Guide to Social Work Careers and Licensure

A social work career involves working with people to solve problems in their everyday lives. Social workers can work in a variety of different settings to assist those who need the help by improving their quality of life and overall well-being. Some available career paths for social workers include:

Education is an important part of becoming a professional in the social work field. It helps individuals identify their areas of interest and gain knowledge rooted in theory and practice. While getting a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) is a solid first step toward a career in social work, earning your Master of Social Work degree (MSW) is required for many licensed social work positions.

After obtaining your MSW, you are prepared to sit for the Association of Social Work Board (ASWB) social work licensing examination in your state.

How to Become a Social Worker

Becoming a social worker can be completed in a few steps. Here is a common path to become a social worker that people take in order to gain entry into the field:

1. Earn Your Bachelor’s Degree

For anyone pursuing a career in social work, a bachelor’s degree is usually required.

A BSW is a good starting point for graduates to obtain entry-level positions in social work, however, a BSW is not required. Bachelor’s degrees in related fields such as psychology, sociology, anthropology and more will suffice.

2. Earn Your Master’s Degree in Social Work

Master’s degrees accredited by the Council on Social Work (CSWE) are typically required to pursue a career in the field of social work. You must have your master’s in social work (MSW) in order to become a licensed social worker (LSW) in most states.

Today, there are many programs available to get your MSW on-campus or online.

3. Complete Social Work Internship Hours

Many master’s in social work (MSW) programs require that students complete internship hours. This allows for students to gain hand-on experience and apply their learned skills to real situations.

Whether you take an online program or an on-campus program, field work must be completed in-person. Around 900 hours of internship work is required before completing the MSW program.

4. Take the ASWB Exam

Taking the ASWB exam is mandatory for licensure. You can register for the ASWB licensing exam after your state approves your request. There are online practice tests with information on what to expect on the exam that may help you prepare. You can then register for a Master of Social Work license.

5. Pursue Social Work Licensure in Your State

After obtaining a master’s in social work (MSW), students can pursue a license to become a licensed social worker (LSW). The term for this type of licensure can vary from state to state. Once you obtain your license, you will typically have to work under the supervision of a licensed clinical social worker. This opens the door for graduates to select what area of social work they’d like to go into.

Some options include working in school settings, medical settings, community settings and more.

6. Advance Your Career as a Social Worker

If you want to advance your career, you can pursue a clinical license (LCSW). In order to do so, most states require LSWs to complete 3,000 hours of direct clinical work under the supervision of a licensed clinical social worker. After this is completed, you can register for the advanced clinical examination with ASWB. Some states may require additional steps to be completed.

By obtaining a LCSW, you can now practice independently and work more closely with clients in a therapeutic setting.

What Does a Social Worker Do?

Social workers help those who need assistance in coping and dealing with challenges in their everyday lives. This can include vulnerable children and families and communities and those dealing with mental health emergencies, child abuse, illnesses and more.

The roles that social workers have can vary greatly depending on the situation. Social workers may work one-on-one to assist the needs of clients. This can range from providing psychotherapy and responding to crisis situations, to doing research, providing information/resources and advocating. This is all to ensure that their clients are living and functioning to the best of their abilities.

While roles of social workers vary, their work environments can as well. Many social workers work in offices, but will often visit their clients at schools, hospitals, clinics, community centers and homes.

Where Are Social Workers Employed?

The largest employers of social workers as of 2021 were individual and family services, local and state government and healthcare services and hospitals, according to the BLS. Between now and 2028, the employment of social workers is expected to grow 12%, as seen in 2021 BLS data.

The range of career opportunities and employers in social work are vast and broad. In 2020, social workers held more than 715,600 jobs. These occupations were largely located in the field of children, family and school social work.

Why Pursue a Career in Social Work?

A career in social work is suitable for those with strong communication skills who are willing to solve problems in order to find a healthy solution for their clients.

Social work is a rewarding job that holds a special place in our society. Social work addresses problems such as mental illnesses, addiction, abuse and more so that they can work with clients to bring them a better life.

Social workers insist on finding solutions to problems affecting people’s daily life in order to improve their way of living, and as a result, make the world a better place.

