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What is a Social Worker?

This question is best answered by listing and describing all of the roles a social worker assumes in their daily work.

First, a social worker is an advocate. A social worker steps up for their clients, fighting for them to get the resources they need. A social worker is a broker; they assist their clients by making needed referrals for needed services. Social workers are facilitators; they bring together members of a group or community.

Social workers are case managers; they assist their clients to get access to the services they need, such as mental healthcare. A social worker is an educator; they teach clients about their issues and services that will address them. Social workers are managers, working to influence policy change.

Finally, a social worker is an organizer. Here, they work with an entire community, assisting with economic development and preventing a municipality from abusing community members.

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Steps to Becoming a Social Worker

After you know that you want to be a social worker, it’s time to begin the admissions process to the university of your choice. Make application to several institutions, so that if you aren’t accepted at one, you may be accepted at another.

You’ll need to submit your entrance exam scores (ACT and SAT), as well as your official high school transcripts. After you have been admitted, then it’s time to enroll into the university where you were accepted. Discuss class choices with an adviser.

You’ll hopefully be able to complete an internship, which gives you hands-on training. Don’t forget to apply to take your licensure exam, which allows you to practice.

  • Step 1: Earn a Degree

  • Step 2: Field Placement

  • Step 3: Earn Your License to Practice

  • Step 4: Find a Job


Step 1: Earn a Degree

Complete your education. It used to be that, if you wanted to work in any social work specialty, a social work degree was preferred, but not necessary. Now, most organizations and state social work departments will require their employees to have this degree.

Earn your bachelor degree in Social Work (BSW). This will be sufficient to allow you to pass a licensure exam, earn your license, and work with clients. If you plan to supervise a team of workers, you will need a Master of Social Work (MSW); social workers should have plans to be a clinical or independent, the MSW is the base for these practice levels as well.

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Step 2: Field Placement

Social workers are required to take part in an internship placement, also called field placement. Your internship will give you the training and skills you need to work with agency clients in need of services. You’ll also learn more about yourself as a person and future social worker.

In your placement, you will work with licensed professionals (other social workers, mental health professionals, psychiatrists, and possibly licensed professional counselors (LPCs). You may shadow experienced social workers as they carry out their day’s planned work. You may also be given responsibility for carrying out a social work project of your own.

Step 3: Earn Your License to Practice

By the time you begin working, you should be preparing to take your licensure exam. You should be allowed to begin working as long as you have a provisional license, but you will soon have to have a full license to continue working. Once you have obtained a full license, you will have to maintain it by taking a specific number of continuing education (CE) hours annually. Depending on your state, you will have to renew your license to practice social work.

Step 4: Find a Job

Depending on your field of interest (community, child protective services, adult protective services, or schools), look for current job openings. You may even be able to find a social work position within an insurance company. Other professions that hire social workers include schools, mental health facilities, law enforcement, advocacy groups, churches, and non-profit organizations.

Child or adult protective services are good options for beginning social workers who hold their LBSW. Here, you will work with children or elderly and vulnerable adults in need of services to protect them. Or they may need an advocate to help them access the services they need.

What Do Social Workers Do?

The job role for social workers in every specialty is similar. However, each specialty will have unique tasks; some require social workers to have a master's degree in counseling while others are suitable for social workers of all levels.

As a social worker, you will work with clients and their families. You may be working with parents to help them correct dangerous home environments so that their children can be returned to their custody. In any specialty, you will educate your clients about health, mental health, child care, protection, and self-advocacy.

As a community social worker, you may work with segments within your municipality; impoverished members of a neighborhood endangered by expanding development. If you are a medical social worker, you will work closely with patients who are being transitioned into a nursing facility or back home, once they are able to take care of themselves.

If you are a mental health social worker, you will work closely with mental health professionals and their clients. You should have extensive knowledge of mental health conditions. School social workers work with students, teachers, and families to address issues affecting a child’s learning.

Skills to Acquire

As a social worker, you need a wide set of skills. You will use every one of them during your career.

