Career Advice For Social Work Students

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Social work isn't for the faint of heart — and that's a point of pride in the industry.

A career in social work requires heaps of compassion, focus, and fortitude to make a difference in people's lives. Whether it's helping someone cope with addiction, battle illness, find housing, or navigate family difficulties, social workers help pave the way forward for individuals and communities.

Aspiring social work students have plenty of questions about this in-demand field. To find answers, we reached out to four licensed social workers to get their perspectives and advice for anyone joining their ranks.

  • Alex Honigman
    Alex Honigman is a licensed clinical social worker, formerly at a forensic state hospital and now a therapist and behavioral health manager at Wit & Reason in Washington, D.C.
  • Sterling Woods
    Sterling Woods is a psychiatric social worker and intensive in-community (IIC) master's level therapist at George J. Otlowski Sr. Center for Mental Health Care in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.
  • Lisa Mooney
    Lisa Mooney is a licensed clinical social worker at UC Davis Health in Sacramento, California.
  • Andrew Spiers
    Andrew Spiers is a licensed social worker and Director of Training and Technical Assistance at Pathways to Housing PA in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The following interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Why did you pursue a career in social work?

Social work's values truly reflected my own. We are obligated to work toward equality, social justice, and systemic change. So many other professions, even in mental health, don't hold to those as tightly as social work.

—Alex Honigman, LICSW

I made the decision to pursue a career in social work while working at Edison Job Corps Training Academy. At the Academy, I worked with at-risk youth, ages 16 to 25, who reminded me of myself. The feeling I got from seeing the positive impact I had on their lives solidified that this field is where I wanted to be.

—Sterling Woods, MSW

I actually sort of backed into wanting to be a social worker. In my 20s, I was in a career job that I did not enjoy, and around the same time, I started volunteering for a pediatric nonprofit for kids with cancer. What I realized was I enjoyed helping others. I had a skill for being able to listen to others' challenges and hardships and help problem-solve and cope.

—Lisa Mooney, MSW, LCSW

My undergraduate degree was in fine arts, and I held a lot of random jobs after graduation, most of which I felt like I mastered and subsequently got bored with rather quickly. That wasn't my experience at the rehab, however. I quickly found that no two kids were the same and that everyone came into treatment with a different set of skills and barriers. I really enjoyed getting to know the youth I was working with, problem-solving, and helping folks to meet their goals. After about three years working at that program, I decided to go back to school for my master's so I could continue on that path.

—Andrew Spiers, LSW

Can you talk a little bit about your college experience? Did you obtain a bachelor's in social work or take a more untraditional path?

Going into my undergraduate experience, I majored in both psychology and sociology and had not even considered a BSW. However, I think the line between both led to a great experience and — even more so — a balance.

I hadn't realized it was an education that would lead to my MSW being a very smooth experience. Culturally-specific courses and emphasis on mental health in all areas made a significant impact. Following with my MSW, I think some of my most significant classes that contributed to my career were a class on differential diagnosis and my field placement.

—Alex Honigman, LICSW

During my undergraduate education, I obtained a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. I think it was a benefit to have a bachelor's degree in a different field and a master's degree in social work. This will create different and unique employment opportunities for you in the field.

From my experience, I would recommend taking courses centered around different populations in social work. While obtaining my master's degree, I took courses for children and adolescents, social work in a juvenile justice setting, domestic violence, and a few others. Taking these nuanced classes will give you a glimpse into the issues the population has and how you can help them.

—Sterling Woods, MSW

I am definitely more of a nontraditional path social worker. I studied writing for publication, performance, and media at Pratt Institute of the Arts in Brooklyn, New York, and minored in cultural studies. I do think that some of the foundations for my political and social concerns were sparked in undergraduate feminism courses, as well as in my involvement in the New York poetry community.

I also spent many years as a touring musician after finishing my bachelor's degree. I think the link between being a writer and a performer and social work is having a desire and ability to connect with other people.

—Andrew Spiers, licensed social worker

What did your career trajectory look like after earning your degree?

I worked for four years at a local acute care hospital. It was a small hospital — 75 or so beds — so I worked in all the differing areas. During this time, I was introduced to many different scenarios that only life can bring.

I remember the first time I had to tell a room full of people that their loved one didn't make it; my knees almost buckled. I remember helping families through grief, conflict, end of life options, organ donation of loved ones, finding shelter/housing, getting connected with community resources, etc. I also was introduced to many different medical conditions, learned how to work with other medical professionals, and how to contribute to a person's treatment team.

Now, in the outpatient setting, I am able to establish long-term relationships with our patients, and I experience the good and bad with them, and I can witness how our team and I are making a difference, even if we can't make everything good.

—Lisa Mooney, MSW, LCSW

After graduating with my master of social service from Bryn Mawr College's Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, I worked for the Trans-Health Information Project, now called the Trans Equity Project. It's a peer-led program based in North Philadelphia that helps connect transgender folks to affirming medical and legal resources and offers harm-reduction-based peer counseling.

Then I was asked to come on as a therapist at the Morris Home, which is, as far as we know, the only inpatient substance use treatment program in the country — possibly the world — exclusively serving the transgender community.

I came to Pathways to Housing PA in 2018 and was a part of clinical leadership for my first year and a half, working on an interdisciplinary team of about 12 staff members, serving a caseload of 80 participants.

In my previous jobs, I had done a lot of training and conference presentations on LGBQ and trans-competent and -affirming care, and so when Pathways launched its formal training initiative in the fall of 2019, they brought me on as the Director of Training and Technical Assistance.

—Andrew Spiers, LSW

What's your day-to-day like as a social worker?

Within the state hospital system, it was much different than the average social work day. I worked with forensically committed individuals. I would spend a lot of time engaged in treatment both group and individual. Assessment of competency or risk.

