Careers in Social Work

Social work graduates enjoy access to ample career opportunities in a variety of practice settings and specialties, providing targeted services and support for the diverse needs of multiple populations.

While a bachelor of social work (BSW) clears a path to many entry-level positions, most social work careers require a master of social work (MSW). According to a recent workforce survey by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), job seekers with an MSW can expect to find many job opportunities.

Over 80% of MSW graduates report finding multiple positions within their local areas. Social workers willing to relocate can find even more opportunities nationally.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the overall employment for all types of social workers to grow by 13% between 2019 and 2029. The rate of job growth proves particularly strong for clinical social workers, due to the steady growth of healthcare spending and commitment to treatment options across the nation.

What Does a Social Worker Do?

Social work offers rewarding yet challenging careers providing help to people of all ages and backgrounds. These professionals often work in vulnerable communities, giving treatment, support, and advocacy.

Social workers might assist victims of abuse or help couples cope with divorce. They often serve as advocates, connecting veterans and other clients with essential services and resources. According to the CSWE survey, over a third of social workers holding an MSW work specifically with children and families, while 26% provide services to clients with mental health issues.

Roles and responsibilities vary by position, specialty, and degree type. BSW graduates generally hold positions with more limited responsibilities than MSWs, but they can expect to find many entry-level and nonclinical jobs, such as case managers, mental health aides, and community outreach workers.

Clinical social work, which requires an MSW and a license, leads to careers that entail much broader responsibilities, including diagnosing and treating clients struggling with difficult life challenges, from trauma and abuse to addiction and homelessness.

Where Does a Social Worker Work?

Social workers find employment in schools, government and social service agencies, ambulatory medical services, and private practice. Duties differ depending on the work setting. Social workers may spend their time working with clients in offices, traveling to schools or remote locations, or providing telehealth services through videoconferencing.

Individual and family services, local and state government, and ambulatory healthcare services employ the largest number of social workers. Over 82% of the CSWE survey respondents provide direct services to individuals, families, and groups.

More than 31% of those surveyed work for nonprofit organizations, while over 17% work for state, local, or federal government agencies. The majority of social workers in government positions work at state or local agencies. One quarter of the survey respondents work in healthcare settings: 16.3% in outpatient services, compared to 8.8% working in inpatient settings.

Understanding Micro, Mezzo and Macro Social Work Practice

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) differentiates between three systems of social work practice, each based on the Person-in-Environment Theory: micro, mezzo, and macro social work. Social workers might focus on one level, or might participate in aspects of each of them.

  • Micro Social Work

    This level describes the individual focus used by licensed clinical social workers (LCSW), such as therapists or school social workers. Micro social workers address the personal experience of their clients, helping them to overcome physical, emotional, and mental health issues. LCSWs often work with vulnerable individuals, such as victims of domestic violence and people with disabilities.

  • Mezzo Social Work

    Mezzo social workers may provide services to individuals but focus primarily on the problem-solving that impacts multiple clients, or "client systems," including families, friends, community groups, and schools. Typically trained as LCSWs, mezzo social workers help clients achieve treatment goals, collaborating with other client systems and agencies, and serving as community advocates and liaisons. They may provide support services for students dealing with depression or bullying, or connect victims of abuse with legal aid and other resources.

  • Macro Social Work

    Macro social work centers on alleviating societal problems to improve the quality of life locally and nationally. Although macro social workers do not need to hold a license, they should have training in theory, research, and ethics. Employed in government agencies, nonprofits, and other organizations, they conduct research, prepare policy statements, support legislation, and serve in advocacy roles that do not involve individual clients. For example, they may lobby to change healthcare laws or work with activist groups to expand programs for at-risk populations.

Entry Level Social Work Careers

Because of the projected job growth for all types of social workers, BSW graduates and graduates of associate programs can find a promising number of entry-level career opportunities in child welfare, social and human services, case management, and other positions like those described below.

Although the job market continues to favor MSW graduates, many BSWs qualify for rewarding careers at the macro level, working with a variety of community organizations, advocacy groups, and policymakers, conducting research and developing social welfare initiatives.

