How to Become a Social Worker

This article provides in-depth information into What is a Social Worker? What Social Worker do? Degrees for Social Worker, Steps to become Social Worker and much more.

What does a Social Worker do?

A social worker helps clients handle everyday life problems. Their client base includes people who have issues caused by abuse, domestic violence, mental health, neglect and parental substance abuse. A social worker performs a myriad of tasks on a daily basis including administrative duties, counseling, interviewing clients and potential clients, meeting with lawyers among many others.

Social workers are typically of two kinds- Direct Service Social Workers and Clinical Social Workers. The primary jobs of a direct social worker includes 

  • Assessing a client’s needs, situations, strengths and support networks to determine their goals

  • Advocating for and helping clients get resources that would improve their well being

  • Developing plans to improve their clients’ well-being

  • Evaluating services provided to the clients to ensure that they are effective

  • Following up with clients to ensure that their situations have improved

  • Helping clients adjust to changes and challenges in their lives such as illness, divorce or unemployment

  • Helping clients work with government agencies to apply for and receive benefits such as medicare

  • Identifying people who need help

  • Researching and referring clients to community resources such as food stamps, child care and healthcare. 

  • Responding to crisis situations such as natural disasters or child abuse

A clinical social worker’s day to day job includes:

  • Assessing a client's history, background and situations to understand their needs, as well as their strengths and weaknesses.

  • Developing a treatment plan with the client, doctors and other healthcare professionals

  • Diagnosing and treat mental, behavioral and emotional disorders including anxiety and depression

  • Encouraging clients to discuss their emotions and experiences to develop a better understanding of themselves and their relationships

  • Evaluating clients’ progress and if necessary adjust the treatment plan

  • Helping clients adjust to changes in their life such as divorce or being laid-off

  • Providing individual, group, family and couples therapy

  • Referring clients to other resources or services , such as support groups or other mental health professionals 

  • Working with clients to develop strategies to change behaviour or cope with difficult situations

Some clinical social workers work in private practice. Some work in a group practice with other social workers or mental health professionals. Others work in solo practice.

Steps to Become a Social Worker

Following is a step by step guide of how to become a Social Worker

Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree

For most entry-level jobs in the field of social work, the minimum requirement is a four years bachelor’s program in a related field like psychology, sociology and social welfare. The Council on Social Work Education also accredits undergraduate and graduate degree programs in social work in every state. Those that already hold associate degrees may be able to transfer credits and cut the time to graduate in two years.

In a bachelor’s of social work students will learn how to support people with social difficulties, addictions, behavioral issues and other health services and how to provide individual assessment, solutions and treatment. Students pursuing a bachelor’s in social work will also have to complete internships and practicums as a part of their degree program. Students are prepared for direct service positions such as case-workers or mental health assistants.

Earn a Master’s Degree

Masters of Social Work Program dives deeper into leadership, clinical and more in-depth health-related issues.a master’s degree is a must for those that want to become licensed clinical social workers. Usually, a master's degree program in the field of social work allows students to choose specializations such as administration or clinical, school, military, hospital or community social work.

Professional practice is a significant part of an MSW program. Schools should be accredited by a regional accrediting board or other body approved by the US Department of Education. Master’s of Social Work typically takes two years to be completed.

Get Licensed and Earn necessary Certifications

Students who opt for jobs in the field of social work as assistant or other entry level positions may not require certification. But, most states require all social workers who work independently to be licensed. For clinical social workers, it is a must to be licensed.

To obtain licensure, candidates will have to meet the educational and experiential requirements and pass a test. In order to be able to renew a license, social workers must have 15-48 hours of continuing education relevant to the field . The regulations vary from state to state which can be found from the Association of Social Work Boards. Licensing regulations typically require a candidate to have a master’s degree in the related field, clinical work experience under the supervision of a licensed social worker, a minimum of two years or three thousand hours of work experience and a passing grade on the pertinent exams.

Get employed

Once the necessary degrees, certifications and licensures are obtained the next step is to find a job. A fresh pass out candidate may not be able to find the exact position or concentration that they were looking out for, but it is important to gather as much relevant experience as possible so as to be able to hone their skills in order to move up the ladder. Those that have already pursued a master’s of social work will mostly be able to land a job in a higher position.


The average annual salary of a social worker is $49, 500 approximately. The lowest-earning 10% make around $31,000 per year while the top 10% of earners make around $84,500 per year. The most important determinant of a social worker’s payscale is their level of education. Higher education, higher is the salary.

Job Growth

The overall employment rate for social workers is expected to grow at an 11% from 2018 to 2028 as per the BLS. Driving factor for rise in employment opportunities can be attributed to the increasing demand in health care and social services

Types of Degrees for a Social Worker

Following are the types of degrees available to become a social worker:

Associate Degree in Social Work (ASW)

ASW prepares students for paraprofessional roles in the field of social work. Associate degree programs in social work typically take two years to be completed and are provided by community colleges. ASW provides the fundamentals for a career in this field. Students learn about the history and development of social work and the code of ethics in the field of social work. Although candidates with an ASW degree are not eligible for being licensed Social Workers, a few states do allow ASW degree holders to become licensed social work assistants or similar support role positions. ASW degree may help students to determine whether a career in social work is right for them before pursuing a four year bachelor’s degree.

