Updated on June 13, 2024
Edited by Evelyn Keener
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What Does a Career in Social Work Entail?

Social work is a broad field of research and study, and social workers dedicate their efforts to helping others. Social workers are formally educated, highly trained, experienced workers that help people manage problems and life issues. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) uses a four-part analysis of social work occupational classes consisting of (1) child family and school, (2) healthcare, (3) mental health and substance abuse, (4) a broad catch-all category of general social work.

The BLS categories have a common thread, which is the primary concern is with individuals and their interactions within social environments. A career in social work is a demanding one; social workers often work with people in extremely stressful situations and on matters of grave concern to individuals, families, and community members. Luckily, any online students interested in finding an online social work program should be able to find anything from a bachelor's in social work program to a PhD level degree in social work focused on human behavior and human psychology, social and economic justice, racial and ethnic relations, human services, community organizations, and more.

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Elements of Successful Social Work Careers

Many observers note that the essence of social work is a passion for helping others. While true, the field has a basis in scientific research and knowledge. And those who wish to become a social worker will need a degree in social work to succeed. Social work uses a knowledge base of human development and behavior, and the field revolves around social structures such as the economy, social institutions, and culture. Social workers combine elements from a wide variety of areas and principles from formal education and training with the experience gained in their assigned roles. Training includes classroom instruction, internships, and clinical social work or observed practice. The successful social worker must expand the knowledge they gain in formal classroom work with many hundreds of hours of hands-on practice in mental health or social work programs.

The personal characteristics essential to successful social work can be seen here:

  • Empathy and ethics are required for social work. Social workers must have the ability to understand a person’s situation.
  • Work with clients and families, including during extreme and stressful situations.
  • Listening and communication skills are critical to understanding and effectively relating ideas to clients, families, and others.
  • Advocacy is a vital part of social work; social workers often must be the chief advocate for a client’s needs to obtain resources and a favorable resolution.
  • Academics are also a requirement. You can complete a Bachelor of Social work (BSW), a Master of Social Work (MSW), or another social work program or social work degree in order to become a social worker.

How to Earn a Degree in Social Work

Social work students must select an accredited online program and earn a bachelor’s or another degree in social work or a related field. Some students begin at a community college and earn an associate social work degree and transfer to a four-year school for a bachelor’s. The CSWE is the leading US accreditor for social work programs, and a degree from a CSWE accredited school can advance your career prospects. The Bachelor of Science in Social Work is an entry-level degree for many types of social work. Some clinical social work fields, such as psychologists’ occupations, frequently ask for a master’s degree in social work.

The Master of Social Work (MSW) is a degree that can qualify you for clinical positions and for licensure as a social worker in many states. The master’s degree in social work is also a preferred level of education for social work educators at the college level. Master’s level education can open up a wider range of research and academic studies than a bachelor’s degree in social work, and these opportunities can lead to specialization and expertise in one or more areas of social work or social research. Some undergraduate online programs offer a time-saving combination of a bachelor’s social work degree and master’s social work degree. These five-year programs can benefit students intending to complete a master’s degree in social work with a specific field or area of study in mind and help them reach their goal of becoming a social worker even faster.

States require licenses for many types of social work. In nearly every state, clinical practitioners must have a master’s degree from a CSWE-accredited program and a minimum number of clinical training and experience hours. States require Bachelor degrees for entry-level work, and master’s degrees for supervisory level work. Advanced general practice levels require a master’s and additional training hours or experience. Clinical levels require an MSW and two or more years of supervised clinical experience.

The field of social work is broad, and few statements can apply to all its parts. However, the need for experience does apply to nearly every type of social work. Experience should begin with formal education. While a student, future social workers should take advantage of opportunities to volunteer at local or community agencies.

Beyond the Master’s degree, there are advanced social work certifications which set the holder apart as a distinguished practitioner, researcher, or scholar. For example, the Certified Advanced Practice Social Worker (CAPSW) is a certification that builds on a master’s degree from an accredited school to require thousands of hours of experience and an exam administered by the Association of Social Work Boards. Those interested in an independent, private practice may benefit from a credential like the CIPSW or Certified Independent Practice Social Worker.

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Typical Social Work Degree Requirements


A typical bachelor’s degree in social work is a four-year degree requiring about 120 to 130 credit hours. Students will typically take general education courses during the first two-year section. These will include a foundation in social studies, statistics, and the natural sciences. During the last two years of their education social work students will specialize in general and specific social work subjects, and they will perform internships or other types of practical education. These hands-on training sessions are critical to development as a social worker.

Typical Social Work Certifications Needed

Some states have licensing and registration requirements for social workers. Nearly every state requires licensing for social workers and psychologists that hold out to the public and professional services providers. Many states require registration of social workers that includes at least a minimal background check.

