How to Become a Social Worker

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A social worker meets with parent and child clients.Social workers’ roles in assisting individuals, groups, and communities as they face life’s challenges have become a necessary aspect of modern society. Many disadvantaged individuals and communities lack the counseling and support that professional social workers provide.

On top of the good they do, social workers are valued and in high demand. In May 2021, the U.S. had approximately 715,600 social workers. The number of positions is projected to grow 12% between 2020 and 2030, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

For many, the driving reason to pursue a career as a social worker is the ability to help struggling people in their communities. Still, job security is a welcome perk. More than 80% of those who graduated with a Master of Social Work (MSW) in the last three years and looked for work received a job offer, according to a 2019 survey by the Council on Social Worker Education. Most of these new graduates worked within a few months of graduation.

Given the many benefits of a career in the field, students considering a Master of Social Work degree should understand how to become a social worker.

What Does a Social Worker Do?

Before detailing the necessary steps to become a social worker, it’s crucial to explain how the profession functions. Social workers assist individuals in overcoming obstacles in their lives, such as substance abuse, emotional loss, and complex trauma. Often, a key component of social work is advocacy to raise awareness for a cause or group in collaboration with, and on behalf of, their clients and constituents.

Social workers might also promote the larger profession of social work at the local, state, and federal levels. Some social workers participate broadly in helping local organizations and decision-makers create or enhance social programs, services, and circumstances. This can be referred to as macro social work.

However, most social workers focus on smaller groups or individuals who need assistance. More than four out of five social workers with an MSW engaged directly with individuals, families, or groups. Only 5.7% directly work with communities, and only 7.5% engage in indirect or macro social work, according to a report by the Council of Social Worker Education. Those who seek a career in social work will likely interact with clients one-on-one.

Most MSW graduates work with communities that have high needs. More than half of new graduates working in direct social work positions reported that their clients were below the federal poverty line, and a similar percentage of those clients were Medicaid-eligible and had mental health conditions, according to the Council of Social Worker Education report.

Clinical social workers and licensed clinical social workers are social workers who have undergone specific training to diagnose and treat mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. The responsibilities of these professionals frequently include:

  • Offering individual, group, family, and couples therapy
  • Assisting clients in creating plans to alter behavior or deal with challenging circumstances
  • Referring clients to other services or resources like support groups or other mental health professionals

Clinical social workers can create and modify treatment plans in collaboration with patients, physicians, and other health care professionals based on their patients’ progress. Aside from their general duties, social workers can specialize in particular roles.

Child and Family Social Workers

These social workers assist families in need and safeguard vulnerable children. They support families in finding housing and childcare services and assist in applying for benefits like food stamps. When children are in danger of being neglected or abused, social workers intervene to bring them to a better living situation. Some work to reunite separated families, find foster homes or organize adoptions.

Health Care Social Workers

These social workers help patients understand their diagnoses and adjust their lifestyles, housing, or health care. For instance, they might help patients transition from the hospital to their homes. They might also inform clients about support groups and home health care tools to help them cope with their condition.

Social workers in health care help doctors and other medical professionals understand how illnesses and diseases affect their patients’ mental and emotional health. Social work with seniors and the elderly, hospice care, long-term pain management, and medical social work are a few of the specialties of health care social workers.

School Social Workers

These social workers create strategies to enhance students’ academic performance and social development in collaboration with teachers, parents, and school administrators. They assist students with issues such as bullying and aggressive behavior. School social workers also consult with families to address frequent absences from class or access to special education resources.

While school social workers and guidance counselors share some similarities, the main difference is the scope of the two positions. School social workers tend to focus more on a student’s private life than a typical guidance counselor. School social workers assist students with social, economic, or psychological challenges outside of their academics that may present difficulties during school.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers

These social workers assist patients who have mental illnesses or addictions and educate clients on resources for coping with their condition, such as support services and multi-step recovery programs. Typically, those specializing in mental health and substance abuse social work are licensed clinical social workers, allowing them to diagnose and provide treatment for their clients.

What Degree Is Needed to Become a Social Worker?

The first step in becoming a social worker is education. Prospective social workers should have a bachelor’s degree in sociology, psychology, social work, or a related field. While each of these provides a foundation for more advanced social work programs, Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) students directly study different communities, human behavior, social welfare policies, and social work ethics.

In their undergraduate degree, students should focus on courses in social policy, diversity, and welfare to best prepare for a career in social work. Fieldwork or internships are highly recommended because they can help students identify the area in which they might want to specialize. Those interested in going on to earn a Master of Social Work should also consider courses in sociology, political science, and economics.

A bachelor’s degree in social work is not required to enroll in a social work master’s degree program. Although practically any bachelor’s degree is appropriate, common majors include:

  • Public policy
  • Social services
  • Psychology
  • Social science

Working in the clinical field, health care, or education requires an MSW. Although many graduate programs begin with foundational courses, they eventually specialize in areas such as management or policy development. Master’s degree programs require fieldwork and real-world experience to either begin a career as a clinical social worker or advance onto a licensed clinical social worker.

Clinical vs. Non-Clinical Social Workers

Clinical social workers frequently work in mental health and rehabilitation clinics, where non-clinical social workers often work in settings such as schools, hospitals, and government offices. The main distinction is the services that each can legally provide. All social workers can recommend resources to clients and offer advice in difficult situations, but only clinical social workers are qualified to provide counseling services.