  • Clinical
  • Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
  • Active Listening
  • Organization
  • Tolerance
  • Critical Thinking
  • Boundary Setting
  • Communication
  • Empathy
  • Inner Strength
  • Social Perceptiveness
  • Self-Awareness
  • Coordination
  • Cooperation
  • Persuasion
  • Relaxation and Decompression (Preventing Burnout)
  • Advocacy
  • Time Management
  • Problem-Solving
  • Cultural Competence

Hard Skills:

  • Evaluation
  • Research
  • Intervention
  • Assessment

Each of these skills is vital to social workers at one time or another. You will need to use them constantly. Other skills are important in that they allow you to continue practicing in a difficult field every day. Self-care, decompression, and relaxation will help you to avoid burning yourself out. You will have days and weeks in your career when you feel as though you are being pulled in every direction and you may not know what to address first. If you don’t practice self-care skills regularly, then you will run the risk of burnout. You will be unable to take care of even basic social work tasks because, emotionally, you’re all tapped out. Find an activity you enjoy and partake of it regularly so you can relax.

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Alternative Paths

In general, you will be required to go to college and major in social worker. In some states, however, if you have a degree in another discipline, such as psychology, you may be able to take a licensing exam for social workers and obtain your license.

Before entering a social work major, it would be a good idea to approach social workers and ask them if they would allow you to shadow them for a few days, so you can learn about the work process (due to confidentiality issues, they may have to turn you down). If you do get permission, ask the social workers about the work requirements for this field.

If you live in a state that requires its social workers to obtain a social work degree, contact the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and learn which universities are accredited so you can apply to one. Decide with specialty interests you the most (substance abuse, public health, medical, protective services for adults or children, mental health, community, or school) so you can learn what the educational requirements may be.

Earn your social work degree. In most states, this is the only way you can move into the social work field.

Social Workers Career and Salary

Where Might You Work?


From discussing the types of social work, you’re going to learn about where you may work in this field. Given the number of situations and events that can affect individuals, the list will be broad:

  • Healthcare
  • Alcohol and substance abuse treatment
  • Developmental disabilities
  • Individual/family/group counseling
  • Child welfare (protection)
  • Grief counseling
  • Aging (adult protective services and advocacy)
  • Victim services
  • Corrections

You may work in family service agencies (private or state), where you work with families in need of intervention. A community mental health center may hire you. If your interest is in assisting students, you may work in a school.

Psychiatric hospitals employ social workers who work with residents and families as the residents transition back to home, or you may work in a residential treatment center (RTC) where adults or children are addressing life, abuse, or substance use issues.

If you work for a state agency, you may work for an employee assistance program (EAP). Out-patient treatment centers may need your expertise as well. Managed mental health programs also hire social workers. School social workers help to identify students who need additional services, such as referrals to social services or for specialized testing if they are having academic troubles.

Potential Career Paths

From your LBSW up to your LMSW, LCSW or LISW, you will have a good listing of social work jobs from which to choose. Social work is the profession that will never work itself out of existence.

In addition, you will have your pick of specialties from which to choose—school, psychiatric, protective services, mental health: the field you are interested in is likely to have available listings for licensed and qualified professionals.

Medical Social Workers I:
Your responsibilities include evaluating the social service needs of each client and discharge planning. You will also identify discharge planning needs, as per established criteria and scope of service.

Communicate with the patient, their family and healthcare team to assess and identify discharge needs and client desires, to include those specific to the person’s age (neonate, child, adolescent, adult or geriatric).

Social Worker, MSW:
In your role, you will help to provide clients and their family members with education and advice so they can cope with any issues that may develop from any emotional or physical problems as specified by the State Board of Social Worker examiner and the scope of practice.

You help with several services that include bereavement, crisis intervention, referrals, client advocacy, education, prevention, discharge planning, and intervention. You will be expected to collaborate in the development and implementation of all performance improvement initiatives.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker/Supervisor:
You will be one of a team to treat children, teens, and adults with mild-to-moderate behavioral health issues. Your involvement will be in every phase of treatment—providing intensive training in didactical behavioral therapy (DBT) and Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT). In addition, you can train in Integrative Supervision, undergoing weekly training and assistance to help develop your professional skills.

