Social work is a fulfilling and challenging field. In general, social workers help people identify, prevent, and solve problems. More specifically, that might mean assisting a family with securing affordable housing, finding the right interventions for a child with learning disabilities, or helping locate and prepare an adoptive family for a child in foster care. Many social workers enjoy the variety and direct influence of their careers.
Social work is a growing career field in the U.S. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has projected the number of social work jobs will grow by 16% from 2016 to 2026. That’s more than twice the projected growth rate of the average occupation. Larger social and economic trends such as widening inequality, rapid urbanization, and an aging population are helping spur growth in the social work profession. Social workers who want to serve in healthcare or in policy development and administration can secure many of the field’s highest paying positions.
Social workers can have a lot of choice about where they work and what they do with their professional lives. Career paths for social workers include medical social work, rehabilitation counseling, clinical counseling, child and family social work, marriage and family therapy, and teaching social work at the postsecondary level. Social work professionals can work with a variety of diverse populations such as senior adults, children, and people with chronic illnesses. Federal, state, and local governments employ social workers, as do hospitals, hospice care facilities, and faith-based organizations.
How to Become a Social Worker
Becoming a social worker starts with pursuing the right education. Once a prospective social worker has secured an appropriate academic credential, the next step requires getting a state license to practice. After that, social workers move up in their profession as they gain experience and applied knowledge in the field.
The steps to becoming a social worker vary somewhat depending on the prospect’s current position. Traditional college freshmen or sophomores may pursue a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree, complete licensing exams for their state, and enter the profession directly as young social workers. More mature adults who hold bachelor’s degrees in other fields might start with graduate education before securing a license to practice.
Career-switchers at any age need to find the degree that is both appropriate for them and meets state licensure requirements. Students can choose between an on-campus, online or hybrid degree program at either the graduate or undergraduate level, but meeting licensure requirements may be easier for students who earn their degrees from a school headquartered in their respective states.
Social Worker Education Requirements
Fundamentally, social workers need a solid education to practice their profession. That can be an undergraduate degree, such as a BSW, or a graduate degree, a Master of Social Work (MSW). While many MSW programs focus on helping current social workers, both degrees can serve as entry points for new professionals.
A BSW helps aspiring social workers prepare for entry-level jobs in child welfare, family services, substance abuse or use, and public health. Most BSW programs require 120 credit hours to graduate. Typically, those hours include a mix of general education courses, major courses, a minor, and electives. A BSW also requires up to 500 hours of field experience that students usually complete over multiple semesters. Full-time students can complete a BSW in four years. Part-time students juggling other responsibilities may take longer, but CLEP tests, life experience credits, and transfer credits may shorten the time to graduation.
Many master’s programs in social work only accept students whose undergraduate degree came from an institution accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). CSWE accreditation means a school’s program can help students secure graduate education and better-paying jobs in the industry. Choosing an accredited program is vital to establishing a social work career.
The MSW builds on the skills and information students learned in the BSW to prepare them for clinical positions, community advocacy roles, or social advocacy posts in social work. MSWs that lead to initial licensure as a social worker usually include a practicum or internship requirement. Most MSW degrees require 60 credits and take two years to complete for learners who hold a bachelor’s degree in a different field.
While MSW programs typically accept students with any undergraduate major, applicants should generally have taken 30 credits in the social sciences and at least one statistics course. Students with a BSW may qualify for an advanced standing Master of Social Work, which needs 34-39 credits and takes one year to finish since they do not need leveling classes that a career-switcher needs to have.
About 2% of social workers launch their careers with a DSW or a Ph.D., according to the National Association of Social Workers. Typically, experienced social workers who have master’s degrees will enroll in these programs to become college professors, researchers, or agency executives. A DSW emphasizes applied research, clinical practice, and advanced practice leadership. This program can be completed in 24 months. A Ph.D. program focuses on pure research and theory development, and students usually need 3-5 years to earn a degree.
Social Worker Licensing Requirements
States pass laws to protect their most vulnerable citizens and ensure the quality of their social service professionals. That’s why social worker licensing requirements vary by state. In almost all cases, however, licensure depends on passing a social work licensing exam, holding an appropriate educational background from a CSWE-accredited school, and clearing a criminal background check.
Applicants for state licensure need to have a BSW or an MSW. Usually, students in their last semester of a degree can also apply for the exam. In most states, students qualify for one of four licenses:
- Licensed Bachelor of Social Work (LBSW)
- Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW)
- Licensed Master Social Worker-Advanced Generalist (LMSW-AG)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
While each exam originates with the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), the qualifications to sit for the exams are different.
Prior to taking their exams, students need to show a clean criminal record or receive a waiver. Crimes involving assault, child abuse, theft, drug charges, or murder rarely — if ever — get waived. Misdemeanors, juvenile offenses, and less serious felonies might earn a waiver, however. While most social workers strive to see people rehabilitated, they also work with the most vulnerable populations. Hence, people with a criminal background should check not only with their prospective schools but also their state agencies to make sure they will qualify for the licensing exam.
Once they pass the appropriate exam, prospective social workers usually pay a licensing fee, submit an application, and wait to receive their license in the mail. Often, people who pass the exam can serve as social workers while they wait for their paperwork to clear the appropriate state agency.
How to Become a Clinical Social Worker
An LCSW provides mental health diagnoses and therapy similar to the work that a counselor or psychologist performs. Unlike psychologists, however, clinical social workers focus almost exclusively on front-line patient practice and rarely on research. Becoming an LCSW almost always requires holding an MSW with a clinical emphasis, completing supervised clinical experiences after graduation, and passing the LCSW exam. In 41 states, students who hold a Ph.D. or a DSW in lieu of an MSW may take the exam. Often students need to complete 2-3 years of post-educational experience as well as pass specific clinical education units prior to earning their licenses.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Social Worker?
Becoming a social worker can take four years for the undergraduate student who needs to complete a BSW and take the exam. It can take two years for an older student to earn the MSW and pass other licensure requirements. Becoming a clinical social worker can take ten years or more since the applicant must earn a bachelor’s degree, complete a master’s degree, and accrue the necessary hours of practice. Students who pursue their degrees part time may take longer to enter the profession, and licensure requirements may cause students in some states to need more time than their counterparts.
Social work encompasses a vast and diverse field of service, and prospective social workers are entering a profession that can prove fulfilling and challenging. Earning the right degree, passing the state exam, and clearing a criminal background check are all it takes to launch a career. From there, the options to specialize and serve in new areas of social work can lead professionals down diverse career paths.