Social workers strive every day to help other people in need. Social work has many variations and specializations, but all social workers draw on their education in psychology, interpersonal skills and the law to help people through challenging situations. These professionals are trained to help individuals recover from abuse, addiction and family dysfunction. They connect people with government agencies and resources. They educate communities on health and public policies, and advocate for people in court or government proceedings. While social workers' caseloads can be heavy and the situations they encounter are often heartbreaking, most find tremendous satisfaction in their work.
Day in the Life of a Social Worker
Social work is a broad field with many specializations, but there are some activities and tasks that are common to all social workers. On a typical day, a social worker will help clients identify and work through their problems, while offering them solutions and resources; create service plans and action steps; complete reports and keep track of case histories; and respond to clients' crises.
There are many career specializations and workplace settings for social workers. Here is a sampling:
- Children, families and schools. Social workers might work with government agencies to assist and protect children, single parents, foster families, adopted children and families in crisis. In schools, social workers work closely with parents and teachers to enable children facing challenges to better reach their full potential.
- Mental health and substance abuse. Social workers who serve this population provide support such as one-on-one counseling, group therapy, crisis intervention and residential rehabilitation.
- Medical and public health. Social workers support patients and families in difficult medical situations. They may help people with disabilities as well as those who are seriously injured, chronically ill or terminally ill.
- Administration, research and planning. These social workers create the policies, conduct the research and provide the guidance needed to reach more people through new and established social programs.
For some of the above scenarios, a social worker must have specific social work education and training. Certification is often required to qualify for some of the above-mentioned employment situations.
Important Characteristics for a Social Worker
What kind of person can become a successful social worker? Helpful traits include empathy, patience and dedication. Natural skill in conflict management and problem-solving can be strengthened with training and are critical in this profession. Social workers often manage rapidly changing situations and unexpected challenges, so it is important to remain flexible and "think on one's feet." Other key characteristics are a sense of humor, a thick skin, and the ability to work independently.
Typical Steps for Becoming a Social Worker
The path and education requirements for becoming a social worker — from the first steps to advanced and optional stages — are as follows:
- Earn a bachelor's degree in social work. First, check with the Council of Social Work Education to make sure the program you are considering is accredited. You will be required to do both coursework and a minimum number of hours (usually 400 for accredited programs) of supervised experience in the field.
Tip: Find out what your state's licensing rules are before you commit to a degree program (see Step 2).
- Become licensed to practice social work in your state. Most states require two years or 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience for a license to work as a clinical social worker. Check with the Association of Social Work Boards regarding the licensing and testing procedures for your state.
- Consider becoming certified by the National Association of Social Workers and the Center for Clinical Social Work. While not usually required for employment, national certification demonstrates a level of commitment and competency that could give you a competitive edge in the job market.
- Take your career to the next level by earning a master's in social work or a doctoral degree. If, after being a social worker for awhile, you plan to go into private practice, work in schools or do clinical work, you will need an advanced degree. A graduate degree can also help you explore specialties such as mental health, public health or substance abuse. The Council of Social Work Education can tell you if the master's degree program you are considering is accredited. Doctoral education should be accredited through the Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work.
- Social Workers, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm
- Summary Report for Social Workers, O*NET OnLine, https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/21-1029.00