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How to Become a Social Worker Guide

By Lisa Freedland

Lisa Freedland is a Scholarships360 writer with personal experience in psychological research and content writing. She has written content for an online fact-checking organization and has conducted research at the University of Southern California as well as the University of California, Irvine. Lisa graduated from the University of Southern California in Fall 2021 with a degree in Psychology.

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Posted: January 18th, 2022
How to Become a Social Worker Guide

Do you enjoy working with people? Would you like to help them through their personal or community-wide struggles? If so, becoming a social worker may be a great option for you. Not only will you be actively helping people, but you’ll be able to form meaningful, sometimes even life-long connections with those from a wide range of backgrounds.

Whether interested in working with youth, the elderly, veterans, homeless individuals, and/or LGBTQ communities, keep on reading! We’ll fill you in on social worker schooling, careers, salaries, and more.

1. Consider whether social work is right for you

Although social work can be an incredibly fulfilling profession, you will need to know and work with vulnerable populations. Getting to meet and care about so many new people while trying to use limited resources requires a lot of emotional labor on your part. So, while we are certainly not trying to deter anyone from the profession, we would highly recommend looking deeply into what it entails before you decide to pursue it.

One important aspect to look into whenever considering a career is the average salary. As you make investments in your education, you need to be sure that you will be able to pay them back. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2020 median salary for social workers was $51,760 per year. Keep in mind, this number can vary considerably based on factors such as how long you’ve been working, your place of work, and the cost of living in your chosen residence. It’s a good idea to check into salaries at open positions you would consider before you agree to take out student loans for a degree. With that said, let’s get into the first active step on how to become a social worker!

Also see: How much student loan debt is too much?

2. Attain your bachelor’s degree

As with many professions, your first step to becoming a social worker is to get your bachelor’s degree! Certainly, you can major in social work if you’re 100% sure you want to go into the field. If you aren’t quite as sure, you can also major in something else entirely. So, let’s look into your options.

Bachelor of Social Work degree

First off is your Bachelor’s of Social Work. This degree is earned by majoring in social work and completing all your necessary degree requirements. Coursework for this major includes classes like Intro to Social Work, Human Behavior and the Social Environment, Social Welfare Policy, and anything along these lines. 

If you’d like to learn more about coursework for this major or the social work major as a whole, we’d recommend checking out our social work major overview! Majoring in social work is certainly not required to become a social worker. However, there are a few benefits of deciding to earn a social work degree early on. Namely, having a Bachelor’s of Social Work or an equivalent degree will allow you to enroll in advanced standing Master’s in Social Work (MSW) programs. These typically can be completed more quickly than their traditional standing counterparts.

Non-Social Work Bachelor’s degree

Now, for those of you who aren’t yet sure that social work is the path for you, there is also the option of majoring in something else entirely. Don’t worry that this will mess up your chances of becoming a social worker – it won’t! Even without a bachelor’s degree specifically in social work, you will still be able to pursue a MSW and work in the field.

While your undergraduate degree doesn’t need to be related or relevant to social work, there are some degrees that will help prepare you for a MSW or have some overlap with the social work major itself. Those include: 

No matter what you decide to major in during undergrad, the best way to secure a stable, yet flexible social work career is to earn a Master’s in Social Work. Let’s see how you can do just that.

3. Complete a Master’s in social work or an equivalent program

Obtaining a Master’s in Social Work is a necessary step toward gaining your social work licensure. However, there’s many different types of MSW programs, and thus, many ways one can obtain their MSW degree. Some programs are online and advanced, while others may be on-campus and traditional, or anywhere in between. So, without further ado, let’s look into a few different types of MSW programs.

Accredited MSW programs

No matter what type of MSW program you’re looking for, you’ll want to be sure that it is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. What exactly does “accredited” mean, though? Great question!

