Human Services Guide

About The Career of a Social Worker

Social work is all about helping people cope with and solve problems in their lives. Since there are as many kinds of problems as there are people, there’s no shortage of different ways to go about helping. That makes social work an enormously diverse profession, and one that offers no shortage of unique career paths.

You can spend your entire life working on a single, highly focused issue like alcohol addiction rehabilitation…. Or you can explore the diversity of the field by moving from one area of need to another, perhaps starting off as a case worker dealing with the problems associated with homelessness, then moving up the ladder to become a program manager… You could even go on to run your own nonprofit, where you attempt to address the root causes of societal issues and head off the problems that lead to things like homelessness and addiction in the first place... Or maybe you decide to go big picture right from the start, diving into the really big problems like world peace, global hunger, or the impacts of climate change.

It’s all up to you, and it’s all accessible with a college degree on your resume.

Depending on where you are, you can begin or continue your education with a degree that will get you into the field, or help you advance, whether that means earning an AS, BS, MSW, MS, graduate certificate or doctorate (PhD or DSW).

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Social Work Offers a Million Ways to Serve

If you can think of a way to help other people, and if you can find the funding to cover the cost, you can be sure there’s a niche for social workers to fill. There’s really no practical limit in the field as long as the resources are there.

But not everyone is entrepreneurial, and there are no shortage of positions in well-established areas of practice. As it stands, most existing social work jobs fit into five different categories. You aren’t restricted to just one of these in your career path, but if your interests lead you in to one, you might find that the natural progression of things keeps you there, advancing to higher level positions along the way. Still, there can be a lot of crossover between these different practice areas… medical and mental health issues often intersect with geriatric practice, as they do with substance abuse counseling and treatment.

Child Welfare and School Social Work

Working with kids can be some of the most heartbreaking and uplifting social work you will ever practice. It takes a special kind of person to deal with issues affecting the most innocent among us, either in schools as a public school social worker or as a counselor or case worker for other agencies. But if you want to make a big difference in a human life, starting out with kids when they are most impressionable and need the most protection is a great way to do it.

Typical employers of child welfare and school social workers include:

  • Schools
  • Private clinics
  • Community organizations

Geriatric Social Work

It’s often been observed that it’s toward both the beginning and the end of our lives that we need the most assistance. Just as there is a strong need for social workers among the young, there’s also a growing need among the very old. Geriatric social workers deal with a wide range of challenges that come with advanced age:

  • Financial issues resulting from fixed income
  • Medical problems
  • Mental health issues
  • Social problems such as loneliness

Yet the elderly are not children, and interactions with them can be surprising and rewarding, offering a window into the experiences of an entire lifetime.

Typical employers of geriatric social workers include:

  • Public agencies
  • Community organizations
  • Hospitals and clinics
  • Rehabilitation and rest homes

Healthcare Social Work

Just about any time a person is diagnosed with a serious illness or has to undergo an invasive medical treatment, you can bet that there is a big dose of emotional trauma and financial stress to go along with it. Medical social workers are there to help people cope with those add-on issues and get through their medical treatments without the rest of their life falling apart. Financial and mental health issues are common aspects of this work, as is acting as an empathic communicator between the medical team and patients.

Typical employers of healthcare social workers include:

  • Hospitals
  • Rehabilitation facilities
  • Private clinics

Substance Abuse

The opioid epidemic is just another front in a long war that substance abuse counselors and treatment centers have been waging against addiction. From alcohol to sex to gambling, there are many destructive paths addiction can follow. Social workers in this field try to mitigate the damage and treat the underlying addiction, working alongside psychologists, behavioral therapists, and other counselors.

Typical employers of substance abuse counselors and social workers include:

  • Prisons and jails
  • Public health agencies
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Private clinics

Mental and Public Health

Mental health disorders like depression and schizophrenia, and even more common neurodevelopment and behavioral disorders like autism and ADHD can lead to a lot of coping issues and friction in daily life. That’s where social workers in mental health come in, acting as counselors, therapists, and case managers to smooth out the difficulties. Mental health work always includes a strong public health component. Homelessness, along with the serious health and addiction issues associated with it, often starts with mental health issues. Social workers do their best to manage large scale issues that go along with poverty and disaffection.

Typical employers of mental and public health social workers include:

  • Community mental health centers
  • Hospitals
  • Public health agencies

Education is The Key to Every Role in the Social Work Field

No matter what sort of social work you choose, you owe it to yourself and your clients to get educated in the theory and practice of the profession.

For many positions, a college degree will be an absolute requirement. Even entry-level social worker jobs in the public sector or with for-profit employers tend to require a bachelor’s degree at a minimum. For anything even moderately advanced, such as caseworker or counseling jobs—and certainly for anything in administrative or supervisory roles—a master’s degree will be needed. Any licensed position (such as licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) will require an advanced degree.

Find out more about the social work licensing requirements in your state here.

But even if you are aiming at nonprofit work or the rare position that doesn’t require higher education as a part of the minimum qualifications, you’ll find a lot of value in getting a degree anyway.

Earning a master’s in social work isn’t about checking a box on your way to qualifying for a license. It provides you with a valuable set of tools and insights you’ll be putting to use every day.

A graduate education in social work comes with a broad range of social and cultural theory as well as real-world field experience giving you hands-on practice under the careful supervision of experienced social workers who will help you avoid making simple mistakes that can undo all your hard work. Many programs also have specialized concentrations available that will provide extra depth in a particular specialty practice area.

The right degree will give you the tools you need to take on any career path, and the flexibility to find the one where you are most happy and effective.

Additional Resources on Specialized Roles and Licensing Requirements

Find more information on the social work occupation and specific requirements here: