Students choose a degree in social work to gain the skills and experience they need to advocate for the well-being of individuals, families and communities. Choosing the right career path within the field of social work, however, can be a challenge.
With so many social work specializations to choose from, students should consider what areas of social work they would like to focus on.
Before embarking on a specific career path, social work students should explore career opportunities for social workers and learn how to specialize in social work, in roles including:
- Community social worker
- Child and family social worker
- Mental health social worker
- Military social worker
- Gerontological social worker
- School social worker
Important elements to consider include the mission, responsibilities, work environment, required education and training, and pros and cons of working in each social work specialty.
Social Work Focuses: Macro, Mezzo and Micro
Most fundamentally, social workers advocate for the well-being of other people. Social workers work with clients to determine their needs and work to address them.
The methods and means by which a social worker supports individuals, families and communities depend on their training and focus; some social workers receive special training in assisting individual clients, whereas others may take on an entire community as a client.
Areas of focus for social workers fall under the categories of macro, mezzo and micro
Macro-Level Social Work
Macro-level social work calls for a broad, big-picture view of social and systemic injustice. Rather than work with individual clients directly, social workers with a macro-level focus help communities understand and address the causes of injustice indirectly through research, public policy and program development.
Macro-level social work spans community, state, national and even international sources of injustice. The community (large or small) is the client.
Examples of social work projects at the macro-level include:
- Researching and publishing studies on the underlying causes of youth substance misuse across a nation, thereby supplying material for other social workers to provide evidence-based interventions
- Founding a nonprofit organization aimed at statewide domestic violence prevention
- Designing and implementing programs for international mental health organizations
Mezzo-Level Social Work
Between macro and micro, mezzo-level social work involves supporting individuals and groups directly (unlike indirect macro-level social work) while still taking on an organization or large group as a client, such as a business, medical facility, school or nonprofit.
Examples of mezzo social work projects include:
- Creating programs at a local women’s advocacy center to practice grassroots social justice organizing
- Addressing age discrimination at a hospital by designing and implementing an inclusive training program for health care workers
- Developing a behavioral health program for a company whose employees routinely suffer burnout
Micro-Level Social Work
Micro-level practice involves working closely with individuals, families and small groups to identify and meet their specific needs. Micro-level social work includes helping clients access important resources, such as government assistance, health insurance, loans, education and training programs, and other social services.
Examples of micro-level social work include: * Supporting individuals one on one in a therapeutic capacity (also called clinical social work) * Teaching veterans to cope with potentially traumatic experiences while deployed * Helping students experiencing depression, anxiety or bullying
With the broad levels of social work’s focus outlined, aspiring social workers could consider these six social work specializations from the many available.
Community Social Work
Community social workers support the healthy functioning of individuals and groups within a subset of a population.
A community social worker’s mission is to improve conditions in their community by enabling individuals and families to locate and access appropriate social services.
Community social workers also work at mezzo and macro levels to improve social services and increase their availability.
Much community social work involves directly interacting with people and groups in need. Some community social workers take on an entire community as their client (such as the population of a small town), while others work with specific groups, such as LGBTQ+ youths, women, currently unemployed people or older adults.
Responsibilities for community social workers depend on the size of the community they work for and their location. For example, in a small town, a community social worker may take on broad (macro-level) responsibilities, such as researching the efficacy of vocational social service programs in preventing homelessness.
In a dense city, however, community social workers may focus more specifically on a community within a diverse area (taking a mezzo- or even micro-level approach to addressing a community’s needs).
Community social workers most often work in government positions to support entire groups, although they also work for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and nonprofit organizations.
The field of community social work features different social work specializations. Some community social workers help with family outreach, substance misuse and mental health services.
Common sites for community social workers include:
- Government offices (at the local, state and federal levels)
- Substance use treatment centers
- Immigration services
Education and Training
Graduates with at least a bachelor’s degree in social work can begin a career in the field of community social work. They may succeed in organizations that require organizing events, canvassing, program development, program assessment and community research.
Beyond a bachelor’s degree, earning a Master’s in Social Work (M.S.W.) can provide advanced education for experienced social workers. The expertise gained with an advanced degree can translate to a salary boost; social workers with an M.S.W. gain an annual earnings premium of more than $13,000 compared to their colleagues with a B.S.W., according to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).
Pros and Cons
Community social workers can face challenges to advocating for their particular communities, especially political pushback. For social workers averse to navigating a politicized environment, community social work may feel difficult.
