If you’re wondering what it takes to become a social worker, and if this is a career you would be successful in, there are several things to consider. Being a social worker is a challenging but immensely rewarding career path. If you are an empathetic person who truly wants to make a difference in other people's lives, becoming a social worker will allow you to do just that. Whether you offer support at the individual level or push for systemic change, you will contribute to making the world a better place one step at a time. It's also a steadily growing field; demand for social workers in the U.S. is expected to increase by 16% between 2016 and 2026.1
But the social work career path may not be for everyone. It requires training — often advanced education and licensure — and a great deal of emotional fortitude. You may need to confront challenging situations, such as addiction or child abuse, on a regular basis.2 Still, social workers play an important role in society, and if you are driven to help people, you should consider whether you have what it takes to be a social worker.
What is a social worker?
At the most basic level, a social worker is someone who helps support other people. Social workers can be categorized based on what specific population they serve, but all social workers work to improve the circumstances of other individuals, groups, or even communities. That can take many different forms, depending on what area of social work specialization you choose:3
- Clinical social workers are like therapists, supporting clients with mental, behavioral, or emotional disorders.
- Child and family social workers intervene on behalf of children and provide support to families in need.
- School social workers coordinate with other educational professionals to support children who are struggling at school.
- Healthcare social workers support patients who are dealing with a diagnosis of illness or disease.
- Mental health and substance abuse social workers support clients with mental illnesses or addictions.
Other populations served by social workers are people with disabilities, seniors, members of the military, and current and former inmates.4 Some social workers focus on changing policy rather than supporting people one-on-one or in small groups.
What does it take to become a social worker?Because social workers often deal with complicated situations and vulnerable populations, they must have extensive training. Requirements for clinical social work positions are somewhat more stringent than for some other positions.
Becoming a Social Worker
- Education: At a minimum, social workers need a bachelor of social work (BSW) for baccalaureate social work positions. However, many social work positions (especially clinical social work positions) require a master's degree or higher.5 Degree programs must generally be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.6 If you go on to pursue a master of social work (MSW), you do need to have already received a bachelor's degree, but it does not have to be in social work. If you are already in the field, or working in another field but interested in becoming a social worker, you can earn your degree from an accredited online part-time program.
- Licensure: Most social workers must be licensed, but licensure varies by state.7 To become licensed, social workers must achieve a certain level of education (depending on their chosen specialty) and then complete supervised post-degree experience and/or pass a social work exam.8 If you want to become a social worker, it's important to look into the specific social work licensing requirements of the state where you hope to find employment. The different levels of licensure include:9a. Licensed Baccalaureate Social Workerb. Licensed Master Social Workerc. Licensed Master Social Worker
- Skills: Social work is a personal, creative, and emotionally demanding career. Becoming a social worker means taking on the responsibility to do right by another person who may be vulnerable and in need. Some people naturally have the necessary characteristics of a social worker, but to be successful requires further developing certain "soft skills" that you'll learn in your social work education as well as during any hands-on training.a. Communication. You need to be able to understand and communicate effectively with your clients. It's as important to be a good listener as it is to be clear when you must communicate ideas yourself.10b. Time management and organization. You may have many different clients who each need your full attention. It's important that you stay on top of these different commitments, whether that's making sure you arrive on time to appointments or keeping the necessary paperwork organized for each client.c. Compassion. Social work means helping people who are faced with great personal challenges. To truly help your clients, you'll need to be able to earn their trust and empathize with their situations. You’ll also need to be respectful of cultural differences and actively practice tolerance.d. Teamwork. Social workers are often part of an individual's support network. They may need to be able to collaborate effectively with mental health professionals, doctors, educators, parole officers, or more.e. Problem-solving. Your clients may be faced with complex challenges — maybe navigating the healthcare system, maybe finding community resources such as food stamps. Being able to solve problems in practical but creative ways will let you help clients through difficult times.
What can you expect from a career as a social worker?
- Recent graduates surveyed by the Council on Social Work education in 2017 have said that a degree in social work has given them "meaningful work", "a wide range of job opportunities", unique and helpful perspectives on the world, with "the potential to make great change". The vast majority (90+%) express satisfaction with their social work career path.11
- Social workers need to stay on top of renewing their licensure. You may also be required to complete Continuing Education (CE) courses12 or choose to pursue additional credentials and certifications.13
- In addition to maintaining your license and ongoing education for formal certification, you'll also want to keep an eye on any policy issues or legislative changes that may affect your area of social work.14
So, what does it take to be a social worker? At its base, a willingness to answer the call to help others. If you have some of the natural characteristics of a social worker, consider answering the call.If you 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 March 18, 2019, from www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm#tab-6
2. Retrieved on March 18, 2019, from www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm#tab-2
3. Retrieved on March 18, 2019, from www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm#tab-2
4. Retrieved on March 18, 2019, from careersinpsychology.org/starting-a-career-as-a-social-worker/
5. Retrieved on March 18, 2019, from www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm#tab-4
6. Retrieved on March 18, 2019, from aswb.org/licensees/about-licensing-and-regulation/
7. Retrieved on March 18, 2019, from aswb.org/licensees/about-licensing-and-regulation/social-work-regulation/
8. Retrieved on March 18, 2019, from aswb.org/licensees/about-licensing-and-regulation/
9. Retrieved on March 18, 2019, from socialworklicensemap.com/become-a-social-worker/
10. Retrieved on March 18, 2019, from www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm#tab-4
11. Retrieved on March 18, 2019, from cswe.org/Centers-Initiatives/Initiatives/National-Workforce-Initiative/Survey-of-2017-SW-Grads-Report-FINAL.aspx
12. Retrieved on March 18, 2019, from socialworkers.org/Careers/Continuing-Education
13. Retrieved on March 18, 2019, from socialworkers.org/Careers/CredentialsCertifications
14. Retrieved on March 18, 2019, from socialworkers.org/Advocacy