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 involves the understanding of human development, behavior and the social, economic and cultural institutions and interactions. Social work professionals have made significant contributions to society through their work with families and institutions in areas that include:

  • 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.

Three 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 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, healthcare 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 fulfill their responsibilities.

Social workers are educated and trained to address social injustices and barriers to their client’s overall well-being. Some of these include poverty, unemployment, discrimination and lack of housing. They also support clients and communities who are living with disabilities, struggling with substance abuse or experiencing 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. Another social worker may focus on research and development for small- or large-scale programs, like Medicaid, to help communities.

Sponsored Online Social Work Programs

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

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

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

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

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

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? It could be. Before you settle on any profession, whether it is in social work or a related discipline, determine if it aligns with your interests, unique abilities and professional goals. Consider these questions to ascertain if a social work career is the right fit 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 supporting children and adolescents who have experienced trauma or abuse because 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 can be 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 7% from 2022 to 2032, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). By contrast, all occupations are expected to grow 3% in the same decade.

  • You can become a social worker with a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), but independent and more research-oriented roles may require advanced education. 
  • A 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. These programs can typically be completed in a shorter amount of time because applicants are expected to have learned social work fundamentals in their BSW program. 
  • If clinical social work is the path you’re interested in pursuing, it’s important to know what it takes to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). You may enroll in a clinical MSW program to help reach your LCSW goal. Requirements can vary by state. It’s important to check licensure requirements for the state in which you plan to practice.
  • 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 typically 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?

Social workers’ roles encompass a wide array of diverse specializations. Some common responsibilities of social workers organized by different specialty areas include:

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. Other services provided by mental health and substance abuse social workers include assisting people in finding affordable rehabilitative programs or long-term mental healthcare. Mental health and substance abuse social workers may seek to address problems before they get worse by participating in outreach and preventative programs.

What does a social worker do daily? The more appropriate question is: 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 in a variety of employment settings. Specializations often determine where and how they work. Some may spend time in an office, although visiting clients offsite is also common. Those in child, school and family social worker roles may experience schedule changes and travel more than their healthcare counterparts.

Social workers are commonly employed by hospitals, mental health clinics, schools, prisons, military bases, senior centers, corporations and public social agencies. Licensed clinical social workers can also set up private practices where they work with clients to address relationship problems, personality disorders or mental illnesses.

Learn how to become a social worker.

Possible Careers in Social Work 

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

  • Military social worker. Through counseling and support, military social workers educate and work with members of the armed forces, as well as veterans and their families, to help them with the unique challenges they face.
  • Community social worker. Instead of working with individual clients, community social workers assess a group as a whole and implement measures and changes for everyone’s benefit. Community social workers prepare and administer new programs or work on allocating resources to the community.
  • Mental health social worker. Those living with mental health disorders often need the support and attention that social workers can provide. Mental health social workers spend their time assessing and treating people with behavioral and emotional issues, providing feedback and assistance to address their mental health. 
  • School social worker. Most primary and secondary schools have a social worker who functions as an advocate for students. School social workers engage directly with the teachers, parents, administrators 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

Social workers employ a diverse set of skills to do their work. However, there are certain skills that are particularly useful in the field, such as:

  • Empathy. This quality enables social workers to put themselves in their client’s shoes. Having empathy can help a social worker have a deeper understanding of a client’s problems.
  • Organization. With the many daily responsibilities they have, social workers can benefit from being extremely organized. The amount of paperwork and caseloads can add up from networking, calls, billing and arranging services for multiple clients. 
  • 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 the ability to understand clients from different racial and socio-economic backgrounds are core components of social work practice.


Are there any social work scholarships available? 

Social work scholarships are available to help students with the cost of earning a degree. Student loans and grants are also 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 BLS, the median annual pay for a social worker in 2022 was $55,350, with the highest 10% of social workers earning more than $87,300.

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 2022, the BLS estimates that there are 728,600 social workers employed in the United States. The most recent BLS data suggests that by 2032, there could be more than 782,000 social workers.

Who do social workers work with?

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

Why are social workers important? 

Social workers do more than go out into the field to work with people in need. From promoting core values of empathy and compassion to framing research within their discipline and informing policy, social workers address and advocate for human rights and social justice. They work to strengthen individuals and communities.

Last updated October 2023.