How to Start a Career in Social Work

Over 600,000 social workers strive every day to make a positive impact on the lives of others. If you’re passionate about helping individuals, families, organizations, and communities, a career in social work might be right for you. Social workers find themselves helping people from all walks of life in a variety of atmospheres from schools to hospitals to prisons to nursing homes and handle casework, policy analysis, research, counseling, and teaching. They deal with issues such as poverty, abuse, addiction, unemployment, death, divorce, and physical illness. If a career switch to social work appeals to you, following is a brief background of social work basics and how to make a smooth transition.

Social Work Career Outlook: According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the social work profession is expected to grow by 30% by 2010 and is expected to grow faster than average for all occupations through 2014.

Median Annual Earnings for Social Workers (U.S., 2004)

  • Child, Family, And School Social Workers: $34,820
  • Medical And Public Health Social Workers: $40,080
  • Mental Health And Substance Abuse Social Workers: $33,920
  • All Other Social Workers: $39,440

Social Worker Education Requirements: All social workers must have a bachelors (BSW), masters (MSW), or doctoral degree (DSW or Ph.D.) and complete a predetermined number of hours in supervised fieldwork. Social workers also have to graduate from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). The CSWE reports that in 2004 there were 442 BSW programs and 168 MSW programs. While some people work with only a BSW, career options are more limited, so the MSW or DSW is more common. Enrolling in social work continuing education classes is the best way to open up more career options.

  • BSW: Accredited BSW programs typically take four years to complete and require 400 hours of supervised field experience. With a BSW, a graduate can work in an entry-level position, such as a caseworker.
  • MSW:  An MSW requires two years of study and has a prerequisite of an undergraduate degree in social work, psychology, or a similar field. An MSW allows a social worker to work in a clinical setting to diagnose and treat psychological problems.
  • DSW: A doctoral degree takes anywhere from 4-7 years. A DSW has extensive training in therapy and research and is qualified to teach in a university setting.

If you lack the educational or professional background, an associate’s degree may be a good place to start to see if you’re willing to make the necessary educational commitment.

For information regarding accredited social work programs, visit the Council on Social Work Education’s website:

Social Worker Licensing and Exams: Social workers must be licensed. For licensing purposes, each state has its own requirements, but an MSW is usually a minimum. In addition, licensing requires 2 years or 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience.

After completing school and hour requirements, social work candidates must pass an exam. The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) develops and maintains four categories of social work licensure examinations: Bachelors, Masters, Advanced Generalist, and Clinical. Candidates should check with individual boards to find out which examinations are appropriate for the jurisdiction where they want to be licensed.

According to the ASWB’s Website: “Each examination contains 170 four-option multiple choice questions designed to measure minimum competencies at four categories of practice. Only 150 of the 170 items are scored; the remaining 20 questions are "pretest" items included to measure their effectiveness as items on future examinations. These pretest items are scattered randomly throughout the examination. Candidates have four hours to complete the test, which is administered electronically.

For information on state licensing requirements, see the Association of Social Work Boards website.

Continuing Education or CEUS: As part of renewing licenses every two years, almost all states require continuing education (CE) courses. Each state’s CE requirements vary in number of hours and approved courses, so be sure to check with the board over your jurisdiction to make sure you are in compliance with CE requirements. Many courses are available online, at sites such as, which save time and money.

Types of Social Work Licenses: There are several different kinds of licenses available:

LCSW (or A.C.S.W., L.C.S., L.I.C.S.W., C.S.W.): The licensed clinical social worker has a graduate academic degree, has completed supervised clinical work experience and has passed a national- or state-certified licensing exam. This advanced practitioner holds a license that allows him or her to receive health-care insurance reimbursements. (National Association of Social Workers)

SSW: School social work is a specialized area of practice within the broad field of the social work profession. School social workers bring unique knowledge and skills to the school system and the student services team. School social workers are instrumental in furthering the purpose of the schools: to provide a setting for teaching, learning, and for the attainment of competence and confidence. School social workers are hired by school districts to enhance the district's ability to meet its academic mission, especially where home, school and community collaboration is the key to achieving that mission. (School Social Work Association of America)

Other specialties and certifications, offered by the National Association of Social Workers, include:

Current Social Work Job Market

Social work has been a growing field over the past decade or two, particularly as the U.S. population of elderly and children continues to expand.  In addition, the recognition of mental health issues and comfort level of those admitting that they need assistance has increased.  Substance abuse, disabilities and other disadvantages have also led to an increased need for social workers. 

There are three main licenses offered to social workers. These include:

  • Social Worker – also known as social service worker in some states (SW or SSW)
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
  • Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT)

Social Workers & Licensed Clinical Social Workers

  • Work Settings – social workers can be found in many settings, including hospitals, schools, child welfare systems, clinics, and public/community health settings to name a few.  Clinical social workers can be found in these settings, as well as in private practice and counseling clinics.
  • Social Worker's Annual Salary – Median hourly salaries for social workers in the U.S. range from $16.00 to $19.00 ($33,000 to $40,000 annually) depending on the specialization and work setting that they are employed in.  LCSWs make considerably more, particularly those in private practice.
  • Advancement Opportunities in Social Work – generally the minimum degree required to work as a social worker is a Bachelor’s degree.  With additional experience and education, such as a Master’s degree (MSW), social workers can move in to health settings, clinical work, and management opportunities. With a Doctorate in social work (DSW or a PhD), social workers can enter teaching and research settings.
  • Social Worker's Future Outlook – the growth for social workers over the next 10 years is expected to be much faster than average in both city and rural settings due to the aging population and retirement of existing social workers.  Social work openings in hospitals are expected to slow down as insurance companies continue to restrict the length of stay and benefits available to patients.  However, substance-abuse, school and private agency employment is expected to expand.  Opportunities for LCSWs in private practice may decrease due to insurance company restrictions about what they will cover in this field.

Marriage and Family Therapists - MFT

Marriage and Family Therapists - MFTs -can come from several educational backgrounds, including social work.  Generally to be licensed as an MFT in most states, a person needs to first have a Master’s degree in a social service field (social work, psychology, counseling, etc).  Then the person will receive additional courses (approximately 1-2 years) and complete a period of supervised experience (usually around 2,000 hours or more) before becoming licensed.

In 2004, there were approximately 24,000 people working as MFTs in the United States.

  • MFT Work Settings – MFTs will generally be found in private or group practice settings working with both couples and families on all types of issues including the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders.  They may also be found in employee assistance programs or other settings.
  • MFT Annual Salary – Median annual salaries in 2004 for marriage and family therapists was just under $39,000 with 50% earning somewhere in the range of $30,000 to $50,000.  However, those in private practice or group practice settings can be expected to earn considerably more than these median salaries.
  • MFT Advancement Opportunities – for MFTs, the primary area of advancement is further education, such as a doctoral degree that will allow them to gain management, teaching, research or clinician positions.
  • Future Outlook of MFTs – the outlook for MFTs is expected to grow as consumers become more comfortable seeking assistance with their marriage, family issues and mental health issues.  Employee assistance programs are also experiencing growth as employers are working to maximize employees’ issues and reduce health care costs.

Social work is a vast and growing field that offers many different career paths and opportunities for advancement, different work settings, and job growth.  The majority of these benefits are expected to increase in the coming decade as the need for social workers continues to grow in response to the aging population, retirement of existing social workers, and need for specialized social service assistance.

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