Career Path for Social Workers: Everything You Need to Know

For those who have a passion for helping others and empowering communities that are often underserved, the field of social work offers the chance to make a difference in various settings. From mental health to military transitions to economic insecurity, there are a wide range of issues that social workers are committed to addressing at the individual, community and societal levels. Those interested in pursuing a career in this fulfilling field have multiple pathways that they can take to get started. Continue reading to learn more about how to land your dream job as a social worker.

Why Pursue a Career in Social Work? 

Social work is both a demanding and rewarding career. 

“If you come to social work, you’re committing to serve oppressed populations. You’re committing to be part of something that is systemic,” said Lisa Primm, a macro social worker who serves as executive director of Disability Rights Tennessee, a nonprofit focused on protecting the rights of Tennesseans with disabilities. “If you’re choosing social work, make sure you believe in the social work ethics of the profession and recognize that there is so much to be done in terms of systemic change.” 

The United States needs more social workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of social workers is expected to grow 11% from 2018 to 2028. Employment is expected to grow for child and family social workers, health care social workers, and mental health and substance abuse social workers. Clinical social workers may also be particularly well positioned based on their abilities to provide specific treatment services.   

Common Social Work Careers 

The social work field offers a wide range of potential career options and specializations:

  • Community social work. Work alongside groups, organizations and individuals to assess the needs of a population, plan and administer programs, and connect communities with resources.
  • Medical social work. Collaborate with larger medical teams to develop an overall care plan for patients, provide mental and emotional support to patients and their families, and connect patients to resources that they may need within the health care system.
  • Mental health social work. Provide support to clients who have mental health disorders or substance misuse issues through a range of interventions such as therapy.
  • Military social work. Assist military service members, veterans and their families with the unique challenges associated with military life, which can include everything from mental health challenges to transitioning back to civilian life.
  • School social work. Empower students to reach their full potential by providing evidence-based interventions to improve academic performance and behavioral outcomes.
  • Social work administration. Work at a macro level, steering the direction of organizations committed to fulfilling the needs of various populations.

List of Potential Career Paths

There are multiple avenues that aspiring social workers can pursue to begin their career in social work. Learn about the different educational and career outcomes associated with different degrees. 

Associate in Social Work (ASW)

Bachelor’s in Social Work (BSW)

Master’s in Social Work (MSW)

Doctorate in Social Work (DSW)

Associate in Social Work (ASW) Career Path 

For students who are interested in pursuing a career in the field of social work, one way to get a foot in the door is to apply to earn an Associate of Arts degree with a focus on social work. These degrees are not accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and either prepare students to transfer to a bachelor’s program or prepare students for paraprofessional-level positions in social services agencies.  

ASW Program Admissions 

Many associate degree programs are offered through community colleges, which may have open admissions policies. Still, students who would like to pursue an emphasis in social work are often encouraged to meet with an academic advisor to develop a course plan. 

Typical Coursework for ASW Degrees

Coursework for an Associate of Arts with an emphasis on social work may vary. In addition to completing general coursework, students who pursue this specialty may be required to take specific courses or electives related to social work, such as:

  • Introduction to Social Work
  • Human Behavior and Social Environment
  • Social Welfare Policy
  • Experiences in Diversity
  • Principles of Human Services
  • Counseling Skills
  • Crisis Intervention Strategies

Potential Learning Outcomes

The overall goals and expected outcomes of the associate degree curriculum can include developing an understanding of: 

  • History of social work
  • Impact of social work on various communities
  • Role of a generalist social worker
  • Importance of diversity
  • Research-based practices in social work
  • Social work theories 

The curricula for many Associate of Arts programs are designed to prepare students to transfer to a college or university where they can pursue a bachelor’s degree. 

ASW Career Options

Many careers in social work require a bachelor’s degree. But an associate degree can lay the foundation for entry-level jobs. 

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Bachelor’s in Social Work (BSW) Career Path

A second path that aspiring social workers can take is to pursue a bachelor’s in social work from a program accredited by the CSWE. These programs typically take about four years and are designed to provide students with fundamental knowledge that will enable social workers to begin their careers as a practitioners.

BSW Program Admissions 

Admissions policies vary by school. Students interested in pursuing a BSW are typically required to have earned a high school diploma or GED. Admissions decisions for a BSW program may include evaluations of the following:

  • Past academic performance
  • Standardized testing
  • Communication skills reflected in the personal statement
  • Work and volunteer experience
  • References
  • Personal qualities, values and behavior

Typical Coursework for BSW Degrees 

In addition to completing the general education requirements set by universities, students majoring in social work will have a specific curriculum related to their field. The course catalog for a BSW varies from school to school, but can include courses such as:

  • Introduction to Social Work
  • Human Behavior in the Social Environment
  • Social Welfare Policy
  • Social Work Research Methods
  • Generalist Practice
  • Social Work Practice with Communities
  • Social Work Practice with Individuals and Families
  • Social Diversity and Cultural Understanding
  • Practice Evaluation in Social Work

Field work is also an important component of social work education and may be obtained through volunteering and internships. 

