How to Become a Social Worker

Written by: Ann Feeney
Last Updated: July 2023

Do you want to make a difference for people struggling with unmet needs? Social work comprises three main aspects: connecting individuals to resources and helping them navigate the system, providing counseling, and working at the systemic level to address community needs.

Explore this guide to learn how to become a social worker, what the work entails, and what kind of education and licensing you need to begin this career.

Five Steps to Become a Social Worker

Every state regulates social work in different ways, but the general pathway of how to become a social worker is similar across all states. You must complete a degree, pass a licensing examination, and apply for a state license.

  1. Earn a Bachelor's Degree: You can earn a bachelor's degree in any liberal art or science program to become a social worker. However, if you earn a bachelor of social work (BSW), you may be eligible for an advanced standing master of social work (MSW) degree, which can help you finish your degree in one year.
  2. Earn a Master's Degree in Social Work: In most states, you need an MSW to apply for a social work license. The MSW curriculum covers the effective practice of social work in the classroom, and you will apply these principles in supervised fieldwork. Many MSW programs offer specializations in a particular setting or population, while others offer a generalist degree.
  3. Complete Supervised Experience Hours: Once you graduate, you must perform approximately 3,000 hours of supervised social work. The specific number of hours varies by state and by the type of license you are applying for.
  4. Pass the Association of Social Work Boards' (ASWB) Exam: You must pass the applicable ASWB examination. Most states have two main licenses: a licensed master social worker (LMSW) and a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). For most entry-level social worker positions, you need an LMSW and will take the ASWB master's exam. For the next level, LCSW, you must take the clinical exam.
  5. Obtain Social Work Licensure in Your State: Finally, you must go through the licensing process for your state. In most states, you will send in confirmation of your degrees, your completion of required supervised hours, confirmation that you passed the ASWB exam, a completed application, and the required fees.

Popular Online Social Work Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

What Do Social Workers Do?

There are many different types of social workers who perform responsibilities in various settings and with various populations. Some specialize in school and school-age children and their families, others focus on older adults. Additional specializations include helping people experiencing homelessness or members of the military and veterans.

Licensed master social workers connect clients to the resources that they need and help them navigate various systems. Many clients have multiple issues they want to address, such as mental health and food insecurity. Social workers guide them to resources and instruct them on how to use these resources. Licensed clinical social workers provide counseling to their clients, as well as providing referrals to resources and support accessing them.

Social Worker Responsibilities

  • Needs Assessment: Discuss a client's situation and determine their needs.
  • Service Plan: Once you understand a client's needs, create a plan for addressing their needs in partnership with your client.
  • Case Management: Manage and update information related to the plan and the individual's progress
  • Maintaining Awareness of Resources and Building Relationships with Providers: Social workers have to know what resources are available and how to connect clients to those resources.
  • Advocacy: Social workers often work to change systems or communities, as well as helping individuals. They might advise on school programs to prevent bullying, ways to make it easier to find affordable housing, or otherwise create a more supportive environment.

Social Worker Traits

Common traits associated with social workers include:

  • Empathy: You must be able to interact with people and understand their situation and perspectives.
  • Stress Management: Social work can often involve navigating stressful scenarios with clients.
  • Cultural Competence: Most social workers have clients from other cultural backgrounds, so must manage effective and respectful communication across backgrounds.
  • Time Management: Social workers typically have many demands on their time.
  • Observation Skills: Clients may not always be able to express themselves verbally. Strong observation skills can help determine if a client has unexpressed needs.

Social Worker Workplaces

Common workplaces for social workers include:

  • Schools: Many social workers specialize in school environments.
  • Hospitals: Social workers often help clients access additional resources during their hospital stays or after they are discharged.
  • Shelters and Supportive Living: Social workers help clients access and benefit from shelters or supportive living.
  • Military Cases: Social workers help military members and their families with the challenges of military life.
  • Child Welfare Agencies: Social workers help support families with children and provide the families with what they need to thrive.

Social Worker Salary and Career Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports a median salary of $59,440 for social workers, as of May 2022. The lowest-paid 10% of social workers earn less than $36,600, while the highest-paid 10% earned at least $87,300. Salary varies based on geographic location and local cost of living, experience, and the type of employer, as seen below.

The BLS reports 689,750 social workers in the United States. About half of these are child, family, and school social workers. It also projects that social work employment will grow 9% between 2021 and 2031, which is faster than the growth projected across all jobs.

Median Annual Social Worker Salaries, by Occupation
Occupation Salary
Child, family, and school social workers $56,680
Healthcare social workers $62,760
Mental health and substance abuse social workers $60,130
Social workers, all other $64,360

Source: BLS, 2022

Frequently Asked Questions about Becoming a Social Worker

How do I start a career in social work?

There is an important difference between a career in social work and a career as a social worker. States supervise licensing for social workers and establish who can call themselves a social worker. However, you can work for a social work provider without having a social work license. If you want to become a social worker, you must have an MSW and pass an examination.

How long does it take to become a social worker?

It takes 5-6 years to become a social worker. You must have a bachelor's degree, followed by an MSW. If you have a BSW, you may be able to earn your MSW in one year. Otherwise, it takes two years. You then need to complete a certain number of supervised hours to become licensed.

What are the three levels of social work?

The three levels of social work are micro, mezzo, and macro. Each of these refers to the position of people in their environments. The micro level is the individual, such as a counseling client. Macro work is the big picture, at the community, national, or international levels, which addresses systems rather than individuals. Mezzo is between these, addressing the needs of a group of individuals within one system, such as students in a school or older adults in a community.

What are the highest-paying social work jobs?

The highest-paid social workers are those with the most rigorous licensing requirements or additional training requirements, such as LCSWs and health social workers. Other factors affecting salary include geographic location and cost of living, experience, additional certifications or qualifications, and type of employer.