How to Become a Social Worker in 4 Simple Steps

Social work is a rapidly growing career and there has never been a better time to start a career in this rewarding and meaningful career.

One of the most important parts of your social work career is your education.

Becoming a social worker requires a fair amount of formal schooling so your choice of program is even more important.

We are going to cover the basic educational and licensing requirements you need to become a social worker.

Steps to Becoming a Social Worker

Here is a bullet point list with the steps to take to become a social worker:

Step 1. Complete a Social Work Degree

First, you need to complete a social work degree. Most entry-level positions require a BSW.

Step 2. Complete Clinical Hours

Along with your degree, you must complete clinical hours to get your social work license.

Step 3. Get Your License

Once you complete your degree and required clinical hours, you can sit for your state’s social work licensing process. Licensing requirements vary depending on the state so make sure you research your state’s social work board requirements.

Step 4. Maintain/Renew Your License

All states require licensed social workers to complete continuing education credits and renew their licenses every 1-2 years.

Social Worker Education Requirements

Social workers require a lot of formal schooling. Generally, entry-level social work positions require a bachelor’s degree in the field and most mid-level social work positions in school and health settings require a master’s degree in social work.

Courses in social work programs cover topics in human growth and development, abnormal psychology, social welfare services, and social ethics. Most social workers have to complete hours gaining professional experience in the form of internships and externships.

In addition to formal schooling, most states require social workers to be licensed to ensure they have the proper education and training to provide social services.

Licenses are granted via each state’s regulatory board so licensure requirements differ by state. There are licenses for differing levels of education, and Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW), and Licensed Bachelor of Social Work (LBSW). Only LCSWs are allowed to practice and provide clinical services independently.

Accreditation

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the only national body recognized by the US Department of Education for accrediting social work programs.

The CSWE accredits programs at both the bachelor’s and master’s levels. Most states require the completion of a CSWE-approved program in order to gain licensure.

Even in states where that is not required, completing a CSWE-approved program is still in your best interest. Accreditation indicates that a program meets certain professional standards for teaching and training.

Training Information & Types of Social Worker Degrees

Generally, social workers follow one of two educational paths.

The first is to pursue a bachelor’s in social work (BSW) at a 4-year institution. BSW programs lay a foundation for a career in social work by focusing on courses on social welfare, psychology, and social services. Those who complete a BSW will be qualified to work in entry-level positions in the field.

One can also pursue a master’s in social work (MSW). Master’s degrees are usually pursued by social workers who want to work in medical or supervisory contexts. Most higher ranking positions in the social work field require an MSW. MSW programs build on the curriculum of BSW programs and put an emphasis on navigating political and regulatory structures.

Lastly, there is the option to pursue a doctorate in social work (DSW). Doctoral programs are heavily research-focused and doctoral students spend the majority of their time formulating and researching hypotheses in a clinical setting. Doctoral candidates work in medical and clinical settings with the most deeply at-risk populations.

What You’ll Study

Social work programs cover a wide range of subjects including sociology, psychology, civics, law & policy, ethics, criminal justice, political science, and research-focused courses.

Social workers are trained to work with at-risk populations and help them navigate the social welfare structures meant to benefit them. Classes cover how to handle case work, welfare policy, and intervention strategies. Social work students will also learn about the history and ethical values of their discipline and the larger theory of social work in general.

Most bachelor’s level programs incorporate college core requirements like English and foreign language.

Master’s level programs are usually reserved for those who want to specialize in a certain field of social work such as gerontology or working with LGBTQ+ youth. Most MSW programs require students to complete a piece of independent research to graduate.

In addition to courses, most social work programs require students to work in clinical settings under the supervision of a licensed social worker. For example, all CSWE-approved BSW programs require at least 400 hours of supervised field experience. CWES-approved MSW programs require at least 900 hours of supervised hours.

Doctoral programs eschew the traditional course structure and instead are built around independent research.

Most doctoral students also teach undergraduate courses at the institution where they are receiving their degree.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Social Worker?

