Guide on Becoming an Oncology Social Worker 2021

In supporting the care of oncology patients, social workers in the field provide psychosocial services and programs throughout all phases of cancer treatment. Oncology social workers may also provide education to organizations and communities to strengthen programs, support, awareness and advocacy.

If you think you’re interested in how to become an oncology social worker, read on. This guide will provide details about the career, some of the common steps needed to get there, education requirements, skills that may help in your career, work settings, job and salary outlook, and more.

Steps to Become an Oncology Social Worker

To become an oncology social worker, you’ll follow the similar steps that you would to become a specialized social worker. Keep in mind that not everyone’s career path will look the same:

1. Earn a bachelor’s degree. 

Earning your bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) may help streamline your graduate education, but other bachelor’s degrees are accepted as well.

2. Earn a master’s degree in social work (MSW) 

Complete your MSW program at a university accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). 

3. Choose your MSW specialty. 

There are several areas in which to specialize: school social work, clinical social work, case management or medical social work, under which oncology would fall. Choosing a specialization allows you to take courses that address your future occupation.

4. Complete your field work requirements. 

These can differ from state to state, but CSWE programs require a minimum of 900 hours of supervised field instruction, and state requirements may range from 2,000 to 3,200 hours – be sure to check with your state’s licensing board for required hours. If you are able to obtain experience in oncology, hospice or end-of-life care, this may help with obtaining certification or positions after graduation.

5. Follow your state’s licensing process. 

This will include an Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) licensing exam at the master’s level and may also include a state exam on specific local laws and processes.

6. Earn optional certifications.

The Board of Oncology Social Work (BOSW) offers an Oncology Social Worker (OSW-C) credential to those who qualify. Some universities may offer a certification program as well.

Should I Become an Oncology Social Worker?

Oncology social workers are licensed professionals who provide various levels of care to people who are or have been affected by cancer via emotional and psychosocial services. With counseling, case management, support groups and community programs, an oncology social worker helps patients and their families deal with their “new normal.”If you aren’t sure whether oncology social work is your calling, there are plenty of other social work career paths within the field of social work that fill vital roles in society. Considering a speciality is just one decision you will make when pursuing a social work degree.

What is an Oncology Social Worker?


Oncology social workers almost become extensions of their clients; they are concerned with every aspect of the cancer patient’s treatment and recovery. These social worker may:

  • Provide direct counseling and emotional support.
  • Help a patient find outside support groups.
  • Find financial resources or financial assistance.
  • Connect patients with services that provide transportation to treatments or home care.
  • Assist with applications for Social Security disability.
  • Translate the detailed medical language that can be hard to understand.

In other words, an oncology social worker is a client’s advocate on the journey. During a busy, often confusing, and emotional time, the oncology social worker becomes a bridge between the medical care itself and impacts of cancer and treatment on one’s life.

Degree Programs Oncology Social Workers

If you’ve decided that you want to pursue a career in social work, there are different social work degree options available to you:

  • Bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW): A bachelor’s degree in social work (and its requirement of at least 400 hours of supervised field instruction) may help prepare you you for jobs in which you work with clients, assess their needs, find the resources they need, and follow their progress. A bachelor’s degree does not allow you to do any psychological work with clients. 
  • Master’s degree in social work (MSW): A master’s degree in social work (and its requirement of at least 900 hours of supervised field instruction) may help prepare you for clinical work: assessing clients, creating treatment programs to fit their needs, and supervising others. A MSW degree is required for master’s level ASWB exams which may help you apply for licensure as a clinical social worker. One can also obtain a MSW online and there are some programs that do not require the GRE standardized test. 
  • Advanced standing MSW programs: An advanced standing MSW program is for those who have a BSW and want to obtain an MSW. These programs may be faster than traditional MSW programs.
  • Doctoral degree in social work (DSW or PhD): A doctoral degree tends to go in one of two directions: research and academic work PhD in social work, or practice (DSW), as in opening a private practice or in supervising others. It advances the specialization you studied when earning your master’s.
  • Graduate certificate programs: Some colleges and universities offer graduate certificate programs, which are designed to educate social workers in high-demand areas. Topic areas for these programs include such categories as advanced social work/individual and family treatment, drugs and addiction, women’s and gender studies, assessment of integrative health modalities, criminal sentencing and advocacy, gerontology, social work administration, or telehealth.

