Careers in Social Work
Social work jobs require dedication and a passion for helping clients manage and overcome emotional, mental, and behavioral challenges.
Social workers provide vital services to help people manage everyday problems and improve their quality of life. They have several specialization options, each with distinct advantages and challenges. Preparation for a career in social work includes academic study, licensure, and practical training through experience.
What Is Social Work?
Social work professionals help people address and manage issues that impede their social functioning. These can include mental, behavioral, and interpersonal issues. Social workers take on roles in clinical, educational, and healthcare settings, where they work to help their clients develop coping mechanisms and improve quality of life.
How Much Do Social Workers Make?
Salary prospects for social work jobs exceed similar roles in other industries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median annual wage for social workers i 2019 was $50,470, with up to $82,540 for those in the highest earning percentiles. Those figures outmatch both earnings for other social services jobs and the median annual wage for all occupations nationwide.
Strong earning potential correlates with a positive job outlook overall. As healthcare spending and social services treatment continue to expand, BLS projects that social work jobs will also see an increase in demand, especially among those working in clinical settings. Specific employment trends will vary for different types of social workers, depending on specialization, local demand and degree level (BSW, MSW, DSW).
Social Work Career Paths
A broad field, social work includes several areas of specialization, the most common of which are listed below. Most academic programs offer concentrations in at least one of these areas, though it's best to research offerings on your own before applying to a university.
These social workers help prevent child abuse and domestic violence, improve family dynamics, strengthen parenting skills, and in some cases identify alternative homes for children. Some child and family counselors work in schools or other education contexts, but most work in social services and other government agencies.
Clinical social workers assist in healthcare delivery, helping groups and individuals adjust to new lifestyles and manage their mental health while they undergo medication or treatment plans. This subfield can also include social work jobs in mental health and substance abuse. Potential work settings include hospitals and physician's offices, outpatient clinics, and substance abuse treatment centers.
These professionals focus on the needs of the elderly population. This means helping individuals and their families cope with challenges associated with aging: financial issues, new medications, mobility and social functioning, dementia, and mental health. Social workers in this area usually work in senior centers, nursing facilities, and retirement homes.
Similar to clinical social work, this area focuses on medical concerns and public health awareness. These social work jobs often entail working with people with disabilities or individuals who have chronic conditions or life-threatening diseases. Responsibilities include psychological support, mental health counseling, and in-home health services. They may also work on a more macro scale, helping raise public awareness for community mental health problems.
Social workers on this path provide social services within schools and other educational environments. They often focus on exceptional learners or students who need individual education plans. They work alongside teachers and other school administrators to improve learning outcomes and they may offer mental health or career counseling for students. They may also provide support to parents and families.
We ranked the best social work jobs for 2020 using salary and projected job growth rate data from the BLS.
Depending on their setting and context, social work educators might train aspiring professionals or conduct original research or both. Most work as professors in postsecondary institutions and hold at least a master's degree, and many have a doctorate. Daily duties include curriculum assessment, lecture preparation, and student performance evaluation.
Social work teachers work full time throughout the academic year. They need strong communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills. In some situations, these professionals may devote a significant portion of their time to quantitative research or administrative duties on behalf of their school or department.
|Median BLS Salary||$72,070|
|Job Growth (2019-2029)||4%|
These professionals coordinate and implement programs to encourage individual and public welfare. Common programs and services include subsidized food and housing, job training, and public health initiatives. Aspiring social and community services managers need a bachelor's degree in social work, public administration, business, or another related discipline. Some positions require graduate-level credentials.
Professionals in this role work closely with case managers, counselors, and other social services experts. At times, they act as a liaison between their employer, key funding partners, and the general public, necessitating strong management and interpersonal skills. Most work full time in office settings within clinics, nonprofits, and municipal entities.
|Median BLS Salary||$67,150|
|Job Growth (2019-2029)||17%|
School counselors help students build the social and academic skills they need to succeed. They may improve quality of life through individual and group counseling, help students navigate educational transitions, and develop individualized curricula for students. Career counselors offer similar services, but for professional clients rather than students.
School and career counselors work full time and need a master's degree and state licensure. School counselors work in K-12 settings, while most career counselors take on roles in employment agencies and social services organizations. Both types of professionals should excel in social perception, active listening, and cultural sensitivity.
|Median BLS Salary||$57,040|
|Job Growth (2019-2029)||8%|
These social workers specialize in healthcare delivery and psychosocial support. They help people cope with chronic or long-term medical conditions. They often advise caregivers and provide patients with vital information and counseling services. They may also conduct interventions, engage in case management, and offer preventative care.
Education requirements vary by role and employer. Most healthcare social workers hold a master's degree, but some positions only require undergraduate credentials. Additional licensure may also be necessary, depending on the state. Most healthcare social workers find employment in hospitals, outpatient clinics, and nursing facilities. They generally work full time and may need to travel in order to meet with clients.
|Median BLS Salary||$56,750|
|Job Growth (2019-2029)||2%|
Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists work at the intersection between social work and criminal justice. They help facilitate rehabilitation for offenders, in compliance with the legal system. Common responsibilities include parole or probation evaluation, drug testing and substance abuse counseling, and criminal investigation. They may also be asked to serve as expert witnesses in court.
