What Does It Take to Become a Social Worker?

Social work can be an incredibly fulfilling career. It gives you the opportunity to help people in need and do so in a way that supports their growth, ensures their safety, and improves their quality of life.

Given the immense positive impacts that social workers can have on the lives of their clients, it should be of no surprise that many social workers report having a high level of satisfaction with their career, despite often high levels of work-related stress.

If you want to make a difference in the lives of others, this is an excellent career to pursue. The question is, what does it take to become a social worker?

Get a Bachelor’s Degree

The first step towards a career as a social worker is to get a bachelor’s degree. While a bachelor’s of social work (BSW) is preferred, you don’t necessarily have to get an undergraduate degree in social work. For example, you might get a bachelor’s degree in psychology and then go on to get a master’s of social work – more on that in a moment.

A typical BSW program requires about 120 semester credit hours of study. Roughly half of the required credits are general education courses that give you a broad education in subjects like math, science, humanities, and communications.

The other half of the required 120 credits are within the degree program. This means that you’ll need about 60 credits of social work courses in order to graduate. Of those 60 credits, you’ll take some introductory courses, like introduction to social work. But you’ll also take more advanced social work courses during your junior and senior years of study. These courses might include:

  • Social Welfare Policy
  • Case Management Practice
  • Social Work Research Methods
  • Social Work Practice
  • Social Work Practicum
  • Social Work Field Placement

These advanced courses are more specific in their focus than introductory courses. So, for example, in an introduction to social work course, you’ll study many, many different basic principles of social work, but your studies won’t be too detailed. That is, introductory courses are more about studying a lot of different topics, but without going too far in depth.

The advanced courses like those listed above reverse that trend – you study a very specific topic (e.g., case management practice) in depth so you can develop specific knowledge and skills that are needed to be a competent social worker.

Undergraduate programs in social work typically include a practicum and field placement. A practicum might be thought of as a job shadowing experience – you’re placed in a setting in which you can observe social workers on the job. In some cases, you might be allowed to assist the social worker you’re placed with (e.g., helping fill out paperwork).

The point of a practicum experience is to get your feet wet in a real-world social work setting. It also allows you to see some of the topics you’ve studied in class play out in the workplace.

A much more intensive learning experience is the social work field placement. Think of this experience as something similar to student teaching for prospective teachers. You’re placed in a social work setting and have a supervisor who mentors you on essential social work practices. You’ll be able to work directly with clients (under direct supervision of a social worker) to gain experience applying the knowledge and skills you’ve acquired in your BSW program.

If you get a BSW, you can find entry-level social work jobs after you graduate, such as working as a victim’s advocate for the court system or working as a case manager for a government agency like the Department of Family Services.

To expand your job prospects, though, you’ll need to get a master’s of social work, or MSW.

Pursue a Master of Social Work

An MSW is an advanced degree that allows you to gain much more advanced and specific skills that qualify you for a much wider pool of jobs in the social work space.

Where BSW degrees are fairly similar from one college to the next, MSW programs vary widely in terms of their graduation requirements. For example, some MSW programs require about 30 credits while others require 45 or more. This means that the timeline for completion can vary widely. In fact, some accelerated MSW programs can be completed in about a year while other MSW programs take two or three years to complete.

Regardless of the number of credit hours that are required, MSW programs focus on helping you build even more advanced skills and gaining more advanced social work experience than what you get in a BSW program.

Common MSW courses include:

  • Social Policy
  • Social Work Theory
  • Human Behavior
  • Psychopathology
  • Advanced Clinical Social Work Practice
  • Social Work Field Education

You’ll note that MSW programs include classroom learning and fieldwork experiences, just like BSW programs. The difference, of course, is that the level of rigor and detail of studies in an MSW program is much higher than in BSW programs.

Likewise, many MSW programs have multiple field experiences. You might find that you’re required to take part in two or three field experiences, often in different social work settings. This allows you to get a feel for how social work theory is put into practice in a variety of work settings.

Whatever MSW program you choose, be sure it’s accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). This organization is the accrediting body for social work programs, and is responsible for defining what competent preparation is for social workers. Many states require that social workers graduate from a CSWE-accredited program to be eligible for licensure.

Obtain Licensure and Certification

Though not all social work jobs require that you’re licensed, some, like licensed clinical social work, require that you have a license from your state’s licensure board.

Each state controls the specific requirements for licensure, so you’ll need to consult with the state licensure board in the state you wish to work to determine what you need to do to get a license. Usually, requirements include having an MSW, passing a professional exam, and having post-graduate supervised work experience.

Though having a certification is not usually required, it can be helpful in finding a job or advancing your career. Certifications are available from many colleges and universities, as well as many professional organizations, and give you the chance to further your education and develop more specific social work skills.

For example, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers a wide variety of certifications, including:

A Long Road, But One That’s Worth It

Becoming a social worker requires a good deal of education – perhaps six or seven years by the time you complete your MSW – yet, the long educational journey can certainly be worth it.

Not only will you have the chance to effect change in people’s lives, but social work is a growing field with many different career paths. Pay can be good, too, particularly if you have an MSW and specific training in working with certain populations, like children or adults with chemical dependencies. In some cases, you might even find that your student loans will be forgiven.

So, there are many benefits of being a social worker. The question is, are you ready to begin your journey to becoming one?

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