How to Become a Social Worker

Written by Matt Cates
Published on June 27, 2022 · Updated on September 16, 2022

How to Become a Social Worker

Written by Matt Cates
Published on June 27, 2022 · Updated on September 16, 2022

There are many different types of Social Workers, but they are all dedicated to helping people cope with challenging life circumstances. Some work mostly with children; others help people with medical conditions or even substance abuse problems. Social Workers learn and apply a wide range of counseling techniques designed to empower clients to overcome obstacles and get their lives back on a better track. The journey is demanding, but Social Workers reap countless rewards for their valiant efforts in providing crucial support and resources to the most vulnerable members of their communities. 

What is Social Work?

Social work traces its origins back to volunteer efforts to reduce poverty and inequality, but it has since expanded into a full-blown profession requiring formal academic training. 

Today, social workers can be found providing their much-needed services within businesses, governmental agencies, schools, hospitals, and private practices. A Social Worker’s specific job description varies depending on their area of specialization and the organization they work for. Generally speaking, the job consists of offering direct counseling, support, and resources to clients. Advanced roles can involve providing clinical diagnosis and treatment for clients. 

How to Become a Social Worker

Social workers work independently and are often the only professionals offering applicable services to at-risk populations. To prepare for these critical roles, social worker candidates take specific coursework at the bachelor’s or master’s degree level, spending ample time gaining practical clinical experience under the direct supervision of a seasoned professional. 

Becoming a social worker represents a significant commitment of time and effort. Beyond the educational foundation provided by your baccalaureate degree, you’ll gain a broad understanding of the following:

  • Social justice
  • Social welfare history
  • Public policy
  • Diversity

The skills and knowledge attained in the classroom and during your clinical internship prove invaluable to you and to your clients.

Step One: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work

The first step to becoming a social worker is academics. The minimum level of education to become a social worker is a bachelor’s degree. Though there is no requirement that you earn a social work degree, a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) provides the education requirements for most social work careers. 

BSW degrees generally take four years to complete, if attending school full-time. The curriculum will vary depending upon the university or college that you attend, but most coursework will include these areas of study:

  • Intro to Social Work
  • Human Behavior 
  • Cultural Diversity 
  • Case Management Practice
  • Social Welfare Policy 
  • Research Methods
  • Practicum & Seminar 

BSW programs include supervised intern work experiences, as well. 

It is important that any program you apply to and attend holds accreditation through the Council on Social Work Education. This agency works in accordance with the requirements of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and is responsible for ensuring that social work programs meet competency standards.

A BSW is enough to qualify for most entry-level social worker positions, except for those who desire to perform clinical social work. For all you would-be clinical social workers, keep reading!

Step Two: Complete a Master’s Degree in Social Work

If you want to become a Clinical Social Worker (aka Licensed Clinical Social Worker), then a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree is needed, along with state licensure and sufficient clinical work experience. Some students become highly-specialized licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) while others study to be licensed master social workers (LMSWs) who coordinate services and therapy or who may offer some therapy types under supervision. 

A Master of Social Work generally takes two years to complete if attending school full-time. The curriculum will vary depending upon the program you attend, but common coursework includes:

  • Clinical Practice with Individuals
  • Clinical Practice with Groups
  • Substance Abuse Counseling
  • Social Policy
  • Field Education Practicum

MSW programs include supervised work experiences, as well.

A sample curriculum from Pacific University Oregon lists the following classes:

Sample MSW First Year

  • Foundations of Social Work & Social Welfare
  • Human Behavior in Social Environment I
  • Generalist Practice I
  • Generalist Practice II
  • Foundation Field Practicum I
  • Generalist Practice III
  • Foundation Field Practicum II
  • Research Methods
  • Influencing Social Policy
  • Diversity Racism Oppression & Privilege

Sample MSW Second Year

  • Advanced Standing Prep 
  • Latino Family and Culture
  • Program Evaluation
  • Advanced Field Practicum III
  • Mental Health Diagnosis
  • Adv Therapeutic Approaches Mental Health
  • Advanced Field Practicum IV
  • Management & Leadership in Social Work

Sample MSW Elective options

  • Immersion in Latin American Cultures
  • Social Ecology of Wellness
  • Poverty Migration & Human Rights
  • Global Health & Preventive Practice
  • Grief and Loss
  • Beyond the Cycle of Violence
  • Addictions, Society & Social Work Practice
  • Suicide in Marginalized Populations
  • Practice with Older Adults
  • Social Work Practice with Trauma
  • School Social Work

Step Three: Gain Practical Work Experience

Prospective clinical social workers must acquire practical work experience in a clinical setting to qualify for licensure. Each state sets its own rules regarding the precise number of tracked supervised clinical work hours. BSW and MSW degree programs offer some supervised hours which may be counted. In general, expect about two years’ worth of supervised work. 

For example, in Oregon, an LCSC exam candidate must have “a minimum of 24 months of supervised experience” with “3,500 hours post-MSW experience.” In addition to fulfilling your relevant clinical experience requirement, you also must pass the Association of Social Work Board's (ASWB) licensing exam required by your state. 

Check with the licensure board for the state you wish to work in for more details about state-specific requirements regarding work experience.

Step Four: Become Certified/Licensed

For aspiring clinical social workers, once you have graduated with an MSW program and have met your state’s requirements for supervised clinical training, you are ready to apply for your state license! Though each state’s process is slightly different, most follow the steps below:

  1. Obtain the licensure application forms from your state’s board of social work examiners and complete the required information regarding your education and your clinical experience

  2. Obtain and submit a Certification and Authorization Form for a Criminal History Background Check 

  3. Submit the required application fee

  4. Submit the official transcript from the educational program where you earned your MSW, including proof of your clinical social work practice

  5. Submit a supervisor’s certification of your full-time clinical social work experience

  6. Submit proof that you have completed the clinical exam administered by the ASWB

The Four Steps To Become a Social Worker

What Can I Do with a Social Work Degree?

There are many exciting career options for people with social work degrees. Indeed, the job outlook and pay potential for social workers make this a hot degree for many students trying to figure out what they want to study.

The entire field of social work is expanding as the demand for services grows. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social workers have a projected 12% job growth rate, which is greater than that for most other professions. Note, BLS forecasts are merely projections, not promises.

BLS also notes that the median annual wage for these professionals is $50,390, with top earnings bringing home over $82,840. Wages vary depending on factors such as industry, employer, geographic area, and education and experience levels. 

Pay also depends on the social worker’s concentration. This can be anything from family or school counseling to support group counselors or business social workers. Here are a few examples:

Child and Family Social Worker

Child and family social workers work directly with children and families, offering help in a variety of ways. Child-related services range from protecting kids from neglect or abuse to working with foster care and adoption agencies. Family-oriented services may cover assistance in locating suitable housing and applying for benefits. This can be an emotionally tough but highly rewarding social work option. The median annual wage is $49,150.

School Social Worker

School social workers engage with school administrators and teachers to come up with action plans aimed at boosting classroom academic performance as well as developing students’ soft skills. They may also work with parents on individual student issues. This can be a fun option for those interested in the education sector. Median annual wage - $49,150.

Healthcare Social Worker

Healthcare social workers assist clients suffering or recovering from various medical issues. Services may include helping patients transition from medical care environments back to their homes, and counseling families on how to offer appropriate support. This is a fantastic option for compassionate people ready to make a difference in the lives of people with health issues. Median annual wage - $60,840.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Worker 

Mental Health and Substance Abuse social workers offer critical and timely intervention services to people struggling with mental wellness challenges and substance addiction problems. These workers may be classified as clinical or licensed clinical social workers. This can be a challenging route requiring patience and commitment, but the rewards are significant, too. Median annual wage - $49,130.

The above list of career options is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to social work job opportunities. 

As Trapeta B. Mayson (MSSW, MBA, LCSW) put it, “Social work is very diverse. You can work with clients, you can work in administration, you can create art. Think of all the different things you can do with a social work degree. It’s amazing.”

How Long Does It Take to Become a Social Worker?

Becoming a general social worker takes at least four years, and clinical social workers may need up to eight when including academics and the required work experience for licensure. Here’s how it breaks down:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree at an accredited college or university – Four years

  2. For clinical social workers: Earn a Master’s degree in Social Work (MSW) – Two years

  3. Gain clinical social work experience required by your state’s licensure board – Two years

To learn more about how to become a social worker, check out our social worker resources below!

Social Worker Resources

Social workers are invaluable members of society. They assist people from all walks of life, helping them to cope with a variety of challenges and counseling them through addiction, trauma, emotional challenges, and mental health issues. The position is both rewarding and demanding, so it is important to do your homework and learn about the job before jumping in! 

Visit the below social work-related professional organizations to find out how to become a social sorker in the field and state you’re interested in! 

Social Worker FAQs

  • How Do I Become a Social Worker?
    • Non-clinical social workers must earn a bachelor’s degree, preferably in social work. Most states don’t require licensure or credentials for non-clinical roles. Clinical social workers need a master’s plus several hours of supervised work experience and state licensure.
  • Is a Career in Social Work Worth It?
    • That depends on your goals, but social workers have a projected 12% job growth rate through 2030 plus a median annual wage of $50,390, with top earners making over $82,840!
  • How Much Do Social Workers make?
    • Social worker salaries depend on their area of specialization. The median annual wage is $50,390, with the top 10% of earners making over $82,840.
  • Is Social Work Hard?
    • Social workers have very rewarding but often challenging careers. Social workers see and work in situations that may be tough to handle emotionally, like working with those facing addiction or families trying to get out of a bad situation. But the feeling of satisfaction you get from helping those when they need it most is rewarding enough to make the difficult days worth it. There are many social work career paths to choose from, and some are harder than others.
  • Is Social Work a Good Job?
    • Yes, social work is a good job if you enjoy that type of work! Social work isn’t for everyone. It requires compassion, patience, and diligence. There are several career options, ranging from working with children or the elderly to helping homeless persons or clients struggling with addiction. Each career route has its own unique challenges and rewards!
  • How many years does it take to be a Social Worker?
    • It takes 4 to 8 years to become a social worker. The length of time it takes depends on what type of social work you want to get into. Non-clinical roles require a bachelor’s degree which takes four years if attending school full-time. Clinical social workers need a master’s degree, which takes at least another two years. Additionally, you’ll need roughly two more years of supervised clinical work experience to qualify for state licensure.

Social Work Trivia

  • Social work in the US began in the late 19th century, as a means to help immigrants arriving mostly from Europe overcome poverty. 
  • The first social work course was offered at Columbia University — in 1898! 
  • In 1931, Jane Addams become one of the first women in history to win the Nobel Peace Prize, thanks to her social work efforts for immigrants in Chicago. 
  • President Franklin Roosevelt appointed social worker Frances Perkins as the first woman cabinet member — the Secretary of Labor! She is hailed as the “driving force behind the New Deal.”

Source: NASW