Child Welfare

Child welfare specialists work in government and social service agencies protecting the interests of children-at-risk, reporting suspected cases of neglect or abuse, and providing family preservation services. Their duties may include case management, crisis intervention, and advocacy. BSW graduates qualify for most positions in this field without acquiring a license. According to PayScale, child welfare specialists receive an average annual salary of $49,975, but earnings vary widely, between $31,000 and $61,000, depending on years of experience and the employer's location.

Social and Human Service Assistant

Social and human service assistants provide support to an array of clients, including children, families, the elderly, immigrants, and people with disabilities. They confer with social workers, community health managers, and other professionals to determine the kind of assistance their clients need, and follow up to ensure that their clients have the appropriate benefits and services. Social and human service assistants may enter the field with a high school or associate degree, earning a median annual salary of $35,000.

Health Educator

Working primarily in government agencies and hospitals, health educators teach people how to manage existing health conditions and how to find health services and resources. They also provide training for community health workers. Health educators need at least a bachelor's degree to enter the field but may improve their employment prospects by acquiring the certified health education specialist (CHES) credential. While these specialists earn a median annual salary of $55,220, those with the most experience, education, and credentials can make over $98,000 a year.

Social Science Research Assistant

Social science research assistants provide support for social scientists engaged in laboratory, survey, or other research projects. They may perform statistical analysis, help with data entry and management, and provide assistance preparing research reports. Scientific research organizations, higher education institutions, and government agencies offer the most employment opportunities, paying an average yearly salary of $50,420. While a bachelor's degree serves as the minimum education requirement to enter this field, social science research assistants must also possess superior writing and analytical skills and knowledge of computer software.

Social Work Case Manager

Although social work case managers do not provide direct services to clients, they perform a variety of roles at social service agencies organizing client services and files. While most social work case managers begin their careers with a BSW or related bachelor's degree, an MSW improves employment prospects. Case managers just entering the field make an annual salary of $35,400. BSW-holders with at least three years of work experience often seek the certified social work case manager (C-SWCM) credential to advance in their careers.

Social Work Careers by Specialty

Because social workers cover multiple practice areas and provide assistance to many diverse demographic groups, the field has developed several distinct specializations. While some of the careers described here require at least a BSW to qualify for employment, the MSW is considered the preferred degree for a growing number of fields.

NASW offers several advanced practice specialty certifications, primarily for MSW graduates but with some options for BSW degree-holders. These credentials enable social workers to advance their careers and increase their earning potential by meeting national professional standards that establish specialized knowledge and experience beyond the earned degree.

Geriatric Social Worker

Geriatric medical social workers find employment in hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes, providing services to elderly clients as they adjust to the physical and emotional aspects of aging. They offer support for senior adults coping with illness or depression and help connect them with services and resources that enhance their quality of life. NASW offers three specialized certificates for gerontological social work, including one for BSWs. Depending on the type of employer, a geriatric social worker earns an average annual salary of $41,230.

Corrections Social Worker

Corrections social workers, also known as correctional treatment specialists, play an increasingly important role as the U.S. deals with a rising incarceration rate. These specialists not only provide rehabilitative services for inmates, released prisoners, and others in the criminal justice system, but also provide support and resources for individuals and families impacted by the offenders' actions. Correctional treatment specialists, who earn a median annual salary of $54,290, may enter this field with a BSW or related degree, though MSW graduates may find greater employment and salary prospects.

Child and Family Social Worker

Child and family social workers help protect vulnerable children and families. They often work with at-risk children in danger of abuse or neglect and families in times of crisis. Child and family social workers make a median annual salary of $47,390. These specialists do not need a license or an MSW to practice, but graduate training and certification can increase earning potential. NASW has established child and family certifications for social workers who hold either a BSW or MSW.

School Social Worker

School social workers address emotional, behavioral, and social issues that interfere with a student's personal and academic development. These professionals have typically earned their MSW and obtained a state license. Some school districts may also require social workers to hold teaching credentials. The top earners in school social work make over $80,000 a year. MSW-holders may improve their salary and career prospects by pursuing the NASW certified school social work specialist (C-SSWS) credential.

