How to Become a Social Worker – 8 Steps to Consider

Becoming a social worker is a big decision that requires making a commitment to completing specific educational and training requirements. For most states, a social work license will require you to earn a Master of Social Work (MSW).

If you’re thinking about becoming a social worker but aren’t sure what the process entails, this guide provides information on programs available to you within the discipline, licensure requirements and more.

Steps to Become a Social Worker

There are common steps to take in order to begin your career as a social worker.  

  1. Research if a Career in Social Work is Right For You
  2. Complete Undergraduate Education Requirements
  3. Research Graduate Education Options 
  4. Pursue Accredited MSW Graduate Education
  5. Complete the ASWB Examination
  6. Apply for Licensure as a Social Worker in Your State
  7. Begin Career as a Social Worker
  8. Complete Continuing Education Requirements

After researching if a career in social work is right for you, you’ll need to complete educational requirements. While it is not a terminal degree, the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) may suffice for a number of entry-level positions. When you’ve completed your BSW program, or earned a bachelor’s degree in any field, you may choose to research graduate education options and pursue an accredited Master of Social Work (MSW) program. This step is a must if you’re hoping to obtain a social work role. Next comes applying for licensure in your state, which may require passage of examinations and meeting other state-specific requirements—then, you’re ready to practice. Once you are licensed as a social worker, you will need to complete continuing education requirements for license renewals.

1. Research if a Career in Social Work is Right For You

To determine whether becoming a social worker is right for you, carefully consider the necessary commitments—including education. There are social work programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Which you choose to pursue depends on your career ambitions as well as how many years you’re willing to spend in school. 

You’ll also want to consider the different specialties you can pursue within the field and career opportunities that will be available to you. Certain social work programs offer concentrations that can prepare you to work with a particular demographic, such as schoolchildren or members of the military.

If you’re not entirely sure about who you want to work with, no cause for alarm. While considering your options, research career advancement in the field to see whether social work provides you with the long-term opportunities you feel are best for you.

Finally, understanding the job outlook, salary expectations and potential work environments associated with being a social worker can help you make an informed decision as to whether it is the right career path for you. You can speak with social workers in your community to get an idea of how much they earn or refer to the national median salary of social workers gathered by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

2. Complete Undergraduate Education Requirements

Although jobs in the social work field are available to those with just a bachelor’s degree, you won’t be able to practice in a clinical capacity without completing a master’s in social work. And without a master’s in social work, your career options could be limited. That’s why some people choose to pursue a Master of Social Work. Undergraduate education requirements will vary between graduate programs. Not all of them require a BSW for admission, but some like advanced standing MSW programs do.

If you decide you want to become a social worker after completing your undergraduate degree and your bachelor’s is not in social work, you can still pursue social work at the graduate level. Students who do not have a BSW but wish to earn an MSW can enroll in a graduate program, which usually takes two years to complete for students who are enrolled full-time. Both BSW and MSW programs are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), and states typically require applicants to graduate from a program that has CSWE accreditation, if they wish to be licensed and practice as social workers.

Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work

Obtaining a Bachelor of Social Work can help you prepare for the next step in your education as well as your overall career in the field. Having a BSW makes it possible for you to enroll in advanced standing programs. These programs take less time to complete than traditional MSW programs since students have covered the basics and foundational principles of social work in their undergraduate classes.

If you don’t want to pursue an MSW, having a BSW can still be beneficial for working in the field of social work. A BSW may allow you to apply to a variety of entry-level positions in schools, government agencies or nonprofits.

Bachelor of Social Work programs typically take four years to complete. Additionally, CSWE accredited BSW programs require students to complete 400 hours of supervised field work to obtain their degree.

3. Research Graduate Education Options 

Once you’ve obtained your bachelor’s degree—in social work or another field—you can begin researching your options for earning your master’s in social work. Since there are several types of programs available, carefully consider which one best suits your career goals and personal circumstances.

You can start off by asking yourself: Should I be a part-time or full-time student? To make this decision, take into account your financial situation, whether you plan to work full- or part-time while you pursue your social work education, and how quickly you want to complete your program.

As you think through your enrollment options, it’s also important to give some thought to whether you’d like to pursue your degree online or in person. Your location, work schedule, personal obligations and learning style are all factors that may influence your choice. For example, maybe your desired program is offered by a university in another state and you are unable to relocate because of your job. Seeking out an online option from the same university may be an option.