Program length depends on the degree pursued and the level of education the desired position requires.

Most entry-level positions require a bachelor’s degree in the field which takes 4-years to complete. Adding a few months to study for registration exams and to find employment, it takes about 4-5 years to begin working in an entry-level position.

Specialized and supervisory positions require an MSW. The typical MSW program takes 1-2 years to complete.

Generally, MSW students have some professional experience in the field. Doctoral programs can take anywhere between 4-7 years. So higher-level positions in the social work field can take 4-7 years to work up to.

How Much Does it Cost to Become a Social Worker?

The cost of education as a social worker varies greatly by state and institution.

According to College Board’s Trends in College Pricing 2018-2019, for a 4-year social work degree at a public university, the average annual tuition was $9,970 for in-state residents.

The annual cost for a 4-year private institution was $14,5390 per year.

Master’s degree programs average around $8,500 a year and doctoral programs have an average tuition cost of $10,000 per year. Attending an accredited program may allow you to apply for financial aid.

Option 1: Social Worker Bachelor’s Degree

Most social workers begin their education by completing a BSW. The average bachelor’s program takes 4-years to complete.

Bachelor’s programs focus on preparing students to provide services to individuals, groups, families, and communities, with an emphasis on marginalized or at-risk populations.

Social work courses also heavily focus on the history of social structures in the US and how historical injustices have led to systemic inequalities in today’s society. 

Students in bachelor’s programs will learn about human behavior, social welfare policy, research methods and get practical experience working with clients.

Generally, bachelor’s programs include some sort of clinical internship and also core college requirements like English, foreign language, and humanities. 

Students who complete a bachelor’s program will be qualified to get their LBSW license and work in entry-level positions.

Some entry-level positions a BSW will prepare you for are as a group-home worker, substance-abuse counselor, mental health worker, and program coordinator.

Admission Requirements

Most bachelor’s level programs mandate that applicants have at least a high school diploma or GED, provide standardized test scores (ACT or SAT) and provide letters of recommendation from teachers or employers. Some programs require applicants to complete a minimum amount of volunteer hours and attend an in-person interview. You may also have to submit to a criminal background check upon acceptance into a program.

Courses

A potential curriculum for a BSW program might include some of the following courses:

  • Social Service Delivery Systems
  • Foundations of Social Work Practice
  • Human Behavior and Environment
  • Research Methods
  • Statistics
  • Diversity and Oppression in Social Work Contexts

Option 2: Social Worker Master’s Degree

An MWS is an advanced social work degree program that takes 1-2 years to complete.

Most mid-level and higher positions in the social work field require an MSW. Those who graduate from MSW programs are eligible to sit for their LMSW license. MSW programs focus heavily on practical skills for navigating social welfare structures.

Most MSW programs let students pursue one of two tracks. The first focuses on direct service work which seems to be the most popular avenue taken.

The second track focuses on clinical social work which takes place in hospitals and medical settings. MSW programs also require students to engage in at least 2 years of work experience.

Most MSW programs require around 900-1,200 hours of clinical work to graduate. You will also be required to complete a comprehensive master’s thesis on a topic of your choosing.

Admission Requirements

MSW degree programs require BSW or a bachelor’s degree in a related field. They often have work requirements and most programs need you to provide GRE test scores and letters of recommendation. You might also be required to attend an in-person interview with the dean of the program.

Courses

A semester-long curriculum for an MSW program might have the following courses:

  • Science of Social Work 
  • Policy and Advocacy in Professional Social Work
  • Diversity and Social Justice
  • Applied Learning in Field Education
  • Explanatory Theories of Health and Mental Health

Option 3: Social Worker Doctoral Degree

The last option is to pursue a doctorate in social work (DSW). Like most doctoral-level programs, DSW programs are heavily research-focused and graduates from DSW programs go on to become leading researchers and professors, policy advocates, policy advisors, and heads of social work practices.

DSW course work focuses on research methods and quantitative analysis. Those who graduate from DSW programs are eligible to receive their LCSW license, the only social worker license that allows you to run your own practice independently.

