Social Worker

One of the most famous Mahatma Gandhi quotes reads, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” No one seems to do this more than social workers. These front-line servants are ready and available to bring about change by assisting the most vulnerable of our population in a myriad ways. They are true heroines and heroes who do tireless work behind the scenes to keep our society running smoothly.

Simply put, social workers help people. They are the ultimate problem-solvers. They work with people from every walk of life, including families, parents, kids, adults, and elderly citizens. Social workers predominantly help low-income individuals, but they can help affluent families, as well. For example, hospital social workers help families navigate critical care. Typical places of employment for social workers can include clinics, doctor’s offices, child welfare organizations, adoption agencies, long-term care centers, and government agencies.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2019), employment for social workers is projected to grow 11 percent nationally between 2018 and 2028, which is more than twice the national average of 5 percent for all jobs. Job growth varies based on the specialization and place of employment. Child, family and school social workers will grow at the slowest pace of 7 percent, followed by healthcare social workers at 17 percent and mental health social workers at 18 percent.

Social work is an exciting career where professionals can really make a difference. Keep reading to learn about licensing requirements, best places to earn social work degrees, and typical job duties.

Social Worker Specializations & Degree Types

A bachelor’s in social work (BSW) is the most common type of degree earned by those looking to pursue a career as a social worker. Graduates with a BSW can be employed in entry-level positions such as caseworkers, mental health assistants, and or even an activity director.

For those pursuing work as a clinical case worker, a master’s degree in social work (MSW) is typically required. Specializations for either a bachelor’s or master’s of social work include geriatric, medical, educational, and child and family.

Admissions Requirements for Social Worker Programs

Applicants to BSW programs are required to have completed high school or obtained a GED. Advanced courses, particularly in classes such as psychology, can bolster BSW applications.

MSW programs require applicants to have already completed a bachelor’s degree in social work, psychology, or related field. Many MSW programs also look for applicants who have work or internship experience in social work or related fields.

Both BSW and MSW programs typically require test scores (ACT, SAT, GRE), statements of purpose, letters of recommendation, and official transcripts.

Social Worker Program Accreditation

Students should ensure the BSW or MSW program they enroll in is accredited. Accreditation ensures that the schools meet or exceed a minimum quality level. It also makes transferring between schools easier. Top BSW and MSW programs will be, at a minimum, regionally accredited by an agency recognized by the Department of Education’s Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). In addition to regional accreditation, students should look for accreditation by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Currently, the CSWE has accredited over 500 bachelor’s and 200 master’s programs.

On-Campus Social Worker Degree Programs

University of Michigan – School of Social Work

The MSW at the University of Michigan School of Social Work is ranked number 1 in the country by US News & World Report (2020). This outstanding program offers students the flexibility to take courses part-time or even in the evenings and on the weekends, allowing them to balance work, family, and school.

With seven concentrations (family welfare, counseling, community change, policy and politics, applied research, older adults, and leadership), students have the opportunity to personalize their education to their career goals. Prospective students who have work experience or a BSW can choose an accelerated program and complete their degree in as little as a year. There is even an option to complete 27 months of work with the Peace Corps as part of the program.

  • Location: Ann Arbor, MI
  • Duration: One to two years
  • Accreditation: Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
  • Tuition: $24,099 per semester

University of Chicago – School of Social Service Administration

The University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration offers a unique master’s of arts in social work and social welfare instead of a traditional MSW. This interdisciplinary degree gives students a comprehensive education while providing training to be effective social workers. The program frames individual distress in a societal context and teaches students the best way to address both issues.

During their first year students learn the three main methods of social intervention: direct, policy, and research. For their second year, students choose either a clinical concentration and engage clients through fieldwork, or a concentration on social work administration, where they learn how to use policy to enact change.

  • Location: Chicago, IL
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
  • Tuition: $16,578 per quarter

Online or Hybrid Social Worker Degree Programs

Columbia University – School of Social Work

Since 1898, the Columbia University School of Social Work has been training students to help others. With rigorous coursework emphasizing social justice and 1,200 required fieldwork hours, it is no wonder this program is ranked third best in the nation by US News & World Report. Students can complete this program online allowing them to balance work, life, and studies.

With seven programs to choose from, ranging from accelerated to part-time studies and everything in between, students can choose the path that best fits their lives. There are also four concentrations, seven methods of practice, nine dual degree programs, and six minor options allowing students to customize their studies to their interests and career goals.

  • Location: New York, NY
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
  • Tuition: $1,626 per credit-hour

University of Southern California – Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work

In as few as 12 months, students can earn an MSW from the University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. With a focus on collaboration and small seminar-style classes utilizing online learning tools, students can complete the same curriculum offered on-campus completely online. Field work is completed in the student’s own community allowing them to stay local while still meeting their education requirements.

