April 6, 2021 | By: HumanServicesEDU.org staff
To become a social worker, you generally need a bachelor’s or master’s in social work (BSW or MSW) depending on the role, and a license through the state you’ll be working in. Just as importantly, you’ll need a lot of empathy along with an enormous desire to help people and fight for social justice.
Social workers in the United States today are in huge demand. On the heels of a global pandemic that put nearly 20 million people out of work for nearly a year, with an opioid addiction problem that cost thousands of lives each month, and with social inequality and racial injustice sending hundreds of thousands of marchers into the streets, the world has definitely been hurting for a little sympathy and expertise in social services.
Making a job out of it by becoming a licensed social worker means developing that expertise through a college education. Every social worker needs at least a bachelor’s degree, and most will require a master’s. That’s six years or more of school, giving you the in-depth knowledge and training to handle the most sensitive situations.
You’ll also need to practice those skills after you graduate. You’ll need to spend two years or more under the supervision of existing psychology or social work professionals to get on-the-job experience.
After that, you’ll have to take multiple state tests and meet licensing board qualifications to finally earn your state-issued credential.
- What It’s Like When You Become a Social Worker
- Steps to Becoming a Social Worker
- Step 1: Decide on Clinical vs. Non-Clinical Social Work
- Step 2: Pick a Social Work Specialty
- Step 3: Get an Education in Social Services
- Step 4: Build Experience in The Field
- Step 5: How to Become a Licensed Social Worker in Your State
- Step 6: Earn a Professional Certification in Your Social Work Specialization
- Step 7: Get a Job as a Professional Social Worker
- Step 8: Continue Your Education and Make a Difference
- What a Degree in Social Work Will Cost You
- The Salary You Will Earn When You Become a Social Worker
The most important thing you’re going to need, though, isn’t something you can really be taught. It’s something that is already in you. A burning desire to right some of the wrongs in this world. A need to help other human beings. A passion for service and social justice.
It can take almost ten years to become a fully licensed and independent social worker, but that passion will carry you through it. And it will make a difference to everyone you come in contact with along the way.
What Your Workday Is Like When You Become a Social Worker
Social work is a term that covers a whole lot of territory when it comes to actually delivering human services. We have a great definition of social work here on the site if you are curious about exactly how broad the job is.
There are some things that every social worker will have in common in their day-to-day tasks. A good heart and empathy aren’t enough to get the job done. You also need to master plenty of real-world skills like these.
Meeting With Clients
Social work isn’t a job you take on if you don’t like talking to people. Meeting with clients face-to-face is the currency of social services. You build trust, gather information, and deliver reassurance by talking directly to people in need.
Those meetings can be formal and scheduled or maybe you run into someone on the street in your neighborhood who looks down on their luck. The skills you need to handle client meetings include:
- Listening abilities
- Communication and speaking skills
- Organization and memory or note-taking
Mastering Rules and Regulations Governing Social Services
Many social workers work directly for government agencies, but even those who don’t still need to know the rules. Many of the forms of assistance that your clients will be eligible for are filtered through complex laws and regulations. Your ability to read, understand, and interpret those rules is vital to getting people the help they need.
Coordination With Community and Providers
Becoming a social worker means working with other agencies and providers. Social services are a team effort. Social workers are a conduit for specialized assistance that their clients need. No one expects you to perform a life-saving medical procedure or to dip into your own pocket to help a needy family pay the rent. But you are expected to know how to get a client an appointment at a low-cost clinic, or to help fill out the paperwork for rental assistance programs.
This can mean spending a lot of time on the phone with assistance agencies, law enforcement, hospitals, and other service providers. You’ll need the communication skills and charm to build relationships with people at those programs, and the tact to demand results for your clients without burning bridges.
Advocacy For Individuals and Social Causes
Social workers need to be able to pound on the table and make change happen as part of their job. In some cases, you’ll do it on behalf of individual clients. Maybe you are the only one to speak up at a custody hearing for a single father desperate to maintain contact with his children. Maybe you become the squeaky wheel that finally gets the attention of a hospital billing department over mistaken charges passed on to a client.
Either way, shrinking violets don’t make good social workers.
And that advocacy often has to go big, too. Some of the social injustice you confront happens not just in exceptional cases with individual clients, but as a symptom of a bigger systemic issue. You’ll need the moxie to take to the streets or the council chambers in those cases, advocating for changes to laws or practices that lead to suffering.
Ida Bell Wells: One of The First True Social Justice Warriors
Ida Bell Wells was born into slavery in Mississippi in 1862. Technically freed by the Emancipation Proclamation when she was only three months old, she nonetheless grew up in a South where segregation and inequality were rampant.
As a journalist and activist, Ida was key in exposing illegal discrimination against Blacks, and uncovering the terrible realities of lynchings across the region. Threats over her work drove her to Chicago, where she expanded her activism from civil rights to women’s suffrage. Facing objections from both her enemies and her fellow white suffragettes, Wells still persisted. Her exposés of the reality of white power affecting both Black men and sexual violence against Black women were a hundred years ahead of their time. Her organization against segregated schools prevented school segregation from ever taking root in Chicago.
