How to Become a Social Worker in 2022

Interested in a career path where you can make a difference in people’s lives? Learn how to become a social worker with this guide!

Are you interested in helping people overcome everyday life problems like mental health issues, substance abuse, domestic abuse, or neglect? You might find fulfillment as a social worker. 

A social worker performs many different tasks daily, including administrative duties, counseling, interviewing clients and potential clients, and meeting with lawyers, among many others. While the job is rewarding because you make a difference in people’s lives, social workers tend to experience stress and emotional downsides from the work. 

Interested in becoming a social worker? You might wonder: how long does it take to become a social worker, among other questions. 

You’ll soon learn that this career path is more than just a social work degree. Don’t worry; we’ll show you how to become a social worker, including information about social worker schooling, education completion time, social worker requirements, salaries, and more.                                      

Here are the steps to becoming a social worker:

  • Earn a bachelor's degree
  • Earn a master's degree
  • Complete fieldwork requirements
  • Get licensed
  • Consider specializations

Below, you’ll find some important general information about the social work career points: 

Career Title

Social Worker

Degree Requirements

Master’s degree

Job Growth (2020- 2030)


Experience required


Salary (2022)


How long to become a Social worker

6-8 years

Required Skills

Attention to Detail, Communication, Critical Thinking, Active Listening

What does a Social Worker do ?

There are two kinds of social workers: direct-service social workers and clinical social workers. The primary job duties of a direct-service social worker include:

  • Assessing a client’s needs, situations, strengths, and support networks to determine a path to their goals.
  • Advocating for and helping clients get resources that would improve their well-being.
  • Developing plans to improve 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 crises such as natural disasters or child abuse.

Now, here are the primary job duties for a clinical social worker:

  • 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 treating 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, adjusting the treatment plan.
  • Helping clients adjust to changes in their life such as divorce or unemployment.
  • 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 behavior or cope with difficult situations.

Some clinical social workers work in private practice, while others work in a group practice with other social workers or mental health professionals.



Steps for becoming a Social Worker


Earn A Bachelor’s Degree

At the minimum, a bachelor’s degree is essential to social worker education requirements. The main educational requirement and most important social worker degree is a Master’s of Social Work (MSW), but that necessitates a bachelor’s degree as well, which takes four years. This also means that the bachelor’s degree can be in a different field, though many social workers also pursue a bachelor’s of social work as well. Other popular fields of study include psychology, sociology, anthropology, gender studies, social justice, and political science. 

A bachelor’s degree in social work may be enough to secure an entry-level social work position; however, you’ll need to move further to an MSW for licensure, higher salaries, and greater flexibility. 

Here are some common topics of study for bachelor’s and associate’s degrees in social work:

  • Social justice
  • Cognitive development
  • Psychology 
  • Addiction
  • Research methodologies
  • Cultural issues
  • Healthcare systems
  • Children’s and parent relationships
  • Ethics and law


Earn A Master’s Degree

An accredited MSW program is required for you to obtain your social worker license and typically takes about two years to complete. Make sure the program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

This degree dives deeper into leadership, clinical studies, and more in-depth health-related issues. 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. A vital component to most MSW programs is the internship, where students can acquire hands-on experience in the field. 

Here are some common topics of study for an MSW: 

  • Diagnosing substance use disorders
  • Addiction in different cultural groups
  • Social welfare philosophy, policy, and history
  • Care coordination
  • Intervention and prevention


Complete Fieldwork Requirements

The internship we mentioned above is essential if you would like to obtain social worker licensure. Also known as a practicum, fieldwork entails applying your theoretical knowledge in a hands-on, clinical environment for a certain number of hours (depending on the state of practice).

Make sure you allow enough time for your fieldwork applications and tenure to ensure you have ample time to apply for your license. You can choose between two types of fieldwork placements: 

Traditional MSW Placement: If you’re studying a traditional MSW program, you’ll likely need to complete 16-20 hours of field placement, between 2-3 days per week. You may need to travel to and from your field location. 

Advanced MSW Placement: Advanced placements require many more hours from aspiring social workers — 450-900 to be exact, if you want to fulfill advanced degree requirements. 


Get Licensed

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

To obtain licensure, candidates will have to meet the educational and experiential requirements and pass a test. This usually means fulfilling a GPA minimum, passing an exam, completing a minimum number of hours in a clinical work setting, and completing your internship in good standing.

To renew a license, social workers must have 15-48 hours of continuing education relevant to the field. Make sure you check your state board requirements to ensure you maintain your licensure.


