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 work practice involves the understanding of human development, behavior and the social, economic and cultural institutions and interactions. Social work professionals working with families and institutions have helped to provide and advance the following social impacts:

  • Civil Rights
  • Unemployment Insurance
  • Disability Pay
  • Workers’ Compensation
  • Reduced Mental Health Stigma
  • Medicaid and Medicare
  • Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention

In the United States, social work has been around for over 100 years, with notable pioneers such as Jane Addams, Frances Perkins, Whitney M. Young, Jr., Harry Hopkins, Dorothy Height and Jeannette Rankin.

3 Levels of Social Work

Generally, there are three levels of social work practice: micro, mezzo and macro social work. At each level, social work professionals provide slightly different services to target populations.

  • Micro Social Work: At the micro level, social workers provide one-on-one, family and small-group services to individuals addressing a wide range of social issues. These may include housing support, substance abuse counseling and mental health therapy.
  • Mezzo Social Work: Social workers who operate at the mezzo level work with groups of people, such as in a school, prison, hospital or neighborhoods. They may help students struggling academically, address substance abuse recovery with prison inmates or help coordinate care for patients who are admitted to hospitals for long-term care.
  • Macro Social Work: Macro-level social work encompasses policy making, research and community based initiatives. Social workers at this level of practice are more likely to focus on and help address larger societal issues like homelessness, substance abuse, housing and more.

What Is a Social Worker?

Social workers are professionals who aim to enhance overall well-being and help meet basic and complex needs of communities and people. Social workers work with many different populations and types of people, particularly focusing on those who are vulnerable, oppressed and living in poverty.

Depending on their specialty, job title and place of employment, a social worker may be required to participate in legislative processes that often result in the formation of social policies. They lean on social work values and principles, as well as academic research to carry out their work. 

Social workers are educated and trained to address social injustices and barriers to their client’s overall wellbeing. Some of these include poverty, unemployment, discrimination and lack of housing. They also support clients and communities who are living with disabilities, substance abuse problems or experience domestic conflicts. 

Social workers often fine-tune their practice with a focus on a level of interventions and types of communities they wish to serve. A clinical social worker, for example, focuses on diagnoses, treatments and prevention of mental, emotional and behavioral issues. On the other hand, a social worker may focus on research and development for small or large-scale programs to help the community, like Medicaid. 

Sponsored Online Social Work Programs

University of Southern California


Master of Social Work (MSW)

The MSW@USC is the online Master of Social Work from top-ranked USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. USC offers virtual and in-person field education, and students focus on adults, youth or social change.

  •  Minimum completion time: 16 months
  • Online classes taught by USC faculty 
  • Virtual field training to build skills and confidence

University of Denver


Master of Social Work (MSW)

The University of Denver’s Online MSW Program is delivered by its top-ranked school of social work and offers two programs. Students can earn their degree in as few as 12 months for the Online Advanced-Standing MSW or 27 months for the Online MSW.

  • Complete the Online Advanced-Standing MSW in as few as 12 months if you have a BSW; if you do not have a BSW, the Online MSW Program may be completed in as few as 27 months.
  • No GRE Required
  • Customizable pathway options include Mental Health and Trauma or Health, Equity and Wellness concentrations

Fordham University


Master of Social Work (MSW)

Fordham’s skills-based, online MSW program integrates advanced relevant social work competencies, preparing students to serve individuals and communities while moving the profession forward. This program includes advanced standing and traditional MSW options.

  •  Traditional and advanced standing online MSW options are available.
  • There are four areas of focus: Individuals and Families, Organizations and Community, Evaluation, and Policy Practice and Advocacy.
  • Pursue the degree on a full-time or part-time track.

Simmons University


Master of Social Work (MSW)

Aspiring direct practitioners can earn their MSW online from Simmons University in as few as 9 months. GRE scores are not required, and the program offers full-time, part-time, accelerated, and advanced standing tracks.

  • Prepares students to pursue licensure, including LCSW 
  • Full-time, part-time, and accelerated tracks 
  • Minimum completion time: 9 months

Syracuse University


Master of Social Work (MSW)

Syracuse University’s online Master of Social Work program does not require GRE scores to apply and is focused on preparing social workers who embrace technology as an important part of the future of the profession. Traditional and Advanced Standing tracks are available.

