This Is How You Become a Social Worker

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Kayla Heisler1.16k
May 19, 2024 at 9:22PM UTC

Have you ever considered becoming a social worker?

 If you have awesome communication skills, a high level of emotional intelligence, and a talent for problem-solving, diving into a career in social work may be a good career path to follow. Bonus: the job growth is on an upswing! 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says employment is expected to increase 16 percent from 2016 to 2026, which is a faster growth rate than most occupations experience. Catalysts for choosing to become a social worker vary from person to person, but common reasons include feeling a desire to help vulnerable populations and feeling the desire to help others through counseling after first receiving help.

Social Work in a Nutshell

Depending on their place of employment, social workers fulfill a variety of needs for individuals and often work with teams in order to provide holistic solutions to problems people encounter. Social workers may specialize in one of many different disciplines, but all forms of social work seek to address the well being of individuals in addition to the well being of society as a whole. Social workers help people cope with life changes, advocate for their clients, and overcome challenges. Some social workers also help diagnose and treat people. They are ultimately committed to addressing social change, which may be directed as working with individuals one on one or working to address communities and structures. 

What qualifications do you need to be a social worker?

The first step to becoming a licensed social worker is to earn a bachelor’s degree. Though a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) is the most common choice, earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology or sociology are also popular choices for those who intend to enter Master of Social Work (MSW) programs. Holding a BSW allows social workers to fulfill entry-level roles and gain experience working as mental health assistants and caseworkers. In order to earn this degree, students must complete fieldwork that is supervised by a practicing social worker.

The Council on Social Work Education provides accreditation to social work programs at both the undergraduate and professional level, and earning a degree from an accredited program is an essential step to obtain state licensure in the United States.

Some states allow those who have earned MSWs to begin practicing immediate after graduation while others require them to pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exam to obtain a social work license and begin practicing.

Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs), social workers who hold both an MSW and state licensure, provide therapy to clients by teaching them coping strategies and guiding them in cognitive behavioral therapy. LCSWs sometimes work with other healthcare professionals to develop a well-rounded treatment course for the client. 

How long does it take to become a social worker?

The length of time required to become a social worker depends on the level of education and certification in that social work a person intends to achieve. Earning a BSW qualifies social workers for entry-level positions, and earning that degree typically takes four years. Most MSW programs are two years long, and they do not require holding a specialized degree in social work in order to be eligible. However, holding a BSW can reduce the length of the program from two years to one if you are able to earn advanced standing. Becoming a clinical social worker requires earning an MSW in addition to completing at least two years of practice and receiving state licensure after passing the ASWB exam. 

Options for part time study are widely available, but taking that route increases the amount of time it takes to earn the necessary qualifications.

How do I become a social worker without a degree?

Though earning an undergraduate degree is an essential step in order to be eligible for state licensure, there are several options that people may choose if they wish to become a social worker without earning an undergraduate degree. provides information regarding careers in the social work field that only require high school diplomas and in some instances, certificates of certification. Substance abuse counselors, social service assistants, and community health workers are a few social work options that do not require a degree, though some organizations require that counselors hold a certificate of certification.

Do social workers get paid well?

In general, social work is not considered to be an extremely lucrative profession, but the level of education, geographic location, and level of experience greatly impact the average salary social workers earn. Opportunities to earn the highest salaries also correlate with taking the largest risks, as those who go on to open up their private practices have a higher earning potential than those employed by non-profit or public organizations.

Salary data 

Many factors determine the salary that a social worker earns, and different sources report different data. According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for social workers is $47,980 per year and $23.07 per hour. Payscale reports that the average salary for a social worker is $44,875 per year, and Glassdoor reports the average to be $53,950.

  • Location: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that social workers earn the highest salaries in Rhode Island with an annual mean wage of $75,710, Hawaii with $74,290, and Massachusetts with $73,940 per year.

  • Experience level: Payscale reports that an entry-level social worker with less than 5 years of experience can expect to earn an average of $40,000 per year, and a social workers with greater than 20 years of experience can expect to earn an average total compensation of $55,000.

  • Education: The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) found that a Doctor of Social Work or PhD in social work can boosted earnings by about $17,000 over the baseline expected from those who held bachelor’s degrees, and earning an MSW boosted pay on average by $15,000 over what could be expected by holding a BSW alone.

  • Workplace: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the highest paying workplaces are hospitals (state, local, and private) which pay an average salary of $58,490, local government (excluding education and hospitals) which pay an average of $52,900, followed by ambulatory healthcare services which pay an average of $48,340.

Where do social workers work?

  • Private Practices: A majority of LCSWs go on to run either individual private practices or group private practices. Responsibilities of running an individual private practice include finding, meeting with, and billing clients in addition to managing costs such as purchasing malpractice insurance and renting office space. Joining a group private practice helps offset costs and is a more helpful option for LCSWs who are new to working in a private practice.

  • Hospitals: Social workers employed by hospitals may fill the roles of therapists or case managers. Most hold MSWs, and they often disseminate information regarding support groups, medical tools, and act as a source of emotional support as patients adjust their lives and cope with diagnoses. Social workers who work in hospitals who do not hold an MSW may help assist and help manage tasks such as discharge planning.
  • Schools: Social workers who work in schools create plans to better both academic performance and social development for students. They address aggressive behavior and absences with students and advocate for students best interests. They may help students receive special services or accommodations and assess students to determine issues related to substance use, emotional functioning, and peer acceptance.
  • Prisons: Social workers employed by prisons typically must receive specific training in criminal justice, and their goals include trying to reduce recidivism rates by determining and correcting psychosocial issues that helping incarcerated persons reintegrate into society.
  • Mental Health Clinics: Clients struggling with mental illness or substance abuse issues may work with social workers during the course of their treatment. Social workers may also lead 12-step programs at these clinics or outpatient programs.

How to find a social work job

Fortunately, because so many different companies and organizations employ social workers, if you are looking to break into the field, there are plenty of places to begin your search! If you have an interest in working at a specific location such as a hospital, prison, or nonprofit organization, try reaching out to see if volunteer positions are open. This way, you can first get an up-close look of what the job entails and make connections that could lead to employment.

If you are currently enrolled in a certification or degree program, reach out to career advisors to see that resources are available regarding job placement. After you have earned your degrees or certifications, reach out to professional organizations such as the National Association of Social Workers or the Association for Community Organization and Social Administration

Keep your network strong, and reach out to people who work in similar fields. Keep an eye out for postings on online job boards, and make sure to let friends know that you’re searching.

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Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is a contributing writer for Color My Bubble. Her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets 2017 anthology.

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