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How to Become a Social Worker

January 12, 2023

Accessing health care, transitioning to foster care, overcoming opioid use — every day, social workers serve people confronting these and many other sensitive and challenging issues. Through both broad advocacy efforts and direct support for individual clients, social workers strive to connect those they serve, including entire communities, with the resources they need to live better. This central mission makes social work one of the more noble and satisfying careers an individual can pursue.

If you want to contribute to improving the quality of life of individuals, families and the community, you may want to explore how to become a social worker, which often entails obtaining an advanced degree and developing a diverse set of skills.

What Does a Social Worker Do?

Social workers guide and support people in meeting life’s challenges. Whether the challenges are related to mental health, housing, employment, adoption or substance use, social workers empower people to improve their lives.

Social work can involve psychotherapy or counseling that points people to crucial resources, such as child care, transportation and social service benefits. It may also entail designing and implementing programs that address issues from teen pregnancy to interpersonal violence to childhood obesity.

In addition to working with individuals, social workers raise awareness about conditions that detract from their clients’ quality of life, and advocate for programs and policies to improve those conditions. Depending on their area of specialization, social workers may work in various settings, including the following:

  • Hospitals
  • Nursing homes
  • Substance use and eating disorder facilities
  • Schools
  • Human services and child welfare agencies
  • Mental health clinics
  • Private practices

The typical duties of social workers include the following:

  • Evaluating clients’ needs and identifying resources and networks that can help them meet those needs
  • Developing interventions that help clients overcome or adjust to life challenges such as divorce, illness or the loss of a loved one
  • Researching available resources and connecting clients to public assistance services such as Medicaid, food stamps and subsidized housing
  • Maintaining case files and records
  • Creating treatment plans and coordinating ongoing care for clients with other service providers
  • Delivering crisis intervention that addresses emergencies

Steps to Become a Social Worker

Those interested in how to become a social worker should keep in mind the importance of getting the right education. For example, leadership positions in the field typically require a master’s degree.

Consider taking the following steps to launch a social work career:

Step One: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree in social work teaches fundamentals and builds understanding of social welfare policy and human behavior. With this degree, individuals can take on entry-level social work positions such as mental health assistant. However, the degree doesn’t prepare or qualify individuals to deliver most social work services.

Step Two: Earn a Master’s Degree

After earning a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related discipline, individuals have the foundation needed to pursue graduate studies. A Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) can take 16 months to two years to complete in a full-time format and offers in-depth training on social work practice, research and theory. It also allows students to specialize in an area of interest and requires the completion of an internship or hands-on practicum.

Step Three: Obtain a Social Work License

All 50 states and the District of Columbia require clinical social workers to become licensed in order to practice. Most states also require nonclinical social workers to get licensed or certified. Typically, licensure and certification involve earning an M.S.W., completing two years of supervised clinical experience and passing an exam. However, specific requirements can vary by state.

Social Worker Skills

To build a thriving career, aspiring social workers should cultivate certain key skills that will allow them to connect with clients and help clients solve the challenges confronting them.

Interpersonal and Communication Skills

The core of effective social work is communication, coupled with the ability to work with diverse groups. Social workers should be able to express themselves clearly to help clients. They need to listen attentively, with an empathetic ear. In this way, they build client relationships that inspire trust.


Social workers often encounter people confronting loss, pain and uncertainty. To help them, successful social workers demonstrate empathy, patience and concern. Numerous studies indicate that empathy is a crucial social worker skill, playing a significant role in client outcomes.


Social workers tackle complex problems, often with limited resources. In doing so, they strive to find ways to overcome obstacles, and these efforts call for excellent problem-solving skills. Whether devising strategies to help their clients set sobriety goals, selecting the right method of therapy or developing an intervention to keep a struggling family together, social workers problem-solve daily.

Types of Social Work

Social workers can choose to focus on an area of the field that speaks to their passions and interests. Students exploring how to become a social worker should delve into the types of social work that inspire them most.