Skills

Social workers tend to be passionate about helping people, and they use a combination of skills to accomplish it. Besides being an active listener and a good communicator, it helps to have high critical-thinking skills, organizational skills and the ability to set boundaries. Time management is important, as is emotional intelligence. For a role in oncology, you may need to be versed in:

  • Interdisciplinary communication
  • Case management
  • Counseling
  • Psychoeducational services
  • Resource allocation
  • Mediating crisis

What is the role of an Oncology Social Worker?

The Association of Oncology Social Workers (AOSW) outlines the role of an oncology social worker by describing the scope of standards of practice that are expected. While the social worker’s comprehensive services to their patient-clients and families may seem obvious, the AOSW also lists:

  • Services to institutions and agencies: Helping those organizations better understand the resources a cancer patient needs
  • Services to the community: Including education, volunteerism and research
  • Services to the profession: Advancing the knowledge in the profession

A day in the life of an oncology social worker means understanding cancer and its multifaceted effects, working with patients and families on a personal basis to provide information and support, addressing their changing psychological, emotional and financial needs, reviewing the medical situation with the patient’s medical team, talk with family caregivers, find needed resources and set up appointments and encourage self-care and life-affirming choices.

“Understanding patients’ life circumstances is an integral part of oncology care,” says Sara Nemitz, MSW, LICSW, who works at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton, Mass. “Social workers can help articulate each patient’s unique priorities, coping abilities, and support options so their treatment plans can be tailored accordingly.”

Work Settings of an Oncology Social Worker

Oncology social workers are found in many arenas, and while the most common work settings are cancer centers and hospitals, they may also work in support programs, hospice programs, healthcare finance offices, oncologists’ offices and clinics and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Some specialize in an age group, such as pediatrics. 

Depending on the position, your work environment and job responsibilities will flex to respond to the needs of those patients and your team of colleagues. A pediatric oncology social worker would have a very different job description than that of a hospice social worker or one working with veterans and a social worker in a clinic may interact with fewer patients than would a hospital social worker.

How Much Do Oncology Social Workers Make?

Social workers had a median salary of $51,760 in 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS); this means half of workers earned more and half earned less than that amount. There is not a specific category for oncology social workers on the BLS, but salaries for healthcare social workers show they can earn the same or more, depending on where they work. Those in individual/family services earned a mean of $50,460; in nursing-care facilities, $56,640; in outpatient care centers, $62,660; in home-health-care services, $63,590; and in hospitals, $66,630. 

The job outlook for social workers is good; 13% growth is expected between 2019-2029, which the BLS terms “much faster than average.” The top levels of employment for healthcare social workers are New York ($61,510), California ($83,000), Texas ($59,790),  Massachusetts ($62,640), and Florida ($54,250).

Oncology Social Work Certification

Each state has specific license regulations for its social workers. Our state-by-state licensure requirements list each level of social worker, exam details, education and field experience requirements, salary numbers, scholarship possibilities and links to the appropriate licensing boards. Be sure to check with your specific state for more licensure requirements.

In addition, the AOSW Oncology Social Work Certification gives patients, families and accrediting organizations an understanding of the level of education, experience, skills and ethical standards specific to this career. The oncology social worker requirements for the certification, as of June 2021, include:

  • A master’s degree in social work from a CSWE-accredited college or university
  • At least 6,240 hours of paid post-degree experience in oncology, palliative care, and/or end-of-life care in five years
  • A percentage of your work devoted to oncology social work (50% if you are full time, 100% if you are part time)
  • An active state license
  • Involvement in at least two cancer-related organizations or activities that show your commitment to the field, such as facilitating a support group, making formal presentations to help educate colleagues, participation in the Cancer Committee of your workplace, participation in grant writing, or being involved in leadership in the field in one or more ways.

Be sure to check with the AOSW website for more up to date information.

Oncology Social Work Resources

 There are two national organizations that are resources for oncology social workers:

  • Association of Oncology Social Work (AOSW): An organization dedicated to supporting and improving services to people with cancer. It was created in 1984 by national cancer organizations and social workers with an interest in oncology. They have more than 1,200 members (both professionals and students) who work in hospitals, community wellness organizations, clinics, hospice programs and more; their mission combines networking, education, advocacy, research and resource development. Their website includes resources and online webinars, as well as an online database where you can find an oncology social worker near you.
  • Association of Pediatric Oncology Social Workers (APOSW): An organization that emphasizes the role of pediatric oncology social workers for children with cancer and their families. Its membership includes social workers and health professionals who work in hospitals, clinics, private practice and other places that support and treat children and adolescents with cancer. Their website includes grant and research opportunities, information on their annual conference, and resources for both workers and the public.

Information on this page was retrieved in June 2021.