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- Step #1: Make Sure a Career in Social Work Is Right for You
- Step #2: Decide If You Want to Become a Non-Clinical or Clinical Social Worker
- Step #3: Explore Your Social Work Education Options
- Step #4: Complete Prerequisites and Apply to College
- Step #5: Look for Ways to Help Pay for Your Social Work Degree
- Step #6: Complete Course and Fieldwork Requirements
- Step #7: Acquire a Social Work License in Your State
- Step #8: Apply to Social Work Jobs You’re Passionate About
- Step #9: Get Professional Certification in Your Social Work Field
- Step #10. Renew License and Complete Continuing Education Requirements
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How to Become a Licensed Social Worker Step-by-Step
Becoming a licensed social worker represents a selfless decision to help people navigate and overcome everyday issues. Whether working for the wellbeing of kids as a school social worker, providing mental health services as a clinical social worker, or in one of many other areas of specialization, social workers are on the frontlines of helping others. Begin your path to making a difference as a social worker.
Last Updated: 08/14/2020
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Make Sure a Career in Social Work Is the Right Fit for You
Committing to a career in social work is a big decision, so you should make sure this career aligns with your skills and interests before taking the plunge. You should also understand the education commitments required. Use these five questions to help better ascertain if this is the right choice for you.
- Do I enjoy interacting with people of many different backgrounds and life experiences on a daily basis?
- Do I possess the ability to leave my work at the office, maintain healthy boundaries, and protect my mental health when helping people facing difficult circumstances?
- Am I good at handling a heavy caseload, managing my time effectively, and not feeling overwhelmed by a never-ending list of tasks?
- Am I able to show empathy when listening to clients explaining their situations? Can I understand their feelings in a non-judgmental way?
- Do I possess the creativity and outside-the-box thinking needed to find innovative solutions to myriad problems and situations?
If you answered “yes” to most of the questions above, a career in social work is likely a good choice for you.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Social Worker?
The timeline for becoming a social worker depends on a number of factors. In addition to considering the level of education, you should also think about the type of licensure you hope to hold, post-grad requirements (e.g., fieldwork placements, supervised hours), and whether you plan to study on a full- or part-time basis. The timelines highlighted in the table below give a general sense of what to expect, but actual timings depend on the individual learner, current education level, specific degree plan, and state licensing requirements.
|Licensed Bachelor Social Worker (LBSW)||Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)||Advanced Generalist Social Worker||Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)|
|Years of College||4 years||2 years (post-bachelor’s)||2 years (post-bachelor’s)||1-3 years (post-bachelor’s) depending on whether student possesses a BSW or unrelated degree|
|Post-Degree Licensing Requirements||Bachelor’s licensing exam||Master’s licensing exam||2 years of supervised work experience |
Advanced Generalist licensing exam
|Additional coursework |
2 years of full-time supervised clinical work experience
Clinical licensing examination
|ETA to Career Start||4 years||+ 2 years from bachelor’s||+ 4 years from bachelor’s||+ 3 to 5 years from bachelor’s|
Decide If You Want to Become a Non-Clinical or Clinical Social Worker
Two distinct paths exist for social workers: clinical and nonclinical. Deciding which to pursue early on is important, as this will directly impact whether you need to complete a bachelor’s degree (required for nonclinical positions) or a master’s degree (required for clinical positions in all 50 states). Here’s some points to consider when making your decision:
Choose non-clinical path if …
- You want to work in more administrative positions that focus on program and/or resource management rather than assessing and treating clients
- You’re interested in taking up positions focused on policy creation and implementation
- You’re passionate about improving service delivery and assessing program effectiveness
Choose clinical path if …
- You want to work in direct service roles that require you to assess needs and create plans
- You’re passionate about connecting clients to resources and support mechanisms based on their individual needs
- You’re interested in providing psychological services, such as counseling and psychotherapy
Explore Your Social Work Education Options
Now it’s time to dig into education options and find which degree best suits your skills, interests, and professional goals. Keep reading to learn about the differences between bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work and figure out whether you want to study on-campus or via an online degree program.
Complete Prerequisites and Apply to College
After finding the ideal schools you want to apply to, it’s time to consider the application process. While all schools require you to fill out an application and pay fees (unless you receive a fee waiver), some also require you to meet prerequisite requirements.
Prerequisites vary based on type of degree and specific school. At both degree levels, most departments require students to possess a minimum GPA, diploma or degree from a high school/accredited college, and completion of specific coursework. At the bachelor’s level, graduates of associate programs typically need to demonstrate completion of lower-level courses before applying. At the master’s level, programs often require the completion of a certain number of upper-division courses alongside a class in statistics or research skills. Prospective students should review prerequisites prior to applying to avoid paying an application fee for a program to which they do not qualify.