Common Social Work Careers

There are a variety of career paths in social work. It is important to keep in mind that most of these career paths require a master’s in social work (MSW).

Child and Family Social Workers

Child, family and school social workers help protect children and assist families who need help meeting their basic needs. This may include helping families find housing or sort out applying for services like childcare and benefits (e.g., food stamps).

Social workers may also step in if children are in danger of abuse or neglect in their homes.

Community Social Workers

Community social workers help communities overcome challenges in order to help them change for the better. Social workers in this field use research and advocacy to provide information to residents so they can improve their way of living and develop their environment.

This may include addressing economic, health, social and school concerns to strengthen the community and its people.

Licensed Clinical Social Workers

Licensed clinical social workers are those who have their master’s in social work (MSW) and have passed the ASWB clinical exam, among other requirements. They are licensed in their state to provide treatment like mental therapy by working directly with their clients. Licensed clinical social workers must adhere to the high standards and ethics of social work. They have the ability to diagnose mental illness in their clients as well.

Medical and Public Health Social Workers

Social workers in the medical and public health fields help treat clients who have an illness, injury or disease. Social workers may help clients manage these struggles by working with the client to make lifestyle adjustments. This may also include helping their clients for the right healthcare professional for them.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers

Mental health and substance abuse social workers treat individuals who are struggling with mental, emotional and substance abuse problems. Social workers in this field may work with clients to assist with therapy, education, management and prevention.

Work environments in this field of social work include substance abuse facilities, hospitals, care centers and more.

Military Social Workers

As a way to cope with psychological and emotional disorders, veterans and active-duty service members turn to military social workers.

Social workers will provide counseling either individually or with the family of those who serve in the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. Military social workers commonly treat disorders such as anxiety, depression and PTSD.

School Social Workers

School social workers help improve students’ academic performance and development. They will work with the students and their parents and teachers in order to come up with the best plan to succeed in their academic environment.

Social Work Administrators, Researchers, Planners and Policymakers

Social work administrators have many different duties that include planning, researching and creating programs to provide assistance to groups and individuals.

Social workers in this field tend to be active in communities with needs that must be met. An example might include a community with a large group of people suffering from drug or substance abuse.

Social Work Licensure

Social work licensure is crucial in ensuring that you will be assisting others with the highest quality of standards within the field. In social work, you can receive your bachelor’s and master’s degrees; however, a master’s degree may be required for certain social work career paths. A master’s in social work (MSW) also allows you to move forward and get your clinical license.

Social work degrees must be obtained from programs that are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). If you are in Canada, the accredited program would be the Canadian Association for Social Work Education (CASWE).

Desired Skills of Social Workers

There are some skills that social workers expect to have strengths in. Communication skills are important as social workers must speak and listen to their clients to get an idea of their needs. Social workers will work with different types of people in a range of situations, therefore, they must be willing to listen and identify their problems.

Being a social worker requires patience and empathy as many clients are in tough situations. With a patient demeanor, they can produce a smooth relationship with their clients in order to move forward and provide the help they need.

Salaries of Social Workers

The median annual wage of social workers was $50,390, according to 2021 BLS data. Social workers who worked in healthcare tended to earn more ($60,840) than those who provided individual and family services ($49,150).

Social workers aside from healthcare; child, family, school and mental health and substance abuse social workers can expect to make around $49,130. At most, the highest 10% of social workers earned more than $82,840 and the lowest 10% earned less than $36,520.

Salaries may differ depending on the type of social work field you are in as well as how often or how little you work. Many social workers tend to work full time and even be on call.

Social Work Job Outlook

As the demand for health care increases, social work employment will continue to increase as well depending on the niche. The employment of social work in general is expected to grow 11% between now and 2030, according to 2020 BLS data.

Some careers in social work have a slightly higher expected increase in employment than others. For example, the employment of healthcare social workers is projected to grow 13% between now and 2030; the same growth percentage applies to child, family and school social workers. Employment for mental health and substance abuse social workers is projected to grow 15%, according to the same BLS data.

Learn more

While the field of social work has its own set of requirements, specialties and opportunities, there are other mental health career options available that are similar to social work, such as psychology and marriage and family therapy. Visit our Mental Health Careers page to learn more.

Last Updated: June 2022