Academic Standards

Students must meet academic standards for admission to an accredited college or university including good standing and evidence of good character. Depending on the college you choose, they may also want you to have a certain score on a standardized test, such as the ACT or SAT.

Exam or Experience Needed

Social work requires extensive hours of training. Licensure typically requires more than 3,000 hours of experience. Clinical licensing requires thousands of hours of supervised or observed expertise and mentoring. Clinical status requires specific examinations. All states perform extensive background checks on applicants for licenses and registered social workers. Social work puts social workers in contact with individuals that may be in extremely vulnerable conditions. The state has an obligation to use care when providing licenses to work with clients under stressful situations and periods of emotional vulnerability.

Social work is a broad field and success relies heavily on work experience. The formal education requirements begin with an associate degree that can provide entry at the assistant level. The bachelor’s degree is the entry degree, and a master’s degree can open educator opportunities and state-licensed clinical occupations.

Online Associates Degree in Social Work

The Associate of Science in Social Work can establish an educational basis for entering the social work field. The sixty-hour course of study will include about 20 hours of general education, 30 hours of social work coursework, and most online programs require an internship or research project.

Example Associate Degree Courses:

  • Introduction to Psychology
  • Principles of Sociology
  • Introduction to Social Work
  • Healthcare Information Systems
  • Internship/Capstone

Online Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work

The Bachelor of Science in Social Work is the entry-level degree for the field of social work. The bachelor’s degree is required for full participation for nearly all social work occupations.

Example Bachelor’s Degree Courses:

  • Human Behavior and the Lifespan
  • Cultural Diversity and Justice
  • Social Work Case Management Practice
  • Social Work Research Methods
  • Social Work Practicum & Seminar, I

Online Master’s Degree in Social Work

The master’s degree in social work is a key step towards licensure as a clinical specialist in psychology or other social work fields. The master’s requires a bachelor’s degree from an accredited online program. It requires about sixty hours of coursework including internship and practical experience in the field. Students can select concentrations such as cultural diversity, gerontology, and social policy.

Example Master’s Degree Courses:

  • Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 1: Theory and Development Across the Lifespan
  • Social Justice and Empowerment: Oppression, Privilege, and Diversity
  • Social Welfare Policy and Services
  • Graduate Field Placement, 1/Seminar
  • Foundation Practice with Groups, Organizations, and Communities

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The field of social work offers high levels of personal satisfaction and fulfillment. The field of social service provides critical social support and services to the population, and it often focuses on the most vulnerable members of the society. Students can specialize in administration, public policy, or any of many clinical practices.

Social Work Occupations:

  • Health Educators:
    Health Educators provide information for the public, groups, families, and to specific individuals about health, wellness, and prevention. Health educators reduce the costs of healthcare in terms of preventable diseases, avoidable suffering, and early detection of patterns that lead to illness. They can advise on nutrition programs and wellness planning that can raise the levels of health and health awareness in communities.
  • Community Health Workers:
    Community Health Workers develop plans and strategies to raise health awareness, provide education, and promote healthy lifestyles including exercise, nutrition, and regular medical care. Community health workers develop and use community resources and community-based organizations to promote a better quality of life.
  • Marriage and Family Therapists:
    Marriage and Family Therapists help people that have marital and other relationship problems that can interfere with life goals and progress. They work with couples, families, and community-based institutions. Family relations are critical to individual well-being, and strong families promote stable communities. These highly-trained and skilled therapists work with the difficult and complex subjects of human emotions and relationships.
  • Psychologists:
    Psychologists perform research and studies on human behavior, particularly on social and behavioral disorders. They use study evidence and findings to help make policies and address societal problems and issues. They study and assess the processes for mental development and social behavior. As licensed professionals, psychologists provide clinical services to patients in the office, clinic, and hospital settings.
  • School and Career Counselors:
    School and Career Counselors provide advice and information for students that can respond to their individual and family situations. School and guidance counselors help with career choices and aligning coursework with student’s goals. They help students develop academically and socially to enhance their opportunities for further education, getting jobs, and career success.
  • Community Service Managers:
    Community Service Managers help deliver available services and resources to the organizations, families, and individuals for which they were intended. The social services and social support systems require coordination. People in need must get access to the available resources. Community-based social service management is a key ingredient in ensuring that vulnerable members of a community get the services that they need.
  • Substance Abuse Counselors:
    Substance Abuse Counselors work with persons that have addiction diseases. These highly trained mental health professionals work with drug, alcohol, and other substance abuses. Counselors diagnose conditions and refer patients to specialists for treatment such as drug detoxification and in-patient medically supervised therapies. They also provide counseling services to support recovery from addiction.