In 2020, Wells was finally given some of the recognition her efforts deserved with the posthumous award of a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on lynching.
Dropping Everything When Emergencies Arise
One of the most exciting, demanding parts of the daily work of a social worker is the stuff that doesn’t make it on any list. Every social worker has moments where they have to drop everything and deal with an emergency situation. You’re working with people who are always on a knife’s edge of chaos overwhelming their lives. From time to time, a wave of that unplanned ugliness is going to up-end everything and demand your attention.
That makes flexibility and being able to think on your feet key daily tasks for social workers. The phone is going to ring in the middle of lunch and it is going to be a hospital admission, power being shut off, or police on the client’s doorstep. You have to be ready to catch whatever comes your way, every day, if you want to become a social worker.
8 Steps to Becoming a Social Worker
Believe it or not, for all the trauma and human misery they deal with from day-to-day, social workers regularly end up on the lists of the best jobs in America. They say the best job is doing something you would do anyway, but getting paid for it. If you’re the kind of person who wants to know how to become a social worker, then the salary is just a bonus.
That’s good, because your path to becoming a social worker will be a long one. It’s going to test your patience, tolerance, empathy, and creativity. But you will learn plenty along the way… both about yourself, and about how to help those in great need.
One thing that isn’t surprising is that the field tends to draw new workers who have seen the need for social services firsthand, and the benefits that come when people have access to it. Many new social workers come from lower down the socioeconomic ladder, determined to give others from similar backgrounds a hand up.
The Council on Social Work Education conducted a survey that found almost half of Master’s in Social Work graduates in 2019 were the first generation in their families to graduate from college.
That’s social mobility in action. And it shows a burning personal desire and drive to get the education needed to bring disadvantaged communities out of the pit of poverty and despair.
But it also makes your climb harder than for a typical student. You’ll have to follow these steps carefully to give yourself the best chance at success.
Step 1: Decide on Clinical vs. Non-Clinical Social Work
One of the first important decisions you will make when deciding to become a social worker will be whether to go into the clinical or non-clinical side of the profession.
Become a Clinical Social Worker
Clinical social workers handle the meat-and-potatoes jobs of working directly with clients in need. This is a specialty practice area where you focus on the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illness and behavioral issues through individual, group, or family therapies.
You need higher qualifications for this role, usually a master’s degree or better. And along with that requirement comes licensing, typically as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). That license offers you the authority to diagnose mental disorders, conduct psychotherapy, bill for certain services, and evoke provider/patient privileges.
Become a Non-Clinical Social Worker
Non-clinical social workers are also called macro-level social workers. Their business happens on a broader scale. They are the people in the back room hammering out social services policies with state or city officials, or lining up donors for food banks or volunteers for building out tiny house communities.
A freshly-built tiny house community with the people who made it possible. Cavajunky, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Depending on the state and the licensing laws, they can also offer counseling and conflict resolution services, or take on case management for individual clients. In some states, they may also need a license also, but not one that comes with the same level of authority as an LCSW. Because of this, they don’t typically need as much education as clinical social workers.
Despite these differences and the fact that there are many roles in the field, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) is clear on one point:
Social work is a single profession with a distinct set of values, ethical principles, and standards.
There’s a big dividing line between clinical and non-clinical practice areas is when it comes to licensing, though. Your state will have certain laws that govern what kind of services must be performed by an individual with a specific license. Those licenses, and restrictions, vary from state to state. But aside from those, clinical social workers may put time into lobbying and program development, and non-clinical workers may deliver counseling and individual services to the extent allowed.
Step 2: Pick a Social Work Specialty
The National Association of Social Workers defines 16 different types of social work that are possible to specialize in. While you don’t have to be a specialist, the hard nature of modern problems in social services mean you can be better prepared and more effective in solving them if you focus your career.
This choice can influence every other part of your career. It might help you define the schools you want to attend, what level of degree you need to earn, and what sort of license you’ll need to obtain. Your day-to-day tasks are also going to be based on this. So whether your idea of social work is getting on a boat to go rescue immigrants from a sinking ship, or sitting by the bed of a cancer patient in need of comfort, or organizing other efforts from a busy office in a big city, you’ll find it somewhere in these categories:
- Administration and Management – Social work administrators bring big ideas together and coordinate policy and action. They specialize in understanding policy and human behavior. You might pick this specialty if you enjoy organizing and leadership.
- Advocacy and Community Organization – Leadership and organization also find a home in community advocacy. Making changes to policies starts with political organization. Social workers who burn for social justice find this work satisfying.
- Aging – Older generations face all kinds of challenges in their daily activities, plus special problems of disease and vulnerability. Social workers who like working with older people can help them liver more happily and independently by specializing in geriatric social work.
- Child Welfare – At the other end of the aging spectrum, many of the same problems are found among children. The approaches that social workers take in this specialty can take a whole different set of tools and techniques. If you like working with kids and families, this might be for you.