If you decide to pursue your degree online, keep in mind that there are programs that will require you to meet for live classes each week. You’ll want to make sure you have the right tech tools (laptop, webcam, etc.) to be able to attend these scheduled sessions. There are other programs that combine synchronous and asynchronous course content. 

Weigh the pros and cons of each offering before making a selection, and remember that many online programs call for the same self-discipline, participation and organization as traditional, in-person programs.

4. Pursue Accredited MSW Graduate Education

Once you’ve conducted your research and decided how you plan to pursue your MSW, it’s important to look for accredited program options. CSWE-accredited programs implement a set of standards and best practices that are widely accepted in the field—providing you with skills and competencies that can position you for a successful post-graduate career.  Additionally, most states typically require applicants to graduate from a CSWE-accredited program in order to meet the academic requirements for licensure.

Pursuing an MSW may open up a variety of career opportunities that would not have been available without completing a graduate program. From healthcare settings to nonprofits, obtaining an MSW can unlock opportunities to practice in a wide range of settings. An MSW is necessary for certain social work licenses too—which are often required for many positions in the field.

MSW Program Options

Before earning your master’s in social work, you should determine which kind of program is best for you. There are several MSW program options, such as advanced standing programs, no-GRE-required programs, online programs and dual programs. Also available are MSWs that allow students to focus on a specific concentration.

You can find details of the different program options below.

  • Advanced standing programs. As discussed, if you have an accredited BSW, you may be eligible to apply for advanced standing MSW programs. These programs can be completed in a shorter amount of time, since the coursework covered during your BSW allows you to skip some of the general requirements for an MSW.
  • No-GRE-required programs. Taking the Graduate Record Examination, or GRE, is a prerequisite for many graduate programs—and your scores may impact your chances of admission. However, some MSW programs do not require students to take the GRE or to submit their scores to apply
  • Online programs. Online options are available for both advanced standing and traditional standing MSW programs. Online MSW programs may offer students scheduling flexibility, and some programs consider applications on a rolling basis while offering multiple start dates.
  • Dual programs. Dual degree programs allow students to pursue their MSW and another degree simultaneously, providing them with interdisciplinary opportunities. Some dual degree programs include MSW/ J.D. (Juris Doctor), MSW/MBA (Master of Business Administration), and MSW/MPH (Master of Public Health). Other dual degree programs are available and vary by institution.

5. Complete the ASWB Examination

To become licensed as a social worker, most states require applicants to complete the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) Social Work Licensing examination, along with any required jurisprudence examinations. Students may be required to obtain approval from their state’s social work board to register for the ASWB examination. It is best to check with your state board for specific examination requirements.

There are different levels of social work examinations issued by the ASWB—bachelor’s, master’s, advanced generalist, and clinical. For each one, there is a minimum educational requirement, and each exam consists of 170 multiple choice questions, with the difficulty and subject matter varying by level. The type of license you pursue essentially determines your scope of practice.

6. Apply for Licensure as a Social Worker in Your State

Once you’ve completed the educational and examination requirements, you’ll need to obtain social work licensure in your state to begin your career as a licensed social worker. Licensing requirements are in place to ensure social workers meet specific requirements and are qualified based on key standards. All states and the District of Columbia have their own certification and licensing systems, so you should research specific requirements based on the state you plan to work in. 

If you are looking for social work licensure requirements in your state, check out our social work licensure state-by-state list below. You’ll find more information on licensure options, supervision requirements, continuing education, and more. Individual state requirements will vary and are subject to change, including licensure standards, exam eligibility, and appropriate pathways, and may differ based on individual student backgrounds. Students should do their own due diligence and determine the appropriate pathway and license type for themselves.

Find below short descriptions of three common social work licenses:

  • LBSW. Becoming a licensed baccalaureate social worker (LBSW) requires completing a bachelor’s in social work and obtaining licensure in accordance with your jurisdiction’s requirements. 
  • LMSW. Becoming a licensed master social worker (LMSW) requires completing a master’s in social work and obtaining licensure in accordance with your jurisdiction’s requirements. 
  • LCSW. Becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) requires completing a master’s in social work, completing specific clinical training and coursework, and obtaining licensure in accordance with your jurisdiction’s requirements.

