What is a Social Worker?
A social worker is a mental health professional whose aim is to assist their clients in overcoming obstacles in their lives. These obstacles are often related to mental health issues like depression or anxiety, but the realm of social work is much larger than that.
That is, a social worker might help clients through a financial difficulty, with substance abuse problems, with health problems, or aid them in addressing difficulties with their relationships. In other words, though social workers help people with a variety of issues, ultimately, their goal is to empower their clients to improve their lives no matter what obstacles they are facing.
What Does a Social Worker Do?
The question of what a social worker does is much easier to ask than to answer. That’s because the role of a social worker is incredibly complex and multi-faceted.
As noted above, the ultimate goal of a social worker is to empower their clients to make positive changes in their lives. That empowerment can be facilitated in numerous ways and in many different contexts.
For example, a social worker might provide clinical services to an individual that suffers from bipolar disorder. In that context, the social worker would provide counseling to help the client work through the feelings and emotions they’re experiencing. It might also include an educational component to help the client to better understand bipolar disorder and how it impacts his or her behavior.
As another example, some social workers work exclusively with children in an educational setting. Assume that a high school student has a learning disability like ADHD. That student might meet with a social worker on a regular basis to develop educational goals for the short-term and the long-term. What’s more, the social worker might help the student learn ways to minimize the impact of their ADHD in the classroom environment.
Many social workers are employed in community settings where their primary duty is to help connect clients with resources that will help better their lives. For example, a social worker employed by a community organization that helps single mothers might meet with a client to help prepare her for an upcoming job interview.
In that regard, the social worker might offer assistance in finding jobs for which to apply, filling out applications, writing a resume, and preparing for interviews by conducting mock interview sessions with the client.
Another primary role of social workers – regardless of their employment location – is to advocate on behalf of their clients. In many cases, people that receive assistance from social workers have a disadvantage of some sort, be that a mental, physical, emotional, or behavioral condition, a financial situation, a health situation, or a family situation that negatively impacts their ability to meet their own daily needs. As such, social workers are often at the forefront of efforts to help stem the tide of economic inequality, educational inequality, and social injustice, to name a few.
What are the Careers in Social Work?
One of the primary benefits of pursuing a career in social work is that there are so many different types of jobs available in this field. Below is a list of some of the most common social work jobs, but there are many others in addition to these:
Child Social Worker
Child social workers mostly work in the child welfare field. Their focus is usually on assisting children that have been abused or neglected in some way by their parents or guardians or other adults, though sometimes child social workers help children learn how to overcome the obstacles of having a mental illness.
Child social workers might provide counseling services to the child and their family, help parents connect with resources in the community, or work with the child’s school to ensure that their emotional, behavioral, and mental health needs are being met.
Clinical Social Worker
A clinical social worker is not unlike a clinical psychologist in that they provide counseling services to different populations of clients in both individual and group settings. Additionally, clinical social workers are trained in the practices of assessing clients for mental disorders, making diagnoses, developing and executing treatment plans, and devising methods to help prevent mental illness from occurring.
Family Social Worker
Family social workers are often called upon when a family is not functioning at its best. Through therapy sessions with the family, a social worker can help members of the family to get in touch with their feelings, learn how to effectively express how they’re feeling and what they want, and build skills that allow the family to work together as opposed to against one another.
Forensic Social Worker
A career in forensic social work is focused on providing services to individuals within the criminal justice system. That is, forensic social workers might work with either victims or perpetrators. For example, a forensic social worker might be called to provide evaluative services on a defendant that’s accused of domestic violence. Likewise, a forensic social worker might respond to provide counseling and advocacy services for the victim of domestic violence.
Medical Social Worker
Social workers in this field apply the principles of social work in the medical and health care realms. For example, a medical social worker might evaluate patients being admitted to the hospital to ensure that they are capable of making decisions for themselves. As another example, a medical social worker might meet with family members after a loved one has passed away to provide crisis counseling.
Public Health Social Worker
Public health social workers typically work for community organizations whose goal is to address critical health issues in specific populations. For example, a public health social worker might conduct research on childhood obesity and devise an educational program for children and their parents regarding how to eat healthier and ways to maintain a healthy weight.
