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Social Work Education, Schools, and Career Overview

Social workers help individuals and families identify and understand their own problems and develop strategies for solutions. They may work with people who have substance abuse problems, social disorders, or other behavioral issues in order to help them learn how to cope or to curb their habits. They may be employed in a variety of settings including schools, government agencies and private practices.

Social work is an interdisciplinary field that draws upon aspects of psychology, sociology and medicine. The degree to which these various disciplines impact the daily work of a social worker can vary depending on the setting in which he or she works.

Not all social workers work directly with people. While many are in the field helping clients who are struggle with personal and social problems, others may be employed in a research or policymaking capacity, trying to devise new and better solutions to problems. Social workers may also work in administrative capacities.

Specializations in Social Work

As a practice and discipline, social work is dedicated to the improvement of individual quality of life and the betterment of communities through the advancement of social welfare and social justice. These common goals can be achieved through different means, so with formal training and the right social work degree, graduates may pursue the specialty that is best suited to their personality and skill set.

Here are some of the main sub-fields within the social work profession:

  • Child and family social workers provide services and counseling to children and their families. They may work with abused children or families dealing with internal conflicts and social issues, including domestic violence and homelessness. Child and family social workers may also help single parents obtain necessary services for their families and facilitate adoption and foster home placement.
  • School social workers counsel elementary and secondary students who have personal, emotional, or behavioral problems ranging from teenage pregnancy, abuse at the hands of family members or an intimate partner, poor academic performance, or alcoholism and substance abuse. In providing services to students, school social workers coordinate with parents, teachers and school administrators. This type of social worker may also work with students who have learning disabilities in an effort to enhance their overall educational experience.
  • Medical and public health social workers work with individuals suffering from or vulnerable to illness and disability, as well as their families and caregivers. Some medical and public health social workers specialize in working with particular patient populations such as individuals with cancer, Alzheimer's disease, or AIDS. Most hospitals employ medical and public health social workers to counsel patients, help devise discharge plans, and arrange for services in the home during patient convalescence, including visiting nurse care.
  • Gerontological social workers specialize in providing services to senior citizens, as well as their families and caregivers. They may help older individuals deal with the psychological impact of aging and the related physical infirmities. They can also help coordinate services within the home to enable an elderly person to maintain an independent lifestyle, including transportation, meal services, heating assistance, and long-term nursing care.
  • Mental health and substance abuse social workers treat and counsel individuals suffering from a wide range of emotional problems and psychiatric disorders, including alcohol and substance addiction. In addition to individual and group therapy, mental health and substance abuse social workers may engage in public outreach to vulnerable populations. Case management, client education, and crisis intervention are other key components of this particular concentration
  • Community social workers educate citizens about resources in the community that can help them to improve the circumstances of their lives, such as different forms of public assistance, public programs and community support groups. In addition to providing psychotherapy, social workers also administer governmental programs pertaining to public health and welfare. This type of social worker may engage in community organizing or perform research into areas of public policy in order to effect change in society at the macro level.

How to Become a Social Worker

Those interested in learning how to become a social worker should keep in mind that a bachelor's degree in social work is the minimum typically required to get a foothold in the social work profession. However, in many states a master's degree in social work is necessary for certification as a licensed clinical social worker.

Degree Programs

Students can pursue the bachelor's degree in social work (BSW), the master's degree in social work (MSW) or the doctorate in social work (DSW) or Ph.D. in social work). Other common undergraduate majors for students preparing to pursue an advanced degree in social work include:

  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Anthropology
  • Political science
  • Economics

Coursework in programs leading to the master's degree in social work can include:

  • Human behavior and development
  • Social welfare policy
  • Social research methods
  • Ethnocultural issues
  • Community organization
  • Theory of psychotherapy
  • Conflict management
  • Statistics
  • Ethics

Bachelor's degree programs typically take about four years to complete. Degrees at this level may be called Bachelor of Science in Human Services or Bachelor of Social Work. Both are designed to prepare students for entry-level work in positions such as:

  • Case consultant or intake specialist who conducts initial interviews of clients seeking therapy or services from a social services agency
  • Child protective services worker, who investigates allegations of child abuse and monitors homes in which past abuse has occurred
  • Court-appointed special advocates who represent the interests of abused children, foster children, or juvenile delinquents who find themselves embroiled in the legal system
  • A criminal justice social worker who works with incarcerated inmates or with parolees after their release from prison

Because a bachelor's degree in social work can be insufficient for certification or licensure in some states, those who wish to pursue certification or licensure in states requiring advanced degrees should pursue the Master's in Social Work. Those who plan to use their social work degree to go into private practice as psychotherapists should also considering earning their master's degree.