Annual Salary by Occupation

Salaries can vary by field and by location. Salaries also vary significantly by the educational level. A master’s degree is key to higher salaries in social work and more challenging career opportunities.

Occupation Entry-Level Salary Range Mid-Career Salary Range Late-Career Salary Range
Licensed Clinical Social Worker $48,100 $59,400 $65,100
Social Services Director $44,800 $55,600 $67,800
Social Services Manager $47,700 $51,800 $64,000
School Social Worker $44,100 $50,000 $60,600
Social Worker, Hospice $44,900 $54,200 $61,100
Clinical Director $67,000 $76,000 $86,200
Geriatric Social Worker $41,300 $53,000 $64,500
Nursing Home Administrator $74,200 $97,200 $105,500

Important Questions to Ask (FAQ)

How Long Does It Take to Earn a Bachelor's Degree in Social Work Online?

Students can earn a bachelor’s degree online in eight semesters or less. Many students can shorten the time needed by taking extra courses and summer study. In many cases, students have completed their requirements in seven semesters. Nationally, a substantial number of students graduate within six years of admission rather than four. Online students may also take up to six years to graduate because many students attend college online or on a part-time basis.

How much does an online Social Work bachelor’s degree cost?

The average cost of a four-year degree at a state school is about $40,000 for in-state students, $100,000 for out-of-state students, and about $139,000 at private schools.

Does the School Offer the Major Courses that You Prefer?

University Headquarters considers the choice of major as an essential part of the selection process. We recommend careful examination of the school’s major courses of study before selecting the college or university. The field of social work is broad and simply finding an online bachelor’s degree program in social work is not enough to guarantee the focus that the student may need. Students must examine the choices of major and the required and elective courses they will take. For example, if the student wishes to move into the rapidly growing fields of social work focused on aging, then the best school is one with course offerings in gerontology and similar subjects.

Do Students Graduate “On Time” or in Four Years?

Across the US, there is a definite trend toward a six-year graduation time frame. In a recent year, the four-year graduation rate was 53% percent for private schools and 35% percent for public schools. The six-year rates were 58% for public schools and 66% for private schools. The impact of longer college attendance is clear: the costs of college increase with each additional year of attendance. On time graduates a can pay one third less than students that attend for six years.

What kind of accreditation does the program hold? How is it regarded in the field?

Regional accreditation is the strongest institutional type of accreditation. The US Department of Education appoints the regional accreditors and these groups develop and apply standards that represent high-quality education. Accreditation applies over a large multi-state region. Social work programs sometimes have specialized accreditation.

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Software, Technology and Skills Needed

Social workers need to have comfort and facility with computers and basic software such as word processing, PowerPoint presentations, and spreadsheets. If you plan to go into research, you’ll also need to become comfortable statistical and data programs, as well as learn how to present that data in an understandable way using charts, graphs, and other visual data representations.

Social Work Scholarships

  • Carl A. Scott Memorial Fund
    Amount: $500 each
    Deadline: TBA

    The Council on Social Work Education sponsors the Carl Scott scholarship. The award honors the late Carl Scott a pioneer in diversity in American social work education. His efforts led to growth in minority faculty and practitioners at the advanced graduate and doctoral levels. Eligible applicants will have a 3.0 or higher GPA on a four-point scale. Awards will go to full-time students, currently enrolled, that are US citizens or other legal residents of the US. The recipients may not renew the award. The scholarship priorities include Indian and African American students and those with a demonstrated commitment to social justice and equity.

  • Hispanic Scholarship Fund
    Amount: $500-$5,000
    Deadline: February 15

    Eligible applicants must be high school seniors or undergraduate students at any level and grad students. The award supports Hispanic students. The awards are competitive and merit-based and awardees must demonstrate financial need. Applicants should have a minimum 3.0 GPA or 2.5 for undergraduate students. Students must enroll in an accredited two- or four-year institution.

  • Ron Brown Scholar Program
    Amount: $10,000 (renewable for 4 years)
    Deadline: January 9

    The Ron Brown Scholar program supports high achieving students pursuing undergraduate studies at an accredited institution. Students may renew their annual awards out to a total of $40,000. Successful applicants will demonstrate financial need in addition to high academic achievement. The program emphasizes community involvement and participation in global citizenship. Eligible applicants must be high school seniors at the time they submit applications for this award. Eligible applicants must be US citizens or have legal resident status. The program awards high achieving scholars that are African American or of African American descent. Award-winning students may use their four-year awards at any accredited US school, college, or university.

Professional Social Work Organizations

  • CSWE
  • NASW
  • CSWA


The Council on Social Work Education

The CSWE was founded in 1952 and has been a leading voice in advocacy for social work education in the United States. The CSWE is a national association of social workers and social work educators. The association promotes the practice of social work. The CSWE is the leading national agency for social work accreditation, and it sets standards for social work education at the baccalaureate and master’s degree levels. CSWE promotes improvement in education social work faculty development. Students will benefit from membership in the CSWE to stay abreast of trends and topics. The association offers educational and informational resources keyed to specific aspects of social work studies and practice.



