Many people dream of making a positive difference in the world through their careers. While there are plenty of impactful professions that fit this description, becoming a social worker is one invaluable way you can achieve this goal while bettering the lives of people in need.
But before you can create positive impacts through social work, you’ll need to learn how to become a social worker.
To practice this specific field of social service, you must complete a specific set of education requirements, fieldwork, exams, and other components, depending on your chosen specialty. These requirements help to ensure you have the tools necessary to advocate for vulnerable populations, advance social welfare, and improve the lives of people within their communities.
Step 1: Earn Your Bachelor’s Degree
Social workers need to complete specialized education to practice in the field. At the very minimum, all social workers must have an undergraduate degree, either to apply for entry-level jobs or to pursue advanced education in social work.
You can either earn your undergraduate degree in social work or another subject. Here’s how these two options compare:
Bachelor’s degree in social work
One way to become a social worker is to earn your bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW). During a BSW program, you’ll likely learn about the fundamentals of social work, human behavior, and the social environment. Some entry-level jobs within the social work field may only require a BSW to begin work. However, others may require you to have a master’s degree in social work (MSW).
Bachelor’s degree in another subject
You can also become a certified social worker by earning your master of social work degree after completing a bachelor’s degree in another subject. If you intend to enroll in an MSW program, you don’t necessarily need to have earned a BSW—any bachelor’s degree will suffice. Many social workers study behavioral sciences like psychology, sociology, communications, or political science during their undergraduate education.
When asking how long it takes to become a social worker, the benefit of obtaining a BSW over other bachelor’s degrees is that it may help you complete your MSW faster. Some universities offer accelerated MSW programs for students who come in with their BSW. These advanced standing programs may take less time to complete. As a result, earning your BSW before graduate school may enable you to start your social work career sooner than later.
However, if you have already completed an unrelated bachelor’s degree, you still have options within this field. You may simply need to complete a few prerequisites in addition to your MSW coursework.
Step 2: Earn Your Master’s Degree in Social Work
If you earned a bachelor’s degree in something besides social work or simply want to expand your social work jobs and opportunities after earning a BSW, earning your MSW can be a valuable next step.
Generally, MSW programs take around two years to complete if you attend your program full-time.1 As we mentioned earlier, you may be able to expedite your social work graduate education if you already possess a BSW. However, your unique MSW path may vary depending on your previous degree, full-time or part-time status, and how quickly you complete your courses.
In your MSW degree program, you’ll likely learn about the theory, ethics, and practice of social work. Your curriculum may cover the following topics:
- Case management
- Therapeutic intervention
- Human rights
- Economic, environmental, and social justice
- Social work ethics
- Grant writing
How to Choose an MSW Program
Before you enroll in an MSW program, it’s important to do your research and make sure it meets certain stipulations.
To ensure your degree gives you the necessary qualifications to become a certified social worker, when it comes to how to get a master’s in social work, you may want to look for MSW programs that offer:
- Accreditation – Accredited MSW programs meet educational standards laid out by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). CSWE accreditation is a positive indicator of the quality and rigor of an MSW program. Most states’ social work licensure boards require students to acquire their master’s degrees from CSWE-accredited MSW programs before they can apply for their social work licenses.
- Specialization – Social work is a broad field with many potential specializations. For example, you can specialize in working with schoolchildren, veterans, individuals struggling with substance abuse, or medical patients. If you want to someday serve a certain population, look for an MSW degree program that offers specialization in that area.
- Flexibility – If you’re balancing a job, family, or other commitments alongside your education, earning a master’s degree may be easier when you have control over your schedule. For instance, you may prefer to attend classes part-time rather than full-time, or take evening classes. Some MSW programs may offer more flexibility than others.
- Online offerings – You may also want to choose an MSW program that you can attend online. Online programs may offer more flexibility, especially if you have other obligations or live far from your chosen university’s campus.
Step 3: Fulfill Your Required Fieldwork
Alongside your MSW coursework, you will also need to complete supervised field practicum hours. Supervised fieldwork provides social work students with a supportive setting in which they can practice their new skills and knowledge.
Most MSW programs require you to complete a minimum of 900 to 1,200 hours of fieldwork to graduate, though accelerated or advanced standing programs may require as little as 500 hours.2
Generally, you can choose your preferred type of fieldwork. As a result, you can use your fieldwork experiences to experience different social work environments, human services, and learn what populations you want to work with in the future.
During your work experience, you can also start thinking about the scope of social work you want to focus on during your career. The three scopes of social work are as follows:
- Micro-social work – The micro level of the social work practice involves working with individual clients. As a micro-social worker, you can engage one-on-one with people in need, such as people in poverty looking for affordable housing or people with substance abuse issues seeking treatment services.
- Mezzo-social work – The mezzo level of social work is characterized by working with groups of people in need. At this level, for instance, you may choose to specialize in working with hospital patients, incarcerated people, or schoolchildren.
- Macro-social work – At the macro level, you can help make positive changes on a broad scale in your community. For example, you can research and develop helpful social services and programs. You can also advocate for vulnerable populations and advise your local policymakers.
Step 4: Apply for a Social Work License in Your State
To work within certain social work practice settings and positions, you may need to become licensed to practice as a social worker after earning your master of social work degree.