Mental Health Social Worker

In collaboration with psychologists and other healthcare professionals, these social work specialists conduct evaluations, locate resources, and provide referrals for clients challenged by psychological, emotional, and behavioral issues. Careers in most mental health social work positions require a state license and a master's degree in order to provide clinical assessments and diagnoses. According to the BLS, mental health social workers can expect a projected 17% job growth from 2019-29, earning salaries that range between $31,790 and $82,540.

Substance Abuse Social Worker

As the rate of drug and alcohol addiction increases, substance abuse social workers find an array of employment opportunities in social service agencies, in-patient and out-patient clinics, rehabilitation facilities, and detention centers, earning an average annual salary of $51,670. Working with both individuals and groups, these licensed social workers create interventions and assess and treat addictions. Many social workers with an MSW enhance their careers and salaries by pursuing the NASW certified clinical alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs social worker (C-CATODSW) certification.

Medical or Healthcare Social Worker

Medical or healthcare social workers help patients, their families, and caretakers to understand and adapt to medical conditions and illnesses. They assess patients' emotional and medical needs, navigate insurance issues, and advocate for patients' rights. Healthcare social workers earn a median annual wage of $56,750. Social workers with an MSW may acquire the certified social worker in healthcare (C-SWHC) credential, offered through NASW, to gain public recognition of advanced skills in the field.

Clinical Social Worker

Licensed clinical social workers must possess an MSW, complete two years of supervised work experience, and pass the national exam required for state licensure. These social workers offer direct services to individuals, groups, and families. Their responsibilities include assessment, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental and behavioral issues. Employment prospects for licensed clinical social workers remain strong, with an average annual salary of $58,390. NASW offers a career-boosting qualified clinical social worker (QCSW) credential for MSW-holders who have completed three years of postgraduate clinical experience.

Social and Community Service Manager

Working with community members, organizations, and other stakeholders, social and community service managers identify and create programs to support their constituencies. In addition to programming responsibilities, they oversee staff, write grant proposals, and assess program impacts. A BSW or a related degree in a public health field serves as the minimum education requirement for these managers, although some employers require an MSW, especially in larger organizations or those that provide multiple services. These positions offer annual salaries ranging from $41,220-$112,480, depending on experience and setting.

Social Work Postsecondary Teacher

Higher education institutions hire postsecondary teachers to train the next generation of social workers. These educators create and conduct courses, advise students, and administer program curricula. While community colleges and some four-year schools may hire teachers who hold an MSW, many colleges and universities require a doctor of social work or Ph.D. in social work for full-time employment. Depending on the type of institution, postsecondary educators in social work receive a mean annual salary of $77,910, with the highest paid professors earning over $128,350.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What field of social work pays the most?

    Compensation in the industry varies widely, depending on specialty, degree level, and type of employer. According to the BLS, social workers earn the highest salaries in local government agencies, ambulatory medical services, and state government offices. Clinical social workers, postsecondary educators, and social work administrators with graduate degrees and specialized certifications earn considerably more than those working in entry-level positions.

  • Why is social work a good career?

    As the demand for healthcare and mental health services expands across the U.S., social workers, especially those with graduate degrees and advanced certifications, find an abundance of personally fulfilling and financially rewarding careers. The BLS projects social work positions to increase overall by 13% from 2019-29, with even higher projected job growth in the mental health/substance abuse and healthcare specialties.

  • How long does it take to complete an MSW?

    Most full-time MSW programs take at least two years to complete, based on 12-18 earned credits each semester. State licensure requires two years of additional supervised clinical experience. Students in accelerated MSW programs may be able to finish all requirements in 18 months or less. Part-time programs give students the option to take one or two courses each term, taking a longer amount of time to graduate.

  • What is the difference between social work licensure and social work certification?

    Social workers planning to offer therapy in clinical settings must satisfy state licensure regulations. These requirements typically include completion of the MSW, a passing score on the national exam, and two years of supervised experience. While all states require licensure for clinical practice, specialized certifications are voluntary. Certifications, such as those available through NASW, recognize advanced knowledge, enabling social workers to distinguish themselves from others in their field.

Find Out More About Social Work Programs

Become a Mental Health Social Worker

Mental health social workers provide crucial support to people in crisis situations. They perform advocacy work, counsel people seeking disaster relief, and assist individuals coping with illness or job loss.

