How to Become a Social Worker

When Mr. Rogers was a little boy terrified by scary events in the world, his mother would tell him, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping."

Social workers are professional helpers. Social work emerged as a profession in the 1930s, when the U.S. faced record poverty and unemployment as a result of industrialization, economic depression, and a world war.

Early social work efforts focused on children, veterans, and social planning. From there, the profession expanded into health, mental health, policy, advocacy, and public welfare services.

What Are Common Social Work Degree Concentrations?

  • Child and family social work
  • School social work
  • Healthcare social work
  • Community and social systems
  • Social policy
  • Social work administration

Today, social workers help people in vulnerable communities and circumstances get access to the programs and services they need to thrive. Social workers also influence policymakers to create and fund programs that will contribute to social and economic justice.

There are over 800 accredited social work education programs in the U.S., including both undergraduate and master's programs.

What Jobs Can I Get With a Bachelor of Social Work?

A BSW qualifies graduates for entry-level positions as:

  • Child welfare social workers
  • Social and human service assistants
  • Health educators
  • Social science research assistants
  • Social work case managers

What Jobs Can I Get With a Master of Social Work?

MSW graduates qualify for advanced positions with clinical responsibilities and better pay as:

  • Clinical social workers
  • Healthcare social workers
  • School social workers
  • Child and family social workers
  • Mental health social workers
  • Substance abuse social workers
  • Social and community service managers
  • Social work teachers

The Outlook Is Good

According to a 2017 survey, more than 90% of social workers are satisfied with their jobs and would recommend the profession to others, though they are slightly less satisfied with their pay. The median annual pay for social workers in 2020 was $51,760.

Social work is one of the fastest growing professions in the country, and demand is currently outpacing supply. To give prospective students more insight into this career, we asked social workers what they wish they knew before entering the field.

It Will Be Frustrating

"I wish I knew how difficult and multi-layered the challenges would really be. It can be so frustrating to see the change someone needs when they aren't ready to make that change."

–Don McCasland, Counselor at Warrior Elder Counseling Services

"I am working with an NGO in India to help remote villages fight COVID-19. I wish I had known that people are not always ready to accept help, especially with the social stigma attached to this disease. The result is mass deaths in villages and dead bodies discarded on river banks.

You will see the cruel naked reality of life, which you may not be ready for. It's not always the satisfaction of helping humanity; you will often find yourself helpless in the face of complex social norms and problems too big for you to fix. It's a long, slow journey to change."

–Nisha Rai, Volunteer Fellow at Gram Vikas Morcha India

"I think a lot of people go into this job really optimistic about helping people while growing professionally. But you are constantly met with roadblocks.

There are a lot of limitations. There are only so many hours in the day, and so many people who need help. I worked in crisis services for children and would have a caseload of forty children at one time. Organizations often don't have enough resources to get the kids what they need. It can be so frustrating when you want to give your all to each child.

There are also limitations in terms of advancement. You really have to get higher degrees and specialized licenses if you want to move up in your career."

–Cameron Howe, MS, Licensed QMHP-C

You May Feel Undervalued

"I wish I knew that social workers are highly undervalued in certain fields. My first job out of graduate school was working in the hospital. In Florida, we're paid markedly less than nurses for the same job responsibilities. We all hear the phrase: 'We don't do this for the money.' — but we also don't do this to be purposefully overworked."

–Merissa Goolsarran, LCSW at Bright Lotus Counseling

"I wish I knew you don't need to buy into the belief that you have to work yourself ragged with minimal pay, feeling broke and undervalued, as some kind of right of passage. You can determine the life and career you want to lead. Look for and create the opportunities that you want. This job is a lot of personal and professional work, but it can be rewarding and life-changing."

–Arien Conner, LCSW at Clear Path Counseling

Be Strategic in School

"I wish I had known how diverse this field really is. In the 21 years since earning my MSW, I have worked in an outpatient clinic, a group home, treatment for foster care, schools, a university, and now I have a private therapy practice. Do your research, decide what you want to do, and take the classes that will help you achieve that goal."

–Wendy B. Pitts, LCSW-C at Guiding Insight

"I wish I had known that they don't teach us how to run a business in graduate school. Many of us start up our own businesses. Make connections with professors and mentors while you have access to them — it will be hard to learn everything on your own."

–Merissa Goolsarran, LCSW at Bright Lotus Counseling

"Focus more on learning than on grades. Ask questions; be curious; probe professors. Get what you need from school to be a good clinician, not just a valedictorian. No one will ask you what your grades were."

–Dianne Galasso, LMSW at Cobb Psychotherapy

Try to See the Big Picture

"I sincerely wish I had understood the importance of addressing social inequity. Clients experience chronic stress just trying to get their basic needs met. It is difficult to stabilize your mental health if you have nowhere to live. It is challenging to maintain a job if you have no transportation.

Most social workers have not personally experienced these complex barriers, and fail to take the macro-view of a client's challenges. Developing a philosophy of empowerment will be important."

–Melanie Lynn Carlson, MSW, Ph.D. Candidate at Sheltering Life

"You need to do some research on the development and history of the social work and mental health fields. Work to dismantle the white saviorism and racism within the field and possibly in yourself. Acknowledge your own privilege and how that plays into your beliefs about the world and what you will be doing in this field."

–Arien Conner, LCSW at Clear Path Counseling

Life Is Your Training Ground

"I wish I knew that many of the painful things you personally go through are an asset in this profession. They can build resilience, relatability, and empathy. Life is your training ground. Also, never underestimate the simple gift of your presence. People rarely feel heard; for them to have a space to sit with you is immeasurably powerful and profound."

–Dianne Galasso, LMSW at Cobb Psychotherapy

Portrait of Meg Embry

Meg Embry

Meg Embry is a Colorado-based writer for covering higher education. She is an award-winning journalist who has lived and worked in Canada, the Netherlands, and the United States.

Header Image Credit: kali9 | Getty Images

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