Application Process & Fees
While application processes also vary by school and department, most maintain similar requirements. All students must complete an application and pay any required fees. These typically range from $50 to $125. Applicants must also supply transcripts from any schools attended, submit two to three letters of recommendation, provide a personal statement outlining why they want to study social work at that institution, and, if the program is particularly competitive, participate in an online or in-person interview. International students must supply TOEFL or IELTS scores to demonstrate English proficiency.
Look for Ways to Help Pay for Your Social Work Degree
Given the ever-rising cost of higher education, many prospective social workers look for ways to lower their costs and avoid significant student loan debt. Fortunately, plenty of financial aid options exist. Students can take advantage of scholarships and grants provided by universities, state and local governments, professional associations, and nonprofits to cover costs. Learn more about your financial aid options as well as degree-specific scholarships on our dedicated guide pages.
Complete Course and Fieldwork Requirements
Social work degrees at the undergraduate level provide students with a broad base of knowledge designed to qualify them for many entry-level, nonclinical positions. Students build generalist skills in areas of policy, legal and ethical concerns, understanding government and nonprofit systems, coordinating referrals, research, and data-driven decision making. At the master’s level, degree seekers begin to specialize their knowledge in advanced topics and sub-disciplines while also building clinical skills. Some courses you may take while enrolled in a BSW or MSW include:
- Foundations of Social Work Practice
- Social Welfare Policy
- Advanced Clinical Practice
- Social Work Policy
- Program Development for Diverse Populations
Fieldwork requirements vary both by location of the school and level of degree. At Loyola University Chicago, for example, students enrolled in the bachelor of social work program must complete approved coursework before participating in a field experience lasting no less than 480 hours. They must also participate in fieldwork courses while completing the hours. At Fordham University, master’s students must complete at least 1,200 hours of fieldwork, 600 of which focus on generalist skills-building and 600 of which are devoted to specialist training. Check with potential schools to get a clearer idea of expectations.
Acquire a Social Work License in Your State
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that all states require clinical social workers to be licensed, and many mandate licensure and/or certification for those in nonclinical roles.
Apply to Social Work Jobs You’re Passionate About
Social workers find jobs in many settings and industries, ranging from nonprofits and hospitals to schools and rehabilitation facilities. Because the industry offers so many different specialty areas, students can find jobs that speak to their passions and interests. Use these resume and interview tips to ace the hiring process.
Understand your skills.
Social work exists as a wide-ranging field, so understanding and highlighting specific skills and competencies in the discipline shows hiring managers what you actually bring to the table.
Write for the job you want.
Most individuals focus on explaining the job they already have rather than leveraging skills gained to demonstrate their preparedness for the job they want.
Use industry lingo.
Social work has a lot of specific vocabulary (e.g., patient-centered, case management, intervention, crisis management). Use this language to demonstrate your knowledge of the field.
Rather than simply listing tasks, try to quantify and qualify your accomplishments. Did you increase program involvement? Grow retention rates? Use numbers to show how you improved outcomes.
Leave room for questions.
Without being vague, try to pique the resume readers’ interest in a way that will make them want to bring you in for an interview to learn more.
Research the organization.
Interviewers are impressed by job candidates who clearly spent time getting to know the place where you want to work. Look at their website, LinkedIn pages of employees, and partner organizations to gain insight.
Prepare yourself for common questions.
The Balance provides a list of common social worker interview questions so you know what to expect and don’t get caught out by predictable queries.
Ask detailed questions yourself.
Job candidates can show great insight by having a list of questions to ask the interviewer at the end. Make these specific to the organization and don’t ask anything that can easily be found online.
Interested in related career paths? Learn more about other jobs you can get with a social work degree.
Consider Getting Professional Certification in Your Social Work Field
After earning your license, you can further demonstrate the National Association of Social Workers provides many different professional certification options for you to further demonstrate your skills and knowledge. While not always required for employment, these certifications alert employers and clients to your commitment to continued education and your understanding of best practices. Check out the table below to learn more about your certification options.
Renew License and Complete Continuing Education Requirements
Given the ever-evolving nature of social work, nearly every jurisdiction in America requires professionals to participate in continuing education programs to qualify for biannual license renewal. The number of hours and types of courses vary by jurisdiction, but individuals can check with their state board of social work to learn more. The Association of Social Work Boards also provides general information and advice about continuing education mandates.