Accredited college programs in social work prepare degree seekers for a variety of exciting and rewarding careers. While earning a social work degree, you will learn how to help individuals, couples, families, and communities work through important health and social issues, and position yourself for a career where you can be a positive difference maker.
Last Updated: 08/14/2020
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Why Choose a Degree and Career in Social Work?
As a social work professional, you develop a socially conscious and globally minded way of thinking about the world and your community. A degree program often allows you to pursue specialized tracks of study in order to choose to work with the individuals and groups that matter to you. The list below highlights several reasons why a degree and career in social work could be a perfect match for you.
You want to help underserved communities.
You will learn how to promote human rights, garner support for economic and social justice initiatives, and work on behalf of vulnerable and marginalized communities who are in constant flux. As a social worker, you can learn how to work directly with these communities and take a hands-on approach to support them.
You have a desire to help people with certain types of struggles, addictions, or health issues.
Social work education programs, especially those with available specializations or concentration areas, allow you to develop the essential skill set for working with your desired group of clients or communities. As a result, you will enjoy classes and topics of study which prepare you for a career in which you are personally invested.
You have an interest in research, improving patient care, and what social workers can bring to the table.
Some professionals with social work degrees pursue research-focused jobs. These careers may be housed in the public or private sector. In these positions, you can contribute to the advancement of knowledge in the field and help other social workers follow the most effective practices based on your research findings.
You wish to increase the number of social work-focused initiatives in the political arena.
With a social work degree, you can pursue activism and leadership roles that help bring positive change both in your community and the local, state, or federal government. Some social work professionals today hold elected positions on school boards, state legislatures, the U.S. Senate, and in the U.S. House of Representatives.
You have a knack for community organizing and fundraising.
Social workers can find themselves working in roles that greatly impact the organizing and implementation of local community services. If you possess a strong desire or ability to network with groups such as school boards, local government officials, and nonprofit organizations, you can improve the public welfare of your community by advocating and raising funds for initiatives that benefit underserved populations, children, and at-risk individuals.
Types of Social Work Career Fields You Can Get Into
Your social work degree prepares you for a career in a variety of industries and qualifies you for any number of roles in the social work field. You may pursue jobs in locations such as hospitals, schools, mental health clinics, private practices, or corporations. Most organizations in the public and private sector that provide a community service or support individuals and families in an emotional capacity employ professionals with training in social work. The careers below highlight some of the more popular fields in which you can find employment.
Many social workers find careers in which they support vulnerable and at-risk children and youths, protecting and ensuring they grow up in a safe environment. When they suffer abuse, neglect, or any other kind of harm, you can exercise a number of options to protect them.
Social workers who offer mental health support and care for clients typically possess training in clinical social work. From developing care plans for clients to helping them maintain regular employment, you can become an in-demand professional who ensures that individuals have access to the necessary resources to live healthier and fulfilling lives.
Some social work professionals work directly with inmates, ex-offenders, and individuals in prevention or intervention programs. They hold positions such as probation officer, sex offender clinician, transitional case manager, conflict mediator, and more. In these roles, you become an advocate for what is best for your client within the parameters of the justice system.
Social workers in this area of the field often work in leadership roles in various organizations, government, nonprofits, and healthcare administration. Depending on the position, you could find yourself working with legislative bodies, research organizations, public policy think-tanks, and social service agencies. Social workers with experience in policy and planning are often in-demand in states with progressive social welfare policies.
If your interests extend into academic research or education, a graduate degree in social work prepares you for a variety of fulfilling positions. Social workers with professorships at universities are able to combine both research and teaching for a well-rounded career. Whether you work in a college, private research organization, or comparable setting, social work researchers try to advance knowledge in the field by conducting quantitative and qualitative research, studying human behavior, and problem-solving.
Professionals in this essential area of the field represent and fight for their clients, often with the help of an organization or as part of a community, to improve their living situations and access to resources. As a social worker and client advocate, you often must rally against powerful and wealthy institutions that create inequalities and marginalize vulnerable populations.
Social workers in this area usually study in a clinical social work graduate program and, if possible, specialize in addiction issues. With the proper certifications and licensure, you can work directly with clients in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and clinics. You will be able to help clients develop healthier behaviors, deal with their emotions, and wrestle with related mental health issues.
If you are a creative thinker with leadership and management skills, a career in public welfare may be a great fit. Many professionals in this field work for government agencies and federal programs that advocate for the wellbeing of communities, families, and children. In these roles, you may find yourself working in a management or supervisory role to ensure that projects receive adequate attention, planning, and financing.
Social work degrees provide a strong academic base for a variety of career paths. Some jobs for social work grads are more popular than others. Graduates may gravitate toward careers that offer stability, provide room for professional growth, are in-demand in their geographic area, or offer the greatest earning potential. In the list that follows, we highlight some of the most popular career choices for social work degree holders.
School Social Worker
These professionals work with school administrators, parents, and students to help identify and solve issues among the student body. In these roles, you often develop treatment plans, conduct home visits, conduct student health evaluations, write referrals for community resources, and provide training workshops for teachers and staff. You will also be responsible for crisis management and intervention in suicidal or homicidal situations.