Child Welfare Social Workers

Child welfare workers are social workers who are dedicated to keeping children and families safe. They partner with children and families who have experienced or are at risk of experiencing violence, abuse and/or neglect. Child welfare social workers support their clients by providing services and support to families to increase safety, prevent family separation, and/or to work towards reunification and permanency if out-of-home placement has occurred. In cases of child abuse and neglect, child welfare workers intervene with a range of services, including leading service coordination teams to ensure clients’ needs are being met, which may involve behavioral, mental health and educational services, and kinship or foster care arrangements. In these cases, they may also work with an adoption social worker to help find a permanent home for children legally separated from their biological parents.

Substance Use Social Workers

Many individuals with substance use problems recover with the help of substance use social workers. These social workers connect their clients to 12-step programs, support groups and other services needed for recovery.

Substance use social workers may also provide group and individual therapy as well as help their clients address housing and employment needs. Their treatment approach often focuses on their clients’ environments, support systems and cultural perspectives.

Mental Health Social Workers

Mental health social workers diagnose and treat mental, behavioral and emotional disorders. Using strategies that build coping skills and modify behaviors, mental health social workers help their clients cope with challenges and improve their well-being.

Mental health social workers provide various types of therapy, including individual, couples, family and group therapy. They often collaborate with other health care professionals to develop treatment plans and monitor their clients’ progress.

Health Care Social Workers

Individuals receiving difficult medical diagnoses or transitioning to their homes or long-term care facilities after hospital stays often benefit from the support of health care social workers. These social workers help their clients understand and adjust to their illnesses and teach them strategies to cope with their diagnoses.

Health care social workers also help their clients find support groups and home health care and often provide referrals to rehabilitation centers, assisted living facilities or nursing homes. Additionally, these social workers share insights with doctors and health care providers about patients’ mental and emotional health.

Reasons to Become a Social Worker

The benefits of being a social worker are numerous. The profession’s core mission, as outlined by the National Association of Social Workers, is to “enhance human well-being and help meet basic and complex needs of all people, with a particular focus on those who are vulnerable, oppressed and living in poverty.” In the pursuit of this mission, social workers can have a direct positive impact on the lives of individuals, families and entire communities.

Social workers can expect to participate in a dynamic work environment that allows them to engage with people from different walks of life in a wide variety of settings. These can range from clinical or legal settings to an individual’s own home. The prevalence of technology has also made it possible for some of these engagements to occur remotely via teleconferencing, further contributing to the field’s versatility.

Social work also offers the opportunity for flexible hours. Because different types of social work are associated with different environments, social work professionals have the option to explore career paths with varying schedules. For instance, a clinical social worker who works in a hospital may be able to work a schedule that’s consistent with a typical hospital worker shift. A social worker in private practice can set up their own hours.

Additionally, social work is seldom boring. The nature of social work brings professionals in contact with a wide range of people from diverse backgrounds, each with their own unique challenges. Helping clients determine how to overcome these challenges in a way that best meets their needs ensures that no two cases are alike, thus making the role consistently intriguing.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Social Worker?

It commonly takes about four to six years to enter the field as a social worker. The exact length of time depends on the type of education an individual pursues as well as the type of social worker they want to become. Those who want to move beyond entry-level positions and choose to pursue a master’s degree in social work, for instance, should plan on a longer time frame for becoming a social worker. It may also take additional time to complete a state’s licensure requirements, although this varies by state.

Social Worker Salary and Job Outlook

Social workers earned a median annual salary of $50,390 as of May 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The highest earners made upward of $82,840 a year; salaries can vary widely based on work experience and location, among other factors. The BLS projects that employment of social workers will grow by 9 percent between 2021 and 2031, nearly double the 5 percent projected growth rate for all occupations. The BLS reports that there will be nearly 75,000 openings for social workers each year, on average, over the decade.

Learn More About Launching a Social Work Career

Social work offers a meaningful career path for those striving to make a difference. Learning how to become a social worker and exploring opportunities in the field are excellent starting points for anyone wanting to enter the profession.

Discover how Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Social Work prepares graduates to become social workers who empower others and promote change.*