Mental health social workers perform similar duties as clinical social workers. However, they only need to hold a bachelor's degree in social work (BSW). Those employed in clinical settings must hold a master's degree.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the top 10% of social workers earn $82,540 a year, while the median annual income approaches $46,650. Get a complete picture of the top-paying industries and states for behavioral health social workers in this guide.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How much does a mental health social worker make an hour?

    Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health social workers earn a mean hourly wage of $23.15, according to BLS data. However, earning potential varies by work setting. Outpatient care centers offer a mean hourly wage of $22.80, whereas local government agencies pay $27.62 an hour.

  • Where do mental health social workers work?

    Industries employing the most behavioral health social workers include outpatient care centers, individual and family services, mental health facilities, health practitioner offices, and local government agencies. As of May 2019, some 64,090 substance abuse and mental health social workers worked at outpatient care centers.

  • How long does it take to become a mental health social worker?

    Becoming a mental health social worker takes about four years, on average. However, the exact time spent earning a bachelor's degree in social work varies between individuals. Clinical social workers must spend an additional two years earning their master's degree before completing two years of supervised work experience in a clinical setting.

  • Is a mental health social worker a mandated reporter?

    Yes. Mandated reporters in all 50 states include teachers, police officers, and mental health social workers. Under law, these individuals pledge to report any suspicions of abuse or violence to the proper authorities. Social workers directly help individuals and families in settings where they have an obligation to serve and protect.

Roles and Responsibilities of a Mental Health Social Worker

The opportunity to affect actual change in people's lives makes social work an appealing career. While all mental health social workers have the same goal, their job duties differ depending on their speciality and educational background. Many find jobs as therapists, case managers, licensed clinical social workers, and mental health specialists.

Mental health social workers who work at clinics uphold important responsibilities that impact people's lives. They provide crisis management, advocate on behalf of their clients, and implement treatment plans. While this work offers a great deal of personal fulfillment, it does not come without challenges.

As the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) notes, mental health social work programs at clinics and outpatient facilities often juggle large caseloads and limited resources. Working under these constraints can take a toll on social workers. Furthermore, social workers often take emotional stress home after helping clients navigate traumatic experiences.

Top Paying Industries for Mental Health Social Workers

Employers in many different industries rely on mental health social workers' expertise to manage clients. Each industry offers different responsibilities, benefits, drawbacks, and salaries. The highest-paying industries include insurance carriers, specialty hospitals, ambulatory health care services, and colleges. The top earning mental health social workers are employed at insurance carriers, where they make a mean wage of $68,650 a year.

Top Paying States for Mental Health Social Workers

As with any occupation, salary potential varies considerably by setting and geographic location. The top earning mental health social workers live in New Jersey, the District of Columbia, California, Connecticut, and New York. We can attribute these pay differences to cost of living, population density, and demand.

Mental health and substance abuse social workers make the most money in New Jersey, where they earn an annual mean wage of $83,050. The District of Columbia offers mental health and substance abuse social workers the second-highest pay, offering an annual mean wage of $66,080. New York, home to 11,540 mental health and substance abuse social workers, offers an annual mean age of $63,520.

Top Paying Metropolitan Areas for Mental Health Social Workers

As a general rule of thumb for most occupations, workers in metropolitan areas earn more than those in rural areas. This also holds true for mental health social workers, who earn most in cities such as New York, Newark, and Jersey City.

Mental health social workers earned an annual mean salary of $68,300 — about an hourly mean wage of $32.84 in New York, Newark and Jersey City. On the West Coast, cities such as Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Anaheim offer a mean annual salary of $64,290.

Other top-paying cities/districts include Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Chicago, Phoenix, Minneapolis, and Detroit. In Detroit, they make a mean hourly wage of about $24.84.

Salary and Job Growth for Mental Health Social Workers

As caseloads continue to grow at treatment centers, so does demand for mental health and substance abuse social workers. The field of social work is projected to experience an above-average employment growth rate of 13% through 2029.

Jobs for mental health and substance abuse social workers should outpace all other employment projections for social workers. This increase, the BLS reports, comes as more prisoners report to drug treatment programs instead of jail.