  • Traditional and Advanced Standing tracks
  • No GRE required
  • Concentrate your degree in integrated practice or clinical practice

Baylor University


Master of Social Work (MSW)

Complete the Master of Social Work online program at Baylor University in as few as 12 months. Serve populations in Texas and around the world while ethically integrating faith and social work practice. No GRE required.

  • Address injustice from a strengths-based perspective
  • Ethically integrates faith and social work practice
  • Serve as a trusted resource for clients, no matter their personal background
  • Complete the MSW online program in as few as 12 months

Howard University


Master of Social Work (MSW)

The online Master of Social Work program from Howard University School of Social Work prepares students for advanced direct or macro practice in culturally diverse communities. Two concentrations available: Direct Practice and Community, Administration, and Policy Practice. No GRE. Complete in as few as 12 months.

  • Concentrations: Direct Practice and Community, Administration, and Policy Practice
  • Complete at least 777-1,000 hours of agency-based field education
  • Earn your degree in as few as 12 months

Case Western Reserve University


Master of Social Work (MSW)

In as few as a year and a half, you can prepare for social work leadership by earning your Master of Social Work online from Case Western Reserve University’s school of social work.

  • CSWE-accredited
  • No GRE requirement
  • Complete in as few as one and a half years


Is a Career in Social Work Right for Me?

Is a career in social work worth it? For you, it could be. Before you settle on any profession, whether it is in social work or a related discipline, consider your personal interests, unique abilities and professional goals. Your career as a social worker should align with these three things. Consider asking yourself these questions to determine if a social work career is worth it for you:

  • Does diversity drive you or is your cultural competence what draws others to you? 
  • Do you currently spend your spare time mentoring disadvantaged youth or support children and adolescents who have experienced trauma or abuse at the hands of family members?
  • Are you emotionally resilient, and do you seek out challenges in the workplace, always proposing new solutions?
  • Are you praised for your patience, professionalism and ability to read people?

The job of a social worker is often considered both rewarding and emotionally taxing. Having strong interpersonal skills, exercising empathy and being an effective communicator, listener and critical thinker may contribute to success in this career.

If you do decide to enter the field of social work, you’ll be joining a fast-growing workforce. Employment of social workers is projected to grow 12% from 2020 to 2030, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). By contrast, all occupations are expected to grow 8% in the same decade. 

  • You can become a social worker with a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree, but independent and more research-oriented roles may require advanced education. 
  • Master of Social Work (MSW), for example, may lead to state licensure to practice independently. There are traditional, hybrid and online MSW programs available. 
  • If you already have a BSW, you may apply to advanced standing MSW programs. This type of program can typically be completed in a shorter amount of time, as it assumes that you have already learned social work fundamentals during your BSW. 
  • If clinical social work is the path you’re pursuing, you must know what it takes to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). You may pursue a clinical MSW program to further support your LCSW goal. Some states require this pathway and others do not. Be sure to check with your state’s social work licensing requirements.
  • If you’re looking to become a leader in your workplace or the field, then a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) may be a viable option. The DSW holder looks to transition into positions that assess large-scale problems and address social work issues on a grand scale.

What Does a Social Worker Do?

The roles of a social worker include many diverse specializations. Here are some common responsibilities of social workers organized by different specialty areas:

Child, family and school social workers help children, school staff and family members resolve problems. In some instances, this may mean placing children in foster care. Child, family and school social workers may also connect struggling parents with resources to help better care for and raise their children. They work alongside students and teachers to address bullying, learning disabilities and other impairments/barriers. 

Medical and public health social workers help the seriously ill and those with chronic health problems to find adequate care, access public resources like Medicare and Medicaid or locate services such as in-home nursing care. They often play a critical role in supporting clients as they navigate the numerous healthcare and public service systems that coordinate healthcare. 

Mental health and substance abuse social workers support people with mental health or substance abuse problems. Therapy is one common intervention used by social workers to help clients address these problems. Assisting people to find financially accessible rehabilitative programs or long-term mental healthcare is another service that is offered. Mental health and substance abuse social workers may also participate in outreach and preventative programs that seek to address problems before they become exacerbated.