The social work licensure process may differ slightly depending on where you live. In general, however, you’ll need to:
- Register for the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) Social Work Licensing exam
- Pay the associated registration fees (these typically cost a few hundred dollars)
- Take the ASWB Social Work Licensing exam
The ASWB Social Work Licensing exam is typically administered on the computer. It has 170 multiple-choice questions, 150 of which are used to determine your score. You have up to four hours to complete this exam.3
If you pass the ASWB Social Work Licensing exam, you can officially receive your social work license and start practicing in the field.
The Different Types of Social Work Licenses
It’s important to note that there are several different types of social work licenses you can apply for. The type of license you seek may vary depending on your level of education and what social work position you hope to apply for.
These licenses are as follows:
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW) – This license is for students who have earned their BSW.
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LBSW) – This license is for students who have earned their MSW.
- Licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) – This license is for students who have their MSW and who have completed specialized clinical training and coursework. For more on MSW vs LCSW, check out our blog.
To choose the right type of license, research the requirements for specific social work settings you aim to work in. For example, if you seek to provide mental health care therapy, mental illness treatment, and diagnosis within clinical settings, you will first need to earn your LCSW.
Step 5: Apply for Your First Job as a Social Worker
Once you’ve completed your education and obtained your social work license, you can start applying for social worker jobs. The social work job market is vast and varied, so there are many potential directions you can take your career.
What does a social worker do? Here are a few of the common job titles for social workers:
- Case manager
- Program director
- Social services director
- School social worker
- Medical social worker
- Healthcare social worker
- Military social worker
- Child and family social worker
- Licensed clinical social worker
- Mental health therapist
If you don’t know where to start your job search, try reaching out to practicing social workers in your area. They may be able to connect you with helpful career resources or invite you to local networking events.
Factors to Consider in Choosing a Social Work Career
As an aspiring social worker, salary alone should not be the only factor to take into account. You also need to examine the scope of practice, specialization options, and licensing prerequisites to make an informed decision.
- State License Requirements - State requirements are not necessarily all the same. Many states permit the transfer of education, experience, and even exam scores from one state to another. If you plan your education and experience based on your desired work location, the process of getting your license and starting your practice is quicker and smoother.
- Scope of Practice - This helps ensure that the job aligns with your professional goals, skills, and areas of expertise. It allows you to work within the boundaries of your training and competencies. You can also provide safe and effective services to clients.
- Area of Specialization - Selecting a specialty within social work allows you to focus on the education and experience requirements needed to fulfill your goals. You can choose from medical social work, school social work, clinical social work, and more. With a specific area of expertise, your interventions are tailored to the targeted needs of the populations you serve.
- Level of Work - Considering the level of work lets you plan for your professional growth and advancement. For example, clinical social workers are at micro level so they need a license so they can conduct one-on-one counsel with individual clients. By setting goals and targeting specific levels of work, you can map out a path for advancement and development in the field.
Step 6: Keep Up With Your Continuing Education Requirements
The field of social work is constantly evolving to accommodate new research, methodologies, and regulations. As a result, social workers must keep up with continuing education to stay updated on the latest developments.
In addition, you may be required to complete continuing education to keep your social work license in good standing. Most states require you to renew your license every two years.4 To qualify for renewal, you’ll need to fulfill the required number of hours of approved courses within that time frame.
Approved continuing education courses and requirements may include:
- Attending courses, workshops, conferences, or symposiums
- Engaging in staff development at your workplace
- Writing papers about social work
- Presenting social work-related research findings
- Participating in independent studies
You can find detailed information regarding your jurisdiction’s continuing education requirements on the Association of Social Work Boards website.5
Fulfilling these requirements and continuing to build your knowledge is an impactful way to ensure you provide the best care and services possible to the people you serve.
Enroll in a Master’s of Social Work Program with Alliant International University
Becoming a social worker can set you up for a career full of purpose and positive change. As a licensed social worker, you’ll be able to help others access vital resources and services and improve the well-being of your community.
Are you ready to embark on your journey to becoming a social worker? If so, consider enrolling in the MSW program offered at the California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP) at Alliant International University.
Our MSW program can help you obtain the educational foundation you need to enter the social work profession with confidence.
Explore your educational opportunities at Alliant today.
- “Master’s in Social Work (MSW) Degree Programs Guide.” Social Work License Map. October 2021. https://socialworklicensemap.com/social-work-degrees/master-of-social-w…. Accessed May 26, 2022.
- “Field Education: Translating Pedagogy Into Practice.” Masters of Social Work. https://www.masterofsocialwork.com/field-education/. Accessed May 26, 2022.
- “What is the ASWB Licensing Exam?” Socialworklicensure.org.
https://socialworklicensure.org/articles/aswb-exam/. Accessed May 26, 2022.
- “Getting Your Social Work License: State by State Requirements.” Student Training & Education in Public Service. March 4, 2021. https://www.publicservicedegrees.org/resources/social-work-licensure-by…. Accessed May 26, 2022.
- “Continuing competence.” Association of Social Work Boards. https://www.aswb.org/licenses/continuing-competence/. Accessed May 26, 2022.