When it comes to MSW programs, being “accredited” means that a program is following best practice standards and guidelines when it comes to teaching students about social work. It may also guarantee that MSW programs’ curriculums are in line with core social work values and skills that will prepare students for post-grad practice and work.

To find out whether an MSW program is in fact accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), we would highly recommend checking out this Directory of accredited programs from the CSWE themselves.

Also see: What does “accredited” mean?

Traditional standing programs

If enrolled full-time, traditional MSW programs typically take two years to complete. These programs are typically for students who did not major in social work while in undergrad.

Advanced standing programs

Students who received a Bachelor’s of Social Work are eligible for advanced standing MSW programs. As the students enrolled in these programs normally already have a background in social work, these programs are slightly accelerated and take less time to complete than a traditional standing program. 

Online MSW programs

Online MSW programs are also an option for students who may want a little more flexibility in their schedule, who do not have time to come to campus due to other responsibilities, or who simply live too far away from any on-campus program. Thus, as masters programs require a lot of time and energy, if you believe that an online program will allow you to better focus on your studies and not stress about getting to class on time, we might recommend looking into online MSW programs. After all, it’s better to be realistic and practical ahead of time and avoid potential unnecessary stress down the road!

On-campus MSW programs

In addition to online MSW programs, there are also plenty of on-campus or hybrid programs. In-person classes for these programs are held at specified times throughout the year, while other parts may be accessed online. Just like is the case for entirely online MSW programs, though, students enrolled in on-campus or hybrid programs will receive the same accredited coursework. Something unique to on-campus programs, however, is that some will also offer students the opportunity to complete on-campus internships in addition to their coursework. Such internships provide great real-world practice to social work students.

4. Complete fieldwork/internship hour requirements

After receiving a Master’s in Social Work, prospective social workers complete fieldwork, where they can apply what they’ve learnt in a real-world setting. During fieldwork (which is also sometimes referred to as “internships” or “practicum”), students work under the supervision of social workers already in the field, allowing them to observe and learn what the profession truly entails. 

Thus, to make sure your fieldwork experience is as meaningful and beneficial as possible, we recommend both (a) understanding how fieldwork placements work and (b) meeting with your potential field mentor before you receive your field placements. This way, you will hopefully be able to bond and learn a lot from your field mentor over the course of your time together. However, if you received your field placements and feel that your educational needs and experiences are not being fulfilled, know that it’s okay to advocate for yourself and request changes if need be.

However, with that said, we urge students to be open to different types of field placements. Although your placement may not initially be what you hoped for, by working with a new and different community, you may grow to learn and love working with them. Being a social worker is all about working with different types of communities and people, so don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone! In the long run, it’ll surely benefit you. Not only will you experience personal growth, but you’ll also learn how to work with various populations!

Now that you have the basics on fieldwork, though, let’s take a look at the differences in fieldwork requirements across traditional and advanced standing MSW programs.

Also see: How to get an internship guide

Traditional MSW placement hours

During the first year of a traditional MSW program, students can expect to dedicate between 16 and 20 hours a week to fieldwork. The hours are typically completed over the course of two days a week. During one’s second year, this occurs over the course of three days a week

However, the time for fieldwork per week depends on your specific placement. Some programs may even require you to travel or commute to your site for each shift. We recommend having a reliable source of transportation just in case.

Advanced standing placement hours

As is the case with traditional MSW programs, the hours one will be expected to dedicate to fieldwork will depend on their specific program. However, students can expect to spend anywhere between 450 and 900 hours on fieldwork during the entire course of their advanced standing MSW program. While this may sound like a lot, keep in mind that it’s divided over the course of every week of the program – so it’s really not as bad as it may sound!

5. Obtain state social work licensure 

The next step, although not necessary for all social work roles, would be to apply for your state social work license! Doing so is not only necessary if you want to work with individuals, but also allows you to increase and demonstrate your expertise in the field.