Admission Requirements

Doctoral programs are extremely competitive and require a BSW or bachelor’s n a related field to apply. Most doctoral programs require applicants to provide samples of original research and write a statement of purpose charting their education and career path. Most doctoral programs also require applicants to have a certain number of years working professionally in the field.

Courses

Doctoral programs can vary widely depending on your specialization so there is on common course load. Doctoral programs are research-focused so most of your time will be spent performing research.

Online Social Worker Programs

There are a number of online programs for social work degrees at the bachelor’s and master’s levels. Online programs are a good option for those who may not live near an institution that offers a social work program or non-traditional students who need flexible scheduling. Most online programs are supplemented with some kind of in-person training. It is important to check that the online program you choose is CSWE-accredited as attending an accredited institution is a licensing prerequisite in most states.

How to Get Your Social Worker License

All social workers are required to be registered by the state. There are three major kinds of social work licenses, an LBSW which requires a bachelor’s, and LMSW which requires a master’s, and an LCSW which requires a doctorate. Each license designation carries different responsibilities and duties.

Licensing requirements for these different designations vary heavily from state to state, but most require you to submit proof of completing the level-appropriate education, proof of completed clinical hours and complete a written exam. The LCSW is the highest license granted to social workers and LCSW holders can run their own practice.

In addition to state licensure, several independent organizations grant optional certification in a number of areas pursuant to social work.

Certification is generally not a prerequisite to get a job but candidates with their certification face better job prospects.

License Renewal

All states that require licensure require license holders to periodically renew their credentials. Most states require renewal every 1-2 years. For example, in Texas, social workers must update their licenses every 2 years in their birthday month. Most states require you to complete a set amount of continuing education credits, along with any applicable renewal fees.

Social Worker Job Outlook & Growth

The Bureau of Labor Statistics tell us that the median annual salary in 2018 was $49,470 ($23.79/hour) for social workers.

Earners in the top 10% made more than $81,400 and earners in the bottom 10% made less than $30,750.

Social workers who held jobs in local and state hospitals had the highest median salaries at $63,140 while employees in individual family services had the lowest median salaries at $44,840.

The social work field is projected to grow by 11% from 2018-2028, faster than the national average for careers.

Increased demand for healthcare and social services is expected to drive up demand in all social work specialties. Specifically, the employment of healthcare social workers is expected to grow by 17%, much faster than the national average.

What is a Social Worker?

Before we start talking about the education needed and answer the question “How to become a social worker?” let’s first examine the nature of this profession.

A broad definition for social workers is that it is a profession with different kinds of professionals who serve people in need.

In reality social workers work with people that are passing through difficulties and make sure to help and support them.

They also have to ensure that vulnerable groups like children are safe.

The daily duties of a social worker include:

  • Working along with other professionals and evaluate patient’s physical and medical condition.
  • Referring patients to community resources like hospitals, legal aid, housing, financial aid, education and job placement.
  • Investigating cases of child abuse and take measures like authorized protection if required.
  • Discharging patients from care facility to another one or their home
  • Evaluating a patient’s progress during his treatment.
  • Consulting patients in group or individual sessions and help them recover from illnesses, overcome addictions and recover to a “normal” life
  • Organizing patients’ family members to support groups and help them understand and deal with the patients’ problems.

If you want to follow this profession you will need to have excellent communication skills. You have to make people feel comfortable talking to you about their problems and actively listen to them.

You will also need good observation and problem solving skills because sometimes patients won’t talk about their problems so you will have to understand them by observation.

Social workers work mostly full time and their work-space is community establishments like: hospital, schools, voluntary organizations, non-profit organizations, patients’ homes and correctional institutes.

The average salary of a social worker is $49,470 or an equivalent of $23.79 per hour.

Social Worker Specializations

According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) there are 10 specialty sections on the field.

Administration or Supervision Social Workers

Administration Social Workers don’t focus on particular clients but they are responsible for the well-being of the system on the organization they work at.

