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How to Become a Social Worker

A step-by-step guide to entering the field of social work.

If you’re someone who likes helping people solve problems, is good at navigating complex systems, and is committed to social justice, a career in social work might be for you.

But where do you start? Do you need a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work? What kind of credentials should you have?

While becoming a social worker does require a serious commitment to a rigorous course of study and a willingness to put in the effort to gain experience, the path is relatively straightforward. Here are a few steps to consider on your path to becoming a social worker.

Step 1: Understand the field of social work.
“Social worker” is a broad term applied to a wide variety of professional roles. Similar to clinical psychologists and therapists, social workers work with individuals, families, and groups to help them overcome difficult life challenges. However, what makes social work different is that it focuses on helping people in the context of relationships, policies, and systems that affect their lives while addressing issues of social justice.

Social workers take a holistic approach to helping others through a wide variety of roles, including:

  • Licensed clinical social worker (LCSW)
  • Mental health counselor
  • School social worker
  • Case worker
  • Social service assistant 
  • Clinical social worker
  • Child or family social worker
  • Healthcare or medical social worker
  • Private or public agency leader or director
  • Public health social worker  

Regardless of the job title, social workers all share a commitment to these four principles:1

  • Promoting social welfare
  • Helping people of all backgrounds overcome their unique challenges 
  • Advocating for social and economic justice for all members of the community
  • Embodying a professional code of ethics  

Step 2: Get some experience.
If you haven’t had any hands-on experience with social work, you may want to do some work in the field first to make sure it’s a good fit. One of the best ways to do so is by volunteering.

Where should you volunteer? That’s up to you. There are a lot of opportunities out there for people interested in helping others. Look to hospitals, schools, and community organizations for opportunities where you’ll be able to directly engage with people in need. Let them know when you contact them that you’re considering a career in social work. These organizations often employ social workers to work with volunteers, so you may have the opportunity to talk with people already in the profession.

Step 3: Earn a degree.
Having a bachelor’s degree is important—particularly a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). That will provide the bare minimum to begin a career as a social worker. If you’ve already earned you bachelor’s, but it’s not a BSW, you’ve still got options—especially if you have a social sciences degree such as psychology or sociology. Your next step would be to earn a Master of Social Work (MSW).

While you can work as a social worker in most states with a BSW degree, the MSW opens a wider range of career options. You’ll have a higher earning potential, too. According to the National Association of Social Workers, social workers with an MSW make more than $13,000 per year more than social workers with a BSW.2 Most MSW programs take two years of full-time study, either in person or online. However, if you already have a Bachelor of Social Work, many schools—including Walden University—offer an accelerated option that allows you to complete your MSW degree in less time.

If you have a bachelor’s degree in another field and are working full time but wish to earn your MSW degree, it’s possible to pursue an MSW part time through an online MSW degree program such as Walden’s. With the standard option, you can take one or two courses per term, and while it may take you longer to graduate than if you were enrolled in a full-time program, there are benefits. Namely, you’ll be able to keep your job (and your income). It may also allow you to take advantage of your employer’s tuition reimbursement or tuition remission benefits.

Regardless of which path you take, most MSW programs require academic instruction and field experience to graduate.

Step 4: Get licensed.
You’ll be able to prepare for licensure with the right degree program. Many jobs at the master’s level require you to be licensed by your state, especially when you will be working with or counseling individuals. Every state has its own requirements for licensure, so it is important to check with your state licensure board before beginning your MSW program to make sure that the program will meet your state’s education requirements.

Typically, licenses are offered at four levels:

  1. Bachelor’s: Licensees with a BSW degree
  2. Master’s: Licensees with an MSW degree
  3. Advanced generalist: MSW plus two years of non-clinical supervised social work experience
  4. Clinical: MSW plus two years of direct clinical supervised social work experience. People at this level often are able to include the LCSW (licensed clinical social worker) credential after their name.

Step 5: Get a job.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment outlook for social workers is very good, with social work jobs expected to expand 13% between 2019 and 2029. That means more than 90,000 new workers will be needed to fill critical job openings during this period.3 The BLS reports that the median annual wage for social workers in 2019 was $50,470.4

Where should you look for a job? Typically, social workers find employment at hospitals, in government, at ambulatory healthcare services, or at individual or family service organizations. You may also want to talk to the people in the career planning and development office of your school for help in your job search.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering multiple social work degrees, including online Bachelor of Social Work and Master of Social Work (MSW) degree programs. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient online format that fits your busy life.


Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,