As of 2019, industries employ some 123,200 mental health and substance abuse social workers across the nation. Employers are expected to add 20,700 mental health and substance abuse social work positions through 2029. The employment forecast looks particularly favorable for licensed clinical social workers.

Learn more about how a social work degree can prepare you for specific occupations.

How to Become a Mental Health Social Worker

Most mental health social workers start by completing a four-year bachelor's in social work degree at an accredited college. Candidates can secure entry-level positions as mental health social workers and social and human service assistants with only an undergraduate education.

However, a master's in social work (MSW) degree gives social workers access to advanced careers and higher salaries. Mental health social workers with a graduate degree can earn a NASW specialty certification and further increase their marketability.

To qualify for certification, mental health social workers must complete two years of supervised experience and hold a valid state license. While many duties for mental health social workers and clinical social workers overlap, their responsibilities and salaries differ. About 80.6% of MSW graduates have a five-year plan to become licensed clinical social workers.

MSW graduates hold jobs in a variety of settings. More than a quarter of MSW graduates surveyed in the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) workforce survey focus on providing mental health treatments.

Licensure and Certification Requirements

Social workers pursuing careers in clinical settings must obtain licensure and a master's degree. A license allows social workers to administer therapy. Licensed social workers often specialize in gerontology, criminal justice, substance abuse and addiction treatment, child welfare, and palliative care.

While mental health social workers can still gain employment without a license, unlicensed social workers cannot provide therapy and face other work limitations. Both BSW and MSW graduates can earn specialty credentials through the NASW. Certain certifications such as the clinical credentials require a master's degree, whereas the social worker in gerontology certification only requires a bachelor's degree.

Become a School Social Worker

School systems employ social workers to help K-12 students with academic, emotional, and behavioral issues and challenges. School social workers also advise families and teachers on how they can assist their school-age children and adolescents at home and in the classroom.

School social workers need at least a bachelor of social work (BSW). Some states require teaching experience or a credential, while others may require specific supervised field experience in school social work.

Child, family, and school social workers earn a median annual salary of $47,390. This guide elaborates on the projected job market, roles and responsibilities, and educational and licensing requirements.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is a school social work job worth it?

    The pay may be on the low side and the work challenging, but a career in school social work can also be rewarding, especially for those who enjoy helping children and teens succeed. A PayScale survey found that 4.1 out of 5 school social workers reported high satisfaction with their jobs.

  • Where do school social workers work?

    According to a 2018 workplace survey conducted by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), 8% of social workers employed by educational institutions worked at pre-K or elementary schools and 5.8% at secondary schools. The remainder found jobs at residential schools (1.2%) and college and university counseling/health centers (0.8%).

  • How long does it take to become a school social worker?

    State requirements for becoming a social worker vary widely. Some states, such as California, require a BSW and school counseling credential to practice as a school social worker. Others, including Massachusetts and New York, require a master of social work (MSW). Earning a BSW typically takes four years, and most MSW programs span two years.

  • Is a school social worker a mandated reporter?

    Yes, school social workers must report any suspected child abuse or neglect to the appropriate authorities. Those who fail to do so may face civil and/or criminal penalties. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), more than half of all child abuse reports come from professionals like school social workers.

Roles and Responsibilities of a School Social Worker

School social workers conduct student assessments and social histories, develop treatment plans, provide therapy and crisis management services, advocate for students, and educate school staff and families. Those who provide therapeutic services must typically obtain an MSW and a state clinical social workers' license.

An NASW occupational profile discusses benefits and challenges of the job. Benefits include meaningful improvement in students' lives, daily variation, and collaboration with teachers, staff, and patients. Challenges involve high caseloads, travel time if assigned to more than one school, and limited resources, privacy, and supervision.

Demand for school-based mental health services has risen due to increased recognition of the ways children's mental health impacts functioning and the importance of early intervention and prevention. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) reports that almost two-thirds of students treated for mental health issues receive their treatments at school.

Top Paying Industries for School Social Workers

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists junior colleges and K-12 schools as the top-paying industries for school social workers. Those employed at junior colleges earn an annual mean wage of $64,110, while elementary and secondary school social workers bring in $63,810. Of the educational institutions listed, K-12 schools employ the highest number of social workers (45,480), which translates to 53% of industry employment for child, family, and school social workers.

