The social work field is dedicated to helping individuals, families, and communities overcome challenges and function in healthy ways. Because social work responsibilities are so broad, the practice is commonly broken down into three levels — micro, mezzo, and macro.

Understanding the different levels of social work, what jobs are available at each level, and the education and professional credentials they require is essential for individuals considering a career in social work.

This article provides an in-depth look at micro, mezzo, and macro social work, including how to determine which level aligns with your interests and answers to frequently asked questions about the field. Leslie Reyna, an admissions counselor for the University of Texas at Arlington’s School of Social Work, also provides her insights on entering the social work field.

What is Micro Social Work?

According to the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), micro-level social work practice involves working directly with clients to help them cope with their situations. This type of practice is often what individuals think of when defining social work — a social worker with an individual or family talking through their challenges and offering interventions to overcome or cope with them.

Micro social work practice is closely aligned with clinical social work, as any social worker who provides services directly to a client is considered a clinician. In the U.S., clinical social workers must have a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree, supervised clinical experience, and a state-issued license in order to practice. These higher standards ensure that social workers have the proper training to provide responsible, ethical, and compassionate care to vulnerable populations.

The most common job at the micro level is a licensed clinical social worker. These individuals work in a variety of settings, including private practice, medical and psychiatric hospitals, recovery facilities, and more. According to ZipRecruiter, the average annual salary for LCSWs in the U.S. is $94,158. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that the employment of social workers will increase by 7% through 2032.

What is Mezzo Social Work?

Mezzo-level social work focuses on serving groups and communities instead of individual clients. The responsibilities of mezzo-level social workers are usually more administrative or organizational in nature. Mezzo-level social workers may use their skills to develop and administer programs for the populations they serve, connect clients with the proper services, including clinical treatment, and help with daily operations at social work agencies.

Social workers who have a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) typically enter the field in mezzo-level positions because they don’t require employees to have a master’s and a clinical license. Depending on the position, employers may require candidates to have their LBSW, or licensed baccalaureate social worker credential.

A common mezzo-level social work position is social and community service manager. Individuals in this position coordinate and supervise programs and organizations that provide social services and support public well-being. They may work with local, state, or federal government agencies or private non-profit entities to deliver services to general or specific populations, like children and families, veterans, or older adults. The BLS predicts that the employment of social and community service managers will increase by 9% through 2032. The median annual salary for this position is $74,240.

What is Macro Social Work?

Macro social work takes the highest-level approach to the field, with a focus on understanding and addressing large-scale or systematic issues. Rather than work directly with clients, macro social workers conduct research, develop policies, and engage in advocacy.

While macro-level social workers may have a clinical background, this is a non-clinical role. As such, social workers in macro-level practice don’t need to have an MSW, although many do. Others earn graduate degrees in related areas such as sociology, human services, or psychology to build on their social work skills and take an interdisciplinary approach to the issues they’re addressing. Some macro-level positions are available to social workers with a BSW.

Policy analysts are considered macro-level social workers. These professionals work in government agencies, think tanks, and private organizations to create and evaluate policies regarding social issues, such as healthcare, homelessness, child welfare, and more. According to the BLS, the median annual wage for policy analysts is $50,000

How To Choose Between Micro, Mezzo, and Macro Social Work

The type of social work you practice is a personal choice based on your interests and priorities. If you’re drawn to social work because you want to work one-on-one with clients providing therapy and other clinical interventions, then micro-level social work is likely the right choice. If you prefer to focus on addressing widespread social issues or advocating for systemic change, macro-level social work is the ideal fit.

Also, consider what type of education you need for each level of social work. Most micro-level jobs require an MSW degree, while individuals can obtain most mezzo- or macro-level jobs with a BSW (although you may need an advanced degree to move into higher-level roles). If additional schooling doesn’t appeal or isn’t accessible to you, your focus will be on seeking jobs at the mezzo- and macro-level.

Another consideration is what type of work environment you’re seeking. Macro-level social workers tend to work in government or academic environments, including government agencies, think tanks, private organizations, or universities. Mezzo-level social workers also work for local, state, and federal government entities, as well as schools, shelters, community centers, and more. At the micro-level, social workers work in medical and psychiatric hospitals, inpatient and outpatient treatment facilities, correctional facilities, and schools. They can also operate a private practice, creating their own work environment.

Talking to social workers can also be helpful in choosing which area of social work is right for you, Reyna says. “Find a social work mentor who is in a career path you are interested in and learn what they did to get there,” she says. “Mentors can push you to achieve your goals and even open up new career opportunities.”

How to Become a Social Worker

Enroll in an accredited Bachelor of Social Work degree program

If you’re just starting out on your post-secondary educational journey, the first step is to pursue your BSW. This will provide the foundation you need for entry-level mezzo- and macro-level social work positions and the further education you’ll need to become a micro-level social worker.

Many colleges offer BSW programs online and in person. Your personal needs and preferences will determine what type of BSW program you seek.