The National Association of Social Workers

NASW is a membership community of about 130,000 social work students, teachers, and professional social workers. The association organizes around themes including aging, behavioral health, child social work, school social work, and social research.



The School Social Work Association of America

SSWAA is an organization of school social workers. School communities are vital settings for the development of students in the K-12 grade range, and school social workers play a key role in providing support for students. The range of crucial issues affecting the K-12 population includes violence, bullying, teen suicide, and substance abuse. The SSWAA promotes the well-being and safety of young people with a focus on educational settings and educational growth. Social work students can benefit from membership for networking, advocacy participation, trends, and information.



The Clinical Social Work Association

CSWA is an education and advocacy organization. The association promotes professional social care in its many instances including school, early childhood, and aging population settings. Students can benefit from the extensive opportunities for networking, educational services, and social work information.



National Association of Black Social Workers

NABSW is a membership association dedicated to cultural recognition and social equality. With committees in areas like education, employment, and social development, the NABSW offers information and educational resources. Students can benefit from cultural and social justice perspectives as well as networking opportunities.

Choosing an Accredited College

Accreditation is an essential part of selecting an online college program for a social work career. Accreditation affects the value of a degree for getting a first job, career opportunities, and for getting further education. Accreditation is a review by an authorized, independent group. Accredited colleges offer education that meets the standards of an accreditation group.

There are two types of accreditation to consider. The entire institution can become accredited; regional accreditation is the standard for the US Department of Education agencies. This type of accreditation has wide acceptance from employers and from other educational institutions. Program accreditation focuses on the specific social work school, department, or program. Program accreditation carries weight within the social work community as it is a specialized accreditation from a social work studies accrediting agency. The leading social work accrediting agencies are the Council on Social Work Education and its international affiliates.

Why is accreditation important? Employers and educational institutions are among many important groups that rely upon accreditation. They accept degrees and college credits from accredited colleges and universities because accreditation provides an assurance of high-quality education. The Department of Education appoints accreditation agencies, and these agencies provide a form of review called regional accreditation. Students that select social work schools with regional accreditation get the widest possible acceptance of their credits and the value of their education.

Online vs On-Campus vs Hybrid

Today, students seeking a social work career can get the higher education that they need in the form they find most convenient and affordable. Today’s students can attend online, on-campus, or in a blend of distance and on-campus learning called a hybrid program. University Headquarters knows that the form of attendance is less important than to attend and get the education that can improve your career and income. When selecting the type of participation, the cost factors play a vital role for most families. The lowest price for education may not be the best choice.

The goals of formal education include doing well and gaining confidence in the new levels of skills and knowledge that the student obtains. The selection of a program should match the student’s goals, choice of lifestyle, and most favorable learning environment. Students that perform well in school and have a rewarding educational experience can set their careers off to a strong start with a strong academic foundation.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is human services the right career path for you?

This is obviously very dependent on the person, but there are some things you might want to consider if you are trying to decide whether or not to enter a human services career. For one thing, you should be very good with people and have excellent communication skills because you’ll be working with people all the time. You should also have a lot of patience, because working with some people can be frustrating no matter how much you want to help. Do you want to dedicate your working time to helping others? That’s a good reason to get into human services.

Does the school offer career and job placement assistance?

Students should carefully examine the resources committed to career counseling, job and interview preparation, and job placement. When selecting a school, University Headquarters recommends granting weight to the school’s postgraduate and job placement assistance programs. Postgraduate job placement is an important part of an academic program because it helps students gain internships for practical experience and high paying jobs in their fields of study.

Why you need to consider the rankings of the college

The college rating consists of many important factors that involve the student experience. Ratings include graduation rates, retention, rates, typical starting salaries, and early career success. Accreditation affects the usefulness of college education for further education and to get a job and start a career.

What can you expect from an online bachelor’s in social work?

Those who complete degrees in social work should learn how to identify those who need help. Coursework might include subjects such as child welfare, adult development, organizational theory, as well as assessment, advocacy, and intervention.

What social work specializations are available?

There are a large number of specializations available in this field, especially if you are willing to advance your education. These include advocacy and community organization for those who wish to work within their own community; healthcare, mental health, and substance abuse for those who wish to address the health of a community as well as its other issues; occupational and employee assistance; politics, public welfare, and policy planning for those who wish to reach larger populations and achieve change; and more.

  • Administration
  • Child Welfare or Aging
  • Developmental Disabilities
  • Justice and Corrections
  • Research

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