Please note this list is not exhaustive as the names of these licenses will vary from state to state.

7. Begin Career as a Social Worker

After you obtain the necessary licensure from your state, you’ll be able to begin working. Career opportunities in social work are broad, and social workers can work in a variety of settings and roles. The career path you choose should be informed by your passions, interests and skills.

Below are some details on the various career options available to you: 

  • School social work. School social workers help bridge the gap between children’s personal and academic lives. And they are liaisons between schools and families. Duties of a school social worker can be wide-ranging and may encompass working with special needs students, behavioral intervention, juvenile justice and child services. 
  • Substance abuse. Social workers who focus on substance abuse often act as a liaison between medical services and an individual struggling with substance abuse, as well as the individual’s family and community. These kinds of social workers often work in rehabilitation centers, nonprofit organizations, prisons or private practices. 
  • Mental health. These types of social workers help people struggling with mental health issues. If you choose to work in this specialty area, note that many positions require an MSW. Mental health social workers often provide individual therapy, group therapy and crisis intervention. They also practice in hospitals, mental health centers, rehabilitation centers and more. 
  • Medical social work. Medical social workers provide care and support to patients in a variety of medical and healthcare settings. These kinds of social workers help alleviate the difficulties patients and their families may experience in a medical setting, including emotional and financial hardship. Hospitals, hospices, rehabilitation centers and nursing homes are all common work environments for medical social workers. 

8. Complete Continuing Education Requirements

To renew and maintain your social worker license, you’ll need to obtain continuing education units in accordance with the requirements outlined by your jurisdiction. Requirements vary by state. Some require social workers to complete a minimum number of hours of continuing education, while others look for completion of certain courses. It’s important to research the continuing education you’ll need to maintain your license. The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) provides more thorough information regarding license renewal requirements.  

For social workers who wish to continue their education, pursuing a doctoral degree in social work is an option. Students can choose between two kinds of degrees—the Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in social work. A DSW is generally for those who wish to pursue training beyond the MSW level in order to continue their career as a social worker. A Ph.D. is generally for those who are interested in academia or research careers. 

Credentials, such as those offered by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW),  are also a viable option for those who wish to continue their education. These programs may allow social workers to advance their knowledge and skills in specific areas of the field.

Factors to Compare Before Becoming a Social Worker

As noted above, deciding to pursue a career in social work can be a big investment in terms of time and finances. To make an informed decision for your professional future, you may consider the following factors:

Levels of Social Work

There are three basic levels of social work—macro, mezzo and micro. Each encompasses a specific scope of practice. As you make decisions regarding your career path, you should note the differences between each level, which are described below.

  • Macro social work. Social workers who practice at the macro level focus on enacting large-scale social change through avenues such as policy, administration and advocacy. This level offers work opportunities in settings that focus on structural issues, such as government agencies.
  • Mezzo social work. Social workers who practice at the mezzo level work with groups rather than with individuals. Settings for this scope of practice include schools, nonprofits, hospitals and communities at the small-scale level. 
  • Micro social work. Social workers who practice at the micro level work directly with individuals and their families to help them with their specific needs and circumstances.

Program Accreditation

Regardless of what kind of program or degree you choose to pursue, it’s important that your program is accredited by the CSWE. Choosing an accredited program helps ensure the curriculum and training meet standards that will adequately prepare you for a career in social work. To sit for most licensing exams, states typically require you to have graduated from a program that is accredited by the CSWE.

Degree Pathways

Once you’re sure you want to pursue graduate education to become a social worker, you can compare social work degrees to determine which one makes the most sense for you. Whether you choose to study on-campus or enroll in an online MSW program, there are a variety of options available which have different benefits depending on your lifestyle and needs.

Learn more about MSW program options above.

Curriculum

An MSW curriculum typically includes courses that cover theory, practice and ethics. Most students can expect to participate in generalist courses, electives and fieldwork. In the classroom, students of CSWE-accredited MSW programs will likely cover curriculum that aligns with the following social work competencies:

  • Demonstrate Ethical and Professional Behavior
  • Engage Diversity and Difference in Practice
  • Advance Human Rights and Social, Economic and Environmental Justice
  • Engage in Practice-Informed Research and Research Informed Practice
  • Engage in Policy Practice
  • Engage with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities
  • Assess Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities.
  • Intervene with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities
  • Evaluate Practice with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities

Learning about these topics in the classroom will prepare students to implement their knowledge and skills in real-world settings once they begin their careers. And even before then, there’s fieldwork.