Top Paying States for School Social Workers

Washington, D.C., New Jersey, and Connecticut top the BLS's list of highest-paying states, with annual mean salaries of $71,590, $68,830, and $68,360, respectively. Rhode Island ($63,310) and Maryland ($61,910) follow.

The BLS ranking of highest employing states places California in the top position with 32,630 child, family, and school social workers earning a mean wage of $59,990 per year; New York second with 29,880 making $60,380; and Pennsylvania third with 21,180 collecting $44,870. Rounding out the top five are Texas, with 21,120 child, family, and school social workers making $49,060, and Illinois, with 14,720 earning $55,390.

Top Paying Metropolitan Areas for School Social Workers

Connecticut houses three of the 10 highest-paying metropolitan areas. Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk tops the list at $74,130, the Hartford area third at $70,610, and Danbury seventh at $67,400. Second place goes to Trenton, New Jersey, at $70,890, and fourth place to Bismarck, North Dakota, at $68,200.

California is represented with Salinas at fifth place with an annual mean wage of $68,040, Merced at sixth place with $67,410, and Hanford-Corcoran at ninth place with $67,410. Completing the top 10 are the Washington, D.C. area at eighth place with $67,370 and Rochester, Minnesota, at tenth place with $66,070.

The highest employment levels exist in the big cities and are led by New York (24,950; $63,590), Los Angeles (15,160; $63,810), and Chicago (10,600; $55,660).

Salary and Job Growth for School Social Workers

Child, family, and school social workers should see a 12% projected job growth from 2019-29, which pencils out to an estimated 40,100 openings. The BLS notes that the demand for school social workers should correspond to increased student enrollment; however, budget constraints at all levels — federal, state, and local — may limit the actual number of opportunities.

Job prospects for clinical social workers, who can provide their students with school-based therapy and treatment, should be stronger than those for nonclinical school social workers. For those interested in a broader approach, becoming a social work generalist may open doors to other areas of social and human services.

How to Become a School Social Worker

Prospective school social workers can earn a BSW and practice nonclinical and generalist social work but need an MSW to become a clinical social worker and provide direct therapeutic services and treatment. In addition, the NASW requires an MSW for certification (discussed in more detail below).

As the CSWE notes, obtaining an MSW has increasingly become the recommended minimum degree for school social workers. In its workforce study, CSWE reports that most BSW-holders plan to continue their education and earn an MSW. Moreover, while 59% of professionals with a BSW find employment after graduation, less than half of that 59% work as social workers.

The recommended steps to becoming a school social worker with strong employment prospects include earning a bachelor's degree, researching your state's requirements for licensure, earning an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program, and logging supervised field experience hours, which vary by state, in a school setting.

Licensure and Certification Requirements

The CSWE advises all school social workers — clinical or not — to obtain a state license and certification. Eligibility requires an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program, supervised field experience, and a passing score on the state-required licensure examination.

The NASW offers credentialing as a certified school social work specialist, which signifies expertise, knowledge, and skill and attainment of NASW standards. Applicants must hold an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program; demonstrate completion of two years of paid, supervised postgraduate social work in a school setting; possess a state license or certification; and show adherence to NASW ethics and continuing education requirements.

Social Work Degree Programs in South Dakota

Don't underestimate our nation's fifth least populated state because there are five top-notch social work degrees in South Dakota that maintain academic excellence with CSWE accreditation.

Although its best known for its vast expanses of land in the Great Plains, South Dakota actually provides several highly ranked educational opportunities in the Midwest for aspiring social workers looking to take off in this economy-proof career. Social work majors in South Dakota also receive the unique chance to practice in rural areas and with diverse populations, including the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Dakota, Kiowa, Oglala, Sioux, and other Native American tribes living here.

The following is a guide to the five social work degree programs accredited throughout South Dakota.

Oglala Lakota College

Social Work Department

Initially chartered by the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council in 1971, Oglala Lakota College is a fully accredited independent tribal institution that serves around 1,400 students from its main campus in Kyle as well as the satellite instructional centers in Rapid City and on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. As a member of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), OLC has stepped beyond its status as a community college to now offer bachelor's programs and one master's degree centered. The Social Work Department aims to develop competent licensed social workers who can lead tribal, state, and federal organizations for boosting the well-being of Lakota people.

