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What Is Social Work?

Written By: Ana Staples

Published: 4/14/2022

Social work is a practice-based profession focused on promoting human rights, social change, and the well-being of individuals, various groups, and communities. From advocating for civil rights, to connecting people with non-profits, to providing counseling to individuals and families, social work offers many opportunities to create an impact in people’s lives.

If you’re passionate about helping others and striving to make a difference, a career in social work may be a good fit for you. It's also important to consider education requirements, job opportunities, and potential challenges that come with this career.

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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:

At the micro level, social work professionals offer services to individuals, families, or small groups. Examples may include substance abuse treatment, family counseling, crime victim advocacy, and more.

At the mezzolevel, social workers assist groups of people, serving at community centers, schools, prisons, or hospitals.

Macro-level social work promotes change on a larger scale and may involve policy making, social work research, and community-based initiatives.

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.

Case manager

The backbone of the social work industry, case managers work in various settings, connecting individuals they’re helping with appropriate resources, as well as providing other kinds of support.


These mental health professionals hold the highest level of license in social work and provide assessment, diagnosis, and treatment to individuals, families, or groups affected by mental health issues, behavioral disorders, and other life challenges.

Mental health and substance abuse social worker

Besides helping clients with mental conditions, these social workers also specialize in substance addictions. They may provide therapy and act like case managers, connecting clients with psychiatric services, support group programs, and other resources based on their needs.

School social worker

School social work focuses on students’ well-being and academic success. School social workers interact with school staff, students, and families to address personal and school issues and offer support and possible solutions.

Child welfare social worker

These professionals support disadvantaged families in meeting the needs of their children, and they may also intervene to protect children from abuse and neglect when required.

Probation officer

Social workers can be present in the criminal justice system. Parole officers, for example, are social workers who supervise and communicate with offenders put on probation to ensure they meet their parole conditions.

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 $51,760 in annual wages in 2020. That’s higher than the median annual salary of $41,950 for all U.S. occupations during the same year.

The Bottom Line

Considering the extensive training required in many social work positions and the high levels of stress and compassion fatigue associated with these professions, it’s crucial to evaluate what you’re seeking from your career to determine whether a job in social work is right for you.

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