The benefits of working as a community social worker, however, may include digging into the roots of systemic issues (such as income inequality and racial injustice) rather than merely teaching coping skills or supplying services to individuals. Community social workers may feel that their work has a wider-reaching impact than social workers who work one on one with individual clients.
Child and Family Social Work
In contrast to community social work, which tends to take a mezzo- or macro-level approach, child and family social workers can take a micro-, mezzo- or macro-level approach to identifying and addressing a client’s needs.
Child and family social workers, also called human services social workers, help families feel safe and supported through challenging transitions, such as adoptions, rehoming and family reunification.
Children and families are clients for social workers of this type. Child and family social workers connect families to essential services and protect vulnerable parties within a family unit.
The primary focus of this role is to help people care for themselves and their children while meeting their basic needs. Social services workers aim to foster self-sufficiency and social skills in children, youths and families.
Child and family social workers serve important roles in their communities by working to:
- Advocate for children in abuse and neglect investigations
- Arrange adoptions and foster homes for children
- Assist families through fostering and adoption processes
- Connect families in need with services
- Monitor the well-being of at-risk children and youths
- Place children in safe environments
- Reunite separated siblings and families
As their title suggests, this type of social worker tends to work in organizations with direct contact with children, youths and families:
- Child welfare agencies
- Adoption agencies
- Government offices of child and family services
- Nonprofits that focus on advocacy for children
- Community youth programs
In organizations such as these, child and family social workers take on roles as case managers, caseworkers, delinquency prevention counselors, mediators, prevention educators and adoption specialists.
Education and Training
Most child, family and school social workers must have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in social work. Some entry-level jobs allow graduates with degrees in psychology, sociology and related fields.
All states have certification, licensing and registration requirements. Often, child and family social workers must have two years or 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience. People interested in becoming child and family social workers should check their state requirements for specific criteria.
In addition, supervisory, administrative and staff training positions usually require an advanced degree, such as a master’s degree in social work (M.S.W.).
Pros and Cons
A child and family social worker is a champion for vulnerable children and youths. They can strengthen families and protect young people from harm.
A drawback to working in child and family social work is experiencing failures in the system: Working directly with clients often means doing one’s best to advocate for individuals while having limited ability to effect widespread, system-level change.
Mental Health Social Work
Mental health social workers advocate for clients with conditions that affect their ability to function well. A mental health social worker can offer counseling services, referrals and other forms of support for people with mental illness.
A mental health social worker provides support and resources to individuals with mental health needs so they can start to cope and heal. Generally, a mental health social worker supports clients with everything from counseling services to referrals to services that may benefit them.
Mental health social workers have several key responsibilities to their individual clients. These most often include:
- Intake. Mental health social workers interview clients and conduct initial assessments of their client’s strengths, weaknesses and goals.
- Basic coping skills. These social workers may provide general education on mental health, such as mindfulness principles and the importance of getting enough sleep, nutritious foods and water.
- Referrals. Social workers who focus on mental health can refer clients with more serious mental health issues to therapists, psychologists and other mental health professionals.
- Daily needs. A mental health social worker might help clients attend to their daily needs, such as remembering to pay their bills or shop for food.
- Legal representation. In cases when a mentally ill person faces discrimination, a mental health social worker might advocate for their client during a legal process.
- Progress monitoring. Mental health social workers monitor their clients to make sure they’re able to follow prescribed treatment plans. They offer additional support when needed.
Individuals who pursue mental social work careers typically find employment in:
- Community health centers
- Detention centers
- Mental health facilities
- Medical hospitals
- Psychiatric hospitals
- Rehabilitation centers
Some government agencies also employ mental health social workers, especially those who work on a macro level to conduct research on initiatives to address the mental health of an entire community.
Education and Training
To provide direct mental health services for clients, students should first earn a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field, such as psychology. Next, they should complete an M.S.W., along with a social work internship program or practicum that gives them experience working with clients.
Social work licensure requirements vary by state. To obtain a license as a clinical social worker, M.S.W. graduates most often need to complete two years of post-M.S.W. clinical experience and to complete the Association of Social Work Board licensing exam.
Pros and Cons
With so many people needing mental health services, social workers with a specialization in mental health may find plenty of fulfilling opportunities to work directly with clients in need.
A drawback to mental health social work is the high burnout rate. Many mental health services, especially community mental health, continue to be underfunded.
Military Social Work
Military social workers typically combine direct micro-level support for families and individuals in the military with the development of programs to help military and veteran populations on a larger scale.
