Social work – degrees and careers
What is social work?
Social work is a profession that involves assisting individuals with meeting basic and complex needs to improve health and wellbeing. Social workers serve individuals, families, and communities. While their clients can be members of any demographic, many social workers focus on serving vulnerable populations.
Types of social work
Social work roles as a whole can be broken down into the micro, mezzo, or macro levels, based on the typical work performed.
Micro social work
Micro social work involves one-on-one interventions between a social worker and client. This category includes school social work and mental health case management.
Mezzo social work
Mezzo social workers may see individual clients, but their primary focus are small groups and communities. Helping an inner city neighborhood reach literacy goals, offering counseling at a harm reduction center, or even implementing a behavioral health program within a corporation are all examples of mezzo social work.
Macro social work
Macro social work focuses on improving entire systems through research, academia, leadership, changes to policies and legislation, and public awareness. This type of social work takes on the big picture – addressing systemic injustices and dysfunctions to effect large-scale and long-term change.
Levels of social work degrees
- An associate degree in social work (ASW) qualifies you for entry-level direct services jobs like case management assistant, community outreach worker, or gerontology aide.
- A bachelor’s degree in social work allows you to pursue direct services basic care roles in non-clinical settings like schools, nonprofit organizations, correctional facilities, and government agencies. Career options include child and family social worker, community health worker, psychiatric social worker, and school social worker.
- A master’s degree in social work and applicable licensure allows you to work in clinical settings or supervisory positions. Career options include addictions counselor, child welfare worker, healthcare social worker, and medical social worker.
- With a doctorate in social work, 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. Career options include community program administrator, field researcher, and college professor.
Practicing social work requires a college degree. While an ASW qualifies you for entry-level jobs, you can expand your opportunities with a bachelor’s or graduate degree.
How to become a social worker
Associate-level degrees qualify you for some entry-level positions. Becoming a licensed social worker (LSW) requires at least a bachelor’s, and in many cases, a mater’s-level social work degree. The basic steps to become a social worker are as follows:
- Complete a bachelor’s degree in social work.
- Pass the ASWB exam to gain bachelor-level licensure (LBSW).
- For clinical and supervisory positions, earn a master of social work (MSW).
- Earn 2 years of supervised work experience or clinical hours.
- Pass the Master’s, Advanced Generalist, or Clinical ASWB exam.
- Gain master’s-level social work licensure (LMSW and others).
What is an LCSW?
A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) has a master’s-level social work license attained by completing the ASWB Clinical exam and earning 2 years of supervised clinical hours. These social workers can offer therapeutic and counseling services to individuals in settings like mental health clinics, drug addiction treatment centers, and non-profit organizations.
Highest paying social work jobs
The greatest demand in the next decade is projected in healthcare, child, family, and school, and mental health and substance abuse social work. At 13-15%, job growth in these fields is almost double the average for all occupations. Median salaries for other social work roles are somewhat higher, but projected job growth is significantly lower.
|Projected job growth (2020-2030)|
|Social workers (all other)||$61,190||6%|
|Healthcare social workers||$60,840||13%|
|Child, family, and school social workers||$49,150||13%|
|Mental health and substance abuse social workers||$49,130||15%|
See the Best social work graduate programs by state
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 for altruistic reasons, salary information can help you choose the educational and career paths that ensure you can make a living while making a difference.
We use department of education data to rank programs according to potential return on investment. Our aim is to help students choose the programs that are worth both their time and money.
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.
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.
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.