Consider Specializations

Social work is a broad field. Assuming you’ve obtained your license and necessary degrees, consider which area of social work you’d like to embark on a career in:

Clinical: Clinical social work entails working directly with individuals, where you can assess and diagnose mental illness. You can also open a private clinical practice, where the earning potential tends to be higher. 

Macro: Interested in public policy? Macro social work entails working on changing government policies to help people maintain access to the resources they need. 

School: Sometimes high schools have guidance counselors, but others have dedicated social workers that interact and treat students while coordinating treatment with their parents, if necessary. 


Land A Job

After you obtain licensure and graduate from your MSW, it’s time to start looking for a job in social work. Consider joining social work associations and using your school network to find work opportunities. Or, you can use tried and true methods of using job boards.


Continue Your Education

You’ll need to obtain regular hours of continued learning to maintain your social work license. While this might look like taking online or evening classes, you have other options to maintain your learning:

Workshops: Accredited social work education programs sometimes host workshops and organized learning events. 

Conferences: Panel discussions, symposiums, and other large-scale organized experiences.

Personal education: Writing books, essays, publications, and other forms of independent study.


Obtain A Doctorate Degree

If you’re interested in a career in research or academia, you might consider pursuing a Doctorate of Social Work. This is by no means a requirement to become a social worker and will tack on an extra four or five years to your college education. Most social work PhD programs require you to write a thesis or dissertation. 

Some topics of study in a doctoral degree include:

  • Critical analysis of human behavior
  • Cultural and social diversity theory
  • Systems theory
  • Children’s social roles and parenting styles
  • Religion and spirituality and impacts on social issues

Social Worker Salaries

Social Worker

Social Worker Degree Levels


An associate’s degree 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

An ASW program provides the fundamentals for a social work career. 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 degrees may help students to determine whether a career in social work is right for them before pursuing a four-year bachelor’s degree.

Introduction to Social Work
  • The Emergence of Social Work as a Profession

  • Social Justice, Diversity, & Vulnerable Populations

  • Generalist Social Work

  • Understanding of the role and functions of social workers

  • Awareness of National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics

  • Familiarity with professional practice and education

Introduction to Human Development
  • Science of lifespan development

  • Cognitive development in infancy

  • Socioemotional development in infancy

  • Foundation in normal human physical, cognitive, and social development

  • Ability to compare and analyze individual cases

Introduction to General Psychology
  • The evolution of psychology

  • The research enterprise in psychology

  • Biological bases of behavior

  • Background in research methodology

  • Understanding of behavioral patterns and their biological and social causes

  • Knowledge of learning and memory and the psychology of personality


Those who 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 complete 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 who take up a 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.

Statistics and Research for Social Workers
  • Scientific Inquiry and Evidence-Based Practice

  • Ethical and Cultural Issues in Social Work Research

  • The Research Process: Quantitative, Qualitative, and Mixed Methods

  • Keen understanding of research methods and data analysis

  • Design of research projects

  • Knowledge of how to use appropriate methods, including descriptive and inferential statistics

The Child and the law
  • The Status, Rights, and Obligations of Children

  • The Child-Parent Relationship

  • Representing Children

  • Knowledge of family law, divorce law, and juvenile criminal law

  • Be aware of lawyer's roles and ethical problems in representing children

  • Understand basic concepts of the law related to children

Health services and systems
  • S. healthcare system

  • Healthcare providers

  • Cultural Sensitivity and Awareness

  • Coordinating healthcare appointments for others

  • Encouraging others to take charge of their own health

  • Finding services not easily accessible to all populations


An MSW degree is a must for those that want to become clinical social workers. While some choose to apply for an MSW immediately after completing their baccalaureate, most of the students are mid-level, professional social workers. The 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 field classes that allow 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 the master’s level.

Chemical dependency and social work practice
  • Definition of Addiction

  • Social work providers of substance abuse with different cultural groups

  • Screening, Assessment, and Diagnosis of substance use disorders

  • Talking to others about their addictions

  • Arranging intervention or prevention opportunities

  • Understanding of addiction as a mental illness

Social welfare policy and services
  • The philosophic and practical basis for social welfare provisions

  • The history of the social work profession

  • Policies and Services

  • Understanding of the types of social welfare services and agencies to contact

  • History and philosophy of social welfare plus past and current policies

  • Confidence in encouraging individuals and communities to work with the welfare system and better their own lives

Health and mental health policy
  • The social construction of mental illness

  • Labeling and Treating Mental Illness

  • Institutionalization and The Reaction

  • Understanding of physical and mental healthcare policies

  • Ability to provide or coordinate care and services for individuals and communities

  • Healthcare factors such as cost, access, and allocation of resources


A doctorate in social work prepares the student to work in advanced clinical practice. As opposed to a Ph.D. that focuses more on research studies, DSW focuses more on clinical practice and leadership. 