Social workers can serve as advocates for disadvantaged military personnel and their families. They help military members and veterans understand and access benefits, connect to resources, and develop resilience in the face of mental health issues.
On a micro level, social work advocates can work with active military service members and veterans who struggle with common mental health issues, such as:
- Sleep disorders
- Substance misuse
- Physical disabilities
- Financial hardships
On the mezzo and macro levels, military social workers can engage with nonprofit groups and advocacy organizations on issues that military members and veterans face, thereby helping to amplify the voices of vulnerable military populations who need government and community support.
Some environments where military social workers work include:
- Community service organizations
- Military bases
- Military support centers
- Military units
- Private practices
- Veterans Affairs (VA) health centers
While the work setting may change, the core mission of military social workers remains: to support military service members to fulfill their professional responsibilities while maintaining healthy personal lives and/or to support veterans in transitioning to civilian life.
Education and Training
Social workers with a B.S.W. can provide generalist services to service members, veterans and families. For social workers who would like to diagnose and treat mental health conditions, a focus on clinical social work during their master’s program can prepare them to become licensed in this field.
Pros and Cons
An upside to working with military personnel and veterans is serving a specific population. For social workers who want to focus on supporting military service members, at the micro level, macro level or both, this is the career path for them.
Social workers who prefer to work with children or non-veteran civilians may find that military social work is not a good fit. Social workers should consider whether they have a drive to support service members before committing to military social work.
Gerontological Social Work
Gerontological social workers help to coordinate the care of older patients.
The American Geriatrics Society projects that about 30% of Americans age 65 and over will need geriatric care by 2030. As the need for geriatricians grows, so will the role of social workers with older adults.
As people age, they can face challenges, including decreased financial resources, the loss of family members and friends, declining health, and more. Gerontological social workers help clients by:
- Bridging communication between clients and a medical care team
- Helping to manage challenges (social, psychological, emotional) with therapy
- Connecting clients with services, such as when they move between in-home care and inpatient treatment programs
- Advising clients’ families on how to support aging loved ones
Social work specializations in geriatric care prepare graduates with the tools they need to advocate on the behalf of older adults. Abuse, neglect and other forms of mistreatment rapidly threaten a client’s well-being, so social workers specializing in geriatric care stay on high alert for ways in which their clients may have barriers to accessing essential resources.
Gerontological social workers find employment in settings such as:
- Hospice settings
- Long-term health care facilities
- Outpatient/daytime health care centers
- Community health clinics
- Residential health care facilities
Education and Training
Gerontological social workers must have at least a B.S.W. Social workers who aspire to work for older adult clients often earn an M.S.W. with a clinical concentration, which prepares them for one-on-one therapeutic sessions with their clients.
Pros and Cons
For social workers who want to work with a specific population, geriatric care specialization may be the best route. Social workers can form deep bonds with their clients and help them navigate this stage of life.
Like mental health social workers, a drawback to this specialty is that much work focuses on individual relationships rather than deeper underlying issues, although gerontological social workers may also find work in research settings.
School Social Work
School social workers provide services to students in the education system.
School districts employ social workers to advance their academic missions, promote student academic and interpersonal success, and foster communication among students, teachers, parents and administrators.
As trained mental health professionals, school social workers have a range of responsibilities, including: * Providing mental health counseling to students * Supporting special education assessment meetings, including individual educational planning (IEP) meetings * Assisting in creating and implementing behavioral intervention strategies to help children and youths develop appropriate social interaction skills * Working with families to improve access and utilization of school and community resources * Identifying and reporting neglect and child abuse
School social workers collaborate with teachers in special education classrooms, school counseling offices and other contexts where education administration takes place.
Education and Training
A bachelor’s degree can be an important step to becoming a school social worker, but school work settings typically require an advanced degree. The NASW Standards for Social Work Services prescribes an M.S.W. for entry-level school social workers.
Pros and Cons
School social workers typically work with children and youths between the ages of 5 and 18 and their families. Social workers who wish to focus on changing the lives of young people and helping families in educational settings may thrive as school social workers.
For social workers who prefer to work outside of an educational setting, school social work may be a poor fit. Social workers should consider their interest in working with children, teens, adults and families in the school system before deciding on school social work.
Gain an Education in Social Work
Social workers advocate for the vulnerable among us, supporting, guiding and connecting people to much-needed resources, as well as identifying and addressing underlying causes of social injustice.
The online Master of Social Work at Virginia Commonwealth University, the highest-ranking school of social work in Virginia, allows students to earn their degrees with the flexibility of learning at home. Learn more about how you can take your career in social work further with VCU.