Most professionals in this field have a bachelor's degree in social work, criminal justice, or behavioral health. They must also pass aptitude tests, drug evaluations, and a criminal background check. Depending on the job, candidates may need to complete an additional training program offered by their employer.
|Median BLS Salary||$54,290|
|Job Growth (2019-2029)||4%|
Social workers help people cope with issues that limit their quality of life. They identify individuals and groups in need of support and develop measures to meet those needs, often advocating on behalf of their clients and raising public awareness on pertinent issues.
These professionals typically need a master's degree in social work and state-level licensure. Some positions may only require a bachelor's degree, but those roles require supervision with limited responsibility. Most social workers assume full-time roles in nonprofits and other social service organizations, though they may also work in private practice.
|Median BLS Salary||$50,470|
|Job Growth (2019-2029)||13%|
These professionals help people address family issues in individual and group settings. They create a safe space where clients can discuss their issues and develop healthy coping mechanisms. Marriage and family therapists may also help clients navigate life transitions, like divorce or death, and they may address domestic violence or other forms of abuse.
Marriage and family therapists need a master's degree in social work or counseling and state licensure, strong interpersonal skills, compassion, and an ability to listen. Most work full time in clinics, mental health centers, and private practice.
|Median BLS Salary||$49,610|
|Job Growth (2019-2029)||22%|
Most health educators work in community health clinics, hospitals, and nonprofit organizations, teaching people how to develop behaviors that promote health and wellness. They build education programs, coordinate events, and assess the needs of the communities they serve. They also collect and interpret data to evaluate and improve programming.
Aspiring health educators need a bachelor's degree in health education, social work, or a related field. Some employers may require additional certification as a health education specialist. Most health educators work in office settings and are required to travel for events and programs.
|Median BLS Salary||$46,910|
|Job Growth (2019-2029)||11%|
These social workers offer preventative services for clients dealing with emotional distress or mental health disorders. They assess and treat individuals and groups through case management, talk therapy, crisis intervention, and advocacy. They offer diagnoses, monitor progress, and develop treatment plans.
Education requirements for social work jobs in these areas include a relevant master's degree, state licensure, and sometimes additional certification. Mental health social workers need strong communication skills and an awareness of cultural diversity. Professionals in this field work in private practice, outpatient clinics, and community health centers.
|Median BLS Salary||$46,650|
|Job Growth (2019-2029)||2%|
Substance abuse counselors work with clients who suffer from drug addiction, alcoholism, and other dependency issues. They evaluate needs, diagnose disorders, and help clients develop constructive behaviors to overcome addiction. They may also make referrals and use talk therapy to help clients build healthier behaviors or modify existing ones.
Most substance abuse counselors hold a master's degree in counseling or social work, though some have a bachelor's degree and professional certification. Additional requirements include state licensure, especially for those working in private practice. Applicable skills include social perceptiveness, active listening, and complex problem-solving.
|Median BLS Salary||$46,240|
|Job Growth (2019-2029)||25%|
Is Social Work Right for You?
Social work jobs are rewarding, but they do present unique challenges. The sections below consider the pros and cons of a career in social work. Aspiring professionals should assess their own strengths and weaknesses to determine if this career path is right for them.
Social work jobs can offer fulfilling careers making a positive impact on people's lives. Although gradual, their impact on clients is visible and measurable. To facilitate positive results, most social workers maintain an active base of clients, who they see on a regular basis.
Socially adept people with strong interpersonal skills fit most social work jobs. Work responsibility involves constant and active interaction with other people. Necessary characteristics like empathy, organization, and social perception help social workers identify pressing issues and develop workable solutions that can change lives.
Social work is not for everyone and it can pose significant professional challenges. Most social work jobs are emotionally taxing due to constant contact with individuals in high-stress situations. This highly emotional career can make it difficult to separate client needs from your own; effective social workers excel at this skill, but it must be developed over time.
Work hours and work environments can also be demanding and unpredictable. Many social work jobs require on-call availability during nights and weekends, which can make balancing personal life and professional responsibility difficult. Some jobs may involve individual site visits to see clients.
Regardless of specialization, social workers see clients during the most stressful moments of their lives. Those moments require poise, delicacy, and consistent professionalism.
According to data from the BLS, the highest paying roles in this field are healthcare social workers and child, family, and school social workers. Social workers specializing in mental health or substance abuse also earn comparatively high wages.
The job outlook for social workers is strong and projected to increase by 13% between 2019-2029, according to BLS projections. Those growth numbers outpace the national average by nearly 10% and can be at least partially attributed to aging populations and general population growth.
Many people get started in business administration or management by earning a bachelor's degree in business from an accredited university. After graduation — or even before — you can obtain an entry-level job or secure an internship, which imparts valuable experience and networking opportunities and helps you get a foot in the door.
Work in this area can be demanding, causing high rates of burnout. Many professionals work odd hours and must be on-call to address sensitive client needs. Fortunately, most educational and professional development programs and organizations offer tools to help social workers meet these rigors.
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