Social Work Careers Explore Jobs, Degree Programs, and Social Work Salaries

This guide was written by

MoneyGeek Staff

Social work is a helping profession. Those in this field are passionate about improving a community’s well-being as well as helping individuals in need, particularly those in the most vulnerable situations. The following guide highlights the spectrum of social work careers available – ranging from direct care to administration – and also provides helpful information on education requirements, salary trends, and internships.

Careers for Social Workers

Nearly 650,000 people were employed as social workers in 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you’re looking to make a difference in your community, a career as a social worker is a rewarding occupation. Take a look at some of your options below.

Substance Abuse/Behavioral Disorder Counselor

These professionals work with people who have unhealthy behavioral habits such as alcohol abuse, drug addiction, or eating disorders, to name a few. They create treatment plans and provide support to help their clients modify these problematic behaviors. They also refer clients to other resources and services, if needed.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 22%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    A bachelor’s degree in social work, psychology or related, in most cases. Some employers may require a master’s degree. Typically, the more education you have, the more services you’ll be able to provide to your clients (such as one-on-one counseling sessions).

Social Worker

Social workers are on the forefront of community assistance, helping individuals identify and solve a host of everyday problems. They champion support networks to help strengthen their clients’ lives and advocate for their needs. Social workers are also well-versed in community resources and help clients take advantage of local and governmental services like food assistance, childcare, and health services.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 12%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    A bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field such as psychology or sociology. A master’s degree is required if you want to work in a clinical setting.

Child, Family, and School Social Workers

Social workers in this role serve as the conduit between children and their families and the raft of social programs available to help them succeed. They may work directly with the child while they are at school, while also helping the family address other needs, such as childcare, legal aid, housing, healthcare, or financial assistance.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 12%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    A bachelor’s degree in social work, psychology, or sociology.

Social and Human Service Assistants

In this entry-level role, assistants help social workers serve their clients and/or community. They may help social workers develop treatment plans, provide direct patient assistance with daily activities, help transport clients who are in need of additional resources or services, and maintain paperwork.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 11%

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2014):

    High school diploma or GED and on-the-job training.

Clinical Social Worker

Social workers in the clinical side of the field provide all of the same services as a non-clinical social worker, but are also qualified to diagnose and treat addictive, behavioral, emotional, and mental disorders. They accomplish this by using a range of methodologies and treatment theories gained through their education and clinical practice.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 12%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    Master’s degree in social work, two years of supervised clinical experience post-graduation, and licensure.

Social and Community Service Managers

These professionals work on the programmatic level to coordinate and oversee the variety of services available to individuals. They may review data about a particularly area/demographic to better understand what services are needed before engaging stakeholders to create new programs and resources. They also track the effectiveness of existing programs and make recommendations for changes or new initiatives.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 10%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    Bachelor’s degree, although a master’s degree in social work is becoming increasingly desired.

Postsecondary Social Work Teachers

The majority of college-level social work instructors are individuals who have worked in the field for a time and gained professional experience before deciding to instruct and equip the next generation of social workers. These professors may introduce students to foundational concepts and frameworks within social work, oversee field placements, or teach advanced topics in specific areas of study.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 13%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    Community colleges typically require a master’s degree, while four-year institutions look for candidates with a doctoral-level degree.

Health Educators
  • PROJECTED OUTLOOK (2014 to 2024): 13%

  • Education and training:

    Bachelor’s degree in health education, nutrition, or related. Some employers look for the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) credential.

Community Health Workers
  • PROJECTED OUTLOOK (2014 to 2024): 13%

  • Education and Training:

    High school diploma plus some on-the-job training.

Mental Health Counselors
  • PROJECTED OUTLOOK (2014 to 2024): 19%

  • Education and Training:

    Master’s degree in psychology or counseling, supervised clinical hours after graduation, and licensing.

Psychologist
  • PROJECTED OUTLOOK (2014 to 2024): 19%

  • Education and Training:

    Doctoral-level degree in psychology is required for clinical, counseling, and research positions within psychology. Industrial-organizational psychologists require a master’s degree. Most states also require licensure.

