Social work is an extremely important and rewarding – if also a challenging – career to have. It is a job that focuses on helping the most vulnerable people in our society to cope with the myriad difficulties and problems that life can throw up. This could be anything from divorce, crime, and terminal illness to unemployment, alcohol addiction and even child abuse. It is also a profession that strives to raise awareness among the general public and lawmakers at all levels of the sorts of issues that affect those they work with, in order to bring about real and long-lasting improvements to people’s lives and the world more widely.
If you are passionate about helping those in need and making a genuine difference in your community, social work could be the perfect career choice for you. Thanks to the increasing availability of online MSW programs (Master’s in Social Work degrees), it is also an option that’s now available to you even if you have existing work and family commitments that prevent you from returning to college and attending a more traditional on-campus degree program.
In this post we’ll take you through a step-by-step guide on how to become a social worker. This will help you to figure out firstly if it’s the path that you definitely want to take, and secondly how to get started on your journey. From online MSW programs to job paths and specialisms, it has an overview of everything you need to know to kickstart your new career!
1. Research the career thoroughly
Before you start applying to online MSW programs or do anything else, you want to make sure that social work is the right career for you. Spend some time reading about what the day-to-day nature of the job is like, and the sorts of tasks you will have to do, then have a think about whether or not it suits your personality. There are plenty of online blogs and articles out there to help you with this.
Luckily the variety of jobs available to you as a social worker is huge, so even if there are some aspects of the field that don’t appeal to you there may well be others that do. For example, here are some of the different areas that you could choose to work in:
- Healthcare – supporting people to understand their medical diagnosis and adjust to new treatments and medications, as well as protecting patient rights
- Mental health – supporting people with mental health conditions, for example, by providing counseling services and psychotherapy
- Substance abuse – supporting people who are suffering from alcohol addiction or misuse of prescription or illicit drugs, for example by connecting them with support groups and programs
- Schools – supporting students who are struggling with issues such as bullying, class absences, negative behavior or learning difficulties
- Children and families – supporting vulnerable families to access services such as childcare, housing and food stamps, as well as investigating instances of child abuse and neglect
- Elderly people – supporting older people to ensure their specific needs are being met, and helping them to access services that will allow them to live a more independent life
- Military personnel – supporting active members of the military, veterans, and their families with issues such as returning to civilian life and coping with PTSD
- Criminal justice – supporting prisoners and their families to cope with incarceration, and helping recently released inmates to become productive members of society
- Trauma – supporting people who have lived through traumatic events, from natural disasters to abuse, and helping them to heal and recover
- Refugees – supporting refugees to ensure that their basic needs are met, helping them settle into their new communities, and advocating for their rights
As well as researching what the job entails, it is also worth thinking about the qualities that are necessary for becoming a good social worker. The following are a selection of the skills and personality traits you will need to have or develop in order to succeed. Some of these you will be able to learn on online MSW programs or in-person courses, but others you might need to work on personally:
- Compassion and a drive to help others
- Empathy so you can relate to the situations other people are in
- Passion for helping others and your community
- Patience for dealing with difficult people and situations
- Passion for helping your local community and those in need
- The capacity to remain calm under pressure
- The ability to make difficult decisions in tough situations
- Active listening and observation skills for better communication
- The desire to continue learning throughout your career
- A willingness to be a voice for those who can’t stand up for themselves
- The ability to not let troubling cases affect your own mental health
- Excellent time management and organization skills to deal with multiple cases at once
- Cultural awareness to work with people from a variety of different backgrounds
- Resilience and persistence to not give up when the situation gets tough
- Creativity and critical thinking to come up with possible solutions to a wide variety of problems
- The ability to inspire and motivate others to succeed
If this sounds like you, the next step is to begin your social work education!
2. Complete the educational requirements
In order to become a qualified social worker, you will need to complete either a Bachelor’s in Social Work (BSW) or a Master’s in Social Work (MSW). Completing in-person or online MSW programs does not require you to have a BSW, though you will normally need an undergraduate degree of some sort to be eligible.
When it comes to choosing between a Bachelor’s or a Master’s program, there are a few factors to bear in mind. A Master’s degree will require more time and effort, but you will graduate with a higher qualification. This means you will be eligible for clinical social worker roles that come with greater responsibilities (such as diagnosing and treating mental health conditions) and a correspondingly higher salary. This makes it a good choice for ensuring employability, financial stability and job security.
