Individuals who enjoy helping others, supporting families and communities, and advocating for equity and respect for all may be drawn to a career in social work. These professionals work to help individuals, families, couples, and other groups overcome challenges in their everyday lives.

Becoming a social worker requires a combination of post-secondary education and supervised experience. The minimum education needed for most entry-level social worker jobs is a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). However, earning a Master of Social Work (MSW) opens up additional opportunities for clinical social work roles and is a common career trajectory for social workers.

This article will cover how to become an entry-level social worker and advance your career through additional education and experience. Learn more about what social work is, educational requirements for social workers, career outlook and salary information for the profession, and how to choose the social work degree program that’s right for you.

What Is Social Work?

There are three types of social work practice, according to the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE):

  • Micro-level, in which social workers directly work with individuals to help them cope with their situations
  • Mezzo-level, in which the social workers work with groups instead of individual clients
  • Macro-level, where social workers lead and establish social change on a large scale through organizing, policy change, and administration

At each of these levels, social workers help their clients address various challenges related to

mental and behavioral health, physical and emotional trauma, substance misuse, and more. Social workers work in many different settings, such as healthcare facilities, schools, correctional facilities, government agencies, rehabilitation centers, private practices, and more.

Many social workers specialize in working with a specific population. For example, child and family social workers provide services to children and families needing housing, food, or medical services. They help protect children from neglect or abuse and may play a role in arranging adoptions or foster care. Other social work specializations include healthcare, education, mental and behavioral health, and substance misuse and recovery.

There are two types of social workers – non-clinical and clinical. Non-clinical social workers work at the macro level, providing support to communities through program development and delivery, policy, advocacy, and administrative duties. Clinical social workers practice at the micro level, offering direct care to clients in the form of counseling and other interventions. Clinical social workers must have a state-issued license to practice, while non-clinical social workers do not.

An individual’s level of education determines whether they are qualified to be a clinical social worker.

Social work educational requirements

For most non-clinical social work positions, a BSW or similar degree is the minimum degree requirement. A BSW is a 120-credit undergraduate degree that covers foundational concepts, skills, and trends in social work practice and gives students hands-on experience through internships, practicums, or labs.

Depending on the BSW program and the state in which the student works, students may be eligible for licensed baccalaureate social worker (LBSW) licensure. As of this publication, 19 states offer the LBSW credential. Although having an LBSW can open up more employment opportunities, it doesn’t qualify holders as clinical social workers.

In order to become a clinical social worker, students must have a state-issued license, which requires an MSW or similar degree. Because clinical social workers work directly with clients and provide a greater range of services, they need advanced education and additional clinical experiences to train them for these added responsibilities. Licensure ensures that practitioners meet the high standards required to work with vulnerable and at-risk populations.

How to Become a Social Worker

Clarify your educational and career goals

There are a few different paths a student can take to becoming a social worker, but they all start with reflecting on what type of social work career you aspire to and what type of education will help you achieve it.

Students who know they want to become LCSWs should start by earning a BSW before progressing to their MSW. Some schools offer dual degree or “4+1” programs in which students can matriculate directly into a graduate degree program after successful completion of their BSW. This is often the fastest route to becoming an LCSW.

Other students may want to focus on non-clinical social work, in which case a BSW should be sufficient for most jobs. If you’re unsure whether you want to focus on non-clinical or clinical practice, a BSW will provide a solid foundation on which you can build if you choose to pursue an MSW at a later time.

Another factor to consider is whether you want to specialize in a particular area of social work. Common social work specializations include child welfare, aging, substance use and recovery, healthcare, advocacy and community organizing, justice and corrections, and more. Knowing which social work specialization interests you can help narrow your search to programs offering that concentration.

Enroll in an accredited BSW program

Once you have an idea of what type of BSW program you’re seeking, you can research and select programs based on your needs.

BSW programs are found at a wide range of colleges, including public and private schools. Schools offer BSW programs online, in-person, and in hybrid learning formats. Your personal needs and preferences will determine what type of BSW program you seek.

When researching BSW programs, it’s essential to confirm that the program is accredited by the CSWE. This accreditation ensures that the program meets industry-wide standards for social work education. States may require a degree from a CSWE-accredited program to qualify for the LBSW. Also, confirm that the school offering the degree has regional accreditation from a recognized institutional accrediting agency. This will ensure that state licensing agencies, other post-secondary institutions, and employers will accept your degree.

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 complete as an internship towards the end of the program.

Obtain your LBSW

Students should consult with their state regulatory board for social workers to find out if their state offers an LBSW license. 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.

Consider next steps for education and career advancement

If you plan to focus on non-clinical social work, you may be able to advance your career solely through experience without earning any additional degrees. However, if you have an LBSW license, check with your state’s regulatory board to find out if there are any continuing education requirements for maintaining your license.

For students who want to become LCSWs, the next step is to consider when and how you’ll complete your MSW. It’s common for students to gain professional experience or explore different types of social work practice before earning their MSW (some MSW programs prefer or require students to have professional experience before enrolling). 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.

