What Is a Typical Career Path for a Social Worker?

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Earning a Master of Social Work, or MSW, degree – one of the highest paying master’s degrees – is part of the career path for many social workers. Although not required to work in this field, a master’s degree can prepare you for job opportunities you wouldn’t qualify for otherwise. Although different social workers follow different paths, a typical path into this occupation may start with earning a bachelor’s degree and then progress to getting your first social work job and acquiring experience in the field. It’s at this point that many social workers start to think about going to graduate school, after which they may need to complete post-graduate supervised experience to earn a license.

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Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

If you know you want to become a social worker, then your first step should be to earn an undergraduate degree in social work. The Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree emphasizes the practice of social work theories and strategies to help real people. As part of the curriculum, you will gain hands-on experience through field work in settings like community agencies, nonprofit organizations and private services that all aim to make a difference to their clients. Like most other bachelor’s degrees, a BSW typically can be completed in four years of full-time study, although students studying part-time will take longer to finish their degree.

If you’re not sure about a social work career, majoring in sociology, psychology, political science or economics is a versatile choice that still gives you a foundation for graduate studies in social work, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported.

Get an Entry-Level Social Work Job

Once you’ve completed your bachelor’s degree in social work, your next step will typically be finding a job in this field. One of the most common social work jobs with a BSW degree is caseworker, a position that allows you to provide one-on-one direct service – in a non-clinical capacity – to individuals and families in need. As a caseworker, you would work closely with clients, listen to them to identify their problems and needs and serve as an advocate and resource to help them access programs and services that can help. Caseworkers are like professional problem solvers.

Caseworker jobs apply to a wide variety of client populations and employment settings. You could be a caseworker for a government agency or a for-profit service, and social workers with this job title may work with any population of clients, from families in poverty to children with disabilities. Other job titles are more specific to client populations or employment settings. For example, in a residential facility, you might work as a residential case manager. A mental health assistant may support the efforts of clinical social workers and other mental health professionals, although this role is not qualified to offer direct clinical services. Many social workers with a bachelor’s degree go on to become family service workers.

As you gain experience in the field of social work, you can move on from entry-level roles to job functions with more responsibilities. Although there isn’t a set amount of time that you must work in the field before you start applying to graduate schools, many master of social work programs encourage students to gain at least one to two years of work experience, or more, before going for a master’s degree.

Social work positions at the bachelor’s degree level may or may not require licensure. In most states, BSW social workers only need the degree and a passing score on the Association of Social Work Boards’ Bachelors Social Work Licensing Examination.

Consider Going Back to School for Your MSW Degree

Once you have been out in the field, practicing social work on a day-to-day basis, you can really get a feel for what aspects of the social work occupation you like and what you want to change about your career. Considering these factors is an important part of deciding whether to go to graduate school or not.

Having an MSW degree can help you advance your career beyond the limits of what you could do with only a bachelor’s degree, but most social workers don’t go into this field for the money or prestige. They do it to make a difference in a way that feels meaningful to them. If you like the work you do as a caseworker or in another BSW role, pursuing an MSW degree just because it is the next logical step on the career path may not make you happy or be worth the time, effort and expense of going to graduate school.

If you end up going back to school, you also want to think about your future career plans and choose a program that fits those aspirations. You need specific experience to work in clinical social work, for example, that may not be the most relevant if you really want to work in management and administration or to move into a senior-level advocacy role.

Some students take a slightly different career path, streamlining their education by pursuing a five-year dual degree BSW/MSW program. Under this program, students begin working toward their MSW by taking graduate courses as an undergraduate student.

Gain Post-Master’s Experience and a License

Once you earn your MSW degree, there’s still work to do. To earn a social work license at the master’s level, you typically need at least two years of supervised experience after finishing graduate school, the BLS reported. That experience must be relevant to your social work specialization. For example, you need supervised experience in a clinical setting and work capacity if you want to get your licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) credential.

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You also need to pass an exam. Depending on your career goals and type of experience – not to mention your state’s requirements – you might take the Masters Social Work Licensing Examination, the Advanced Generalist Social Work Licensing Examination or the Clinical Social Work Licensing Examination. Once you’ve gotten your license, you can start practicing clinical social work or advance to the senior-level role you’ve been eyeing.

Having your master’s degree also allows you to earn more money. Social workers with an MSW earn $13,000 more on average than those with only a BSW degree, according to data from the National Association of Social Workers.

Additional Resources

Are There 2-Year Degrees in Social Work? Are They Worth Getting?

How Advanced Does My Degree in Social Work Need to Be to Get a Good Job?

Is There Value in Getting a Master’s Degree in Social Work?