Nowadays you have the choice to study both part-time and full-time courses, as well as pick between online and in-person programs. The right one for you will depend on your lifestyle and individual circumstances, but those who wish to combine their studies with their existing job may find that online study is more convenient. It offers the flexibility to study at a time, day, place and pace that suits you, without compromising on the quality of your education. On the other hand if you’re hoping for the full college experience – for instance taking part in social activities and joining societies on campus – then an in-person course might be preferable for you.
Assuming your ambition is to take the option of studying for one of the many excellent on-campus or online MSW programs rather than just a BSW, you will complete a selection of core and elective modules as part of your studies. These will cover topics such as:
- Human behavior and the social environment
- Research in social work
- Mental health practice and interventions
- Social policy and planning in human services
- Crisis intervention
- Mediation for social workers
- Social welfare policy
- Trauma: theory, assessment and treatment
- Adult and child psychopathology
- Social work practice with children and youth
- Social work practice with elders
- Community social work
- Disaster response
- Treatment of addictions
- Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue
- Gender issues
- Restorative justice
- Loss and grief
- Military culture for social workers
- Scientific methods in social work
- Human rights and social justice
- Diversity and oppression
Usually you have the chance to either choose a study track that focuses on the area of social work you are intending to work in, or to pick a range of elective modules that best reflect your personal interests.
As well as the reading and assignments for your modules, you might have to produce a dissertation and/or complete an independent research project. This will be in an area of your choice, enabling you to focus on the specific aspects of social work that you are most interested in and are most relevant to the job you are hoping to do after you graduate.
There is also a requirement to complete a certain number of hours of hands-on training in a real-world setting – even for online MSW programs, in which case the internships will be arranged at a location near where you live. You can expect a minimum requirement of 900 hours, although the way this will be split up and organized can vary
Field placements can be completed at any number of relevant institutions, for example hospitals, schools, hospices, mental health centers, nonprofit organizations, correctional facilities or substance abuse treatment centers. This allows you to tailor your experiences to your personal career aspirations. Wherever you go, you will be working under the supervision and guidance of a fully qualified and experienced mentor who can show you the ropes and answer any questions you have.
These internships are a fantastic way to get a feel for what the job of a social worker is really like, and get some practical experience where you can put what you’ve learned to good use helping people. They also provide a great opportunity to try out a couple of different roles, to see which areas and positions suit you best. Plus they are a handy way to start building up a professional network before graduating, so be sure to make the most of yours!
3. Apply for your license
Once you’ve graduated from your BSW or online MSW programs, you may need to get a license depending on the specific job you’re hoping to do. Nonclinical social workers might require a license or certification, so check the exact requirements for the state that you are intending to work in.
For those who graduate from in-person or online MSW programs and wish to go on to be a clinical social worker, the requirements are a bit more stringent. The specifics vary from state to state, but you will most likely need to complete a certain number of supervised practice hours and then go on to sit and pass an examination.
Having been granted your license, you can then go on to start applying for jobs. In fact many people begin their search beforehand, so it can be a good idea to think about this step even whilst you’re studying. The links that you make during your course – both with faculty members and the mentors you complete your field placements with – can be extremely helpful here.
4. Complete continuing education throughout your career
Like many jobs, social work requires you to continue learning throughout your career. Sometimes this is a state requirement in order to renew your license every two years, and you will have to complete a minimum number of hours of continuing education or take certain specified courses. However, even if it’s not mandated, undertaking continuing education is still a good idea in order to keep your skills sharp.
For those who want to reach the very highest educational level in social work, after online MSW programs pursuing a doctoral degree in the field might be an appealing choice. The two main options are a Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) and a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Social Work. The rough difference between the two degrees is that the DSW prepares you for leadership roles and working as an administrator, trainer or evaluator, whereas the PhD prepares you for careers in research, teaching and policy development.
Alternatively, following online MSW programs you can instead choose to further specialize in your chosen area by completing professional development courses, certificates, and self-study modules that are specifically relevant to your job role. Be sure to research these carefully before signing up, to ensure that they are both useful and credible. In particular, they usually have to be accredited in order to count towards any official professional development requirements you need to fulfil.
Of course, if you are genuinely passionate about your career then maintaining your knowledge and skills in the field should be no problem at all – the only difficulty will be finding the time to fit it all in!