Potential Learning Outcomes 

Many BSW programs focus on generalist social work practice in order to prepare students for entry-level positions in the field. The CSWE’s Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards for Baccalaureate and Master’s Social Work Programs (PDF, 390 KB) notes that educational outcomes of a BSW include the abilities to:

  • 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 intervene with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities

The CSWE’s comparison of social work degrees also notes that graduates of BSW programs may have the opportunity to apply to an advanced masters in social work program, which may enable them to earn their master’s degree in a shorter time frame than other MSW candidates.

Career Options With a BSW

Profile of the Social Work Workforce (PDF, 3.4 MB) published in 2017 identified the top employment settings for social workers with a BSW as individual and family services and administration of human services.

Top employment settings for social workers with a BSW as individual and family services and administration of human services.
Employment Setting Percentage of Social Workers With a BSW Employed
Individual and family services 41.1%
Administration of human resource programs 14.4%
Nursing care facilities 8.4%
Hospitals 6%
Outpatient care centers 6%
Residential care facilities 3.2%
Civic, social and advocacy organizations 2.7%

Source: CSWE’s Profile of the Social Work Workforce (PDF, 3.4 MB)

BSW Exams and Licensure 

In order to practice social work, states require graduates of CSWE-accredited programs to pass an exam administered by the Association of Social Work Board (ASWB). Licensing requirements vary by state, so it is important that graduates understand regulations regarding licensing in the locations where they plan to practice.

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Master’s in Social Work (MSW) Career Path

Many graduates of BSW programs, or of programs in related fields such as psychology and human services, may choose to continue their education by applying for a master’s in social work program. Earning a master’s degree may open up employment opportunities for graduates and enable them to focus their work on specific populations or a more generalist practice.

MSW Program Admissions 

To apply for an MSW program, candidates should have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. A BSW is not typically required unless a student is applying for advanced standing, but universities may desire candidates who have a demonstrated understanding of social work or a related field. Similar to a BSW program, applicants to an MSW program may be evaluated based on a number of criteria, including:

  • Academic performance
  • Standardized testing
  • Communication skills reflected in the personal statement
  • Work and volunteer experience
  • References
  • Personal qualities, values and behavior

Typical Coursework for MSW Degrees 

There is no set curriculum for MSW programs. However, a master’s in social work program is typically structured to include foundational generalist instruction and specialized instruction.

Examples of foundational social work courses may include:

  • Human Behavior and Social Environment
  • Social Work with Individuals and Families
  • Social Work Practice with Groups
  • Social Work Research
  • Social Welfare and Social Work
  • Policies and Strategies of Community Intervention
  • Diversity in Multicultural Society

Specialized courses can cover a wide range of topics including health, mental health, trauma, children, schools, policy, veterans, leadership in social services and clinical social work. Examples of specialized courses from the same curriculum include:

  • Health Policy and Health Systems
  • Community Organizing
  • Staff Management and Development in Social Services
  • Global, Cross Cultural Social Work Practice
  • Clinical Social Work with Adults
  • Psychodynamic Theory
  • Substance Abuse Treatment in Groups
  • Interprofessional Practice with At-Risk Youth
  • Social Work Response to Trauma
  • Social Policy and Older Adults
  • Policy Analysis for Social Reform
  • Clinical Practice in Schools

Many MSW programs also require students to complete a capstone component, which allows them to demonstrate the application of academic education through the implementation of a project, often completed through a field education agency.

Potential Learning and Career Outcomes

The learning outcomes of an MSW program include many of same outcomes of a BSW program. The CSWE’s Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards for Baccalaureate and Master’s Social Work Programs (PDF, 390 KB) notes that educational outcomes of an MSW include the abilities to:

  • 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 intervene with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities

However the CSWE also notes in its comparison of social work degrees that MSW programs have unique benefits in that they allow graduates to specialize in the field of social work where they will seek employment after obtaining a license to practice. MSW programs also enable social workers to seek out positions above entry level by providing them with the skills to:

  • Perform clinical assessments
  • Manage large caseloads
  • Assume supervisory roles
  • Engage in policy-level advocacy

Social Work Field Placement Experience

The benefits that CSWE highlights also include substantial hands-on experience for graduates. The CSWE’s comparison of social work degrees notes that an MSW requires at least 900 hours of supervised field instruction. 

Similar to MSW coursework, field instruction for social workers includes a foundational placement, where students will learn core skills for social work, and a concentration placement, which will enable them to practice advanced skills in a specialized area. Students typically have more influence on where they will go during a concentration placement. 