Fieldwork is another important element of the MSW curriculum, as it allows students to practice in a variety of settings under the supervision of an experienced social worker. Typically, MSW programs require students to complete at least 900 hours as part of their field experience, though some may require additional hours. It is vital to check whether these fieldwork hours meet your state board’s licensure requirements.

Specialization

As you pursue your career in social work, there are several specialty areas you can choose from. Specialization allows you to narrow your focus and hone your skills in a specific area of social work. The specialization you choose to pursue in your studies may impact your future career choices as a social worker.

Below, you’ll find descriptions of several social work specializations.

  • Clinical Social Work. Specializing in clinical social work may require additional coursework and postgraduate clinical training. In pursuing this specialization, students will learn to assess and treat individuals with mental health issues. 
  • Military Social Work. Specializing in military social work prepares students to work with current and former service members, as well as their families. Working with this population requires special training, since this group often has specific needs as a result of their time in service. 
  • Medical Social Work. If you choose to pursue a degree with a concentration in medical social work, you’ll learn how to best help people through the social, financial and physical difficulties they may face in a variety of healthcare settings such as hospitals or nursing homes. 
  • Psychiatric Social Work. If you choose to pursue an MSW program with a focus on psychiatric social work, you can expect to learn how to assess, treat and provide intervention to individuals with severe mental illness.
  • School Social Work. Specializing in school social work prepares students to take on a variety of roles in the education sector. School social workers act as a liaison between schools, children and their families. 
  • Mental Health Social Work. Mental health social work education programs prepare students to help populations and individuals with mental health and behavior issues. When you become a mental health social worker, you can work in a range of settings, including nonprofit organizations and private practices.

FAQs

What Is Social Work?

Social work is a practice-based profession that promotes social change, development, cohesion and the empowerment of people and communities. Social workers play an important role in society by helping others in a variety of contexts and environments.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Social Worker?

It may take about six years to become a social worker. The total time it takes you to become a social worker will depend on the type of degree you choose to earn and the type of social work services you wish to provide. Obtaining a Bachelor of Social Work typically takes four years while earning a Master of Social Work will take one or two years. You’ll also need to factor in time needed to pass the necessary licensing exams, determined by your jurisdiction.

How Do I Become a Social Worker Without a Degree or Qualifications?

To practice as a social worker, students must obtain a license in the state they wish to practice in. Individual state requirements will vary and are subject to change, including licensure standards, exam eligibility, and appropriate pathways, and may differ based on individual student backgrounds. Students should do their own due diligence and determine the appropriate pathway and license type for themselves.

How Difficult Is It to Obtain a Social Work Degree?

Becoming a social worker requires time and effort—but for many, the rewards of entering the field make the hard work worth the investment. Though you’ll need to complete specific educational and training requirements and obtain appropriate licenses, entering the field means starting a career with opportunities for growth and social impact.

What Does a Social Services Worker Do?

A social services worker may help those in need by addressing personal and social issues with community resources. Social services workers are not the same as social workers or any other mental health professionals. Social services workers help assist mental health professionals with clients. If you are interested in a mental health career, learn more about counseling vs. social work or psychology vs. social work. If you are interested in becoming a counselor, you may consider earning your master’s degree in counseling.

Why Should I Become a Social Worker?

Becoming a social worker may be a good choice for you if you wish to work in a field that allows you to help individuals, families and groups. Social workers often engage in work that promotes justice, equality and social change. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), growth in social work jobs from 2020 to 2030 is projected to be much higher than the average for all occupations.

Is Social Work a Good Career?

For many, social work presents a rewarding and meaningful career path. If you enjoy working with people to achieve positive life outcomes despite their challenges, then a career in social work may be a good fit for you. Social work also has a positive job outlook—according to the BLS, the field is projected to add 89,200 jobs between 2020 and 2030. Job prospects will vary by specialty area. Employment of healthcare social workers is expected to grow 12 percent during the same decade, even faster than the growth rate for all social work jobs.

Information on this page was retrieved as of July 2021.