You may perform brief counseling, along with longer-term counseling with individuals who use professional evidence-based clinical techniques and strategies, such as DBT and cognitive-based therapy (CBT). You may also take part in training to become a Clinical Supervisor for BBS interns.

Facilitator (Social Worker):
In this position, you may work with adults with developmental disabilities. Your work also involves your clients’ families as you will arrange supports and services for you clients.

You may work to confirm eligibility for an agency’s funded services; support and facilitate access to generic services, informal support, funded services and allocation of small, targeted amounts of funding; coordinate services; create and implement individuals support plans, to include formal and informal safeguards.

LSW-Licensed Medical Social Worker with Master’s Degree:
Your job may include providing emotional support and referrals to community services for terminally ill clients and their families.

You must have your Master’s Degree in Social Work from a DSWE-accredited program. You’ll also need experience in a healthcare setting, as well as experience with terminal illness and family bereavement.

You must also know current medical terminology, be empathetic, dependable, and responsible, and have effective communication skills with team members, clients, and family members.

Licensed Clinical Social worker:
In this setting, you will work side-by-side with health services within a healthcare center. You and the medical staff will provide assessment, diagnosis, and treatment planning in behavioral health to adults, families, adolescents, and children in order to improve their psychosocial functioning.

You must already hold your MSW and an active LCSW license. Documentable crisis intervention skills are preferred.

Social Worker Salaries

Occupation Entry-Level Mid-Career Late-Career
Social Worker $44,000 $55,000 $74,000
School Social Worker $38,000 $49,000 $68,000
Hospice Social Worker $42,000 $53,000 $66,000
Social Worker, MSW $44,000 $55,000 $74,000
Medical social Worker $49,000 $57,000 $66,000
Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) $44,000 $59,000 $79,000

**Salary info provided by PayScale

Career Outlook

For social workers in all specializations, overall employment is expected to grow about 16% between 2016 and 2026. This is much faster than all other occupations in the U.S. The jump in demand for healthcare and social services will be the biggest drivers for social workers; however, growth will vary from one specialty to the next.

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School, child, and family social workers are likely to grow 14% between 2016 and 2026, which is also faster than average. Family/child social workers interact with families to strengthen parenting skills, decrease or prevent child abuse, and find foster or kinship foster homes for children who cannot live at home. School social workers are expected to assist with the increased numbers of children enrolling. While employment of these specialties is expected to rise, this increase may still be affected by budget constraints at the local, state, and federal levels.

Healthcare social workers employment should increase about 20%, due to aging populations needing increased treatment and adjusting to new lifestyles, medications, and treatments.

Mental health and substance abuse social workers should grow just slightly less, at 19%. More and more people are seeking treatment for their substance abuse and mental health issues.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Advancing From Here

Social workers reaching the top of their professions may wonder, “What’s next?” Rather than doing the same work they’ve been doing for the past two decades or more, they can use their leadership skills and knowledge to train new social workers.

Senior social workers can become a Certified Advanced Social Work Case Manager, so they can supervise their team members and their casework. This protects clients and the general public.

Finally, social workers who have their LMSW can shift over to the corporate side. There, they would oversee corporate social responsibility, helping companies to address environmental and social issues.

What are licensed clinical social workers?

Licensed clinical social workers are qualified to practice all types of social work. Licensed clinical social workers might specialize in substance abuse counseling, child and family social work, mental health counseling, or disability services.

Where do social workers work?

Social workers often work in private practices, mental health clinics, child welfare and human service agencies, hospitals, community development corporations, government agencies, private practices, schools, and settlement houses.

What are mental health social workers?

Mental health social workers assess, diagnose, treat, and help prevent mental and emotional challenges.

What are child welfare social workers?

The main goal of child welfare social workers is to protect children. Child welfare social workers help children that have been impacted by various social issues.

What is the job outlook for social workers?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for social workers are expected to increase by 12% by 2030.

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