Data Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014

Annual Salaries for Social Workers

Whether just starting out or a seasoned professional, salaries within social work are highly dependent on the type of job. The graph below highlights common social worker jobs and provides details on annual earnings.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015

Other factors that can affect social work salaries is years of experience and specialized skills. Like most other professions, someone fresh out of college will likely earn much less than someone who has been working in the field for decades. Take a closer look below:

How Experience Affects Social Worker Salaries

Median
Salary
  • Late-Career +28%
  • Experienced +18%
  • Mid-Career +8%
  • National Average $42,000
  • Entry-Level-7%

How Certain Skills Affect Social Worker Salaries

  • Psychiatric +16%
  • Hospice +16%
  • Patient counseling +15%
  • Geriatrics +11%
  • Assessment +10%
  • Bilingual +10%
  • Group therapy +9%
  • National average $42,000

Source: PayScale.com

Becoming a Social Worker

Social work is not for the faint of heart. Professionals in this line of work encounter heartbreaking situations and stressful environments on a daily basis, and must be incredibly empathetic while also ensuring their own mental, emotional, and physical health remains stable. Individuals who are not able to leave their work at the office or compartmentalize different facets of their lives often experience burnout, but those who can find balance champion their profession as a worthwhile and incredibly rewarding career. Use the tables below to learn about other skills possessed by many of those in the field.

Required Skills and Technology

Advocacy

Whether advocating for clients or whole communities, social workers must fight for the rights of those they serve.

Forging connections

Serving as the middleman, social workers identify the issues and needs of their clients and connect them to relevant services and programs in their community.

Communication

Social workers engage with a diverse range of clients alongside nonprofit, governmental, and business professionals. Being able to communicate with many different types of people is crucial for this field.

Problem-solving

Whether finding emergency housing, deciding if a child needs to be removed from a bad family environment, or assessing the mental health of a client, social workers have to be able to both identify and solve myriad problems.

Databases

Programs such as Command Systems ComServe helps social workers organize client files and community services.

Medical software

Patient electronic medical record EMR software helps clinical social workers keep track of medical records for the communities they serve.

Microsoft Office Suite

Whether organizing data sheets in Excel, preparing a presentation in Power Point, or creating a document in Word, these applications are used daily.

Laptops and PCs

Used both in the office and on-the-go, many of the tasks required of social workers must be done on computers.

Classroom to Career: Degrees for Social Workers

Education requirements for social workers vary by employer, but entry-level positions almost always require a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field such as sociology or psychology. Clinical social workers and those in more advanced roles often need a master’s degree and licensure, depending on the state.

The different levels of social work degrees available include:

Associate Degree

Social work degrees at this level typically do not qualify graduates for a position as a social worker, but do make them competitive for other entry-level human services roles. Credits earned in an associate degree may also be transferred to a bachelor’s program. Students study the role of social work in today’s society and learn how to identify and eliminate personal biases in order to work with diverse populations. They also get a firm understanding of what social workers do as practitioners. Courses may include:

  • Introduction to Sociology
  • Introduction to Psychology
  • Self-Awareness
  • Social Problems
  • Fundamentals of Communication
  • Psychology of the Family
Bachelor of Social Work (BSW)

A degree at this level prepares graduates for entry-level direct service roles involving case management, referrals, and client advocacy. This four-year degree provides a foundational understanding of social work by immersing students in methodologies, theories, and frameworks common to the professional. Once the groundwork is laid, students delve into topics specific to different populations and demographics. The majority of programs require at least one field placement where students gain real world experience in a social service occupation. Sample courses are likely to include:

  • Introduction to Social Work and Social Welfare
  • Current Issues in Social Work
  • Generalist Social Work Practice
  • Social Work Research Methods
  • Social Work Statistics
  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment
Master of Social Work (MSW)

Building on the knowledge gained in a BSW program, MSW students study advanced topics and begin specializing their knowledge in particular areas, such as community engagement; social policy; children, youth, and families; healthy aging; or substance abuse. Many programs have also started offering two different paths at the master’s level. The micro – sometimes called clinical – path is for students who want to work directly with clients, while the macro – or programmatic – path enables graduates to work in resource development and administration. Field placements are required at this level and typically amount to more than 1,000 hours of direct supervised work. MSW students may be required to take courses such as:

  • Human Development Through the Lifespan
  • Social Justice in Social Work
  • Social Welfare History and Policy
  • Skills for the Helping Process
  • Research and Evaluation
  • Advocacy and Empowerment
Doctor of Social Work (DSW)

The DSW degree was designed for students who aspire to advanced direct care roles. This program is a professional practice degree, meaning it is designed to help prepare students for clinical practice and advanced practice leadership. Graduation requirements include a practicum and/or dissertation. Curriculum typically includes courses such as:

  • Social Theories and their Relationship to Clinical Practice
  • Contemporary Theories of Clinical Practice
  • Clinical Social Work and Social Policy
  • Evidence-Based and Evidence-Informed Practices
  • Human Development and Well-Being
  • Social Work Practice Research
PhD in Social Work

A PhD in social work attracts professionals looking to teach at the collegiate level or undertake scholarly research. While it’s possible to teach at some postsecondary institutions with a DSW, the PhD is the more common route. Depending on the institution, this program is sometimes offered as a dual MSW/PhD degree to shorten the length of time to completion. Coursework tends to be interdisciplinary in nature, providing graduates with a firm grasp of research methods, theoretical frameworks, policy development and analysis, and evidence-based approaches. In addition to coursework, many programs require candidates to teach and complete a dissertation before they are approved for graduation. Sample courses are:

  • Data Analysis
  • Quantitative Research Methods
  • Qualitative Research Methods
  • Pedagogy in Social Work
  • Theory and Model Development for Social Work Practice
  • Measurement in Social Work
Dual/Concurrent Degrees

Many schools offer dual or concurrent degrees for students to link their knowledge of social work with a related discipline. For example, graduate students can study both social work and education, earning both a master’s of social work (MSW) and a master’s of education (EdM). Other examples include MSW/MPH, MSW/MBA, MSW/MPA, and MSW/Master of Science in Nonprofit Leadership, to name a few. There is a wide range of dual/concurrent degree programs available at universities across the country.

Related Degrees

Some prospective students may find they are drawn to many facets of a social work degree yet are looking for a broader educational path. Degree programs that are similar to social work include:

  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Healthcare administration
  • Teaching
  • Public health

Social Work Certificate Programs

There are numerous certificate programs available to help those with social work degrees elevate their knowledge on specific topics, but it is important for those new to the field to recognize that a certificate alone will not allow them to work in the field. Entry-level social jobs require a bachelor’s degree. Professionals already employed in a social work role can take advantage of numerous certification programs to increase their knowledge, including studies in:

  • Advanced Clinical Practice
  • Executive Leadership in the Nonprofit Sector
  • Palliative Care
  • Gerontology
  • Human Services Management

Social Work Specializations

Clinical social work

This is the most popular specialization available within social work programs. The Council on Social Work Education reports that more than 56 percent of master’s level students select this concentration. Graduates of clinical programs have the knowledge and skills needed to assess, diagnose, and treat their clients’ physical, mental, and emotional issues. Students learn how to use a range of modalities – including singular, family, and group therapy – to best address the needs of individual clients.

Aging populations/Geriatrics

Whether looking to work in home health care, nursing homes, or assisted living environments, students who specialize in aging populations are well-equipped to provide specialized care and advocacy services to elderly clients. Coursework typically focuses on chronic illnesses and disabilities, aging services, gerontology, and family counseling. The National Association of Social Workers estimates the number of individuals aged 65 and older will surpass 70 million by 2030, and many specialized social workers will be needed to provide services to this population.

Children and family

Students selecting this concentration cover advanced practice topics related to child development, legal considerations, crisis intervention, human sexuality, mental health, and developmental disorders. In 2015, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that nearly 295,000 Americans were employed as child, family, and school social workers.

Mental health

Covering the entire lifespan, students who elect to concentrate their knowledge in mental health cover advanced topics in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues, the range of mental illnesses, the effect of substances and substance abuse, and crisis intervention techniques. According to a report by the Council on Social Work Education, mental health is the second most popular master’s level concentration and is currently offered by 37.1 percent of all social work programs.

Social Work Licensure and Continuing Education

While licensure requirements for social workers are different in each state, the majority require individuals to pass an exam and complete a set number of supervised hours to be licensed. There are many different licenses available based on the education of the individual and the area of social work in which they hope to practice, but the most common licenses and requirements are outlined below:

Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) is the most common credential throughout America, requiring a master’s degree from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education and approximately two-years of paid supervision under a licensed social worker. Individualized information about state-specific licensure requirements can be found through the Association of Social Work Boards.

Continuing Education

Continuing education requirements are also set at the state level, but nearly every state mandates a fixed number of hours be completed for social workers to keep their licenses current. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) provides a list of standards for continuing professional education within the field, as well as a number of free CEU courses via the Professional Education & Training Center.

Where Do Social Workers Practice?

Because social work is a vast professional arena, it attracts many different types of individuals with varied areas of interest. While some may aspire to work directly with their communities on a micro level, others may enjoy the macro-level work of program development and evaluation. Review the common places you’ll find social workers employed to get a better sense of the opportunities available.

Schools

School social workers liaise between a student and their family and the school, helping to ensure the child’s home life is such that they can focus on their education. They may serve as a guidance counselor to older students, work one-on-one with special needs students, provide information to parents about helpful resources, or offer education on health, prevention, or behavioral management. These professionals typically follow the same academic calendar as teachers and administrators.

Hospitals and clinics

Social workers in these settings can be found in a variety of different areas, ranging from mental health and substance abuse to public health or assisted living. These roles call on the social worker to advocate for their clients, ensure they are properly cared for, manage communication between their client and caregivers, and work with family members to help clients receives the best care possible.

Community centers

Many nongovernmental organizations provide social services to the public, including countless nonprofits. Whether matching clients to affordable housing options, ensuring children have access to a food pantry, or helping foster children age out of the system, social workers employed by community centers are active advocates for their clients.