In order to actually gain licensure, the two major components are (1) completing your fieldwork or internship hours and (2) passing the necessary examinations. However, it’s important to know that licensure requirements vary by state. If you’re not quite sure what the social work licensure requirements are for your state, we would recommend checking out this social work licensure directory with instructions on how to gain a social work license in every U.S. state! While some state licensing boards may only require one license, others may require multiple. However, the directory has all this information covered – and more! So, be sure to check out your preferred state of licensure for all the information you need.

Typically, no matter where you’re located, there are two types of licensed social workers across all states: Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) and Licensed Master Social Workers (LMSWs). Let’s check out their differences.

Clinical social work licensure

Receiving your license in clinical social work may be appealing to those interested in providing clinical services to individuals, such as psychotherapy. This form of licensure allows social workers to open up independent private practices, if they choose to do so. 

Master social work licensure

Master social work licensure, on the other hand, is typically for those who wish to become social workers. This option is for those who have no interest in providing clinical services (i.e. diagnosing and treating patients using the information outlined in the DSM-5). Master social work licensure permits you to conduct any non-clinical social work. However, it does not allow you to open up a private practice.

6. Look into different social work careers

Once you’ve received your social work license, you’re free to go conduct social work and help others to your heart’s content! Before applying for jobs, it’s good to know the different types of social work professions out there. Here’s some of the major categories of social work you may want to pursue a career in:

Clinical social work

Working in clinical social work means that you will be able to evaluate, diagnose, and treat patients’ mental illnesses. You can choose to do this in a hospital setting, mental health facilities, your own private practice, or a variety of other settings.

Macro social work

Although not many social work students choose to pursue the macro social work track, it is a very important field. Macro social workers have an active part in creating and altering social work policies that keep resources accessible to those who are the most in need of them. Thus, macro social workers largely keep the field itself “on its feet” and impact those who work in other areas of social work.

School social work

As implied by the name, school social workers conduct most of their work with students at a school, their students’ parents, school staff, and others with connections to the school. Most often, school social workers are part of teams. The team addresses and tries to solve the issues that schools and students face. A large focus of their work is the link between education and mental health. They actively work towards the betterment of their students, both mentally and academically.

Medical social work

Medical social workers generally work in medical settings. These include hospitals, dialysis clinics, community health centers, and long-term care facilities. Thus, medical social workers typically work with a wide range of people. They are not limited to those within a certain age range or those with a particular illness. Social workers often work with patients and their families throughout the course of one’s illness. They help people navigate a complex healthcare system and provide appropriate resources when possible.

7. Continue(d) Learning!

If you’ve found your first job in social work, congratulations! We hope you’re enjoying working with patients and being able to put all your hard work into practice. With that said, though, you’re never quite done learning, right? 

That’s right, according to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW)! Thus, before each renewal period, social workers must complete a certain number of “continued learning” hours. However, the exact number of hours one must complete varies by state and level of licensure. Further, while most states require a social work license renewal every two years, a few states say otherwise. To see the specificities of your state’s social work license renewal policies, we recommend checking out this helpful Social Work Licensing Reciprocity by State document!

So, what is “continued learning?” Well, there’s a few different types of continued learning that social workers can pursue, including:

  • Formal learning events: Staff-development meetings, workshops, course, practice seminars, distance learning, and a variety of other training methods offered by accredited social work programs
  • Professional meetings: Conferences, symposiums, and panel discussions
  • Individual professional activities: Writing papers (research and otherwise) or books, presenting publications or research findings, reading professional social work journals or books, teaching, independent study, research

8. Make a difference!

And that’s it! You’ve got a good idea of social worker schooling, careers, salaries, and on-the-job experience. Now, simply make sure to keep up with your renewal requirements and keep on helping people. Although it may get difficult at times, just remember that you’re making a difference in people’s lives. Remember, if need be, you can always take a break. If anything, not overworking yourself will benefit your own mental health so you can better assist others. So, with that, we send you off! We wish you the best in your future endeavors!

Keep reading… 

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