School Social Worker
Social workers employed in a school setting and provide an array of services to students. This might include counseling for children with behavioral or mental disorders, classroom support for developmentally disabled children, guidance for teachers on how to develop lesson plans for different kinds of learners, and support for school administrators who seek to minimize problems in school like bullying.
What is the Difference Between a Social Worker and a Psychologist?
Though social workers and psychologists are helping professions that seek to help people improve their lives, there are some distinct differences between the two.
Chief among those differences is the approach to working with clients. Generally speaking, social workers focus on practical assistance that can help a client overcome obstacles in their life. For example, a social worker might assist a military veteran that is homeless with finding permanent housing and a job. In other words, there is a lot of skill-building involved in social work that directly addresses problems related to everything from poverty to marriage difficulties to behavioral issues.
Conversely, psychologists tend to explore human behavior with the goal of understanding why people behave in the ways that they do. In many cases, this means conducting research on specific topics of behavior, like seeking to understand why autism spectrum disorders are on the rise or effective treatments for schizophrenia. In other cases, psychologists work with clients to explore why their maladaptive behaviors developed and devise strategies for treating those behaviors.
For example, a psychologist working with a client that has dissociative identity disorder would focus the therapy session on exploring why the multiple personalities developed in the first place. Later on in counseling, the psychologist might offer strategies for coping with the disorder to help their client lead a more normal life.
Naturally more practical differences arise between social workers and psychologists. For starters, social workers more often work in public settings – like government agencies – whereas more psychologists tend to work in private practice. Likewise, there are differences in the pay for these professions, with psychologists earning nearly $100,000 per year according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and social workers earning less than half that.
Where Does a Social Worker Work?
As outlined earlier, there are many different specialties within social work. This means that social workers might be employed in hospitals to support patients and their families, in schools to help students achieve their learning goals, in community mental health organizations to provide services to people in need, and even in government agencies conducting social research.
Many clinical social workers are self-employed in their own private practice, while others work in a counseling agency setting.
Others work in the public health sector to provide needed education to specific populations on health-related topics while yet others work for law enforcement agencies or the judicial system to investigate things like domestic violence and child abuse.
What are the Requirements to Become a Social Worker?
To become a social worker, there are multiple steps that must be completed in a specific order. This includes obtaining the necessary degrees and licensure.
Step 1: Bachelor’s Degree
The first step in becoming a social worker is to get a bachelor’s degree in social work. These programs usually require 120 credits of coursework, which can typically be completed in four years. The purpose of a bachelor’s degree is to introduce students to the field of social work and prepare them for entry-level positions or for future studies. Basic social work topics like social work systems, psychology, and social work theory are commonly offered at this level.
Step 2: Bachelor’s-Level Licensure
Social workers with a BSW are eligible to be licensed as a Licensed Bachelor of Social Work (LBSW). In most states, obtaining this licensure is dependent upon first graduating from an accredited BSW program and passing a board examination from the Association of Social Work Boards. This level of licensure only allows for work in entry-level positions and does not qualify workers to provide clinical services.
Step 2: Master’s Degree
Many master’s of social work degree programs can be completed in just one year, provided that students first obtain a bachelor’s degree in social work. Students that have a bachelor’s degree in another field will likely need 2-3 years to complete a master’s degree due to having to complete the needed prerequisite courses.
Either way, master’s degrees focus student learning much more on the practice of social work. Though there are classroom learning experiences at this level, there are also internships that require students to work with real clients in a real-life setting.
These programs are more rigorous than bachelor’s degrees, and usually have more stringent admissions requirements, including a satisfactory undergraduate GPA, satisfactory test scores on the Graduate Record Exam, recommendations from undergraduate professors, and sometimes even an interview.
Step 3: Master’s-Level Licensure
To become a Licensed Master of Social Work, one must graduate from an accredited master’s degree program and pass a master’s level board examination. Furthermore, many states have additional requirements, such as completing specific coursework in the field in which one will work.