Students seeking a career in social work should consider the workplace settings that suit their specific strengths and interests before deciding on a degree program. For example, individuals who enjoy helping others and prefer one-on-one interaction may want to pursue an MSW. In contrast, those who enjoy problem-solving and working in a team may choose only to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

Non-Clinical Social Workers

Most non-clinical social workers provide services for individuals, although some work with organizations or charities. Non-clinical social workers only need a bachelor’s degree, and are often flexible in workplace settings. Non-clinical social workers typically offer educational counseling, after-school programs, employment counseling, and career counseling.

They frequently work to address the most important social concerns, notably in underserved communities or for state and federal organizations. Non-clinical social workers can opt to specialize in public service by working on issues such as social assistance and welfare policy. They can offer rehabilitation programs or consult with organizations responsible for treating people struggling with substance abuse, emotion control, and other issues.

Clinical Social Workers

Those who want to work in a clinical capacity must have a master’s degree in social work. An MSW offers clinical social specialists the necessary support skills, advanced counseling, and medical knowledge, which is highly valuable in clinical vocations. The state must license social workers to provide clinical services in any capacity. However, specific standards differ from state to state.

Obtaining social work licensure offers official confirmation by the state that the social worker meets their standards. Clinical social work licensing benefits and protects the public, clients, and social workers themselves, according to the Association of Social Work Boards.

The state can use licensing to safeguard clients and the general public from unreliable or underqualified service providers, regulating them to ensure they meet their state requirements. Most health insurance providers will only pay licensed providers, and many employers will only hire licensed social workers.

To become licensed, social workers must first complete their state’s requirements for hours of supervised clinical experience and then pass the Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) exam. Some jobs performed by clinical workers include serving clients who are undergoing divorce; addressing spouse or child abuse; and working with victimized children who require specific types of support, long-term treatment, or medical assistance. Licensed clinical social workers can also go into private practice as therapists or counselors, or may choose to start a consulting firm or advocacy group.

Only licensed clinical social workers can pursue these jobs, making the license a necessity for social workers who want to perform counseling and offer treatment.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Social Worker?

Becoming a social worker typically takes four to six years, including a four-year bachelor’s degree and a two-year master’s degree program. Some programs allow graduates with a BSW to complete their master’s degree in less than two years, provided they have enough relevant experience in the field and have previously completed coursework to compensate for the reduced program length.

Clinical social workers will then complete some training and experience after earning a master’s degree in social work, depending on the state. The duration of clinical training varies by state but can last many years depending on the necessary levels of experience required.

The Council on Social Worker Education found that more than three-quarters of part-time MSW students graduated within three years. Of these, they found students who studied mostly online graduated faster than those who studied primarily in person, with 25.9% graduating within two years, compared to 7.5% for those who studied primarily in person. Potential students should understand that receiving a degree from a part-time or online program doesn’t necessarily slow their education nor impact its quality.

Social Worker Skills

The potential to positively impact the lives of others is what makes social such a rewarding profession. Still, it can be challenging, and the interpersonal nature of the role demands certain qualities and skills. Here are a few top skills for a social worker career:

  • Communication skills — Social workers must be effective listeners to identify their clients’ needs and offer practical assistance.
  • Empathy — Social workers frequently deal with individuals undergoing difficult circumstances that differ from their own. They should be able to effectively relate to their client’s struggles and demonstrate genuine concern for their well-being.
  • Interpersonal skills — Social workers must be able to interact with various populations. They must cultivate positive and fruitful relationships with their customers, colleagues, and other support staff members.
  • Organizational skills — Social workers work with multiple clients, navigating paperwork and keeping records of their patient’s treatments.
  • Patience — While some clients progress quickly, others need more time. To best deal with different treatment time frames, social workers must prepare to engage a potentially drawn-out process as necessary without making hasty decisions.
  • Problem-solving skills — Social workers must evaluate their clients’ complicated situations and develop practical solutions.
  • Cultural competence — Social workers should be aware of the cultural differences between themselves and their clients and strive to provide thoughtful and respectful treatment. They should also work to take action against systems of discrimination that affect their clients.

Pursue a Career that Makes a Difference

Social work is a unique profession that directly works to improve the lives of others through counseling and emotional assistance. Becoming a social worker requires the proper education, and while some positions only require a bachelor’s degree, the Master of Social Work opens the doors to state licensure and clinical counseling and treatment.

The Ohio University online Master of Social Work program helps prepare students with the advanced foundation to prepare them for the Licensed Clinical Social Worker exam. The program trains students to support individuals, families, and communities in overcoming challenges and better understanding how communities are affected by social needs and policy.

With 100% online coursework, the Ohio University MSW degree program enables students to balance their work and family lives while receiving an education that can lead to a rewarding future.

Find out how Ohio University can help you make a difference.

Recommended Readings

MFT vs. MSW: Which Path Is Right for You?

Social Worker Salary: How to Advance in Your Career

Public Health and Social Work: Degrees and Career Opportunities


Council on Social Work Education, Information for Students and Social Workers

Council on Social Work Education, “Findings From Three Years of Surveys of New Social Workers”

Indeed, “School Counselor vs. School Social Worker: Differences in Education, Duties and Skills”

The Inscriber Magazine, “The Difference Between Clinical and Non-Clinical Social Workers”

National Association of Social Workers, Clinical Social Work

National Association of Social Workers, “Code of Ethics: Self-Care and Cultural Competence”

National Association of Social Workers, Why Choose the Social Work Profession?

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers