How to Become a Social Worker

To become a licensed social worker, you need to get licensed in the state in which you intend to practice. While each state sets its own guidelines for licensing social workers, this generally means earning a traditional or online social work degree from an accredited program.
How to Help Others
A student talking to two professionals about how to become a social worker and the text 'schooling for social workers'

Social work as a professional practice and academic discipline centers on helping individuals, groups, communities and society as a whole achieve their goals.

If you’re interested in making a positive difference in people’s lives and affecting social change, social work can be a meaningful and fulfilling career. It’s also a sector of the workforce that is projected “to grow 11% from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations” due to increased demand for healthcare and social services, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

To become a licensed social worker, you need to get licensed in the state in which you intend to practice. Each state sets its own guidelines for licensing social workers. But it’s important to note that the term “social worker” is sometimes used in different ways by the general public and by employers.

Dr. Michelle Alvarez and the text Dr. Michelle Alvarez“The public will talk about social workers generally and associate the term with a range of social service positions,” said Michelle Alvarez, director of academic strategy at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) and former associate dean of social sciences. “Employers, meanwhile, understand that if they title a position "social worker" or hire someone to practice social work, they need to be licensed according to state laws."

For that reason, the longer answer to the question about how to become a social worker involves the following, according to Alvarez:

  1. Shadow a social work professional in your field of interest (e.g., health care, education, government, etc.) to determine if this area is a good fit for you.
  2. Learn about the licensing requirements in your state or jurisdiction.
  3. Identify the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited programs of interest in your area or online.
  4. Understand and complete the application requirements by the due date. You may have to secure transcripts, write an essay or get references, each of which can take a considerable amount of time. If you don’t get accepted, ask for feedback to improve your application for the next due date.
  5. Complete either a traditional or online social work degree program, including any necessary field experience.
  6. Pass the licensing examination (as required by each state or jurisdiction).

The Skills, Roles, and Responsibilities of Social Workers

According to BLS, “Social workers help people solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives. Clinical social workers also diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional issues.”

“Social workers, perhaps more than the other helping professions, are able to meet people where they are – socially, emotionally, even physically – and view the person in their whole environment,” Alvarez said. “We’re not only working with that individual, we’re thinking about the broader system in which they’re involved. That’s why you often find social workers out in the community, on-site, or wherever they need to be to support the client.”

To this end, social workers need to master several skills. These include:

  • Interpersonal and communication skills – Social workers need to build relationships while maintaining appropriate boundaries with clients. In addition to good written and verbal communication, they must also keep sensitive information confidential in order to comply with legal regulations, in accordance with the National Association of Social Workers' Code of Ethics as well as the HIPAA Privacy Rule for health care or FERPA for education.
  • Stress management and self-care skills – Casework and investigations can be stressful. “A lot of people with challenges in their own backgrounds want to enter into the social work field to help others,” Alvarez said. “That’s great as long as you remember to take care of yourself first, so you can then take care of your clients.”
  • Multi-tasking skills – In addition to being flexible and adaptable, social workers must be able to plan, organize, manage and supervise multiple cases and projects. “They need to be able to see the big picture while also taking care of day-to-day tasks such as engaging a client, developing and implementing an evidence-based treatment plan, connecting them with services and evaluating the process along the way,” Alvarez said.
  • Problem-solving skills – In order to help their clients, social workers must know when and how to apply the various models, methods and theories of the discipline to their practice. Flexibility, adaptability and creativity are crucial.