During the first term, students all take the same four courses. Beginning in the second term and continuing through graduation, students chose to complete their studies, research, and fieldwork in one of three departments. Additionally, there are two program tracks and a myriad electives allowing students to tailor their studies.

  • Location: Los Angeles, CA
  • Duration: One to two years
  • Accreditation: Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
  • Tuition: $1,928 per credit-hour

How Long Does it Take to Become a Social Worker?

It can take as little as four years of postsecondary study to become a social worker. However, becoming a clinical social worker can take one to three more years, depending on the course of study and required supervised experience.

How To Become a Social Worker – Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Complete a GED (Four Years)

Obtaining a high school diploma or a GED is the first step towards becoming a social worker as nearly all bachelor’s and associate programs require it. Aspiring social workers can begin interning in high school to gain work experience and bolster college applications. Politicians’ offices, hospitals, care centers, and the YMCA are typical places high schoolers can intern.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)

Most students who pursue a career in social work earn a bachelor of social work (BSW). This degree typically takes four years to complete and prepares students to help, advocate for, and educate those who need help.

However, not all social workers earn a BSW but rather in a related field such as psychology or sociology. Employers and master’s programs also highly value internships and work experience while completing a bachelor’s.

Step 3: Obtain Entry-Level Work Experience (Optional, Timeline Varies)

Those who have completed a BSW can find work in a variety of settings, including clinics, political offices, hospitals, government agencies, child protective services, and long-term care facilities. Entry-level work experience will enable professionals to move up the ranks in their chosen field or prepare them for further studies.

Step 4: Complete a Master’s Degree (Optional, One to Three Years)

An MSW opens up a wide variety of social work careers including becoming a licensed clinical social worker. These programs typically take between one to three years to complete and include a clinical rotation component where students gain valuable hands on experience.

Step 5: Acquire Supervised Experience (Two to Three Years)

In order to become a licensed clinical social worker, it is necessary to have earned a set number of supervised work experience hours. This number varies by state and often is divided between face-to-face client hours and supervision hours. Typically the total hours required vary between 1,500 to 4,000. In some states, it is a minimum number of months employed post-graduation.

Step 6: Obtain Licensure (Optional, Timeline Varies)

Once the required number of clinical work experience hours has been completed, prospective licensed clinical social workers can apply to their state board for licensure. Requirements vary by state but often include testing in addition to verification of education and work experience hours. As requirements vary widely it is important to be familiar with state requirements when pursuing education, work experience, and licensure.

See the certification and licensure section below for more information.

What Do Social Workers Do?

Social workers are essential to the well being of a community. They are employed by hospitals, clinics, doctor’s offices, nonprofits, and government agencies to help people and communities solve problems. Typical duties of a social worker include:

  • Meeting with clients one on one to assess their needs
  • Helping clients determine what their goals are
  • Establishing a plan to assist clients in reaching their goals
  • Providing outreach to communities where it may be difficult to access resources
  • Advocating on behalf of clients for services or policy changes
  • Maintaining confidential client records
  • Referring to other community services that may help the client
  • Responding to crisis situations in a calm manner
  • Assisting with an array of family issues, including child abuse, adoption, divorce, domestic violence or terminal illness.

Social Worker Certifications & Licensure

Prospective licensed social workers must first apply for candidacy from their state. They then receive authorization to take the state-authorized exam or the appropriate test from the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB).

Upon passing the test, applicants must submit any additional required documentation to their state board such as proof of clinical supervision hours and length of work experience if required. All states require clinical social workers to be licensed but requirements vary from state to state for those who hold bachelor’s or associate degrees.

The most common licenses available are licensed clinical social worker, certified social work associate, licensed master’s social worker, and registered baccalaureate social worker. The intermediary license of clinical social work associate is often used for clinical social workers who are working on completing their supervised work experience.

How Much Do Social Workers Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2019), there are four main categorizations of social workers. Here are their detailed salary percentiles, averages, and number employed across the US:

Child, family, and school social workers (327,710 employed, $51,000 average annual salary)

  • 10th percentile: $30,870
  • 25th percentile: $37,320
  • 50th percentile (median): $47,390
  • 75th percentile: $60,600
  • 90th percentile: $78,230

Healthcare social workers (174,890 employed, $59,300 average annual salary)

  • 10th percentile: $35,000
  • 25th percentile: $44,200
  • 50th percentile (median): $56,750
  • 75th percentile: $71,000
  • 90th percentile: $86,130

Mental health and substance abuse social workers (117,770 employed, $51,670 average annual salary)

  • 10th percentile: $29,540
  • 25th percentile: $35,790
  • 50th percentile (median): $46,650
  • 75th percentile: $61,930
  • 90th percentile: $80,900

Social workers, other (58,410 employed, $61,750 average annual salary)

  • 10th percentile: $34,210
  • 25th percentile: $43,570
  • 50th percentile (median): $61,230
  • 75th percentile: $78,720
  • 90th percentile: $90,800
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson


Kimmy is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.

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