- Developmental Disabilities – Individuals at any age who suffer from developmental disabilities need extra assistance in all aspects of learning and living. Social workers can be key to advocating for these folks and getting them the services they need to live fulfilling lives despite their disabilities.
- Health Care – Healthcare in America is a challenge for everyone at every age. More bankruptcies in the country are driven by healthcare bills than any other single cause. You can develop the specialized knowledge to help patients navigate the difficulty of finding service and paying for it.
- International Social Work – Human rights and needs don’t stop at the border. As the wealthiest country on the planet, America is in a unique position to help out globally, and there are many social workers who reach out worldwide in refugee camps, hospitals, and schools to make that happen. If you have a flare for languages and a desire to travel, this could be your bag.
- Justice and Corrections – America also has the highest rate of incarceration in the first world. That puts a lot of offenders in an endless loop of crime and punishment that only a capable social worker can help them out of. Other social workers in this area specialize in working with victims, counseling rape or assault survivors.
- Mental Health and Clinical Social Work – Social workers are one of the country’s biggest resources in delivering mental health services. If you enjoy psychology and working with folks who need a little empathy and understanding, you can be productive in clinical and mental health social work.
- Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Work – The National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics found that over 30 million Americans, or almost 12 percent of the population, are drug abusers. Some 70,000 die from overdoses each year. There’s a big need for social workers with the right combination of compassion and toughness to help those folks out of the hole they are in, and to help the country out of its opioid epidemic.
- Occupational and Employee Assistance Program Social Work – Occupational social work focuses on the place where Americans spend most of their waking hours: the workplace. Helping both employed and unemployed people adjust and find assistance in being happier and more productive is the goal for these social workers.
- Policy and Planning – Some social workers prefer to think big-picture. They are the ones coming up with the big ideas for solving society’s problems and running the numbers to convince decision-makers that it can happen. If spreadsheets and research are your bag, you can be one of them.
- Politics – Political action is key to making lasting change. Some social workers move from lobbying directly into politics, running for office or taking jobs in political operations from non-profits to the offices of elected leaders.
- Public Welfare – Social workers are also needed as administrators for major public welfare programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. They deal with planning, administering, and financing these programs. The jobs are solid government positions, so if you prefer stability and enjoy organization, this could be your role.
- Research – Academic social work isn’t what most people think of, but in a data-driven world, it’s critical to have social workers who can conduct experiments, dive into the data, and produce support for social services practices.
- School Social Work – Although related to child welfare, school social work is a specialized subset that deals with bullying, child abuse situations, and educational challenges coming from social issues. Working with kids in a structured environment should light your fire if you want to pursue this specialty.
Of course, there is plenty of overlap possible that lets you tailor your goals to the needs of the people and communities you want to serve. Every category needs administration and management, for example. And clinical services can be delivered to patients falling into aging and child welfare services, as well.
Step 3: Get an Education in Social Services
Once you have narrowed your focus to either clinical or non-clinical work and picked out a specialization to pursue, you have the information you need for picking an educational path toward becoming a social worker. Non-clinical roles can get by with only a bachelor’s degree; in some states, it’s also possible to become an LCSW with a bachelor’s. For the most part, however, if you want to become a clinical social worker, you must aim at a master’s or higher.
What To Study To Become a Social Worker
It’s a mistake to look at your college degree as just punching a ticket on the way to your job as a social worker, though. Instead, it’s an opportunity. You can pick up valuable knowledge and skills that will make you a more capable human services provider and a more empathetic, capable social worker.
At all levels, that involves studying some of the same kinds of coursework.
- Human Behavior and Psychology – Why people do what they do, and how to help them change those patterns, is a key piece of social work. So you’ll get a lot of coursework in basic human psychology and behavior. Those will range from explorations of the individual, looking at abnormal psychology and mental illness, to studies of social psychology and the influence of groups on behavior and acceptance.
- The Social Contract and Society – You’ll also study how people fit together in a society, and how different communities define and deal with obligations to the sick and poor. The philosophical foundations of the profession and the bedrock of public service are examined in these courses.
- Social Welfare Policy and History – Social workers have to understand how the system is run and how it came about. So you will study some of the history of social services and how they emerged in the United States in the wake of the Civil War and with industrialization overthrowing the social order. You’ll dive into the role of politics and government in American social welfare, from the federal to the local level.
- Research Methods and Statistics – Much of what drives modern social welfare practice is data. Scientific research methods give you the kind of clear, data-driven information you need to pick the right solutions to hard problems. Sometimes, they are the only way you find the problems in the first place. So every social worker has to understand how to properly conduct research and interpret statistical data.
- Diversity and Discrimination – Multicultural practices are the norm today in social work. Many of the issues you will face out on the street, though, will be driven by conflicts in a society that hasn’t fully celebrated diversity just yet. You will explore the causes and solutions to racial issues, including systemic discrimination, hidden biases, and micro aggressions.
- Pharmacology and Healthcare – Whether you specialize in substance abuse issues or not, you’re going to run across plenty of drugs during a career in social work. Whether you need to untangle prescriptions for a confused elderly client or understand methadone dosages, you need a basic education in pharmacology in this business. And most social work jobs end up dealing with the American healthcare system at some point also. You’ll get a basic education in how that system runs and how to manage the challenges it presents to the poor.
- Social Justice and Ethics – Social workers have to live by a strong ethical code, both for the protection of their clients and for their own health and welfare. You’ll spend plenty of time diving into the philosophical background and the concrete codes that govern your services. You’ll also go big, looking at how society must improve to meet its own ethical challenges and to increase social justice across the spectrum.
As you move into more advanced degrees, those topics will get tougher and more in-depth. You’ll also find that the degrees themselves offer a variety of concentrations that deliver more coursework in specific subjects. For example, a concentration in substance abuse counseling will spend more time on drugs, drug policy, and specific counseling techniques than it will on geriatrics or diversity issues.
Earning a Bachelor’s Degree to Become a Social Worker
No matter what your destination, earning a bachelor’s degree will be your first step. A degree in social work may be the most direct path, but it’s not the only one.
Many agencies are also happy to hire administrative or entry-level, unlicensed social workers who have a bachelor’s degree in fields like human services, psychology and sociology.
On top of the basic elements of social work education, any bachelor’s degree will offer something that is even more important, and key to your success. The classical liberal arts education you get with a bachelor’s is an unsurpassed opportunity to develop your problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. Those are two areas of your brain that are going to get a workout every day in any social work job.
Depending on your major and program, you might also get a first taste of fieldwork as a social worker through internship placements. Under the close supervision of licensed social workers, you get a chance to assess and engage with clients experiencing real trauma and needing genuine assistance.
You can learn more here on our page about earning the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree.
Becoming a Master of Social Work
To get a license and to get the skills you need to succeed, earning a Master of Social Work is a must to get to the next level. You can get into an MSW even if you earned a bachelor’s in a different field.
The curriculum will cover the same ground as the bachelor’s programs in social work. That’s going to give you a more in-depth perspective on the same subjects if you have a BSW, or introduce you to those important concepts for the first time if you come from another background. Either way, you’ll come out of the two-year program with a more nuanced, more informed perspective on social work practices.
Research and Thesis Requirements Expand Your Mastery of Social Work
Master’s-level study will also introduce you to research. Part of your education for an advanced degree involves coming up with original data and developing your own thinking on tough subjects. You will become involved with long-term research efforts that your instructors have been working on.
Beyond that, you’ll start up your own independent research as part of your required master’s thesis. The thesis is an original piece of writing that develops an important thought or exploration into social work that rests on your own investigation and analysis. Master’s theses have ranged from exploring culturally sensitive engagement with Native American communities to working with athletes with mental health illnesses. Yours will be unique and offer an insight into your own approaches to social work, while boosting the knowledge of the community as a whole.
A master’s program will also expand on the field work that you will perform in school, taking you out with real social workers and getting hands-on with clients and tough situations on the job.
You can learn more here on our page about earning the Master of Social Work (MSW) degree.
Earning a Doctorate in Social Work
A PhD or DSW (Doctor of Social Work) degree is not a common credential in the field, and is certainly not a requirement for any license, but it is the one that comes with the most options.
As terminal degrees, doctorates offer the most training you can possibly get in the field. Typically adding four to six years to your education, you have a lot of time to absorb all the details. And you are expected to produce original research and thinking in social work subjects that will build knowledge in the field for others. Your course of study will typically include two or more research seminars, and finish up with either a capstone doctoral project or a thesis that is presented or published.
Differences Between PhD and Doctor of Social Work Degrees
Although they share the peak of social work education, there are differences between PhD and DSW degrees that are important to understand.
The PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work, is aimed mostly at academic interests. You will spend more time on research subjects and scholarly works than hands-on, practical approaches to counseling and delivering social services. PhD graduates are typically heading for work as professors and researchers, not front-line social workers.
The DSW is the practitioner-oriented degree. It’s more likely to have a practical project capstone and extensive field experience baked-in. The clinical training you get in these programs is a better fit for on-the-street social work.
You can learn more on our page about earning the Doctorate of Social Work degree.
Accreditation in Social Work Degrees Helps You Get What You Pay For
You already are getting the picture that your social work education won’t be cheap. But it can be worth it. You need to make sure that you are getting your money’s worth by only picking a program that has been fully accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), however.
The CSWE is the only national accrediting agency recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) as having the expertise needed to define competent preparation for social work positions. As a specialized accreditor, they focus on the key elements of a college program that you absolutely need to know before you get out in the field. That includes everything from curriculum competencies to instructor qualifications.
Only 296 master’s programs in the U.S. qualified for CSWE accreditation in 2021, and 536 bachelor’s programs.
That’s an exclusive group, but no matter what level you will study at, you want your program to be accredited.
Women’s Right Activist and Social Justice Warrior, Jeanette Rankin
The thing about social work is that it doesn’t stay in one lane. Social work is disruptive by nature. Good social workers make changes; great social workers make waves.
Jeanette Rankin was one of the greats.
Born on a ranch in Montana in 1880, she came from a family that had public welfare in their blood. A brother went on to become the state attorney general; a sister was the first woman to pass the state bar and advocate for access to birth control.
Jeanette was the eldest and took care of her younger siblings after her father passed away in 1904. She worked as a social worker in San Francisco and Spokane before attending the University of Washington and becoming a key player in the women’s suffrage movement. In 1910, her advocacy paid off there with a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing women’s right to vote.
Returning to Montana, she took on the same social justice fights, but advanced to a bigger playing field… the United States House of Representatives. She became the first woman elected to Congress with her victory in 1916.
There, she continued to work for universal suffrage and social welfare causes, including better working conditions for federal and mine workers.
In 1941, Rankin became the only congressperson to have voted against both world wars. An avowed pacifist, she said, “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.” Her courage and devotion to social justice were unquestioned, and her service continues to inspire new generations of social workers.
Step 4: Build Experience in The Field
After you get that all-important degree in hand, you’re probably going to be all amped up to get out there and get to work. Not so fast! Almost every path to becoming a social worker requires additional supervised field experience before you can actually become a licensed social worker.
For LCSWs, hands-on, practical experience working with clients is considered crucial.
You’ll get some of this experience as a part of your master’s program (and bachelor’s programs, in some cases).
That’s not going to cut it when it comes time to get your license, though. Almost every state requires 3,000 or more hours of post-graduate field work experience performed under a qualified and approved social work supervisor in order to earn a license. That’s at least two years of work after graduation. Depending on the state, you might need to get an intermediate license even to complete that experience.
Supervised experience may be counted differently from state to state. In Wisconsin, you just need 3,000 hours under an approved supervisor. In Washington state, you need:
- 4,000 total hours of experience
- 1,000 must be conducted within a three year period supervised by a current LICSW (Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker, the Washington-specific term for an LCSW).
- 130 hours must be supervised by a licensed mental health practitioners
- 60 of those hours must be in-person, one-to-one supervision
- 1,000 must be conducted within a three year period supervised by a current LICSW (Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker, the Washington-specific term for an LCSW).
So you can see it’s critical that you decide what state you want to get licensed in early on so you can be sure to meet the right set of requirements.
How To Get Supervised Experience
Each state has different rules for who can provide supervision to meet these requirements. In almost every case, an already-licensed social worker can fill the role… although it may depend on their level of licensure. So almost any agency, health care facility, or other institution that employers social workers can offer supervision.
In many states, licensed psychologists or other clinical providers may also be allowed to supervise social work interns. That really opens up the facilities and kinds of jobs you can take to get that critical experience.
Your state chapter of the National Association of Social Workers can be your biggest ally in finding positions to fulfill your experience requirements. You’ll probably also have had some internship placements during college; it’s common for students to use those opportunities to network and line up positions for after graduation. And schools themselves are great resources for finding post-graduation placements.
If your job doesn’t offer supervision, you can often find an independently licensed social worker who can provide it directly. This isn’t something you get for free, however. It’s extra hours in their day, so you will usually have to pay them directly.
Your position itself has to be the kind of work that counts as social work experience, regardless of where you are working. A school social worker, for instance, probably wants to get a job at a school… but teaching or working in administration doesn’t count as social work experience. You need to have client contact in your role.
What Happens During Your Supervised Social Work Experience?
For the most part, you will be familiar with the pattern of supervised experience already. It’s basically an extension of what you did as an intern in school. You will perform the same work and job functions as a social worker, with some limitations, but with the guidance and oversight of your supervisor.
How this is accomplished again depends on your state. In some cases, you’ll catch up with telephone consultations or meetings about your experiences, while in others your supervisor will be sitting in directly on most of your client meetings. Gradually, you will get more and more independence.
Solid documentation on your work and supervision hours is a must, however. States require you and your supervisor to submit it as you move on to the next step in becoming a social worker.
Step 5: How to Become a Licensed Social Worker in Your State
CSWE accreditation also becomes important when you move on to the next step in becoming a social worker: getting your license.
Most states require that social workers have a CSWE-accredited degree in order to earn a license.
That degree typically has to be a master’s level degree or above, although some states do accept a BSW. In some cases, states also accept board certification from national organizations such as the American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work or the National Association of Social Workers. As a practical matter, though, you’ll find that those agencies have equivalent higher education standards, though.
That, and every other requirement, and license type and standard, are set at the state level by dedicated licensing boards.
The differences from state to state in different types of social work licensure and what they are called could fill a book. Instead, we have put together an entire page about the social work license that will fill you in on all the details.
You’ll find that some states, like Vermont, have relatively simple systems, with one credential for licensed clinical social workers (LCSW). Others, like California and Wyoming, have a LCSW (we will use that term generically here, although some states call it something else) level and an associate-level license for supervised work positions. And some split out into five or six different licenses for independent practice, administrative specialists, and advanced practices.
