinical settings, such as schools, nonprofit organizations, correctional facilities, and government agencies. With a BSW, your career options can include: 

Child and family social worker — These positions can be located in foster care or adoption agencies, mental health hospitals, homeless shelters, community centers, and other organizations, offer family therapy, debt counseling, job placement services, and resource information. 

Community health worker — Work in a clinic, church, or community organization to connect clients with social services, raise funds for healthcare services, and build relationships between wellness professionals and community members. 

Psychiatric social worker — As you work in an inpatient psychiatric hospital or treatment center with children, adolescents or adults, you can assess the patients’ emotional, environmental, interpersonal, and social needs, develop effective treatment plans, and monitor progress.

School social worker — From preschools to high schools, collaborate with students, teachers, and parents to address challenges and offer supportive resources. 

Advance your career and expand your job opportunities with a master’s degree in social work or one of 2 doctorate degrees.

MSW prerequisites

You may apply for an MSW program after you receive a bachelor’s degree from a CSWE-accredited school. For example, if you have a BSW, you could apply for an advanced standing program that allows you to earn your MSW in one year. If your undergraduate degree is in a specialty other than social work, you could be eligible for a 2-year traditional standing MSW program. However, your bachelor’s degree should be in a major field of study, and your coursework should have included credits in psychology, sociology, liberal arts, biological sciences, political science, and similar content.

When you apply to graduate school, you need to provide your undergraduate transcript with a minimum GPA of 3.0. Additionally, you complete an application, which may include a personal essay and professional and personal references about your character, achievements, and preparation for advanced study in social work. You may also be asked to submit Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) scores.

Another prerequisite for some MSW graduate degree programs is practical experience. You may have to demonstrate documented hours in a social work job. 

MSW coursework 

Educational requirements to earn a master’s degree vary by program. The courses you take will also depend on whether you get into an advanced standing or traditional standing program. Typically, you can expect to take classes in social welfare, social justice, mental health, risk prevention, and research. You can also take classes that introduce you to social work with individuals, families, and community organizations. 

In addition to in-classroom work, plan to complete practical and real-world field education. Experiential learning allows you to integrate, practice, and master your skills in a supportive environment. In a community organization, you can demonstrate your competency in social work as you prepare for a successful career.

MSW careers

Pursue a graduate-level Master of Social Work (MSW) degree and applicable licensure to work in clinical settings or supervisory positions. With an MSW, your career options include: 

Addictions counselor — Guide clients to recognize and change behavior patterns when you join the staff of a rehabilitation facility, nonprofit organization, correctional facility, or private practice. 

Child welfare — Protect vulnerable children when you work with government-run child protective services, nonprofit organizations, foster care and adoption agencies, and community organizations.

Clinical therapist — Engage in direct clinical practice with clients in healthcare facilities, mental health facilities or private practice. As a therapist, you will assess a client’s health and needs, which could include trauma, grief, interpersonal challenges, mental health disorders, or addiction. Then, diagnose disorders, develop a treatment plan, and guide clients toward recovery and wellness.  

Healthcare social worker — Interact with clients of all ages in the hospital, hospice, nursing home, or assisted living facility. As a member of an interdisciplinary team, you can advocate for patients’ rights, ensure patients receive the proper care, and facilitate communication between patients and medical staff.  

Prison or criminal justice — Facilitate therapy groups, develop educational programs, and coordinate transition plans when you serve current or previously incarcerated individuals in jails, prisons, police departments, and probation offices. 

Earn a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) or a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree to advance your career, skills, recognition, earning potential, and influence. With a doctorate degree, you can qualify for macro social work in clinical, teaching, and research positions, plus assess and address large-scale issues in your community and beyond. 

DSW prerequisites

Typically, admission to a DSW program requires you to first obtain an MSW from a CSWE-accredited school. Some doctorate programs also require candidates to have earned a BSW rather than a bachelor’s in another subject. You will also need to demonstrate that you’re ready for advanced study and have at least 2 years or the equivalent of clinical practice and experience. Then complete a program application, which generally requires the transcripts from your previous schools, strong GRE scores, a personal essay or statement of purpose, and letters of recommendation.

DSW coursework 

A DSW program curriculum features classes in advanced clinical practice, analysis, research, and leadership. The coursework prepares you to lead other social workers, influence social work practices and improve life for your clients. Expect to spend 2 years completing coursework and 2 to 4 years completing your DSW thesis. 

DSW careers

With your practice-based DSW, you can work in clinical, research, administrative, and educational settings. Become a clinical social worker in healthcare environments, rehabilitation programs, schools, research facilities, private practice, government positions, and more. With a DSW, your career options include: 

College professor — Use your advanced degree to teach future social workers and further your research and publishing career. 

Community program administrator — Oversee the operation of a homeless shelter, youth center, nonprofit organization, veteran’s home, or another facility. In this position, you can identify and offer the programs your community needs, seek funding, and analyze the program’s effectiveness.   

Field researcher — Explore and analyze factors that cause various societal challenges, including mental health, child welfare, and social inequality. Then, offer solutions that improve the quality of life and well-being for many people. 

Medical social worker — Work alongside healthcare providers and community organizations to manage patient care, provide counseling and information to clients, and ensure the patients and their families receive the best possible care. 

Ph.D. prerequisites

Ph.D. programs require applicants to demonstrate advanced readiness for the rigors of the program. First, candidates generally must have a 3.5 or higher GPA, strong GRE scores, and a BSW and an MSW from CSWE-accredited schools. However, you may be able to apply successfully with a bachelor’s and a master’s in another social science field of study. You will then need to complete a program application and provide transcripts from your previous schools, a personal essay or statement of purpose, letters of recommendation, and samples of publications, papers, or materials that demonstrate your excellence in academia and research. 

Ph.D. coursework 

The Ph.D. curriculum generally includes classes in theory, behavioral science, advanced research methods, teaching, and policy. Plan to spend 4 to 6 years completing coursework and your Ph.D. dissertation. 

Ph.D. careers

A research-focused Ph.D. program prepares you to assess and address large-scale issues in your community and beyond. With a Ph.D., your career options include: 

Administrative leadership — Manage a social services agency, such as a public welfare agency, mental health clinic, treatment center, nursing home, or become the academic dean at a college or university. In this role, you can oversee personnel, operations, budgets, and community relations as you ensure the agency fulfills its mission. 

Human resources or training and development manager — In a for-profit or nonprofit organization, you could interview and hire employees, handle conflicts, recommend strategic placements, lead educational and wellness classes, and create more productive, mindful and healthy work environments. 

Postsecondary professor — Educate the future generation of social workers while you complete your own research and publishing projects. You may participate in professional organizations and serve on national advisory boards, too.

Social welfare policy research — Join a private research institute, research hospital, university, or advocacy organization and conduct research. You will use your expertise to compile and analyze data that could affect program planning, policy development, social work practices, and societal change.

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.

Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)

The CSWE is the national association representing social work education.  The CSWE Commission on Accreditation is recognized as being the most prominent accrediting agency for social work education in the U.S. 

Clinical Social Work Association

This is the national organization for clinical social workers.  It provides essential policy updates relevant to social workers and their clients, information on employment openings, and a section for finding a local LCSW in your area. 

National Association of Social Workers (NASW) 

The NASW is a professional organization of social workers in the U.S. The association provides guidance, research, up-to-date information, and other resources for its members and social workers in general.  

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