Career Opportunities

Nature of the Work

Social work is a profession for those with a strong desire to help people. Social workers help people deal with their relationships with others; solve their personal, family, and community problems; and grow and develop as they learn to cope with or shape the social and environmental forces affecting daily life. They often encounter clients facing a life-threatening disease or a social problem requiring a quick solution. These situations may include inadequate housing, unemployment, lack of job skills, financial distress, serious illness or disability, substance abuse, unwanted pregnancy, or antisocial behavior. They also assist families that have serious conflicts, including those involving child or spouse abuse.

Social workers practice in a variety of settings, including hospitals, from the obstetrics unit to the intensive care unit; in schools, helping children, teachers, and parents cope with problems; in mental health clinics and psychiatric hospitals; and in public agencies, from the employment office to the public welfare department. Through direct counseling, they help clients identify their concerns, consider solutions, and find resources.

Often, they refer clients to specialists in various areas, like debt counseling, childcare or elder care, public assistance or other benefits, or alcohol or drug rehabilitation programs. Typically, social workers arrange for services in consultation with clients, following through to assure the services are helpful. They may review eligibility requirements, fill out forms and applications, arrange for services, visit clients on a regular basis, and provide support during crises.

Most social workers specialize--for example, in child welfare and family services, mental health, or school social work. Clinical social workers offer psychotherapy or counseling and a range of services in public agencies and clinics, and in private practice. Other social workers are employed in community organization, administration, or research.

Those specializing in child welfare or family services may counsel children and youths who have difficulty adjusting socially, advise parents on how to care for disabled children, or arrange for homemaker services during a parent's illness. If children have serious problems in school, child welfare workers may consult with parents, teachers, and counselors to identify underlying causes and develop plans for treatment. Some assist single parents, arrange adoptions, and help find foster homes for neglected, abandoned, or abused children. Child welfare workers also work in residential institutions for children and adolescents.

Those in child or adult protective services investigate reports of abuse and neglect and intervene if necessary. They may institute legal action to remove children from homes and place them temporarily in an emergency shelter or with a foster family.

Mental health social workers provide services for persons with mental or emotional problems, such as individual and group therapy, outreach, crisis intervention, social rehabilitation, and training in skills of everyday living. They can also help plan for supportive services to ease patients' return to the community.

Health care social workers help patients and their families cope with chronic, acute, or terminal illnesses and handle problems that may stand in the way of recovery or rehabilitation. They may organize support groups for families of patients suffering from cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer's disease, or other illnesses. They also advise family caregivers, counsel patients, and help plan for their needs after discharge by arranging for at-home services--from meals-on-wheels to oxygen equipment. Some work on interdisciplinary teams that evaluate certain kinds of patients--geriatric or organ transplant patients, for example.

School social workers diagnose students' problems and arrange needed services, counsel children in trouble, and help integrate disabled students into the general school population. School social workers deal with problems such as student pregnancy, misbehavior in class, and excessive absences. They also advise teachers on how to deal with problem students.

Criminal justice social workers make recommendations to courts, prepare pre-sentencing assessments, and provide services for prison inmates and their families. Probation and parole officers provide similar services to individuals sentenced by a court to parole or probation.

Occupational social workers generally work in a corporation's personnel department or health unit. Through employee assistance programs, they help workers cope with job-related pressures or personal problems that affect the quality of their work. They often offer direct counseling to employees whose performance is hindered by emotional or family problems or substance abuse and develop education programs and refer workers to specialized community programs.

Others specialize in gerontological services and run support groups for family caregivers or for the adult children of aging parents; advise elderly people or family members about the choices in such areas as housing, transportation, and long-term care; and coordinate and monitor services.

Social workers also focus on policy and planning. They help develop programs to address such issues as child abuse, homelessness, substance abuse, poverty, and violence. These workers research and analyze policies, programs, and regulations. They identify social problems and suggest legislative and other solutions, and raise funds or write grants to support these programs.