Bachelor’s Degree In Social Work (BSW)

Those that are interested in a career in social work should opt for a bachelor’s degree program in social work. BSW typically takes four years to be completed and is usually the first step to becoming a social worker. BSW degree programs include classroom education as well as field education. BSW students take general, liberal arts courses for their first two years of college and then choose a major in social work. Those that take up major in social work take required social work courses, electives and field education courses. Students have to complete compulsory internships and practicums in order to graduate with a BSW degree.

Master’s Degree In Social Work (MSW)

An MSW is a must for those that want to become clinical social work. MSW degree has now become a must for most of the jobs in social work beyond entry level jobs. While some choose to apply for an MSW immediately after completing their baccalaureate, most of the students are mid-level, professional social workers. Traditional MSW program requires two years to complete. Students learn more advanced theories and practical guidelines that would enable them to work more autonomously. Coursework focuses on building strong professional foundations and enhancing existing knowledge and skills needed to handle populations with various vulnerable life conditions.

Students also have to take up field classes which allows students to work part-time for a social service agency in their chosen concentration gaining valuable hands on training and direct exposure to daily work. Generally MSW is considered the terminal degree for social workers. Unlike psychology that requires a doctoral degree to provide clinical services to clients, social workers are trained for clinical work at master’s level. 

Doctor of Social Work (DSW)

Doctor of social work prepares the student to work in advanced clinical practice. As opposed to a PhD that focuses more on research studies, DSW focuses more on clinical practice and leadership. DSW programs are offered by many colleges and universities. Students at the doctoral level should choose program content carefully and see that they consider programs that include advanced practice components. A doctoral degree may also help in getting advanced and supervisory roles in highly competitive job markets.

PhD in Social Work

Students pursuing a PhD in social work typically engage in social work research at the university level. Earning a PhD prepares students for academic, teaching and research positions at universities. Students pursuing PhD in social work typically opt for careers in academia and research, and less on clinical practice

Concentrations to consider for a Social worker

Following are the concentrations to be considered in the field of social work:

  • Clinical / Direct Practice: This is the concentration which helps students develop skills to identify, evaluate and treat different mental and emotional challenges that an individual may face. Clinical social work generally emphasizes a person in an environment approach that aims to help people understand and address their psychological, emotional and behavioral problems within the context of their family, professional lives and social circles. Students here take classes such as Cognitive Behavior Therapy, couple therapy and group therapy.

  • Clinical/ Direct Practice (Macro): at the macro level, clinical practice is systems driven. It involves working with key public and private sectors to address critical social issues. Areas that are typically explored are community empowerment, social welfare and policy and social and economic justice.

  • Generalist (Macro and Micro) : In this concentration, students gain knowledge and experience in both clinical and community focused social work practices. As generalists, students do not typically develop deep expertise in either area. Advanced generalist programs may be advantageous for students who want knowledge of and training in both macro and micro level social work. 

  • Community Development, Management/ Administration and Policy (Macro): this concentration basically trains students to understand how social problems develop and persist at the local, state and national levels and how to address these problems through various strategies. At the macro level, social workers are trained to help people collectively through community mobilization, education and political advocacy. Students who pursue one or more of these macro level concentration may work in settings such as non profit human services agencies, community centers and political advocacy organizations.

Stand out skills for a Social Worker

Following are the stand out skills of a social worker:

  • Active listening skills: social workers must pay attention to and have the ability to recall conversations with clients if need be. It is important for a social worker to be a good listener as it helps establish trust and respect so that clients feel comfortable enough to confide in their social worker. Active listening helps build a therapeutic alliance between the client and their social worker.

  • Critical Thinking: social workers are supposed to make important decisions based on a thorough understanding of the client’s need and situation, the available resources and applicable law. Critical thinking skills allow a social worker to take those decisions. Human beings after all and clients seek help for problems in various domains of their lives. Being able to think critically and creatively allows a social worker to take the best decisions.

  • Empathy: social workers need to have an understanding of others intellectually, culturally and emotionally. Without understanding and empathy it is almost impossible for social workers to understand their clients. Being empathetic helps imagine oneself in someone else’s situation and to feel the pain that the other person is experiencing. Social workers are naturally empathetic but practice makes a man better. 

  • High EQ: most social workers already have high EQ or what is commonly known as Emotional Intelligence. High EQ includes high levels of self-awareness, empathy, and sensitivity to others. Social work often requires balancing between what you know and what you intuit. Social workers should know to read between the lines.

  • Good Communication Skills: Social workers need to communicate with different people about different issues on a daily basis. It is important that a social worker makes it clear and transparent about the scope of services that they will be able to provide to their clients as their social worker. Sometimes these conversations can be hard. At the same time it is important to incorporate this discussion while building a relationship with the client. This process is both written and verbally explored. Hence it is important that social workers have good communication skills both verbal and written so that their discussions are comprehensible by their clients.

Social Worker Salaries

Social Worker