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How to Become a Social Worker: Career Roadmap and Education

Majors Overview January 29, 2013

People who are interested in rendering assistance to others and tackling difficult life situations could aim for a career in social work. Clinical counseling or direct services are provided by social workers in order to help clients make assessments of unhealthy or harmful situations and change them. Various employers such as community mental health clinics, schools, private practices, hospitals and nursing homes employ social workers. Social workers are required to have an undergraduate degree in Social Work, at least, to get an entry level job; employers for other positions such as clinical social worker prefer Master of Social Work (MSW) degree holders. Social workers have to obtain licensure regardless of the state in which they seek to work.

Common Requirements

Degree Level

Either Bachelor in Social Work (BSW) or Master in Social Work (MSW)

Degree Field

Social work


Depends on the type of social worker and the state; every state has certification and licensure requirements


One to two years of experience preferred

Key Skills

Knowledge of psychosocial practices and social work, strong people skills, listening and problem-solving skills, time-management and organizational skills, and compassion

Stage One: Earning a Bachelor Degree

Completing a Bachelor of Social Work program prepares a student to be employed in direct-service positions such as a case worker or mental health assistant. Coursework in such programs includes subject area such as social work for the aged, child welfare, applied research, social work methods and social welfare policy. Without exception, Bachelor of Social Work programs include a supervised field work or internship program, thereby giving students a chance to learn skills in important field areas such as problem-solving, decision-making, interviewing and an understanding of group dynamics. Developing strong communication skills will benefit social workers who have to cultivate healthy and productive relationships with their co-workers and clients to do an effective job. During their school tenure, students can leverage supervised fieldwork and internship opportunities to hone in on the skills necessary for interaction with various clients later in their career.

Stage Two: Considering a Graduate Degree

Students can undertake a Master of Social Work program alongside a bachelor degree program in any major; however, they may be required to complete specific coursework in subjects such as sociology and psychology to qualify for admission, if such applicants do not have a BSW degree. A social worker seeking work in the healthcare industry or in schools, they need to complete an MSW program. Master of Social Work programs usually run over two years, although there are some flexible three-year and four-year programs. Students who complete these programs can go ahead and perform advanced practice in their areas of concentration. These programs offer different majors for students to choose from, including behavioral and physical health, older adults and families, global practice, and families and children. Expansion by students on professional components of social work is also possible; these components include leadership skills, caseload management and clinical assessment. All MSW students are required to complete a supervised practice or internship program. Gaining experience in a high-demand major will benefit social workers whose best opportunities involve working with schools, families, and children, in areas like substance abuse, mental health and healthcare. Even social workers who only have a bachelor degree can develop a specialty by garnering work experience in these areas.

Stage Three: Becoming Licensed

Social workers are required to obtain certification and licensure in the state they are employed. Non-clinical social workers can avail optional certification; certification norms differ from state to state; social workers can contact the Association of Social Work Boards to find out the norms as pertaining to their chosen state of employment. State licensure calls for two years (or 3,000 hours) of experience in a clinical setting alongside completion of a MSW program.

Stage Four: Considering Credentialing

MSW-educated social workers can volunteer for credentialing offered at three levels by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). Eligibility requirements vary for each credential and can include professional evaluation from colleagues, clinical social work experience and a certain number of hours of continued education in the field. Voluntary specialty certifications are available for both undergraduate and graduate degree holding social workers employed in several areas such as gerontology, healthcare social work and clinical social work; such certification would improve employment prospects.

Stage Five: Maintaining Credentials and Licensure

Social work certification and licensure, including any specialty certification, has to be maintained by completing continued education programs. The length and type of course required to be completed differ from state to state.

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