Even if you’re not planning on working as a clinical social worker, pursuing graduate-level education can help advance your career. Many social workers pursue master’s degrees or graduate certificates in related areas, such as psychology, counseling, marriage and family therapy, human services, or human and family development, to gain new skills and prepare for management and leadership roles.

Explore Social Work and Related Degree Programs

Social Work Career Outlook & Salary Information

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment in the community and social services sector is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations between 2022 and 2032. The agency estimates that there will be about 281,600 new jobs each year, on average, as individuals, families, and communities continue to face challenges with poverty, health and medical issues, substance misuse, and more.

Here are common jobs that non-clinical social workers pursue:

  • Social workers – Help individuals, groups, and families prevent and cope with problems in their everyday lives
    • Median annual salary: $55,350
    • Projected employment growth (through 2032): 7%
    • New jobs projected: 63,800 per year
  • Social and community services managers – In this administrative-focused position, social and community services managers coordinate and supervise programs and organizations that support public well-being and direct workers who provide these services to the public.
    • Median annual salary: $74,240
    • Projected employment growth (through 2032): 9%
    • New jobs projected: 16,000 per year
  • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder & mental health counselors – Provide support, including for prevention, to help clients recover from addiction, modify problem behaviors, or improve mental health.
    • Median annual salary: $49,710
    • Project employment growth (through 2032): 18%
    • New jobs projected: 42,000 per year
  • Correctional treatment specialist In this criminal justice-focused role, social workers assist in rehabilitating law offenders in custody or on probation or parole.
    • Median annual salary: $59,860
    • Project employment growth (through 2032): 3%
    • New jobs projected: 7,400 per year

How to Choose the Social Work Degree Program That’s Right For You

To choose the social work degree program that’s right for you, start by determining what your specific needs are, including:

  • Which specialization, if any, are you seeking?
  • Do you just want a BSW, or are you interested in a BSW-to-MSW direct-entry program?
  • Are you enrolling full-time or part-time?
  • Will you attend your program in person or online?
  • What is your budget, and how much financial aid do you need?

Establishing parameters will help you narrow your search when learning more about your program options. You can research programs by visiting schools’ websites, contacting admissions counselors and program representatives, participating in virtual or in-person open houses, and following schools on social media. During your research process, confirm the accreditation status of the institutions and programs you’re considering, as this can impact your eligibility for financial aid, jobs, and future education opportunities.

Lastly, gather as much information as possible about program costs and available financial aid resources, including scholarships, grants, fellowships, student loans, and work-study. This will help you determine which program fits your budget best. To be considered for need-based aid like student loans and grants, students must submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Employed students should also consult with their employer to determine if they can access tuition assistance benefits.

Social Work Frequently Asked Questions

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

BSW programs are widely available in person and online. Both delivery formats have their advantages and disadvantages, and choosing between them is largely a matter of individual student needs and preferences.

Online programs are typically an ideal choice for students who need maximum flexibility due to work or family commitments or don’t live near a school that offers an accredited BSW program.

Some programs deliver courses asynchronously, in which students learn independently by accessing lessons and assignments on their own time. Other programs offer synchronous classes, where students meet virtually at regularly scheduled times. Students should note that online learning requires a higher level of self-motivation and discipline than traditional in-person classes.

Meanwhile, in-person programs might be a better fit for students who want more interaction in their learning and prefer a more traditional college experience.

How long does it take to complete a social work degree?

Most BSW degrees require a minimum of 120 credits. This typically translates to four years of full-time study. Students who enroll part-time may take 4.5-6 years to complete their BSW.

Students who have college credits from previously attended programs may be able to apply those credits to their BSW degree, saving them time and money. Some degree completion BSW programs allow students to transfer in as many as 90 credits, allowing students to earn their degree in as little as 1-2 years.

Meanwhile, students who enroll in a BSW-to-MSW program can expect to earn two degrees in as little as five years.

How much does a social work degree cost?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), for the 2020-21 academic year, average tuition and fees for four-year undergraduate degrees was $9,375 for in-state students at public universities, $27,091 for out-of-state students at public universities, and $32,825 at private schools.

However, the cost of a BSW degree varies by school. If you have questions about the cost of a program or paying for a social work degree, contact the school’s financial aid office to speak to a counselor.

Social Worker Resources

Many organizations exist to help social work students and professionals learn more about the field, find reputable programs, build their networks, and navigate licensure questions.

  • National Association of Social Workers (NASW): Founded in 1955, this is the world’s largest membership organization of professional social workers and is dedicated to enhancing the professional growth and development of its members, creating and maintaining professional standards, and advancing sound social policies.
  • 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.
  • Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB): This body provides support and services to the social work regulatory community to advance safe, competent, and ethical practices to strengthen public protection.
  • Council on Social Work Education (CSWE): This organization represents social work education in the United States, with more than 800 accredited baccalaureate and master’s degree social work programs and their affiliated social work educators, students, and staff, as well as practitioners and agencies dedicated to advancing quality social work education.

Learn More About Social Work Degrees