Pass a Test (Or Several!)
Every state relies on testing to verify your knowledge of social work practices before granting a license. Fortunately, the primary exam is something they all agree on. The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) is the national body that administers standard examinations for social work licensure.
There are five different tests on offer. Each contains 170 multiple choice questions, which you will have four hours to complete. Testing is currently administered through Pearson VUE at test centers nationwide, and costs between $230 and $270.
The test you take is determined by your state board and the license level you are aiming for.
- Associate – A low-level exam designed for credentialing licensees without any degree in the field.
- Bachelors – Basic generalist knowledge at the bachelor’s level of social work.
- Masters – Practice at the master’s level of social work including specialized knowledge and advanced skills.
- Advanced Generalist – Even more advanced knowledge at the master’s level, including macro-level practices and work that occurs in non-clinical settings.
- Clinical – The gold standard for LCSW licensure, it tests advanced clinical knowledge and skills from both master’s level education and field experience.
Most states will require that you also take another state-specific exam, one that tests your knowledge of state laws and standards.
File Your Application and Other Paperwork With Your State Board
You’ll have to make sure that you state board gets the verification of your experience, diploma, and test results, and fill out a serious application form about your background and qualifications.
This usually involves undergoing a criminal background check; it always means forking over some more cash. You will pay an application fee in most states, which can be $100 or more, along with an initial license fee at a similar amount. Testing and background check costs are separate.
Step 6: Earn a Professional Certification in Your Social Work Specialization
Becoming certified in a social work specialization isn’t a requirement, but it’s something that most professional social workers will pursue at some point in their career path. The social work profession today covers a lot of territory… everything from taking care of military personnel coming home from war zones to teenagers grappling with gender identity. No one can master it all.
NASW’s Credentialing Center gives you an opportunity to test and certify your knowledge in your own area of practice. Getting credentialed gives your clients warm and fuzzy feelings about your qualifications. It can also get your resume picked out of the pile first when it comes time for leadership positions at social work agencies or highly-paid specialist positions.
Each of the credentials requires a degree, a certain amount of post-graduate experience, and subject-specific continuing education training in the field. You’ll also have to submit references from colleagues or supervisors who can attest to your qualifications, and you must agree to comply with the NASW Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice and Continuing Education. For some advanced certifications, you must hold current licensure as a social worker in your state.
The specialty areas and their specific certifications are:
- Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW) – MSW – 2 years experience – 20 hours CE
- Diplomate in Clinical Social Work (DCSW) – MSW – 3 years experience – 30 hours CE
- Addictions / Clinical
- Certified Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco & Other Drugs Social Worker (C-CATODSW) – MSW – 2 years experience – 180 hours CE
- Case Management
- Certified Social Work Case Manager (C-SWCM) – BSW – 3 years experience
- Certified Advanced Social Work Case Manager (C-ASWCM) – MSW – 2 years experience
- Qualified Clinical Social Worker (QCSW) – MSW – 3 years experience – 30 hours CE
- Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology (CSW-G) – MSW – 2 years experience – 30 hours CE
- Certified School Social Work Specialist (C-SSWS) – MSW – 2 years experience
- Social Worker in Gerontology (SW-G) – BSW – 3 years experience – 20 hours CE
- Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology (CSW-G) – MSW – 2 years experience – 30 hours CE
- Advanced Social Worker in Gerontology (ASW-G) – MSW – 2 years experience – 20 hours CE
- Health Care
- Certified Social Worker in Health Care (C-SWHC) – MSW – 2 years experience
- Hospice & Palliative
- Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Social Worker (CHP-SW) – BSW – 3 years experience – 20 hours CE
- Advanced Certified Hospice and Palliative Social Worker (ACHP-SW) – MSW – 2 years experience – 20 hours CE
- Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families – Social Worker (MVF-SW) – BSW – 2 years experience – 20 hours CE
- Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families – Advanced Social Worker (MVF-ASW) – MSW – 2 years experience – 20 hours CE
- Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families – Clinical Social Worker (MVF-CSW) – MSW – 3 years experience – 30 hours CE
- Youth & Family
- Certified Children, Youth, and Family Social Worker (C-CYFSW) – BSW – 1 year experience – 20 hours CE
- Certified Advanced Children, Youth, and Family Social Worker (C-ACYFSW) – MSW – 2 years experience – 20 hours CE
Step 7: Get a Job as a Professional Social Worker
For the country, it may not be a great sign that demand for social workers is higher than ever. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts at 13 percent job growth rate for the profession between 2019 and 2029, much faster than the average rate of growth of jobs in the country.
It’s a bummer that the nation needs so much more professional social services assistance, but it’s really good news for anyone looking for a job in the field.
There are expected to be an additional 90,000 positions opening up for social workers over the course of the next decade.
That means plenty of choices for you when it’s time to go job-hunting.
The CSWE survey from 2020 found that more than 80 percent of social work graduates had secured a job or a job offer within four months of graduating from college.
