How to Become a Social Worker

Bailey Fletcher

Written By: Bailey Fletcher

Published: 4/8/2022

Social workers strive to actively promote social justice and social change at the grassroots level by working one-on-one with members of their communities to assist during times of crisis. Becoming a social worker means developing the necessary skills to help care for the disenfranchised by engaging them in reformative practices. A leader in the field, Karen S. Haynes, best describes the role of a social worker: "We help during some of the most vulnerable times and often help clients and their families find meaning in the face of adversity." This is achieved through a variety of ways, such as advocacy, conflict mediation, and finding useful resources for low-income, high-need populations.

There are various paths to becoming a social worker, but most will need at least a bachelor's degree, supervised experience, and licensure. This guide will walk you through potential pathways.

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What Degree Do You Need To Become a Social Worker?

Several educational routes are available to those who want to enter the field of social work. The degree path you choose should depend on the career outcome you are striving toward. Community and social service occupations require varying entry-levels of education, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In fact, to become a social and human service assistant, all that's required is a high school diploma. For most careers in this field, however, a bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement.

View our comprehensive Guide to Social Work Degrees for more information on degree options, requirements, and careers.

Bachelor's Degree in Social Work (BSW)

If you are certain that you want to become a social worker, a BSW is the most direct path to achieve that goal. Coursework will be geared toward preparing students for generalist roles in social work by covering a sweeping scope of topics in the field, such as human behavior, the social environment, ethics, and cultural understanding. Additionally, students may dabble in social welfare policy and social work research to bolster their professional knowledge. Faculty may also infuse some challenging subjects in the curriculum, such as oppression, homelessness, death, child abuse, and domestic violence.



If you are certain that you want to become a social worker, a BSW is the most direct path to achieve that goal.

When choosing the BSW program that's right for you, it may be helpful to carefully consider a school's offerings. For example, bachelor's programs offer practicums, internships, and/or various forms of supervised field experience, allowing students to apply what they learn in a real-world environment and perhaps even land a job after graduation. Other school programs may offer specializations in an area or industry that interests you.

Once you've graduated with an accredited BSW — whether through an in-person or online school — you have two options: You can either join the workforce immediately or continue your higher education journey to expand your future career options.

It's important to note that while a BSW is helpful for landing a career in this field, a bachelor's degree in a related field — such as public health, psychology, sociology, or substance use counseling — can be sufficient to land a job in some cases.

Are you ready to choose your social work program? Explore the best online BSWs.

Master's Degree in Social Work (MSW)

Although it may help prepare students by providing foundational knowledge to build from, a BSW is not required to earn an MSW. According to a 2020 survey by The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), only one-third of MSW students had previously obtained BSWs, while the rest held undergraduate degrees in other fields. Additionally, BSW holders can sometimes accelerate the time it takes to finish their MSW. In general, MSWs take approximately two years to finish, but BSW holders may complete their master's in just one year.

A clinical social worker must have a master's degree as well as supervised experience hours and a license to practice mental health or counseling services, according to the BLS. In a social work master's program, students will have the chance to develop essential skills in the field, including how to prepare clinical assessments and complete diagnostic procedures. They will also have the opportunity to take on a supervised practicum or internship.

Check out our list of the best online MSWs to start planning your future.

Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) vs. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Social Work

It's important to note that DSWs and PhDs in social work each have a distinct focus. According to Nancy J. Smyth, a dean and professor at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work, "A DSW is a practice doctorate in social work, including practice at the leadership or management level. It differs from a PhD in social work/social welfare in that a PhD is focused more on developing [the student] as a researcher."



If working in academia is your objective, a PhD program is probably the best avenue to pursue. Meanwhile, a DSW will suit your educational needs if you prefer to pursue more hands-on social work training.

If working in academia is your objective, a PhD program is probably the best avenue to pursue. Meanwhile, a DSW will suit your educational needs if you prefer to pursue more hands-on social work training. Pursuing a doctoral degree in social work — whether a DSW or PhD — will ideally advance your career in the field, but it's unnecessary for obtaining licensure.

For more information about the differences between Ph.D.s and Doctorates, see our article covering PhDs vs. Doctorates.

Licensure

Most states across the U.S. require licensure to become a practicing social worker, ensuring that the title of "social worker" is protected. A license offers a legal guarantee of competency in terms of safety and ethical responsibility. Also, it's often an essential component for social workers to work in a clinical or school environment. There are three common social work licenses, which lead to the following professional titles:

  1. A licensed baccalaureate social worker (LBSW)
  2. A licensed master social worker (LMSW)
  3. A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW)

While state requirements are varied, all U.S. states and territories regulate the practice of social work in some manner. In general, to become a licensed social worker you need to complete the following five steps:

1

Earn your BSW or MSW from a school that's accredited by the CSWE in the U.S. or the Canadian Association for Social Work Education. See our accreditation hub for more information about this stamp of legitimacy.

2

Gain supervised experience in the field. The number ranges from 1,500-4,000 supervised practice hours, depending on jurisdictional requirements.

3

Apply to the state licensure board where you want to work. The state will approve whether you can sit for the appropriate exam.

4

After registering, you must pass the Association of Social Work Boards' Social Work Licensing examination. There are four categories to choose from, and each comprises 170 multiple-choice questions: Bachelor's, Master's, Advanced Generalist, and Clinical. Some jurisdictions also offer the opportunity to take an associate examination for paraprofessional licensure.

5

Even after you receive your license via snail mail, you must remember to periodically renew it with your state regulatory board. This typically requires completing some continuing education credits once every couple of years.

State Requirements

Since social work licensing requirements vary by state, it's important to contact your state licensure board for specific details. However, all states mandate that clinical social workers become licensed, and the majority require licensure or certification for nonclinical social workers as well.

Learn more about your individual state requirements for licensure:

Professional Certifications

Certifications do not replace licensure, and in fact, social workers do not necessarily need to hold certifications at all. Since all certification levels are voluntary, many professionals work for years in the field before earning one. That being said, certifications are highly valued as testaments to a social worker's commitment and expertise. They could reflect a specific area of knowledge, for example, which could potentially lead to career advancement opportunities. Some employers may even seek out those who hold certifications to fill leadership roles.

The Bottom Line

Becoming a social worker is a time-intensive pursuit that may be worth the effort and cost if you have a passion for social work. Although there are many steps involved, the endeavor could lead to a range of career opportunities that could position you to make a profound difference in your community.

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