In these roles, you will often work with clients who have both mental health and substance abuse issues. You can find employment in hospitals, clinics, and rehabilitation centers and work as a discharge planner. Mental health and substance abuse social workers who are clinical social workers work to diagnose mental disorders and ensure that clients have access to the necessary resources.
These professionals often work directly with parents, guardians, and children. Those who specialize in child social work ensure their clients live in a healthy environment, free from all forms of abuse and serious mental illnesses. While a bachelor’s degree may adequately prepare you for roles in this area of the field, many of today’s employers seek out professionals with a master’s degree and significant field training experience.
These social workers evaluate clients’ emotional, financial, and support needs and ensure they receive the necessary attention from members of a healthcare team. They often work with an individual or family’s healthcare provider to develop plans for specialized care such as in-home care services or other types of arrangements. These professionals typically find employment in hospitals and clinics, where they work to develop discharge plans for exiting patients.
These managers are often employed by a government entity, private facility, or nonprofit organization. They typically oversee a department that provides important services to vulnerable groups in their communities, including the homeless, children, veterans, and the elderly. In some cases, they work directly with community members and stakeholders, plan and implement various social services, and ensure that outreach activities receive appropriate funding. Their job duties can vary greatly between positions.
State License Required?
Social Work Professor
Professionals with training in social work and an interest in research and education often pursue professorships at colleges and universities. These teachers help train up-and-coming social workers in both general social work and specialty areas. Professorships typically require previous teaching experience, field experience, and a history of academic publications based on original research that contributes to the field.
What can you do with a social work degree outside of the social work field?
Social work degrees teach a variety of widely transferrable skills and can adequately prepare learners for careers outside of the traditional social work arena as well. In addition, social workers within the profession hone their skills and acquire areas of expertise over time that can often lead them to unforeseen career paths. The list that follows highlights some popular non-traditional career tracks you can pursue with a social work degree.
Note: Some careers may require additional education, certification or licensure.
Health educators promote wellness among their communities. They conduct research to compile up-to-date information for various health-related initiatives. They work in conjunction with other community health workers and serve as a liaison between community members and healthcare professionals. Training in social work helps these professionals effectively communicate with clients, conduct the necessary research, and discuss others’ personal or sensitive health information. They typically work at nonprofit organizations, private businesses, healthcare facilities, and public health departments.
Human Resources Coordinator or Specialist
Social work degree holders possess the appropriate communication and organizational skills to fill various roles in human resources departments. In a coordinator or specialist role, you may help train or hire new employees, conduct background checks, solve conflicts between employees, manage employment records, and process paperwork.
As part of the criminal justice system, probation officers work directly with accused individuals, the convicted, court personnel, and judges. They serve as temporary managers and life coaches for their clients, oversee their activities, and follow through with court-mandated plans. They spend the majority of their time with nonviolent offenders and ensure they meet their probation sentences. In most cases, they also make sure their clients adhere to any court-imposed restrictions during probationary periods. They sometimes work with local law enforcement to conduct investigations as well.
Community Services Developer
Social work degree holders possess a variety of leadership, organization, management, and counseling skills rarely found in other professions, which make them ideal candidates to become community service developers. With the appropriate credentials, licensing, and training, you can pursue any number of entrepreneurial endeavors that serve individuals and communities. Social workers are capable of opening a private therapy practice, educational consulting firm, community outreach organization, and more.
Do social workers get paid well?
With a median annual salary of $49,470 in May 2018, social workers earned nearly $11,000 more per year than the national average for all jobs combined, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The highest 10 percent of social workers earned more than $81,400 in 2018.
What social work field pays the most?
Your earning potential depends upon several factors, such as your level of education, specialty area, licensure and credentials, location, and type of industry. As a result, annual median wages can vary significantly between positions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that social workers in hospitals and clinics earned the highest median annual wage in 2018. Social workers employed in various “other” positions, outside of healthcare, child and family social work, and mental health and substance abuse, earned approximately $63,140 in 2018.
Median Social Worker Salaries by Industry
Hospitals; state, local, and private
Local government, excluding education and hospitals
Ambulatory healthcare services
State government, excluding education and hospitals
Social workers are in high demand today and the future for professionals in this field looks bright. The number of social work jobs is projected to grow by 16 percent between 2016 and 2026, or more than double that of the national average for all other occupations. Aside from the need for well-trained social work professionals to meet the needs of an aging baby boomer population, an increase in public awareness and further destigmatization of addiction and mental health issues contributes to this growing demand. Healthcare social workers are expected to experience the most significant growth by 2026 at 20%.
Can you be a counselor with a social work degree?
In most cases, not directly. Clinical social workers develop a comparable skill set to those working as substance abuse, behavioral disorder, or mental health counselors while school social workers share much in common with school counselors. In addition, social workers often inherently provide counseling to groups and individuals as part of their job.
If you decide to pursue a career as a counselor, be sure to check your state’s licensing requirements through the National Board for Certified Counselors, so you can plan ahead and prepare for the necessary steps.
Social Work Degree and Career Resources
In addition to student-centered online resources, prospective social workers can gain an understanding of what it is like to work in a social work field by exploring websites hosted by government organizations, professional academic membership organizations, colleges and universities, and job search engines. These sites provide insight into what is expected of professionals at all levels in the field. The sites below also offer access to current news in the field, the latest research updates, detailed job postings, and exclusive articles written by experienced social workers.