Also, in some states, supervised clinical experience is required for licensure. This is especially true of workers that seek to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, who must pass a clinical-level board exam as well as undergo two or three years of supervised clinical practice.
Step 4: Certification
While licensure is required for all social workers in order to practice, certification is typically done on a voluntary basis. Like licensure, the point of certification is to demonstrate that one has met rigorous criteria for practicing social work. Not only does this enable social workers to practice with more competence, but it also could open up additional employment avenues by having specialized training and instruction beyond a master’s degree.
What Do You Learn in a Social Work Degree Program?
Typical social work degree programs cover a vast array of skills and topics. These include, but are not limited to:
- Social Work Practice – This course revolves around building critical skills for practice, like effective communication, note-taking, motivational interviewing, and developing positive relationships with clients.
- Social Work Interventions – Students learn about different intervention strategies that are commonly used by social workers, like cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques.
- Clinical Techniques – Many social work degree programs have a clinical component in which students learn how to work effectively with clients by using therapeutic techniques like active listening or psychotherapy.
- Human Behavior – Courses in various realms of psychology are often included in social work programs to help students better understand why people do the things that they do.
- Statistics – Statistics courses help students learn how to use inferential and descriptive statistics for the purposes of research.
- Research Methods – Courses in research methods teach social work students how to properly conduct research, such as formulating and testing hypotheses, collecting and analyzing data, and interpreting the results.
- Social Work Theory – Students learn about the development of social work as a profession, including the foundational theories upon which most social workers operate.
- Ethics – Ethics courses revolve around teaching students how to act professionally and provide sound services to their clients.
- Social Welfare – Courses on social welfare teach students about laws, policies, and regulations aimed at providing resources that improve people’s lives, like Medicaid.
What is an Online Social Work Degree?
Not that long ago, to get a degree in social work students had to enroll in on-campus degree programs. Today, students can complete the necessary coursework and training to become a social worker from the comfort of their own home. Not only can this be much more convenient for students, it can also be much less expensive than more traditional degree programs at brick-and-mortar colleges and universities.
What’s more, more and more institutions of higher learning are offering social work degree programs online, so the selection has never been greater. That’s true of both undergraduate and graduate degree programs in social work. More recently, online degree programs that culminate in a PhD have become more popular, so conceivably, students could get a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a doctorate in social work online.
What Does It Take to Become a Social Worker?
To become a social worker, one must possess a certain set of skills, the right personality type, traits, and qualities to be the most effective. Though there are countless things that social workers must be able to know and do, the following list of skills and attributes are some of the most important:
- Active Listening Skills – One of the most important hard skills that social work students learn is the art of active listening. This includes reflecting what clients are saying, being engaged in the conversation, and using physical cues (i.e., leaning forward during a discussion) to demonstrate that they are interested in what the client has to say.
- Communication Skills – Social workers should be able to communicate effectively in both verbal and written forms with a wide range of clients from many varying backgrounds.
- Therapeutic Skills – To become a social worker, one must master the art of conducting therapy with individuals, couples, and groups. This involves learning various therapeutic techniques (i.e., facilitating role playing) that help clients understand their feelings, emotions, or behaviors.
- Intervention Strategies – An effective social worker has a deep knowledge of intervention strategies that they can use to assist their clients (i.e., using play therapy to help abused children work through their trauma).
- Organizational Skills – Social workers often have large caseloads that involve tons clients and paperwork. As such, being organized is a must-have skill.
- Empathy – Being able to see the world from another person’s perspective allows social workers to better understand the problems and struggles that their clients have.
- Emotional Intelligence – Social workers should have high emotional intelligence, including a good sense of self-awareness and sensitivity to how others are feeling. This aids in providing support and understanding throughout the working relationship with a client.
- Setting Boundaries – Understanding professional boundaries aren’t just important for ethical reasons, but also to help protect against getting too involved and burned out from what can be rigorous, emotionally draining work.
- Critical Thinking Skills – Working with people that have mental disorders, developmental disabilities, or are simply in a rough patch requires the ability to analyze and evaluate multi-faceted situations very quickly.
- Desire to Help Others – Not everyone wants to help other people through difficult or traumatic events. Social workers must have the right personality characteristics that enable them to provide assistance to people in need.