Who Hires Social Workers?
If you’re thinking about becoming a social worker, you also need to think about who is going to hire you once you become one. Once again, BLS has the data on what industries employ the greatest number of social workers. For the general category, the top five are:
- Federal government – 16,180
- Local government – 14,650
- State government – 10,440
- Individual and family services – 4,900
- Community food and housing and other relief services – 2,600
It’s no surprise that government takes all three of the top five slots, and by a wide margin.
But this can vary for different specializations. Government employment in mental health and substance abuse social workers, is dwarfed by outpatient care center:
- Outpatient care centers – 26,950
- Individual and family services – 16,370
- Local government – 14,500
- Residential facilities – 12,470
- Psychiatric hospitals – 10,160
The lesson is that you will need to explore your specialty area in social services to figure out what organizations are your best bet for a job. But this is something that become clear pretty quickly as you get your education and field experience, through direct participation with those agencies.
Some Social Workers are Also Big Time Entrepreneurs
Not everyone is cut out for a nine-to-five working for The Man, even when The Man is all about helping people. You have another option besides taking a job as a social worker for an established agency or non-profit: creating your own.
That was Scott Harrison’s path to founding charity: water in 2006.
Harrison wasn’t a likely candidate for social work. As a nightclub promoter, his work took him mostly to the other side of the vices and addictions that most social workers spend their time cleaning up after. But after an epiphany took him to two years volunteering on a hospital ship off the coast of Liberia, he came home with a new mission: bring clean water to every living person without it.
Something so simple that almost every Westerner takes it for granted, water quality flew under the radar for most social services organizations. With his background, traditional charities wanted nothing to do with Harrison, either. But he had seen first-hand what the dangers of dirty water could be, and decided to do something about it himself.
After fourteen years, the charity has raised almost $540 million and funded more than 64,000 water projects in 29 countries.
Harrison is special, but not alone. All over the country and around the world, small groups or even individuals with drive, education, and a mission decide to dig in and do what it takes to make a difference.
Step 8: Continue Your Education and Make a Difference
Continuing education will be a big part of your career as a social worker.
Required for both specialized certification and to maintain your licensure, you can expect to continue to rack up 15 to 20 hours per year of class time even after you gain employment.
Most states have some requirements about what those hours must cover. A certain percentage may be required in HIV or communicable disease prevention, or in law and ethics. Certification renewals will often require you take a certain amount of CE in your specialty area.
Professional Associations Offer Access to Continued Education and Opportunities
That continuing education usually has to come through an approved provider. The ASWB, the same organization that offers licensing tests, also has an Approved Continuing Education program where you can find providers that have been rigorously reviewed and accepted.
ASWB is only one of many organizations, both national and regional, that are all about maintaining and improving social services and supporting social workers. You have seen them linked throughout this guide. You will almost certainly rely on them for information, support, or guidance along your path to becoming a social worker.
Now, once you have become a social worker yourself, you can both open up your own opportunities to learn and advance in the field, and give back, by becoming involved with one or more of these organizations.
- National Association of Social Workers – NASW is the largest membership organization for professional social workers in the world, even though it was founded relatively recently, in 1955. The Association does important work building a universal code of ethics for the profession and maintaining professional standards. At the same time, it performs advocacy for sound social policies. You can find 55 chapters in the United States and outlying territories.
- National Association of Black Social Workers – Multicultural support is important in social work circles, and this group dedicated to supporting Black social workers convened in 1968 as a dedicated advocacy group emerging from the National Conference on Social Welfare. Today, their mission continue to enhance the quality of life and to empower people of African ancestry through social services.
- School Social Work Association of America – This association is the only national social work group devoted to supporting social workers who serve in schools. The specialized approach of social work in the educational environment requires its own kind of advocacy and support, and SSWAA is where you will find it.
- North American Association of Christians in Social Work – Social work started out as an expression of religious charity and was originally spearheaded by religious groups. Although their prominence has faded, their dedication has not. The NACSW serves as a place to network and advocate for Christian values in social work and continue to integrate faith with charity.
- Clinical Social Work Association – Clinical social workers face their own challenges and needs, and CSWA is there to support them. You’ll find the latest in counseling and clinical practice information as a member, and can count on their advocacy in matters such as telehealth laws at both the federal and state levels.
- International Federation of Social Workers – Social work is strongest when it is broadest. So making connections across borders can be a powerful enabler for social workers in any specialty. That’s what IFSW is all about. From fighting coronavirus to pursuing climate justice, IFSW focuses members around the world on problems too big for any one country to address.
What a Degree in Social Work Will Cost You
Job satisfaction is a big deal for social workers, but you can’t write tuition checks out of that account.
A two-year master’s degree in the United States cost nearly $25,000 in 2019 according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
And that’s the average for in-state tuition at public schools. A private college education will run to over $50,000 for that same degree, and attending an out-of-state public school will cost about the same.
