Social workers are a diverse group of skilled professionals who assist individuals, groups or communities to restore or enhance their capacity for social functioning. The approach to care is oriented toward solving problems and promoting positive social change.
Professional social workers respond to and help prevent crises, and they counsel individuals, families, groups and communities on how to cope with the stresses of everyday life. Social workers work with people of diverse cultural and economic backgrounds. They often help people with socio-economic disadvantages, including severe poverty, unemployment, discrimination or inadequate housing. They also help people who have serious illness, disabilities or substance abuse problems, as well as families with serious domestic conflicts, sometimes involving child abuse or intimate partner violence.
Professional social workers work in a variety of practice settings, including:
- Hospitals and other health care settings
- Mental health and substance use clinics
- Senior centers and other aging services organizations
- Private practice
- Social services agencies
- Elected office and policy advocacy organizations
The settings in which professional social workers work may be public (governmental) or private, nonprofit or for profit. Social workers who work in health care settings can be considered allied health professionals.
Social workers usually specialize in one or more of over 40 practice areas, including disaster relief, child welfare services, homeless family assistance and gerontology services, among many others. Although many social workers provide services directly to clients, others function in supervisory, administrative, research, teaching, policy or community organizing roles.
Professional social workers’ responsibilities often overlap with those of other practitioners in the mental health and behavioral health fields. Clinical social workers have specialized training in mental health. They provide psychotherapy services, just as psychologists and psychiatrists do but are unable to write prescriptions or perform testing.
To be effective, social workers must have a deep understanding of human development and behavior. They also must have an appreciation for the effects of various social, economic and cultural factors and an understanding of how these factors interact.
Full-time social workers usually work a standard 40-hour week. Some work evenings and weekends to meet with clients, attend community meetings and handle emergencies. Others may work part time.
Social workers usually spend most of their time in an office or facility but also may travel locally to visit clients, meet with service providers or participate in meetings.
To tend to patient care or client needs, many hospitals and long-term care facilities are employing social workers on teams with a broad mix of occupations, including physicians, nurses, physical therapists, dietitians, speech and language therapists and direct care workers (such as certified nursing assistants).
Although the work can be emotionally draining and challenging, many professional social workers find great fulfillment in their careers.
A bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) is the minimum requirement to qualify for most jobs. Clinical positions and some jobs in public or private agencies typically require a master’s degree (MSW), as do most supervisory, administrative and staff training positions. College/university teaching positions and most research appointments require a doctorate in social work (DSW or Ph.D.). The Council on Social Work Education provides a directory of accredited social work programs.
Undergraduate social work programs prepare graduates for direct service positions, such as caseworker, and include courses in social work values and ethics, dealing with a culturally diverse clientele, at-risk populations, promotion of social and economic justice, human behavior and the social environment, social welfare policy and services, social work practice, social research methods and field education. Accredited BSW programs require a minimum of 400 hours of supervised field experience.
Master’s degree programs prepare graduates for work in their chosen field of concentration and continue to develop the skills required to perform clinical assessments, manage large caseloads, take on supervisory roles, engage in policy-level advocacy and explore new ways of drawing upon social services to meet the needs of clients. MSW programs last two years and include a minimum of 900 hours of supervised field instruction, or internship. Most MSW programs offer advanced standing for those with a bachelor’s degree from an accredited social work program, but a BSW is not required. For MSW applicants holding a bachelor’s degree in another field, it is important to have taken courses in psychology, biology, sociology, economics, political science and social work. Facility with a second language also is very helpful.
All states and the District of Columbia have licensing, certification or registration requirements regarding social work practice. Each jurisdiction requires an individual to have a social work degree from a CSWE-accredited social work program in order to sit for a licensing exam. Licensing exists to provide state and provincial governments with a way to verify that a social worker has the skills and knowledge necessary to provide a safe level of practice. Licensing also establishes social work practice as a separate and distinct branch of mental health services and gives governments a way to monitor the professional conduct of social workers.
In addition, for social workers seeking recognition of their professional achievements or to gain a foothold in a new social work specialty area, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers voluntary credentials. NASW’s social work credentials are indicative of the profession’s presence within multiple specialty practice areas such as gerontology, hospice and palliative care, health care, case management, youth and family, and addictions.
Learn More About a Career as a Social Worker
- Watch a video about medical and public health social workers (in the Human Services category).
- Association of Social Work Boards
- Council on Social Work Education
- National Association of Social Workers