Degrees that Help You Prepare for a Job in Social Work

“Each jurisdiction [such as a state, province, territory, etc.] defines by law what is required for each category of social work license,” according to the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). These licensing examination categories include:

  • Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree. This is typically required for entry-level administrative positions or general psycho-educational roles in social work or human services. But a BSW alone is generally not sufficient for career advancement in most jurisdictions. However, “completing a BSW means you can qualify for advanced standing in the Master of Social Work program,” Alvarez said. In other words, having a BSW can position you to complete your MSW in one year, instead of the two it would take otherwise.
  • Master of Social Work (MSW) with no post-degree experience. Most people who hold the job title "social worker" or advance in the field have at least master's-level educational training. Yet you don't necessarily need a BSW to pursue an MSW, which is the crucial degree required to becoming a Licensed Social Worker (LSW) or Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) in many states. Undergraduate majors such as psychology, human services and sociology can also prepare you for an MSW program.
  • Advanced generalist MSW, which requires two years post-master’s supervised experience. Depending on the jurisdiction, this level of licensing can lead to a person becoming a Certified Master Social Worker (CMSW), Licensed Certified Social Worker (LCSW), Independent Social Worker (ISW), Certified Social Work Manager (CSWM), Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW), Licensed Master Social Worker – Advanced Practice (LMSW-AP), Certified Independent Social Worker (CISW), Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LAWS), among other designations.
  • Clinical MSW, which requires two years of post-master’s direct clinical social work experience. This level of licensing can result in a person becoming (again, depending on jurisdiction) a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW), Registered Clinical Social Worker (RCSW), Associate Clinical Social Worker (ACSW), Licensed Specialist Clinical Social Worker (LSCSW), Clinical Social worker (CSW) and Provisional Licensed Clinical Social Worker (PLCSW).

All states have adopted the ASWB licensing examinations, "but the specific license requirements for a social work license, in terms of the necessary education and field experience, vary state by state,” said Alvarez. “Generally speaking in the United States, a social work degree from a program accredited by the CSWE is the requirement for the field.”

As part of your traditional or online social work degree, you learn about the profession’s code of ethics, cross-cultural perspectives and competencies, human behavior, systems theory, and more, often while gaining valuable real-world experience through field placements. Through education and training, you also come to understand how evidence-based approaches support your work and how to measure client outcomes.

Dr. Metoka Welch and the text Dr. Metoka WelchWhile there is overlap between the job functions of social workers and other helping professions (BLS identifies several similar occupations), “there are philosophical differences as well as real-world differences, for example, in terms of titles and income,” said Dr. Metoka Welch, the program director for counseling programs at SNHU. For that reason, you might consider pursuing a degree or credentials in related fields like psychology, counseling (mental health counseling, school counseling, marriage and family counseling, etc.), human services, or human development.

Regardless of which degree or career path you choose, you can expect to work with others from the helping professions. “Ideally, all the members of the client’s team, including the social worker, the counselor, the psychologist, the medical doctor, can come together on behalf of a person in order to coordinate their efforts to help,” Welch said. "An integrated approach to caring for the whole person is a best practice in the helping professions."

Social Work Jobs and Resources

Nowadays, social workers can be found working across a variety of settings, including hospitals and medical settings, crisis and rehabilitation centers, schools (elementary through higher education), for-profit and nonprofit organizations, private and public sectors. In fact, according to the National Association for Social Workers’ 2011 “Social Workers in Government Agencies” report, social workers are “key employees in federal, state, and local government agencies” who often work on-site, in collaboration with non-governmental agencies, or as independent contractors or consultants (NASW pdf source).

Importantly, Alvarez said, there are three broad categories of social work practice or service:

  • Micro level – Working with individuals
  • Mezzo level – Working with groups or families
  • Macro level – Working on the community- or system-wide side, whether in leadership, advocacy, research, academia or public policy roles

“A person needs to ask themselves, ‘How do I think change happens and where do I want to make the biggest impact?’” said Welch, who prefers the in-depth interactions of one-on-one counseling sessions. Meanwhile, working in school settings gave Alvarez the opportunity to work with individual students, families, teachers, as well as administrators—sometimes all in one day. The key to entering the field is recognizing your strengths, limitations and preferences, and then pursuing social work positions that align with those.

Finally, as a way to start or advance your social work career, you may want to learn about or join professional organizations for social workers. Check out the following:

  • American Clinical Social Work Association (ACSWA)
  • Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
  • The International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW)
  • The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW)
  • The National Association of Social Work (NASW)
  • The School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA)

Sofia Tokar is a freelance copywriter and editor in higher education. Follow her on Twitter @stokar or connect on LinkedIn.