Within the healthcare system, I conducted assessment and individual therapy. Typical day was 8-9 patients with various degrees of severity. Additionally, I participated in group facilitation and development of programs and best practices.

—Alex Honigman, LICSW

Your day-to-day as a social worker can vary depending on what area of social work you are in. As a psychiatric social worker, my day consists of seeing a variety of clients. The majority of the time is spent in the office, providing counseling, recording notes, and preparing other documentation. Each day can be unpredictable, based on the clients I work with. Some can be in a crisis, others need me to advocate for them, and others are looking for help in a safe space.

—Sterling Woods, MSW

One of the things I enjoy about my job (but also sometimes hate) is it is unpredictable. The unpredictability keeps me present in the moment and focused on expanding my skills and knowledge to be of service. When I pick up the phone, I may be asked about applying for disability, finding care assistance, how to manage difficult behaviors (wandering at night, extreme agitation/aggression, impulsivity, suicidal thoughts), to help someone process grief/loss, or understand HD [Huntington's Disease] or the genetic implications for themselves or their children.

Other days, I am busy filling out forms patients need to connect with community benefits or other government benefits. Some days I get to tell someone they are gene negative and will not get HD, and other days I have to sit with someone whose life was just changed forever because they are gene positive.

—Lisa Mooney, MSW, LCSW

As the Director of Training and Technical Assistance, much of my work revolves around growing our training institute. We're constantly producing new webinars, blog content about our professional expertise, tip sheets, and other resources for social service providers working with individuals experiencing homelessness or managing co-occurring disorders. Our big project right now is transferring our core curriculum to an e-Learning platform, to make our training more accessible to folks around the world.

I also do a lot of our live, in-person, and virtual training myself on topics that fall within my wheelhouse — Principles of Housing First, harm reduction, LGBTQ+ affirming care, and other service delivery best practices. Along with that comes developing proposals, signing contracts, and invoicing.

—Andrew Spiers, LSW

Is there any advice you'd give someone pursuing a career in social work?

Continued development is key. Pursue multiple settings and continue to build competency and skills. Focusing on one modality may lead to mastery, but can also lead to complacency and an adherence to a one-size-fits-all methodology in therapy. Remembering why we go into social work is important, and do what you love.

— Alex Honigman, LICSW

The first piece of advice I would offer someone pursuing a career is to make sure you have a passion for helping others. I say this because this is a very giving field and can be draining for new and inexperienced social workers. That passion for helping others can be fuel to get you through some of the rough times you will experience.

—Sterling Woods, MSW

My advice is: Find your skills and passion and pursue them entirely. Social work can be very rewarding, fulfilling, and inspiring, but is not easy, or always fun or predictable, so you have to not only educate yourself — it requires lots of daily reflection and self-care to not get consumed or burnt out.

—Lisa Mooney, MSW, LCSW

Spend some time volunteering at organizations doing the type of work you're interested in. Social work — and direct service in particular — is not for the faint of heart. Getting some experience in the field before you take the plunge with student debt is always a good idea. And if you don't enjoy volunteering with one particular organization, don't give up. Try another one. It might've just been a bad fit.

—Andrew Spiers, LSW

What's been a defining moment of your career?

I have to say that a defining moment in my career was when I transitioned to mental health. Prior to that, I was working in a school setting. As much as I loved working with that population, I hit a ceiling, and my career advancement was limited. The transition exposed me to new populations and challenged me in ways that accelerated my growth as a social worker and a professional.

—Sterling Woods, MSW

Our company, Wit & Reason, contributed over 120 free services hours to assist those in need during COVID-19 and additionally created a safe space for BIPOC support.

—Alex Honigman, LICSW

It's so hard to pick, BUT I think accepting my current job. In my interview, the medical director of our clinic, who equally loves her job and working with the HD community, stated something to the effect of "we are looking for someone to work with us 'forever,'" followed by a huge smile. I didn't think much of it at the time, but after the first year, and now 10 years later, I truly do think I will be here forever. It's where I am supposed to be. I found my professional place!

—Lisa Mooney, MSW, LCSW

I've gotten to meet inspiring folks, like Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, theorist and philosopher Judith Butler, and transgender rights activist Miss Major Griffin-Gacy. I've presented at conferences all over the country, helped to change agency-wide policies about trans inclusivity for a national nonprofit, and contributed to a sexual wellness toolkit developed by Widener University for a national HIV prevention initiative.

While all of that is exciting, often it's the more routine things, like someone achieving a sobriety milestone or finally getting into housing after years of homelessness, that actually means the most.

—Andrew Spiers, LSW

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is Social Work?

Social work is a profession that helps individuals overcome difficulties, such as mental illness, challenging family relationships, domestic abuse, or housing needs. By helping the individual, social workers also help the community at large.

How Do I Become a Social Worker?

The most traditional path is obtaining a bachelor's degree in social work. Most states require a social work license, and licensing requirements vary by state. Volunteer work, especially with a nonprofit focused on the local community, is also a good way to build your resume.

How Much Do Social Workers Make?

The median pay for a social worker is $50,470 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Healthcare social workers are on the upper end, with a median wage of $59,300. Mental health social workers and child, family, and school social workers earn a median of $51,670 and $51,030, respectively.

Is There Job Growth in Social Work?

Yes; BLS data projects a 13% increase in job opportunities in the social work field between 2019 and 2029.

Are There Student Loan Programs for Social Workers?

Yes, there are a few. The National Health Service Corp offers loan repayment programs for licensed clinical social workers up to $75,000, depending on years of commitment in designated years (between 2-3 years) and whether you work full time or part time. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is another option. For qualified public service workers, this program pays off any remaining student loan debt after 10 years of consistent payments.

Image Credit: izusek | Getty Images

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