Many colleges and universities offer DSW programs. Students in a doctoral program 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.

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

Theoretical bases of social behavior
  • The function of infant-mother attachment

  • Child characteristics and parenting styles

  • Social roles in childhood and early adolescence

  • Critical analysis of human behavior and lifespan development

  • Systems theory

  • Knowledge of behavioral theories for health, illness, and disorders and for groups and organizations

Social work and diverse populations
  • Generation in US

  • Religion/spirituality/agnosticism/atheism

  • Socio-economic status

  • Advanced cultural and social diversity theory

  • Interacting with individuals and communities of diverse cultures and backgrounds

  • Empowering populations in personal and social ways, promoting the cause of human dignity and social justice

How Long Does It Take to Become a Social Worker?

It typically takes 6-8 years to become a highly qualified social worker. Here’s the breakdown of your educational timeline:

  • Bachelor’s degree: 4 years
  • Master’s degree: 2 years
  • Experience and Licensure: 6 months-2 years

Social Worker Salaries, Job Growth, and Career Paths

From 2020-2030, the social work job trajectory is expected to grow by 12%. And, salaries consistently move up, averaging at $66,878 in 2022. 

A common misconception about social work is that “clinical social worker” is the only position and career path to embark on. But lucky for you, that’s not the case. There are plenty of career paths in the social work field. Here are some common jobs you can get with a social work background: 

Licensed Clinical Social Worker

As a clinical social worker, you’ll treat clients with various behavioral, social, and mental issues, including domestic abuse, addiction, and sexual trauma. For this career, you need an MSW. The states that pay the highest salaries to clinical social workers are: 

  • California ($83,000)
  • Oregon ($74,730)
  • District of Columbia ($76,100)
  • Connecticut ($71,850)

You might work for a government or private agency, or start your own practice. 

Healthcare Social Worker

Healthcare social workers direct their knowledge and services to patients experiencing medical issues, from hospital patients to family members processing an illness. These social workers make slightly lower than the median, at an average $60,470

School Social Worker

School social workers typically work with children and teenagers in elementary and high schools. They help students, parents, and teachers come up with plans to address classroom disruptions and behavioral problems. You might also see these positions named as “school counselor” or “guidance counselor. 

School social worker salaries are a bit lower than the average social worker salary, at $52,370. 


A therapist is a professional, often with their own practice, that offers group and one-on-one sessions with patients to develop plans to address challenges with mental health and emotional problems. However, unlike psychiatrists, therapists can’t prescribe medication. You might also find job openings for therapists at community centers, hospitals, and clinics. 

Average salaries range around $64,631

5 Essential Skills for a Social Worker

Sometimes a job requires more than just education requirements. Here are some vital skills that will serve you well as a social worker:

Active Listening: Active listening entails being present and attentive in listening to others. Social workers must be patient listeners and resist the urge to interrupt or make their clients feel unheard. 

Critical Thinking: Social workers must take in and assess lots of information from different sources — industry techniques, legal information, client history, and more. Critical thinking is vital to make informed decisions based on all the above factors. 

Empathy: Social workers often listen to sad stories, with clients showing immense vulnerability. To build trust and make clients feel comfortable, social workers should have emotional capacity and empathy. 

Communication Skills: In the social work field, you must communicate with various parties - clients, colleagues, management, legal professionals, family members, and more. Strong communication skills are important so that social workers can communicate the right information effectively and tactfully. 


Social work is a sometimes stressful yet incredibly rewarding career. Salaries are also consistent with averages across various industries. Now that you know how to become a social worker, you can explore various online associate social work programs and online. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

    1. What Qualifications Do You Need to Become a Social Worker?

To become a licensed social worker, you’ll need an MSW. For entry-level positions, you’ll typically need a bachelor’s degree at least, though not necessarily in social work. 

    2. What is the Fastest Way to Become a Social Worker?

The fastest way to become a social worker is by taking more courses in university, such as summer school, to speed up your degree completion time. 

    3. How Many Years Does it Take to Become a Social Worker?

It takes between 6-8 years to become a social worker. 

    4. Is Social Work a Good Career?

Social work can be a stressful field because you must hear about many emotionally disturbing issues. But, many social workers find job satisfaction in being able to help people. And, salaries aren’t extremely high, but average for the US. 

    5. Can You Become a Social Worker Without a Degree?

No. Even entry-level positions often require a bachelor’s degree. And, to be a certified, licensed social worker you need an MSW. 

    6. What Major is Social Work?

While social workers typically have a Master’s of Social Work, their bachelor’s degree might be in social work, psychology, political science, sociology, and other social science degrees.