Social work is a demanding but tremendously rewarding career path with as many different areas of specialty as there are populations in need of support. Once you’ve decided that you want to be a social worker, you may find yourself wondering, "What field of social work is right for me?"
The different areas of social work specialization vary according to population served, clinical setting and required experience. Ultimately, picking a social work field is a personal choice, and knowing where to place your focus depends on your goals and preferences. A master's degree in social work gives you the flexibility to explore different possibilities as you prepare for your career—for example, the Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University offers core foundational courses along with advanced electives that allow you to gain the specialized experience you need to succeed in a specific social work field.
As you plan ahead for your chosen social work specialty or contemplate which specialty is right for you, consider the following possibilities.
Healthcare Social Workers
The fastest-growing area of social work, with 20 percent growth projected between now and 2026, healthcare social work involves caring for individuals and families in settings such as hospitals and nursing homes.1 Also known as medical social workers or hospital social workers, healthcare social workers assist patients in navigating the healthcare system and may provide emotional support, serve as patient advocates, direct patients to medical programs or specialists that can help them, or guide patients in managing the financial burden of medical care.
Is healthcare social work right for you?
- Do you handle emotionally difficult situations well? Healthcare social workers often assist patients who are at the end of their lives or facing significant injury or illness, so these social workers must have a strong ability to emotionally support others
- Are you open to a flexible schedule? Like other healthcare professionals, medical social workers may work unpredictable hours and are often expected to be on call in case of emergency
- Can you effectively support highly diverse populations? Healthcare social workers must be able to respect and support patients regardless of those patients' backgrounds
- Are you a good listener? Medical social workers, especially hospital social workers, assist patients who are in emotionally stressful situations. In order to earn your patients' trust so that you can successfully serve their needs, you will need to establish that you listen with care and empathy to their concerns
- Do you feel comfortable advocating for patients? You may need to speak up to ensure your patients’ needs are met, even if that means confronting insurance companies or helping patients express their concerns to other medical professionals
- Are you good at working within complex systems? Healthcare is a complicated field, and as a healthcare social worker, you'll need to be familiar with its ins and outs so you can effectively guide your patients through it
Some entry-level positions in case management may be available for those with a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), but most higher level positions require a Master of Social Work (MSW). Administrative positions may require a Ph.D. or Doctor of Social Work (DSW). Specific requirements vary from state to state, but your desired role may require that you become a Certified Social Worker in Health Care (C-SWHC), which requires that you complete both an MSW and two additional years (3,000 hours) of paid, supervised work in a social work agency or similar organization.
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers
Also known as psychiatric social workers, mental health social workers specialize in working with patients who have experienced trauma and/or suffer from mental illness. They also help individuals or families work through times of change or cope with difficult situations. They may work in inpatient settings in a hospital, in outpatient centers, at governmental agencies or residential care facilities. Many go into private practice, providing psychotherapy to individuals or small groups.
Substance abuse social workers develop long-term plans to help individuals struggling with addiction. They may work in inpatient detoxification units, juvenile detention facilities or schools. They may also work alongside primary care physicians in private offices.
Is mental health or substance abuse social work right for you?
- Are you willing to serve clients with severe needs? Psychiatric social workers often support clients with debilitating mental illnesses, including disorders that can be difficult to encounter and treat
- Are you comfortable working with addicts and alcoholics? Working with these populations can be especially challenging
- Do you want career mobility? Mental health social workers work in a wide range of settings, including private practice. They can also change from one setting to another without needing to develop a significantly different skill set
- Do you enjoy working as part of a team? Psychiatric social workers and substance abuse social workers are often part of a patient's mental health team
- Do you want to work with clients on a long-term basis? Some mental health social workers and substance abuse social workers help clients make lifestyle changes and navigate difficulties over an extended period of time
Almost all positions in mental health and substance abuse social work call for an MSW or beyond, as well as two postgraduate years of experience in a supervised clinical setting, though specific requirements vary from state to state. Individuals who want to teach or conduct research at a university, or work as consultants advocating public policy changes, will require a DSW.
Child, Family and School Social Workers
All social workers in this category work with children under 18; many also work with entire families. Child and family social workers protect children and help connect families in need to resources that can aid them. They may serve as child advocates, policy workers, researchers, or educators or administrators in a school setting. School social workers may develop or work with programs to help young people succeed, intervene with children experiencing a crisis, or help students work on developing long-term skills such as anger management. They can also work as liaisons between families and schools, or between schools and the local community.
Is child, family or school social work right for you?
- Do you enjoy working with a younger population? If you are good with kids and teens, you may find being a child, family or school social worker rewarding
- Are you interested in working in a school environment? School social workers develop programs at schools and work alongside education professionals. This also means following an academic calendar, which can involve trading summers off for longer hours during the school year
- Can you manage cases involving severe child abuse? To succeed as a child and family social worker, you need to be able to remain a bedrock of stability for the children you serve, who often face extremely emotionally difficult situations
- Are you comfortable visiting children and families in their homes? Child, family and school social workers may check on truant children or investigate a child's home environment in person
Some entry-level positions may be available for those with a BSW, although they may also require that you become a Certified Children, Youth & Family Social Worker (C-CYFSW). However, most positions require an MSW along with approximately 3,000 hours of supervised field work.
Find Your Specialty
Regardless of what field you go into, all social workers share certain roles and responsibilities. And no matter your specialization, being a good social worker will always mean separating your work and your personal life; these can be emotionally taxing jobs, so it's essential to avoid burnout and practice self-care.
Want to learn more about how to broaden your future in social work? Check out the online Master of Social Work from the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, and find the role for which you were made.
1 Retrieved on June 8, 2018, from www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm#tab-6