Master's degree programs can expand your foundation of knowledge, enhance your career prospects, and help you to focus on a specialized area of human services. A bachelor's level social work degree is not required for admission to a social work master's program. Indeed, no particular undergraduate major is required, although students with a thorough background in the social sciences may find it easier to grasp the principles of social work at the graduate level.

The MSW or Master's in Human Services is generally a two-year program. However, some accelerated programs may be available. Many master's degree programs in social work grant advanced standing to students who already have a bachelor's degree in social work, reducing the time it takes to complete the MSW. Social work programs at the master's level include both in-class coursework and clinical fieldwork.

Aspiring professionals considering this degree level are often interested in pursuing management positions in social services, public health and other government organizations. A master's degree through an accredited school of social work is adequate to qualify a social worker for most of the available job opportunities in the social work field, including those who wish to enter private practice as clinical social workers, medical social work, psychiatric social work, and school social work.

Doctoral degree programs are generally designed for those who wish to go into academia or conduct serious research into social policy. There are two types of doctorates in social work, the DSW or doctorate of social work, which is considered a "professional" degree, and the Ph.D. in social work, which is considered a research degree. A DSW or PhD. in social work can take anywhere between two and four years to complete. Social workers who go on to earn the DSW or PhD in social work generally find work as professors, community advocates, policy or legislative advisors, and research academicians.

Students in doctoral programs take classes in quantitative and qualitative methods of research, history of social work, social work theories, and statistics. They may also engage in teaching or research internships or practicum. The culmination of a doctoral program is the writing of a dissertation, which represents the distillation of the knowledge and research skills that the student has developed in the course of his or her study of social work.

Joint degree program: Students can earn joint degrees in social work and medicine, social work and public health, social work and law, or social work and public policy. For instance, a student pursuing a joint degree in social work and law may take three to four years to earn both degrees as opposed to the two that it generally takes to graduate with only a social work degree. However, joint degrees can make social workers more marketable with certain employers. For instance, a candidate with degrees in social work and law might have an edge when applying for a job with the criminal justice system; a candidate with degrees in social work and public health may have an advantage when applying for medical social worker positions.

Fieldwork and Internships

Accredited bachelor's programs in social work typically require students to complete at least 400 hours of supervised fieldwork. Master's programs require students to complete at least 900 hours of a supervised internship or equivalent fieldwork. Doctoral programs in social work are more heavily weighted toward research and theory and may not include a clinical component.

You can best ensure your success in this aspect of your social work program by choosing a placement that interests you and caters to your personal strengths. Fieldwork placement may include internships at college or university counseling centers, local hospitals or psychiatric facilities, rehabilitation centers, social service and child protection agencies, as well as government agencies.

Through the clinical component of a social work degree program, students can master the skills required to:

  • Assess client needs
  • Draw up psychotherapeutic treatment plans
  • Identify pertinent social and community resources
  • Intervene in crisis situations
  • Handle difficult or resistant clients
  • Manage large and challenging caseloads

Social Work Schools

In the United States, schools of social work are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. The CSWE accredits bachelor's programs and master of social work (MSW) programs. Because the doctorate in social work (DSW) or Ph.D. in social work is not considered a necessary professional credential or required for certification or licensure, there is no formal accreditation process for schools that offer these advanced degrees.

In choosing particular social work schools to apply to, students should do as much research as possible by reading the program's promotional literature to determine its philosophy and theoretical approach. Incoming students may also find that visiting the campus to observe classes and talk to current students can offer them helpful insight.