Bachelors in Social Work (BSW)

Available with emphasis areas in Liberal Arts or Chemical Dependency Counseling, the Bachelors in Social Work (BSW) program at OLC is focused on educating undergraduate students on essential components of social change processes to build a successful career in fairly distributing scarce economic and social resources in South Dakota. The program seeks to prepare students for beginning professional social work practice to specifically make life better for Oglala Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Reservation. As an upper-division generalist social work program, students enter in their junior year and spend two semesters clocking 400 hours of practicum within the field.


  • Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
  • Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association (NCA)


3 Mile Creek Road
Kyle, SD 57752
(605) 393-7374
Program Website

Presentation College

Social Work Department

As a small comprehensive four-year private Roman Catholic liberal arts institution, Presentation College is currently serving a close-knit community of around 780 students on a main 100-acre rural campus in the town of Aberdeen near the Minnesota border. Sponsored by the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (PBVM), the college welcomes learners of all faiths to find personal and professional growth in more than 25 associate's, bachelor's, and certificate programs. From a unique Catholic worldview, the Social Work Department is focused on the values of service, social justice, dignity, and integrity to produce generalist social workers who can effectively address social problems.

Bachelor of Science in Social Work

Fully accredited by the CSWE, the Bachelor of Science in Social Work program at Presentation is available at the main Aberdeen, Lakota, and Sioux Falls campuses to provide a hands-on education that prepares students for succeeding in a variety of social work settings. With a personalized curriculum that can be tailored to fit each students' goals, the program offers an excellent opportunity to find entry-level positions in public health, human services, geriatrics, substance abuse, mental health, family services, child welfare, and more. In the 120-credit degree plan, social work majors will be expected to complete a minimum of 400 practicum hours in an approved field site for developing essential knowledge, skills, values, and ethics.


  • Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
  • Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association (NCA)


1500 North Main Street
Aberdeen, SD 57401
(605) 271-7694
Program Website

University of Sioux Falls

Department of Social Work

Situated on a beautiful 58-acre urban campus in the state's largest city along the banks of the Big Sioux River, the University of Sioux Falls is a comprehensive four-year private Christian liberal arts institution educating more than 1,400 students annually. With a mission to develop mature Christian persons for serving God and humankind through the character of Christ, USF is currently ranked as the 38th best regional college in the Midwest by the U.S. News and World Report. The Department of Social Work has received CSWE accreditation for delivering valuable social work education that explores all facets of generalist practice with hands-on service learning opportunities.

B.A. in Social Work

Designed as preparation for advanced studies in graduate school or as a direct pathway towards the workplace, the B.A. in Social Work program at USF includes a wide range of thought-provoking classes to challenge undergraduate students to engage in social problems surrounding them. From an entry-level generalist approach, students build upon their liberal arts core with 56 credit hours of major social work coursework. In the final year, students also complete a block field placement to complete 450 or more hours of field practicum in one semester. Graduates will be well-equipped for working in mental health, elderly care, medicine, corrections, family services, case management, human resources, ministry, and more.


  • Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
  • Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association (NCA)


1101 West 22nd Street
Sioux Falls, SD 57105
(605) 331-6600
Program Website

University of South Dakota

Department of Social Work

Initially established within the Dakota Territory in 1862, the University of South Dakota is a major comprehensive public research institution with over 10,200 students on its 276-acre rural campus in the small college town of Vermillion within just 39 miles northwest of Sioux City, Iowa. Named a "Best Value" in Forbes magazine, USD is currently ranked as the 168th best national university, 93rd top public school, and 55th top college for veterans in America by the U.S. News and World Report. Within the School of Health Sciences, the Department of Social Work is accredited by the CSWE to serve students with a passion for social justice and a desire to improve the quality of people's lives.

