How to Become a Social Worker

Should You Get a BSW, MSW, or DSW?

Social workers help people learn how to function in their environments, sometimes as they face barriers, transitions, and difficult situations.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) groups social workers into four categories: healthcare; child, family, and school; mental health and substance abuse; and all others.

The path to becoming a social worker can vary depending on specialty, but most positions in the field require at least a bachelor's degree and a license.

Exploring Education Options

Social Work Students in Classroom
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There are different ways to become a social worker, but usually you'll need at least a bachelor's degree.

Ideally, you should major in social work and earn a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or Bachelor of Arts in Social Welfare (BASW), which usually takes about four years to complete. However, if you already have a college degree in a related major such as psychology, you may be able to get a job in social work as well.

Many clinical jobs also require a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree, which students who already have a bachelor's degree can usually earn in two years.

The Council on Social Work Education provides accreditation to bachelor's and master's level programs that meet certain standards and offers a Directory of Accredited Programs so you can look into any programs you're considering.

If you eventually decide to teach in a social work program at a college or university, you will have to earn a Doctor of Social Work degree (DSW) or Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in social work. DSW programs are clinically based while PhD programs focus on research. It usually takes three to five years to complete a doctoral program. 

In addition to what you will learn in a classroom, your training may also include field education. f you want to become a clinical social worker, then you'll usually need a minimum of two years of supervised clinical experience. These internships will provide the opportunity to apply the theories you learn in the classroom to a work setting.

Getting Into a Bachelor's, Master's, or Doctoral Program

University Application Form
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Requirements for acceptance into a BSW program vary by school, but at the very least, students usually need a high school diploma or equivalent and must meet the school's GPA, testing, and other standards.

If you want to get into any MSW program, you need to at least have a bachelor's degree. However, you do not need an undergraduate degree in social work to be admitted to an MSW program.

However, many graduate programs have an option for applicants who already have a bachelor's degree in social work. These are called advanced standing programs, and students who get into them already have a certain number of credits in social work. Therefore, they need fewer classes to graduate with their MSW degrees. Typically they must have an undergraduate degree from a program that has received accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education.

Applicants to doctoral programs usually need an MSW or a master's degree in a related field from an accredited college. You can also expect to go through a rigorous interview before the program admits you.

To apply to graduate school, you usually have to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) as well.

Becoming Licensed

Social Worker
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Regardless of which degree you earn, you will need a license to practice as a social worker anywhere in the United States. Requirements vary by state, but they usually include supervised work experience. You may be required to pass a written exam as well.

In California, for example, to become licensed you must have an MSW from an accredited program with some required courses, and 3,000 hours of supervised work experience over 104 weeks. You must also pass a criminal background check. Upon completion of these requirements, you will have to pass the California Law & Ethics Exam and the Association of Social Work Boards clinical exam.

To find out about the requirements for becoming a licensed social worker in the state in which you want to work, check with its licensing agency. The Association of Social Work Boards also lets you compare license requirements in each state.

Be aware that some states have continuing education requirements for maintaining licensure. Types of licenses can also vary depending on the type of practice you want to have. For example, in Nebraska, a social worker who wants to provide mental health services must become licensed as a mental health practitioner.

Getting Your First Job as a Social Worker

Manager and a social work candidate in a job interview
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Networking can be an effective way to land your first job in social work. You can start by maintaining your connection to people you meet during your supervised clinical work.

You can also join a professional association, such as the National Association of Social Workers. You can also find an organization that pertains to your specific path, such as American Clinical Social Work Association, the National Association of Black Social Workers, or the School Social Work Association of America.

The National Association of Social Workers Career Center is a place where you can search for social worker positions in your area and find other tools and tips for landing a job.

Also get to know the specific skills and qualities that employers are looking for and be sure to emphasize them on your resume and during interviews. In general, The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says the important qualities employers seek are communication skills, emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, organizational skills, and problem-solving skills.

Article Sources

  1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Careers in Social Work: Outlook, Pay, and More." Accessed June 4, 2020.

  2. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Social Workers: How to Become a Social Worker." Accessed June 5, 2020.

  3. Council on Social Work Education. "Accreditation." Accessed June 6, 2020.

  4. Social Work Guide. "Doctor of Social Work." Accessed June 6, 2020.

  5. Social Work Guide. "Bachelor of Social Work Degree." June 6, 2020.

  6. Social Work Guide. "Master of Social Work Degree." Accessed June 6, 2020.

  7. MSWGuide.org. "Advanced Standing Master’s in Social Work Programs: What it is and Why it Matters." Accessed June 6, 2020.

  8. California Board of Behavioral Sciences. "Licensed Clinical Social Worker." Accessed June 6, 2020.

  9. HumanServicesEdu.org. "About The Social Work License." Accessed June 6, 2020.

  10. University of Nebraska Omaha Grace Abbot School of Social Work. "Licensure." Accessed June 6, 2020.