Career Options With an MSW

Profile of the Social Work Workforce (PDF, 3.4 MB) published in 2017 identified the top employment settings for social workers with an MSW. Similar to BSW graduates, most graduates with an MSW were employed in individual and family services. However, the second-most common employment setting was hospitals, with a more than ten percentage point jump over graduates with a BSW.

Top employment settings for social workers with an MSW as individual and family services and administration of human services.
Employment Setting Percentage of Social Workers with an MSW Employed
Individual and family services 30.9%
Hospitals 17.2%
Outpatient care centers 9.5%
Elementary and secondary schools 9.4%
Administration of human resource programs 8%
Nursing care facilities 3.4%
Civic, social and advocacy organizations 2.3%

Source: CSWE’s Profile of the Social Work Workforce (PDF, 3.4 MB)

Exams and Licensure for MSW Graduates

In order to practice social work, graduates of CSWE-accredited programs are required by states to pass an exam administered by the ASWB. Licensing requirements vary by state, so it is important that graduates understand regulations regarding licensing in the locations where they plan to practice. Students who intend to pursue a clinical path will need to meet additional licensing requirements. Learn more about the licensing requirements for licensed clinical social workers. 

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Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) Career Path

Social workers who are interested in pursuing high-level program management positions or would like to teach should consider applying for a doctorate in social work (DSW). According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), doctorate in social work programs focus on advanced training in research, supervision and policy analysis. External link  

DSW Program Admissions 

To apply for a DSW program, many candidates are required to have an MSW from an accredited social work degree program and a minimum of two years post-MSW experience, according to a presentation on the “Practice Doctorate (PDF, 4.2 MB) by the CSWE. A license to practice and social work clinical licensure may be preferred depending on the school. Similar to an MSW program, applicants to a DSW program may be evaluated based on a number of criteria, including:

  • Academic performance
  • Testing results
  • Communication and writing skills reflected in a personal statement and recent writing samples
  • Work and volunteer experience
  • References
  • Personal qualities, values and behavior

Typical Coursework for DSW Degrees 

Coursework for a DSW program varies but can focus on areas such as ethical practice, knowledge dissemination, theory, research methods, teaching, and social justice and diversity. Sample classes for a DSW student may include: 

  • Searching the Literature
  • Writing the Literature Review
  • Historical Approaches to Social Welfare
  • Relational Theories and Social Work Practice
  • Critical Race Theory
  • Ethics in Mental Health Care
  • Sociology of Childhood
  • Trauma-informed Supervision
  • Qualitative Research Introduction
  • Applied Social Statistics
  • Teaching Social Work Practice
  • Social Media and Social Movements
  • Assessment and Professional Development
  • Administration and Leadership 

Depending on the program, DSW students may also be required to submit a dissertation that contributes to clinical social work literature and knowledge. Dissertations can take a number of forms including historical dissertations, program evaluations, empirical dissertations and curriculum development. 

Potential Learning and Career Outcomes 

According to a presentation on the “Practice Doctorate (PDF, 4.2 MB) by the CSWE, a DSW program is designed to prepare social workers to assume advanced professional roles such as master practitioner, educator, administrator or policy practitioner. CSWE notes that DSW programs should prepare candidates to:

  • Engage in systematic inquiry that adheres to scholarly conventions
  • Use and critically evaluate advanced-level evidence-based practice
  • Develop and disseminate practice-relevant knowledge through a variety of channels, such as teaching, scholarship, professional presentations, mentoring and administration
  • Demonstrate leadership in social work practice and education
  • Develop and maintain substantive expertise in one or more areas of social work practice

DSW Career Options

According to CSWE’s 2018 Statistics on Social Work Education in the United States (PDF, 1.7 MB), top areas of employment for practice doctorates included:

  • Nonacademic administrative position
  • Private clinical practice
  • Tenure-track faculty position in a CSWE-accredited program
  • Non-tenure-track faculty position in a CSWE-accredited program

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FAQ

Are There Any Alternative Careers for Social Workers?

Yes. The Bureau of Labor Statistics highlights a number of occupations with similarities to social work that graduates with a degree may be able to look into for employment, depending on their own requirements for practice. Those occupations include:

  • Health educators and community health workers
  • Probation officers
  • Social and community service managers
  • Social and human service assistants
  • Substance abuse and mental health counselors

Can I Start My Career in Social Work Without a Degree? 

Generally, no. Social work degrees open opportunities for advancement in the field. The CSWE’s profile of the social work workforce revealed that a significant number of people are working in the field with a non–social work degree. While entry-level employment opportunities may be available for those without degrees, most entry-level jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree. Licensing requirements also limit opportunities to those without degrees.