One of the most important things to consider when researching BSW programs is the program’s accreditation status. “Accreditation is important because it allows students to pursue a license in social work,” Reyna says. “Students who obtain their bachelor’s degree from a non-accredited program or at a non-accredited university risk the possibility of not having any of their credits count towards licensure or transfer into a graduate program.” Students can confirm their program’s accreditation status through CSWE and their school’s accreditation status through the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) database.

BSW programs are designed to introduce students to the skills they need for generalist social work practice. Core classes typically cover social work practices with individuals, families, and communities, as well as policy, research, and professional development. CSWE-accredited BSW programs also require students to complete a minimum of 400 hours of supervised field experience, which students usually achieve as an internship towards the end of the program.

Obtain your LBSW

Depending on the state in which they live, students who earn their BSW may be eligible for the licensed baccalaureate social worker (LBSW) credential. This license isn’t mandatory for entry-level social workers, but in states where it’s available, LBSWs may be eligible for a wider range of jobs if they are licensed.

The exact requirements for obtaining an LBSW vary by state, but generally speaking, once students complete their BSW, they can apply to take the LBSW exam, which may be administered in person or online. States also typically charge a fee for the licensure exam.

Find employment as a social worker

Once you’ve successfully completed your BSW (and obtained your LBSW, if necessary), you’re qualified for entry-level non-clinical social worker positions.

Specific roles you may be eligible for include community services or social services assistant or manager, employee assistance program counselor, youth and family advocate, community education specialist, and correctional treatment specialist.

Earn your MSW to pursue micro and macro level positions

If you plan to focus on non-clinical mezzo-level or macro-level social work, you may be able to advance your career solely through experience without earning any additional degrees. If you have an LBSW license, check with your state’s regulatory board to find out if you must complete continuing education requirements to maintain your license.

Otherwise, if you’re interested in pursuing social work at the micro-level as a clinician, you will need to complete additional steps, including earning an MSW, completing the required supervised clinical hours, and passing a licensure exam. Earning an MSW can take 1-2 years, depending on the program’s credit requirements and pace, and includes advanced coursework as well as supervised clinical experiences.

Another option for macro-level social workers is to earn a doctorate in social work. This degree can help social workers develop the research and leadership skills they need to advocate for and create change at high systemic levels.

Explore Social Work and Related Degree Programs

Social Work Frequently Asked Questions

Should I get a social work degree online or in person?

BSW and MSW programs are widely available both online and in person. The type of program you should seek depends on your personal needs and learning preferences.

Online programs tend to be the most flexible, especially if coursework is delivered asynchronously. Students who are balancing school with professional or personal responsibilities or don’t live near a school with an in-person social work degree program may find that this is the best option for them. If you’re planning on attending a remote program, make sure it meets the requirements for licensure in the state in which you plan to practice. Also, keep in mind that you’ll most likely have to fulfill clinical requirements in person.

For students who prefer learning in traditional settings and having real-time interactions with faculty and classmates, an in-person program might be the better option. Students can inquire about part-time enrollment options that allow them to attend on-campus classes while working around job schedules and family obligations.

Is a social work degree worth it?

“A social work degree provides students with a plethora of career opportunities,” Reyna says. “Social workers are jacks of all trades, and the skills students learn can help them in any career field because, in all career fields, you’re working with people.”

Additionally, a degree in social work is required for students seeking to become licensed social workers. Becoming an LCSW opens up a new set of job opportunities as a clinical social worker. A social work degree can also be a stepping stone to a degree in a related field, like public policy, sociology, or political science, which students can use to pursue macro-level social work positions.

What is the career outlook for the social work field?

The BLS reports that overall employment in the community and social service field is projected to grow at a faster-than-average pace through 2032. They predict that there will be an average of 281,600 new jobs per year during that time. For social workers specifically, there will be, on average, 63,800 new job openings each year for the next decade. This strong job outlook is driven by the need for trained clinical and non-clinical social workers to help individuals, groups, and communities with challenges like substance misuse, trauma, poverty, and aging.

Social Worker Resources

The following organizations can help students and professionals in the social work field learn more about educational programs, job opportunities, state licensure regulations, and current trends in social work.

  • Council on Social Work Education (CSWE): This organization represents social work education in the U.S., accrediting more than 800 baccalaureate and master’s degree social work programs. It serves social work educators, students, staff, practitioners, and agencies as part of their mission to advance quality social work education.
  • National Association of Social Workers (NASW): As the world’s largest membership organization of professional social workers, the NASW is dedicated to enhancing the professional growth and development of its members, creating and maintaining professional standards, and advancing sound social policies.
  • Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB): This agency provides support and services to the social work regulatory community to advance safe, competent, and ethical practices to strengthen public protection.
  • Clinical Social Work Association (CSWA): This organization represents, protects, and amplifies the voices of clinical social workers and promotes the highest standards of professional practice through advocacy, supporting the effectiveness of state societies, and facilitating educational opportunities.

Learn More About Social Work Degrees