Working Conditions

Although some social workers work a standard 40-hour week, many work evenings and weekends to meet with clients, attend community meetings, and handle emergencies. Some, particularly in voluntary nonprofit agencies, work part time. They may spend most of their time in an office or residential facility, but may also travel locally to visit clients or meet with service providers.

The work, while satisfying, can be emotionally draining. Understaffing and large caseloads add to the pressure in some agencies.


About 4 out of 10 jobs are in state, county, or municipal government agencies, primarily in departments of health and human resources, mental health, social services, child welfare, housing, education, and corrections. As government increasingly contracts out social services, many jobs are likely to shift from government to private organizations in the future. Most jobs in the private sector were in social service agencies, community and religious organizations, hospitals, nursing homes, or home health agencies.

Training, Qualifications, and Advancement

A bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement for many entry-level jobs. Besides the bachelor's in social work (BSW), undergraduate majors in psychology, sociology, and other related fields may satisfy the hiring requirements in some agencies. A master's degree in social work (MSW) is generally necessary for positions in health and mental health settings. Jobs in public agencies may also require an MSW.

Supervisory, administrative, and staff training positions usually require at least an MSW. College and university teaching positions and most research appointments normally require a doctorate in social work.

An MSW degree prepares graduates to perform assessments, manage cases, and supervise other workers. Master's programs usually last 2 years and include 900 hours of supervised field instruction, or internship. Entry into an MSW program does not require a bachelor's in social work, but courses in psychology, biology, sociology, economics, political science, history, anthropology, urban studies, and social work are recommended. In addition, a second language can be very helpful. Some schools offer an accelerated MSW program (called Advanced Standing) for those with a BSW.

All States and the District of Columbia have had licensing, certification, or registration laws regarding social work practice and the use of professional titles. Standards for licensing vary by state. In addition, voluntary certification is offered by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), which grants the title ACSW (Academy of Certified Social Worker) or ACBSW (Academy of Certified Baccalaureate Social Worker) to those who qualify.

For clinical social workers, who are granted the title QCSW (Qualified Clinical Social Worker), professional credentials include listing in the NASW Register of Clinical Social Workers. Advanced credentials include the NASW Diplomate in Clinical Social Work, and School Social Work Specialist. An advanced credential is also offered by the Directory of American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work. Credentials are particularly important for those in private practice; some health insurance providers require them for reimbursement.

Social workers should be emotionally mature, objective, and sensitive to people and their problems. They must be able to handle responsibility, work independently, and maintain good working relationships with clients and coworkers. Volunteer or paid jobs as a social work aide offer ways of testing one's interest in this field.

Advancement to supervisor, program manager, assistant director, or executive director of a social service agency or department is possible but generally requires an MSW degree and related work experience. Although some social workers with a BSW may be promoted to these positions after gaining experience, some employers choose to hire managers directly from MSW programs that focus specifically on management. These graduates often have little work experience but have an understanding of management through their education and training. Other career options for social workers include teaching, research, and consulting. Some help formulate government policies by analyzing and advocating policy positions in government agencies, in research institutions, and on legislators' staffs.

Some social workers go into private practice. Most private practitioners are clinical social workers who provide psychotherapy, usually paid through health insurance. Private practitioners must have an MSW and a period of supervised work experience. A network of contacts for referrals is also essential.

Summary of Main Points

  • A bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement for many entry-level jobs; however, a master's degree in social work (MSW) is generally required for advancement
  • Employment is projected to grow faster than average
  • Competition for jobs is stronger in cities where training programs for social workers are prevalent; rural areas often find it difficult to attract and retain qualified staff

The Stats can be found at:

Additional Sources of Information about Social Work

  • Gibelman, M. & Schervicsh, P.H. (1997). Who we are: A second look. Washington, DC: NASW.
  • Kadushin, A. (1999). The past, the present, and the future of professional social work. A RETE, 24 (3), 76-84.
  • Encyclopedia of Social Work: 19th edition. Washington, DC: NASW
  • Teare, R., & Shaefor, B. (1995). Practice sensitive social work education: An empirical analysis of social work practice and practitioners. Alexandria, VA: CSWE.