Bachelor of Science in Social Work

Within a four-year degree plan of 120 total credits, the Bachelor of Science in Social Work at USD is focused on combining classroom instruction with field education to develop the evidence-based knowledge, values, and skills students will need as entry-level generalist social work professionals. Founded with an emphasis on diversity, the program seeks to develop versatile social workers who can effectively address emerging social issues with diverse populations. In addition to field practicum, students can also build professional connections by participating in the Social Work Student Club, obtaining membership with the NASW, and striving for acceptance into the Sigma Theta Phi Alpha Honor Society.

Master of Science in Social Work

Offered in a full-time or part-time format, the Master of Science in Social Work program has the goal of preparing graduate students as advanced social work professionals to provide high-quality clinical, therapeutic, or social services to South Dakota's diverse communities. Most students are admitted into the regular 60-credit non-thesis program, but those with a CSWE-accredited bachelor's degree in social work can apply for the 36-credit advanced standing program for an accelerated path. Regardless of the track chosen, graduate social work majors will take courses in research methods, program evaluation, social justice, social policy, community health, mental health assessment, and organizational practice before their 500 clock hours of advanced field education.


  • Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
  • Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association (NCA)


1400 West 22nd Street
Vermillion, SD 57105
(605) 677-5401
Program Website

Earning a social work degree in the "Mount Rushmore State" is beneficial for anyone hoping to start a rewarding career in helping individuals, families, groups, communities, and organizations improve. Once you find the right school, choose fitting field practicum sites, and receive your degree, you'll have the unparalleled opportunity to make a real difference in our world's social functioning. You'll certainly find favorable job prospects also because employment for social workers is expected to skyrocket by 19 percent before 2022, especially in the healthcare and mental health fields. Turn your hobby in community service and passion for helping others into an in-demand career by attending one of these accredited social work degrees in South Dakota.

See also: Social Work Degree Programs in North Dakota

What Does It Mean to be a Social Work Generalist?

Social work generalist practice as outlined by the Council on Social Work Education is defined as follows. Generalist practice introduces students to basic concepts in social work, which include promoting human well-being and applying preventative and intervention methods to social problems at individual, group, and community levels while following ethical principles and critical thinking.

While this definition outlines well what social workers do, what type of jobs does a bachelor's in social work prepare you for? That is, what skills does the degree give you and how can they be applied to a real job opportunity post-graduation?

Social work education prepares students to enter the workforce with three perspectives which, when combined with personal interest, can be tailored to fit nearly any professional goals you might have.

Perspective 1: A Client's Right to Self-Determination

The first of the three perspectives is a client's right to self-determination. A client has the right to determine what's best for themselves within reason. For instance, if you like working with the elderly, you might be hired as a social service manager at a nursing home, where your duties may include working with a client to establish what services are needed (i.e. assistance with bathing), whereas a client may not be deemed legally fit to develop her own plan.

Perspective 2: Strengths and the Holistic Perspective

Second is a strengths perspective. That is, looking at a person holistically in order to determine what skills, networks, or resources a person might have in order to face a challenge. For instance, you might be hired by the county to work as an economic support specialist; you might be responsible for assisting clients to get enrolled in the Foodshare program. But let's say you are working with a family of six. While the Foodshare might meet part of their needs, some need is going unmet. Having a strengths perspective would be a useful tool to help you address how to meet the the remaining unmet need. (Perhaps a local church with a food pantry could assist in meeting their food needs).

Perspective 3: Eclectic or Integrative Perspective

The third perspective a social work education provides is the eclectic perspective. What this means is that social work integrates information from a variety of disciplines in order to make evidence-based decisions. Perhaps you are hired as a hospital social worker in an oncology department, where not only a need of social systems is important, but it must be integrated with knowledge of research on cancer patient treatment outcomes.


Being a good social worker means assisting clients in a variety of ways, utilizing these perspectives to make informed decisions. Being a social work generalist prepares you to enter nearly any profession within the social and human service field, depending on your own interests, by equipping you with three perspectives: client's right to self-determination, a strengths perspective, and an eclectic perspective. Therefore, utilizing these perspectives will help you be ready to enter nearly any social or human services role.

About the Author

Sean Inderbitzen graduated from Cairn University with a Bachelor's in Social Work. Certified in the state of Wisconsin to practice Social Work, he is actively involved in philanthropy for non-profits in north-western Wisconsin, working with organizations that provide services in the fields of mental health in both children and adults. You can follow on Google+.