What Is a Social Worker?
Social workers are professionals who work with diverse populations to improve their quality of life through advocacy, counseling, and raising awareness. They often focus on especially vulnerable groups, such as those living in poverty, children and older adults, crime victims, or people struggling with substance use.
Social workers are professionals who work with diverse populations to improve their quality of life through advocacy, counseling, and raising awareness.
What Does a Social Worker Do?
Social work is a challenging but highly rewarding position for individuals who wish to dedicate their careers to helping people. Social workers support individuals and groups in difficult situations, acting as guides, advocates, and sometimes counselors.
As there are so many specializations and career paths in the social work field, it can be useful to break it down by level and type of practice:
Micro vs. Mezzo vs. Macro Social Work
Generally, there are three widely recognized levels of social work:
Indirect vs. Direct Practice and Clinical Social Work
Direct practice social workers help their clients by directing them to services and resources according to their needs. For example, case workers in domestic violence shelters may help survivors find financial assistance, pro bono legal services, and transitional housing.
Clinical social workers are licensed professionals who also interact with their clients directly. They work with individuals and groups with mental health, emotional, or behavioral issues, providing assessment, diagnosis, and treatment. For instance, depending on their specialization, clinical social workers can provide family counseling in private practice, offer psychological assessments in court cases, or provide support to patients at rehabilitation centers.
Clinical social workers are licensed professionals who also interact with their clients directly.
Social workers in indirect practice, on the other hand, work at the macro level. They facilitate change by influencing the larger systems through programs and policies. Some examples of indirect social work roles include legislative advocates, community organizers, and human services specialists.
Becoming a Social Worker
Your path to becoming a social worker will depend on your chosen specialty and how much time you’re willing to spend in school. For instance, with a bachelor’s degree, you can have a variety of career choices in social work to choose from. However, furthering your education and gaining licensure can create even more opportunities, including a higher earning potential
Education Requirements for Social Workers
A bachelor’s degree in social work can prepare you for various types of social work, from macro social work practice — such as charity program development and community organizing — to certain direct practice professions, including caseworker, habilitation specialist, mental health assistant, and others.
A master’s degree in social work is a step toward more lucrative jobs in this field, and it allows graduates to pursue the application process for becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). Depending on their chosen specialization track, MSW graduates have a wide range of job opportunities, such as substance abuse counseling, mental health therapy, and social work administration.
Finally, those with a doctoral degree in social work can either work in leadership positions within social work organizations or focus on research and education — for instance, as a professor of social work.
Social Work Certification and Licensure
No matter which social work degree you decide to pursue, you will most likely need to obtain licensure to use the social worker title.
Licensure requirements vary by state, but each license requires that you pass an exam. If you have a bachelor’s degree in social work, you can earn a nonclinical license which can benefit you when seeking employment. Most licenses, however, require an MSW, as well as a set number of supervised practice hours.
Social Work Careers
Whatever level of social work you’re interested in and whichever vulnerable group you’d like to serve, you’ll find numerous social work career options. Below are only a few examples of common social work careers that may be available to you if you obtain a degree in social work.
Read our article on careers in social work for more information on job opportunities in the field, including salary information and job outlook.
FAQs About Social Workers
Where Do Social Workers Work?
Social workers are present in many facets of community life, working in settings such as child welfare and human service agencies, domestic violence shelters, mental health facilities, hospitals, prisons, schools, settlement houses, and many others. Additionally, LCSWs may opt to start a private practice.
What Is Case Management in Social Work?
Case management provides a holistic approach to supporting clients’ complex needs. It’s one of the key aspects of social work as it ensures an organized process aimed at covering each aspect of the individual’s well-being.
Social workers engaged in case management focus on each client individually, assessing their current situation and challenges. Based on that assessment, they develop a service plan, detailing goals along with the activities and resources required to achieve them. A social worker then works to connect their client with the identified resources, provides ongoing support, and monitors progress. When the client successfully achieves their goals, the social worker closes the case.
What Are Social Work Values?
The NASW Code of Ethics sets the standard for the professional conduct of social workers, outlining six core values that are “the foundation of social work’s unique purpose and perspective.” These values include (1) service, (2) social justice, (3) dignity and a person's worth, (4) the importance of human relationships, (5) integrity, and (6) competence.
How Much Do Social Workers Make?
As the field of social work is highly varied, offering multiple career paths, the salary of social workers also differs. However, if you look at the median salary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social workers made $50,390 in annual wages in 2021. That’s higher than the median annual salary of $45,760 for all U.S. occupations during the same year.