The bachelor's degree in social work is offered by a number of undergraduate colleges and universities throughout the country. Graduate degrees in social work are offered by schools of social work, which are generally part of larger universities that offer a wide variety of advanced and professional degrees. Some universities offer students the opportunity to complete part or all of their coursework online. However, the bachelor's degree in social work (BSW) and, especially, the master's degree in social work (MSW) include an intensive clinical component that requires the student to obtain extensive hands-on work experience under supervision of qualified professionals. This aspect of the social work degree program cannot be satisfied online.

Admissions to social work programs can be competitive, and applicants should strive to get top grades and test scores. Although volunteer or work experience cannot completely erase the effects of a low GPA or GRE score, it can mean the difference between being accepted and being waitlisted or rejected for those with borderline credentials. Because of the competition to get into social work school, applicants should apply to as many schools as they can afford to in light of the application fees.

Certification and Licensure

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov), all states have licensure or certification requirements for social workers. However, the specific procedures that govern the profession and dictate how one becomes a social worker varies from state to state. Most states require obtaining a degree from a program accredited by the Council for Social Work Education and passing an exam administered by the Association of Social Work Boards. In addition, most states require two years or 3000 hours’ worth of supervised clinical experience or the equivalent before granting a social work license. States may require social workers to meet continuing education requirements in order to maintain a license.

Furthermore, most governmental organizations and other bodies that certify and license social workers require them to demonstrate an impeccable character and high moral standards. Social workers are generally required to undergo background checks before being certified and licensed and again when they apply for employment.

Each jurisdiction also has specific rules regarding the use of professional titles such as "clinical social worker" and "licensed clinical social worker." In some states, it is legal for individuals with training in social work, but without the full credentials necessary for licensure, to go into private practice as counselors and psychotherapists as long as they disclose this fact to clients.

Career Advancement

Although a bachelor's degree is the minimum educational requirement for many social work positions, earning an advanced degree might qualify you for more employment opportunities. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) says a master's degree may allow an individual to work in supervisory, administrative and training capacities. A doctorate in social work can lead to jobs at universities as an educator or researcher.

Other avenues that can lead to career advancement include earning a credential in areas such as leadership, case management and addictions. Credentialing programs are available through the NASW.

Some social work programs encourage students to become proficient in a second language, such as Spanish. While not necessary in most cases, this can have the benefit of increasing employment opportunities for social workers.

Skills and Qualities

Social work can be an ideal professional field for individuals with a sincere desire to help others and to effect social justice and positive social change. But beyond that mindset, social workers should be:

  • Good listeners who are sensitive to the needs and problems of others
  • Patient and persistent
  • Prepared and equipped to deal with resistant clients who may have been mandated to receive services by hospitals, school officials, courts, or government agencies
  • Highly responsible
  • Able to handle working under pressure and in stressful situations
  • Highly aware of the ethical issues implicated in social work practice
  • Aware of the seriousness of matters of privacy and confidentiality
  • Caring and empathic

Social workers see the worst aspects of human behavior and they often work with populations of clients that have experienced trauma. Consistent exposure to emotionally disturbing social problems can become draining for even the most objective and knowledgeable of social workers. Thus, the phenomenon known as "burn out" is an occupational hazard in the social work field. Social workers should keep this in mind and do what they can to form a secure and supportive professional and personal network.

Career Outlook and Salary Information

Social workers who interact directly with clients may work in a number of settings:

  • In private practice, either as solo practitioners or as part of a group medical or counseling office
  • In clients’ homes
  • Hospitals
  • Nursing homes
  • Public and private schools
  • Social work agencies or social service organizations
  • Addiction treatment facilities
  • Welfare agencies
  • Inpatient psychiatric facilities and mental health clinics
  • Community health centers
  • State or local governmental agencies
  • Adoption agencies

    Social workers who concentrate on public policy research may work for:

    • Universities
    • Medical research facilities
    • Public health organizations
    • Governmental or non-governmental think tanks
    CareerAnnual Mean WageBottom 10% Annual WageTop 10% Annual Wage
    Social Workers, All Other$60,900$34,640$86,760
    Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

    CareerTotal EmploymentProjected Job Growth Rate
    Social Workers, All Other58,1507.9%
    Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

    Sources:

    • Social Workers, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm
    • National Association of Social Workers, Social Work Fact Sheets and Social Work Credentials, http://www.socialworkers.org/pressroom/features/genfactSheets.asp

    Social Worker Schools