State and local government

A broadly based area, government-employed social workers may work at correctional facilities, military bases, state-run nursing homes, or foster care agencies. NASW reported social workers are employed in large numbers by these government agencies: Social Security Administration, Veterans Administration, Department of Justice, and Department of Defense.

Colleges and universities

After working in the field for a number of years, some social workers may decide they either want to teach or focus on research. Provided they have either a master’s or doctoral-level degree, these professionals enjoy shaping the next generation of social workers and contributing meaningful research to the field.

Job Boards for Social Work Careers

Social work roles span the public, private, and government sectors, meaning these professionals can be found throughout the country. Whether seeking a metropolitan or rural location, part- or full-time work, the following job boards and sites can help narrow down the many options.

  • Clinical Social Work Association

    Members of this professional association have access to a job board that features openings for social work jobs across the U.S. and other career job resources.

  • CSWE Career Center

    Individuals looking for teaching and research roles in a university setting can find a variety of roles via the Council on Social Work Education’s interactive career center.

  • iHire Social Services

    An expansive job search engine, iHire postings cover any and all positions within the social services industry.

  • The Social Work Career Center

    Provided by the National Association of Social Workers, this resource includes both job postings and career development resources such as coaching, resume review, and reference development.

  • USAJobs

    The federal government’s career page, USAJobs features all of the available positions suited to social workers throughout the nation.

Social Work Field Placements

Field placements, also sometimes called field education, are vital and required components of a social work education. Depending on the area of social work a student plans to enter, innumerable placements are available in schools, social service organizations, hospitals, clinics, and government agencies. The purpose of a great field placement is to provide students with hands-on learning opportunities where they can put classroom knowledge to practical use. Depending on the degree level and program, field placements can range from approximately 100 hours to more than 1,000.

Fieldwork assignments are typically made in concert with an academic advisor, but highlighted below are some examples of placements to help you begin preparing.

Bridges of America

Location: Miami, Florida

Focusing on substance abuse, chemical dependency, and corrections, this social services agency works with the state’s department of corrections to provide a range of services and resources to inmates and recently released individuals. Students will learn about interventions, treatment plans, psychosocial assessments, and counseling services.

Department of Veterans Affairs

Location: Nationwide

The VA allows social work students of all academic levels to complete field placements at one of their hundreds of agencies spread throughout the country. Whether working in veterans advocacy programs, geriatric social services, oncology, or one of the other service areas provided by the VA, students may be qualified to receive a small stipend.

San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health

Location: San Bernardino County, California

This mental health organization provides a vast range of social services to the largest county in America. The department has 12 clinics and serves populations ranging from young children to retirees with programs for addiction, mental health, family and marriage counseling, and crisis intervention. Students can take advantage of these clinical training opportunities at the bachelor’s and master’s levels.

The Bair Foundation

Location: Pittsburg, PA

This child welfare organization offers field placements in areas of medical and behavioral needs, foster care, home evaluations, intake/referral, case management, and supervised family visitation.

World Relief

Location: Nashville, TN

Social work students with a passion for refugees and resettlement issues work with these populations to provide empowering services while also learning about cross-cultural initiatives. Interns may connect individuals to local resources, teach English, or develop community programs.

Professional Resources for Social Workers

Social work is an incredibly rewarding area of work, but anyone who has stayed in the field for a significant amount of time will say that it can also be emotionally, physically, and mentally draining. Social work organizations connect like-mined professionals through networking opportunities and annual conferences while also championing the important work they do. Some of the top associations and organizations are listed below:

American Clinical Social Work Association

Serving as the voice of clinical social workers throughout the nation, ACSWA advocates for its members while also providing valuable resources on clinical practice, court cases, and advances within the field.

Clinical Social Work Association

This professional body represents the rights and interests of clinical social workers throughout the nation, highlighting legislation relevant to the field and providing helpful information on clinical practice.

International Federation of Social Work

With 116 member countries, IFSW advocates for global social justice and human rights via the promotion and expansion of the social work field. By presenting models of best practice and forging international connections, IFSW addresses worldwide issues such as refugee resettlement and children’s rights.

National Association of Black Social Workers

Founded in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, NABSW continues to advocate for justice and social change for black social workers. With an annual conference, scholarships, and a range of publications, NABSW offers much value to members.

School Social Work Association of America

SSWAA helps school social workers provide the best services and care to the children, families, and schools they serve. With numerous professional development opportunities, evidence-based practice resources, and advocacy/legislation initiatives, SSWAA members are well-represented in their field.

Society for Social Work and Research

Founded with the mission of advancing research within the field of social work, SSWR helps empower social workers completing research by providing tools and resources.