How to Become a Social Worker

A smiling social worker shakes someone's hand.

How to Become a Social Worker

Accessing health care, transitioning to foster care, overcoming opioid use — social workers serve people confronting these and many other sensitive and challenging issues. If you want to contribute to the quality of life of individuals, families and the community, you’ll want to explore how to become a social worker and whether a career in social work is right for you.

What Does a Social Worker Do?

Social workers guide and support people 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 can also involve 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. They 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 get those needs met
  • Developing interventions that help clients overcome or adjust to obstacles, 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
  • Keeping 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 Launch a Social Work Career

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 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 students’ understanding of social welfare policy and human behavior. With this degree, individuals can take on entry-level social work positions, such as a 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 of 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

Clinical social workers must become licensed in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. However, 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 Work Specializations

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

Child Welfare Social Workers

Child welfare workers are social workers who are dedicated to keeping children and families safe. They come to the aid of children and families in danger of violence, neglect and homelessness. Child welfare workers support their clients by providing counseling; by providing details about accessing benefits, such as food stamps; and by providing referrals to safe houses or shelters.

In cases of child abuse and neglect, child welfare workers intervene with a range of services, including therapy and foster care arrangements.

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 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.

Key Skills of Successful Social Workers

To build a thriving career, aspiring social workers should cultivate key skills of the profession.

Interpersonal and Communication Skills

The core of effective social work is communication, coupled with the ability to work with diverse groups. Social workers express themselves clearly to help clients. They 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 show that empathy plays a big 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.

Social Worker Salary and Job Outlook

Social workers earned a median annual salary of $51,760 as of May 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The highest earners made upward of $85,820 a year; salaries can vary based on work experience and locations. The BLS projects a 13% growth rate for social workers between 2019 and 2029, more than triple the average projected growth rate for all occupations.

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.