Their work is to evaluate existing programs, work on budgets, identify problematic areas of a program, come with a solution and try to design a program that will fit the needs of the community.

Aging Social Workers

With the huge growth of the number of adults over 65 years old the demand for healthcare and social working systems have grown over the last years.

Aging social workers who are approximately 5% of the social working population, help seniors and their families to overcome problems and maintain well-being.

Social workers work as supporters for older people providing a link between them and the services they need.

The goal of aging social workers is to provide seniors with autonomy, dignity and independence.

Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Social Workers

Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Social workers work is to help patients overcome their addiction problems.

They refer patients to rehab centers, monitor their progress, and support them and their family during this difficult process.

After the patients exit rehab social workers help fitting them in the society and make sure they won’t relapse by providing them support.

Children, Adolescents and Young Adults Social Workers

Children, Adolescents and Young Adults Social worker’s work mostly with children and adolescents that either have family problems or problematic behaviors.

They work with the children and their family too. Their work is to prevent behaviors that can cause problems to children they also help teenagers that already have problems to overcome them.

Child Welfare Social Workers

Child Welfare Social Workers work with problematic families with the goal of protecting children that might be suffering from abuse, environment, medical needs or abandonment.

They follow federal and state laws and their overall goal is to prevent children being removed permanently from their family.

Child Welfare Social Workers are mostly employed by government agencies, profit or nonprofit organizations and schools.

Health Social Workers

Health and medical social workers work mostly at hospitals and their work is to help patients and their families to overcome the emotional, physical and financial problems that a serious illness can cause them.

They connect the patients to the resources needed and help them take important medical decisions.

Mental Health Social Workers

Mental Health social workers help patients with mental health problems.

They provide short and long term solutions to patients and their families.

They mostly work at hospitals, mental health institutes and rehabilitation centers.

They provide patients with resources and assets like medical options to discharge plans.

School Social Workers

As their name disclose they work at school helping students with all kinds of problems.

They help children that have experienced abuse and trauma, counsel students that are experiencing grief for the death of a family member or friend and provide parents with the resources needed when their child is suffering from a chronic mental illness.

Social Justice Workers

Social justice means that all the members of a society deserve equal political, social, and economical rights.

Their work is to create opportunities for everyone especially those in greatest need.

For example, if they are working with homeless people they make sure to give to their clients’ access to healthcare shelters and food stamps.

Social Work and the Courts

The work of Courts’ social workers is to represent for free clients that cannot afford an attorney.

Optional: High School Preparation

High School Courses for Social Workers

Communication Classes

As we mentioned before social workers need to have excellent communication skills as they will be talking with patients daily.

They have to make them feel comfortable and talk about their problems.

They also have to report in detail about what they learned to the agencies and organizations they work for.

So we strongly recommend to take as much as communication classes possible like rhetoric, debate and speech.

Math and Science Classes

Take science classes and especially social science classes.

Social workers monitor data and convey scientific information so science classes will help you for sure.

Also take math classes like statistics and probability if possible.

Psychology

Psychology is a component of social workers’ routine and education, but having a basic knowledge of psychology will also help you with your studies.

So take every course available in psychology and human behavior.

Language

With the growing Hispanic population in the USA speaking Spanish this will help you to be able to communicate effectively with Spanish speaking persons.

Volunteering

A really smart thing to do when in high school is to work voluntarily. Universities give a lot of credit at volunteering as it proves to them that you are committed to this profession.

Volunteering will also let you know if you really want to follow this career as you will see how it is to be a social worker in real life.

So find a local community or non-profit organization and ask them to help.

Before you choose which courses you will attend at high school you better contact the university you would like to attend and ask their high school admission requirements.

Social Worker Training Video

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Noel Griffith, Ph.D.
Noel Griffith in Doctor of Philosophy with a strong interest in educational research. He has been an editor-in-chief of CareersWiki.com since 2014. Noel is an avid reader (non-fiction), enjoys good food, live theatre, and helping others make wiser career decisions.

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