- Patience – The work of helping clients improve their lives often requires months – if not years – of time investment. As such, patience is a must-have virtue for social workers.
What are the Pros of Being a Social Worker?
A career as a social worker can be hard and stressful work. However, it’s all worth it when one considers the many benefits that can be derived from this kind of employment:
- Helping others – Social workers have the opportunity to help other people in times when they most need it. Making a positive difference in someone’s life can make this an incredibly rewarding job.
- Strong job growth – Social work is one of those career fields that always seems to be growing. With the services of social workers in constant demand, qualified applicants should have no problem finding a job.
- Opportunity for different kinds of work – Social workers might be employed in private practice, in a mental hospital, a school, a college, or even a government agency, giving workers in this field a lot of choice regarding where they work and the kind of work they do.
- Low education requirements – Entry-level positions in this field require just a bachelor’s degree, which opens doors for beginning one’s career sooner rather than later.
- High job satisfaction – Social workers often report that they enjoy their jobs and derive a lot of satisfaction from the work that they do.
- Flexible working hours – Some social workers – especially those in private practice – have the luxury of more flexible hours to accommodate personal schedules, family time, and the like.
- Good salary – In 2016, social workers earned a decent average wage of $47,980 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That figure is even higher for social workers with advanced education and additional years of experience.
Are Social Workers in High Demand?
According to a 2021 study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment in social work is expected to grow at a 12 percent rate over the next several years. This represents much faster job growth than the average. In fact, average job growth is considered about seven percent for the same timeframe.
The primary reason why social workers are expected to be in such high demand is because mental health care services are likewise in high demand. More people are seeking treatment for mental health issues and are also seeking assistance when life becomes difficult, such as when one loses a job or suffers the loss of a loved one.
What’s more, educational systems – especially public and private K-12 schools – are employing more and more social workers in an attempt to meet the needs of various populations of students. As enrollment rises and more diverse learners enter the educational system, the expertise of social workers will be needed even more and help drive the need for social workers in the future.
What are the Advancement Opportunities for Social Workers?
One of the benefits of a career in social work is that there are so many different avenues of advancement. Perhaps the most common means by which career advancement can be made is through additional education.
While a bachelor’s degree is sufficient for gaining entry-level employment in this field, more advanced positions – and any kind of clinical position – requires at least a master’s degree. Armed with a master’s degree, a social worker can not only open up more job opportunities, but better paying ones as well.
As with any career, simply gaining experience on the job can lead to advancement opportunities later on. For example, a social worker with a bachelor’s degree and five years of experience is more likely to qualify for an advanced position than a social worker that’s just graduated with his or her bachelor’s degree.
Another way that more advanced job opportunities can be had for social workers is to be licensed or certified. While clinical social workers are required to be licensed, not all non-clinical social workers have to be. That means that by obtaining a license (or a certification), a social worker might make themselves more attractive to employers for more advanced positions.
What Professions are Similar to Social Work?
Since social workers provide many different services to many different types of clients, there are a number of closely related professions that might be good alternatives to a career in social work. These include:
Marriage and Family Therapists
As their job title indicates, marriage and family therapists specialize in working with couples and families that are struggling with problems in their relationships. In the context of therapy, these therapists might help their clients to recognize their emotions and feelings, learn better ways to communicate, and help their clients develop improved skills that allow them to support one another.
Psychologists have a wide range of job duties that include providing therapy to individuals and groups, conducting research, and even teaching about psychology at the collegiate level. Regardless of where they work or how they practice, psychologists are primarily interested in developing a better understanding of why people behave the way that they do.
Workers in this field specialize in assisting individuals with physical, developmental, emotional, or mental disabilities to live as independently as possible. Within the scope of their job duties is counseling, job coaching, evaluating clients’ capabilities and progress towards goals, advocacy, and developing treatment plans, just to name a few.
Social and Community Service Managers
This career option involves the development, coordination, and execution of social services programs for the public. Usually, that involves working with community stakeholders to identify needs and devising strategies for meeting those needs through services like education, health care, and mental health care.