You’re going to have to find a way to pay for all that, on top of your bachelor’s program (costing an average of $20,598 per year including tuition, fees, room, and board for public in-state students per NCES), without stacking up soul-crushing amounts of student loan debt.
It’s a real challenge. The Council on Social Work Education’s 2013 survey found that more than 80 percent of both bachelor and master’s graduates in social work have outstanding loan debt. The amounts ranged from $31,880 to $42,149. That can be a year’s salary for an entry-level social worker.
Taking Advantage of Social Work Scholarships
Scholarships are the best way to pay for college as a future social worker, if you can get them. These are usually no-strings-attached grants of money to help you pay for your education. Some, like the federal Pell Grant program, may be available to any student depending on their financial status. Others might rely on both socioeconomic and ethnic or racial background, like the La Unidad Latina Foundation grants for female Hispanic students.
Your best bets may be with scholarships that combine qualifications, though. There are plenty of them, and the competition is less intense than the broader funds. Some options to consider:
- Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago Academic Scholarships – Open to residents of the Chicago area who are Jewish, have a financial need, and demonstrate career promise in one of several helping professions, including social work.
- National Association of Black Social Workers Scholarships – Offers scholarships of between $1,000 and $1,500 for Black social work students with a history of community service and suitable grade point averages.
- Alma S. Adams Scholarship for Outreach and Health Communications to Reduce Tobacco Use Among Priority Populations – This is a laser-focused scholarship that you can count on not getting a lot of competition for… if you have a passion for reducing tobacco use in disproportionately affected communities. The grant is $5,000 if you can make the case that your social work efforts will focus on that common good.
- National Federation of Republican Women National Pathfinder Scholarship – Three annual grants of $2,500 are made to women seeking undergraduate or graduate degrees who are studying to prevent drug and alcohol abuse. That’s a classic social work goal, and the field is one of the majors eligible.
Get The Loans, Then Get Forgiveness
Another great option for social workers is to go ahead and get the student loans you need to get through school… then apply to loan forgiveness programs to have the payments waived.
That’s because social work is a public service, often run by non-profit and public agencies.
Social worker jobs are frequently eligible for national loan forgiveness programs that will pay off your debts in return for your service.
The most significant of these is the federal Student Loan Forgiveness program. You qualify if you:
- Work for a federal, state, local, or tribal government, or a non-profit organization full-time
- Have direct federal student loans
- Are currently in good standing on your loan payments
- Have made 120 qualifying payments
Another option for some social workers is the National Health Service Corps loan repayment program. The program is broken down into a few different eligibility areas, two of which a social worker involved in healthcare might be involved with:
- Substance Use Disorder Workforce – Fully trained and licensed workers at SUD treatment facilities in Health Professional Shortage Areas can qualify.
- Rural Community – Workers serving at NHSC-approved outpatient service facilities in rural communities may qualify.
The Salary You Will Earn When You Become a Social Worker
Let’s assume you are not a wealthy philanthropist donating your time to the causes of social work. You might love what you do, but you still need to put a roof over your head and food on the table. So what can you expect to make as a newly minted social worker?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a social worker in 2019 was $50,470 per year, or $24.26 per hour.
Like any job, that average can jump in either direction depending on factors like:
NASW conducted a survey in 2015 of American social workers and found that the average increase in annual salary for master’s-qualified social workers was more than $13,000 over those who only had a bachelor’s degree. The bump was even higher for those who pick up a terminal degree in the field.
Social workers who hold a PhD or DSW earn $20,000 to $25,000 more than MSWs, and $33,000 to $38,000 more per year than BSWs.
In a big win for social justice, female PhD holders brought in $7,000 more than males with the same degree.
As you would expect, the survey found that MSWs in large cities or urban clusters also out-earned their rural counterparts. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has state-level salary averages that show some of the variation in regional salaries for social workers, too:
- New York : $67,580
- California : $71,020
- Illinois : $65,830
- Texas : $60,240
- Florida : $51,980
- Missouri : $60,770
- Georgia : $73,830
- Washington : $73,160
The NASW survey also showed differences in average earnings based on specialization. The BLS tracks the averages for several sub-categories of social work professionals, too, and offers more recent data, from 2019:
- Healthcare – $56,750
- Child, family, and school – $47,390
- Mental health and substance abuse – $46,650
- All other – $61,230
They also show the breakdown for social workers employed by different industry sectors:
- Local government (except schools and hospitals) – $55,500
- Ambulatory healthcare – $51,290
- State government (except schools and hospitals) – $49,100
- Individual and family services – $43,030
- General hospitals – $65,980
- Home health care – $61,900
- Skilled nursing facilities – $61,420
Social workers in the top ten percent of the field, across all categories and industries, earn more than $82,540. That’s doing pretty well by doing good.
Like many government jobs, social work positions don’t always have an eye-popping salary, but often come with excellent benefits. You can expect pension and insurance benefits that are above average. According to Forbes, the healthcare benefits alone can be worth between $5,000 and $30,000 annually. You may also have tuition reimbursement and other benefits designed to compensate you for continuing education.