How Do You Become a Social Worker?

Professional social workers are the nation’s largest group of mental health services providers, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)1. Social work is one of the fastest-growing professions in the United States.

How do you become a social worker? There are several pathways, depending on your specialty. Although some social workers only need a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field like psychology or sociology, clinical social workers must have a master’s degree in social work (MSW), supervised experience in a clinical setting and licensure from the state in which they work.

No matter what path you decide to follow, your education and training will likely equip you with a range of competencies, such as communication skills to listen and talk to clients, emotional skills to empathize and relate to clients dealing with difficult situations, interpersonal skills to interact with different kinds of people, organizational skills to manage multiple clients and the required paperwork and problem-solving skills to come up with innovative solutions to clients’ problems.

Social Worker Education Requirements

A bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) or a bachelor’s in a related field is the most common social worker education requirement for entry-level positions. An undergraduate social work degree takes four years on average to complete. Following the degree, most states require you to attain licensure to practice as a social worker. For more information on this process, you may contact your state licensing board or refer to the Association of Social Work Boards’ laws and regulations database.

A BSW prepares students for generalist social work practice, working directly with clients in positions such as a caseworker or mental health assistant. As such, BSW programs are designed to teach students skills to work with diverse clients in a wide variety of human service agencies through core courses covering human behavior, social welfare policy and ethics in social work. All BSW programs require students to complete supervised fieldwork or an internship.

Clinical social workers need to have a master’s degree in social work (MSW). An MSW generally takes two years to complete, although some schools offer a one-year course of study for those entering an MSW program with a BSW. Clinical social workers are trained to evaluate a person’s mental health and use therapeutic techniques based on specific training programs.

MSW programs help students develop clinical assessment and management skills in preparation for work in their intended specialty. All MSW programs require students to complete a supervised practicum or an internship. The typical requirement for clinical social workers is two years of supervised training and experience after obtaining a master’s degree.

Types of Social Workers

Social workers help people adjust to changes and challenges in their lives, such as adopting a child or being diagnosed with a terminal illness. They may work with individuals, couples and families. MSW jobs are found in a variety of industries. Here are some examples of types of social workers.

Medical Social Worker

Medical social workers, sometimes referred to as healthcare social workers, may help patients and their families cope with a diagnosis or make the transition back to their homes after being in the hospital. They may also provide information on home healthcare services or support groups to help patients manage their illness or condition. Social workers in healthcare settings may also help doctors and other healthcare professionals understand the effects that diagnoses have on patients’ mental and emotional health. Some medical social workers specialize in geriatric social work or hospice and palliative care.

Medical social worker requirements include:

  • Bachelor’s degree in social work, sociology or psychology
  • Master’s degree in social work
  • 900 hours in a medical social work internship

A medical social worker will also need to obtain a license in the state they wish to practice in. Licensure requirements vary by state.

The median annual medical social worker salary was $57,630 in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This is higher than the overall median annual social worker salary of $51,760.

School Social Worker

School social workers are trained to assist with mental health concerns, behavioral concerns, positive behavioral support, academic and classroom support for students; consult with teachers, parents and administrators; and provide individual and group counseling. School districts hire for school social worker jobs to facilitate collaboration among home, school and community. ​

School social worker requirements include: 

  • Bachelor’s degree—usually in social work, but sometimes in sociology or psychology 
  • Depending on the state, a master’s in social work that’s been approved by the Council on Social Work Education 
  • Social work licensure; requirements vary by state

Certification to work in school social work specifically is an optional professional development step. To get certification through the National Association of Social Workers (called a “Certified School Social Work Specialist” certification), you need to have an MSW and at least two years of relevant experience.

The median annual school social worker salary was $48,430 in 2020, according to the BLS.

Clinical Social Worker

Social workers who have been approved by a state licensing board to diagnose and treat mental, behavioral and emotional disorders are called clinical social workers (CSW) or licensed clinical social workers (LCSW). Clinical social workers complete training programs that teach them how to evaluate a person’s mental health and use specific therapeutic techniques. They are also trained in case management and advocacy services. An LCSW is a practitioner who can assume greater responsibilities and provide more comprehensive services than a social worker who is not licensed. They may work in a variety of specialties.

The requirements for how to become an LCSW vary by state, but because an LCSW has the ability to diagnose and treat mental disorders, LCSWs typically must: 

  • Earn a master’s degree in social work 
  • Complete additional coursework and clinical training
  • Pass licensure exams 

Clinical social workers who have not completed two years of supervised work are often called master’s social workers (MSW).

Those who are interested in community-based social work, such as program and community service managers, may not need their professional licensure. Because of the additional requirements needed to treat clients, the average licensed clinical social worker salary may be higher than that of an MSW-only social worker.

Mental health and substance abuse social workers earned a median annual wage of $48,720 in 2020, according to the BLS. 

Social Work Job Outlook

According to the BLS, overall employment of social workers is projected to grow 13 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations. Job growth for social worker careers will vary by specialization. Employment of child, family and school social workers is projected to grow 12 percent during that time period, while employment of healthcare social workers is projected to grow 14 percent. Employment of mental health and substance abuse social workers is projected to grow 17 percent from 2019 to 2029, as more people seek treatment for mental illness and substance abuse.

Overall, social worker job prospects appear to be fairly strong, particularly for clinical social workers—as healthcare spending and treatment increases—compared to social workers who do not offer treatment services.

Online Master of Social Work Program With Syracuse University

Online master’s in social work programs are a great option on the path to pursuing a career as a social worker. The online Master of Social Work program from Syracuse University’s School of Social Work at Falk College is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education and is intended for those who have a bachelor’s degree in an area other than social work. After completing foundational coursework, you will choose a concentration in Advanced Integrated Practice or Advanced Clinical Practice. Both concentrations prepare you to pursue licensure in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. 

1“About Social Workers.” National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from on July 9, 2021″arrow_upwardReturn to footnote reference