It isn’t a question of what does a social worker do daily, but rather what doesn’t a social worker do? Day in and day out, social workers can be found in a range of settings helping and supporting those around them. 

Where Does a Social Worker Work?

Social workers can be found within a wide variety of employment settings. Specializations often determine where and how they work. Some spend time in an office, although visiting clients off-site is also common. Those working within the child, school and family positions may experience schedule changes and will generally need to travel more than their healthcare counterparts who tend to be more fixed in their roles. 

The field of social work allows for a variety of focus areas dedicated to helping others. You can find dedicated social workers within hospitals, mental health clinics, prisons, military barracks, senior centers, corporations and public social agencies. Out of the public eye, licensed social workers can also set up private practices that specialize in relationship problems, personality disorders or mental illnesses.

Learn more on how to become a social worker.

Possible Careers in Social Work 

There are numerous possibilities for social work careers at the macro, micro and mezzo levels. Some opportunities include:

  • Military Social Worker. A military social worker educates and works with members of the armed forces and their families to help them with the unique challenges they face in their line of work. Through counseling and support, military social workers can navigate the complexity of working with both active-duty and civilian clients who are part of the military.
  • Community Social Worker. Instead of working with individual clients, a community social worker assesses a group as a whole and implements measures and changes for the betterment of everyone. Community social workers plan for and administer new programs, or work on allocating resources to the community.
  • Mental Health Social Worker. Mental illness can present many challenges for people and families. Those living with mental health disorders often need additional support and attention that social workers can provide. A mental health social worker spends their time assessing and treating people with mental health issues and providing feedback and assistance to address these behavioral and emotional issues. 
  • School Social Worker. Most primary and secondary schools have a social worker who is the voice and advocate for their students. A school social worker works directly with the school, teachers, parents and staff to make sure students can thrive inside and outside of the classroom setting. These social workers develop relationships with families, recommend community resources and extend support for mental health services and crisis management.

Social Worker Skills

Each social worker employs a diverse set of skills to do their work. But as we discussed earlier, there are certain skills that can be particularly useful to those in the field. Below are some examples:

  • Empathy. This skill enables the social worker to put themselves in their client’s shoes. Having empathy can offer a social worker a deeper understanding of their client’s problems.  
  • Organization. With the many daily responsibilities they have, social workers need to be extremely organized. The amount of paperwork and caseloads can add up from networking, calls, billing and organizing services for everyone. 
  • Communication. Social workers should be clear, concise and transparent with clients and their families or care providers, as well as with their colleagues. Strong communication can help to mitigate misunderstandings and break down other communication barriers.
  • Problem-Solving. No case is the same and a social worker is often working hard to find the best solution in a difficult situation. A good problem solver can help clients obtain the best services and support needed.
  • Patience. As a social worker, you will work with diverse clients. Maintaining patience and understanding clients from different racial and socio-economic backgrounds is a core component of social work practice.


Are there any social work scholarships available? 

Becoming a social worker is a financial commitment. Luckily, there are social work scholarships available to help students with the cost of earning a degree. Aside from scholarships, there are also student loans or grants available to help cover the cost. 

How much does a social worker make?

The salary of a social worker can range depending on the field, tenure, and education achieved. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual pay for a social worker in 2020 was $51,760, with the highest 10% of social workers making more than $85,820.

How do I find a social worker?

You can reach out to healthcare providers, your health insurance company or search a referral service/national professional organization like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) or the American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work (ABCSW)

How many social workers are there in the United States?

As of 2020, the employment of social workers data from the BLS estimates that there are 715,600 social workers employed in the United States. The most recent BLS data suggests that by 2030, there could be more than 800,000 social workers. 

Who do social workers work with?

A social worker assists people within a wide range of settings, from mental health clinics to schools and hospitals. Social workers can work with individuals or within large communities or organizations and assist with a variety of ailments from addiction treatment to chronic illness and child support services.

Why are social workers important? 

The impact of a social worker goes beyond just helping people in need. From promoting core values of compassion and service to others, to framing research within the field, to informing policy, social workers actively address and stand up for human rights and social injustices. They strengthen individual people and communities and try to give voice to the unheard. 

Information on this page was last retrieved in February 2022.