Beginning Your Career in Social Work

If you like helping people who need assistance and changing their lives for the better, a career in social work might be for you. Social work, one of the helping professions, is concerned with helping increase the well-being of individuals, families and other groups by helping them get along better in society.  Social work seeks to empower people to improve their lives, with the assistance of a trained professional.

Social workers work with people to help them cope with the problems associated with poverty, unemployment, abuse, disability, mental illness and trauma.

What Do Social Workers Do?

Social workers work directly with individuals, families or other groups to help them cope with systemic problems in life. They can provide case management services, counseling, and other services like connecting clients to resources that address the particular needs of the client.

You can find social workers in schools, hospitals, community outreach programs and government agencies. Some social workers serve entire communities to help fight social injustice and inequalities.

The duties of a social worker may include:

  • Assessing the needs and strengths of a client
  • Responding to crises, like mental health emergencies, or children or family in crises
  • Helping place children in foster care and monitoring their progress
  • Assisting clients to meet challenges in their lives like unemployment, illness, poverty and a lack of a social support network
  • Helping clients find resources such as childcare, food stamps, affordable housing, legal services and other vital resources
  • Maintaining comprehensive records and case files
  • Providing psychotherapy (for those social workers with master’s degrees and appropriate licensure)

Social workers also perform tasks like working with schools to alleviate bullying, providing assistance with drug abuse reduction programs, building after-school programs, and so forth.

Social Work and Counseling:  What’s the Difference?

Social work is concerned with the entire context of a person’s life. That includes issues that aren’t related to mental health and psychological functioning. A person needing help finding employment wouldn’t need a counselor or psychotherapist, but a social worker would be ideal in that circumstance. Psychologists address mental illness and recovery from mental illness. Counselors help people address issues of adjustment, including how to cope with life’s traumas or how to develop skills for a more satisfying life.

In general, social workers address everything that a person needs to have high social functioning. However, social workers may be licensed as therapists and can provide counseling services, if they are trained and licensed to do so.

Studying Social Work and Social Work Coursework

A social work career begins with an undergraduate degree. Social work requires at least a bachelor’s degree from a university accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). A bachelor’s degree in social work is an entry-level degree and prepares students to perform generalist-type activities. A person can become a licensed social worker (LSW) with a bachelor’s degree.

A typical college social work curriculum includes the following courses:

  • Abnormal Psychology
  • Social Statistics
  • Methods of Social Research (statistics)
  • Introduction to Social Work
  • Social Work Case Management
  • Social Problems
  • Social Work Practice I
  • Human Behavior in Social Environment I
  • Human Behavior in Social Environment II
  • Cultural Diversity (cultural diversity and cultural competence are taught at the bachelor’s and graduate levels).
  • Social Work Practice II
  • Field Experience I
  • Field Experience Seminar
  • Field Experience II
  • Social Work Practice III
  • Social Welfare Policy
  • Social and Psychological Theories (conflict theory, psychodynamic theory, rational choice theory, social choices theory and developmental theory are all commonly taught)

Social work courses are often broken down into multiple classes, especially field experience courses. Social work field training involves hands-on experience that spans multiple semesters. A bachelor’s degree in social work typically takes four years to complete, with another two years for earning a master’s degree.

Graduate Social Work Coursework

A master’s degree in social work gives a student more flexibility and greater job opportunities than a bachelor’s degree. At the master’s level, a student’s coursework is tailored to fit their area of specialty, such as adult mental health, children, youth and family services, or social change and social justice. Those are just a few of the more commonly encountered specialty tracks in social work higher education.

Some common graduate level social work courses include health and social policy, advanced group dynamics, human sexuality and dysfunctions, social work and law, theory and practice of counseling (specialized for the student’s target population), social work with adolescents, crisis intervention and many others. Supervised internships are a part of both undergraduate and graduate social work curricula.

Social Work Licensure

Licensure in social work ensures that all practitioners meet a high standard of practice. All states maintain their own licensing boards in social work which define the standards and requirements for social work licensure. States vary widely by their requirements, but in general there are three levels of training and educational requirements at which a person may be licensed.

  1. Bachelor’s level: A bachelor’s degree social work degree (BSW)
  1. Master’s level: Master’s degree in social work (MSW)
  2. Clinical: A master’s degree in social work plus at least two years of supervised social work experience in a clinical setting.

Key Questions in Social Work

Social work is also a research field that seeks to describe and illuminate the problems people face in their social environment and solutions to those problems. Some of those areas include:

  • What events and aspects of our society promote poverty? The elimination of poverty and the alleviation of its effects has been a prominent goal of social work since its inception.
  • How do we reduce bullying and cyberbullying? Bullying and cyberbullying causes fatalities every year. Social workers are studying how to reduce and eliminate bullying by looking at its social determinants.
  • How does racism manifest itself and how can institutional and cultural racism be eliminated? The age-old problem of racism continues to plague people in America. Addressing it and its associated evils continues to be a big part of social work in the 21st
  • How does aging affect a person in terms of their mental health, social support and life satisfaction? As more and more people are living into their 80s and 90s, people are outliving their social support systems. This leads to loneliness and isolation. Helping people adjust to extremely advanced age is a challenge that will only increase for social workers in the mid-21st
  • How is the ongoing digital revolution affecting society? As our society becomes even more computerized and automated, people are affected in ways we don’t fully perceive or understand. Social workers will be at the forefront of helping people continue to make the culture shift into an even more technical era.

Career Outlook in Social Work

Social work as a career is expanding around 11 percent a year. That’s much more rapidly than the national average. The median pay for a bachelor’s level licensed social worker (LSW) is around 47,000 dollars a year, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook

SWDC Staff

January 2020