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How to Advance Your Social Work Career

February 10, 2023

Empathy, critical thinking and communication are crucial skills that social workers rely on as they support, treat and advocate for people from all backgrounds. By following some key steps, social workers can hone and enhance these skills.

Developing these skills can help professionals advance their social work careers. Whether they’re looking to move into specialized roles in social work or seeking leadership opportunities in the field, earning a Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) degree can help pave the way for career advancement.

Earn an M.S.W.

While a bachelor’s degree typically can qualify job seekers for entry-level social work positions, an M.S.W. can lead to higher-level roles — including licensed clinical positions that call for expertise in assessment and diagnosis.

Not only that, advanced education can be a springboard to leadership roles such as community organizer, advocate or program administrator. It can lead to prominent roles on the local, state or national stage in a specialized area of social work practice, including those focused on:

  • Mental health and substance misuse
  • Schools
  • Children and families
  • Health care

Individuals with bachelor’s degrees in a subject other than social work may pursue an M.S.W. degree. Those seeking M.S.W. degrees, however, often already have undergraduate degrees in social work or in a related field, such as psychology, social sciences or public policy.

What Is an M.S.W. Program?

M.S.W. programs generally focus on social work practice with individuals, families, and communities and offer clinical, leadership and cultural competence training. They’re designed to help prepare professionals who seek clinical licensing. They also typically include field education that can help M.S.W. students hone their leadership skills in a workplace setting.

The programs can take two or more years to complete, although some programs offer options to finish sooner with full-time study or with a previously completed Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.) coursework.

Pursue a License

Those seeking to shift their social work career to a clinical role must obtain additional state licensing. Licensing requirements vary by state, but prerequisites for licensing often include the following:

  • Earning an M.S.W. degree
  • Gaining supervised clinical experience after graduation
  • Passing a clinical exam

After completing an application, paying applicable fees and providing documentation of education and work experience, applicants must take an exam administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). The purpose of the exam, which lasts four hours and includes 170 multiple-choice questions, is to demonstrate that the social worker has the practice knowledge required for clinical work.

The Value of Continuing Education

Social work licensing requires periodic renewal, which calls for continuing education. However, continuing education is valuable for reasons that go beyond maintaining a license.

Even if they’re not working to meet licensing renewal requirements, social workers should seek out continuing education for benefits such as:

  • Staying abreast of new research and treatments
  • Gaining opportunities for professional networking
  • Learning about different areas of specialization to pursue
  • Meeting guidelines for seeking social work certifications

Gain Certification

Certification is another option for advancing a career in social work. These credentials can help social workers:

  • Pursue leadership roles and higher salaries
  • Gain professional and public recognition
  • Exhibit expertise in areas of specialization
  • Display adherence to professional standards

While the education requirement for some credentials is a B.S.W. degree, many require an M.S.W. Keeping a certification current can require continuing education, licensing and renewal.

Types of Social Work Certifications

Credentials from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) include those for general professional certification — which requires NASW membership — as well as those for areas of specialization. NASW members must hold a social work degree and pay an annual fee.

Certifications are available in the following specializations:

  • Professional — Working in social services practice or clinical practice
  • Addictions — Supporting those affected by alcohol, tobacco and other drugs
  • Case management — Helping individuals meet their biological, psychological and social needs and navigate social services
  • Clinical — Relying on social work theory and treatment methods to address individual challenges
  • Education — Working in school settings
  • Gerontology — Assisting older adults
  • Health care — Helping patients achieve and maintain good health
  • Hospice and palliative — Addressing the psychological and social needs of patients and families affected by serious illness
  • Military — Helping service members, veterans and their families enhance their well-being
  • Youth and family — Working with people under the age of 18 and members of their households

Advance Your Social Work Career With an M.S.W.

Effective social services require professionals equipped with skills that allow them to serve society’s most vulnerable. By pursuing additional education, licensing and certification, social workers can build on those fundamental skills and gain specialized knowledge to elevate their professional position.

The Virginia Commonwealth University Master of Social Work can help you take a key step in advancing your social work career. The program focuses on clinical skills, enhancing your ability to lead efforts that improve the well-being of individuals and families. The M.S.W. online format allows you to learn from expert faculty while taking classes from anywhere.

Discover how VCU’s M.S.W. Program can help you achieve your social work leadership goals.