How to Become a Social Worker

State Licensing Guide

Are you interested in helping those in need and advocating for social justice? Becoming a social worker is one of the most rewarding ways to do that. Social workers provide vital services to individuals, families, and communities when facing tough challenges or crises.

It’s not easy work; it takes dedication, passion, empathy, organizational skills, and problem-solving abilities, but it can also be an incredibly noble and meaningful career path. If you’re thinking about being a social worker but aren’t sure what it entails or how to get qualified for this critical job, we walk you through all the steps for how to become a social worker.

What Is a Social Worker?

Social workers are professionals who help individuals, families, and groups in need of assistance with challenges they are facing in their lives. Social work helps people cope with difficult situations and supports developing new skills and solving life’s problems.

There are several levels of social work practice, including Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW), Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW), and Certified Social Work Associate (CSWA).

Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker

LBSW is a bachelor’s level social worker who works with individuals, families, and groups in providing supportive services such as counseling and case management.

Licensed Master of Social Work

On the other hand, an LMSW possesses a master’s degree in social work and usually practices administrative, clinical, and supervisory social work. They may also manage programs or provide counseling services.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Besides, an LCSW work in clinical settings and provide therapy, crisis intervention, psychotherapy, case management, community education, prevention programs, and social service advocacy for individual, family, and group clients. To be an LCSW, you must have a master’s degree in social work and pass state licensure exams.

CWSA-Certified Social Work Associate

Additionally, a CSWA-certified social work associate assists LCSW with clinical and administrative tasks. A CSWA typically directly supports clients in various settings, such as hospitals, schools, nursing homes, daycare centers, and residential care facilities. They may also provide case management services, assist in developing service plans, and coordinate activities with other social service professionals.

State Licensing Requirements for Social Workers

Remember that at the state level, social workers are regulated by their respective state boards or health departments to ensure they meet professional standards and ethical guidelines. Examples of these organizations include the Arizona Board of Behavioral Health Examiners, the California Board of Behavioral Sciences, the Florida Board of Clinical Social Work, the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).

These organizations provide resources such as continuing education, professional development opportunities, licensure information, and advocacy for social work practitioners in their respective states. Besides, since social work is an ever-evolving profession, these organizations are dedicated to promoting their ethical standards and ensuring the safety of all those it serves.


Steps to Become a Social Worker

From helping children and young adults to providing counseling services and connecting people with vital resources, it’s easy to see why so many intelligent individuals are attracted to this field. The following is an overview of vital steps on how to become a social worker.

1. Pursue Quality Education

You’ll need the right education and training before practicing as a social worker. You can pursue various degree levels depending on your career goals. The most common degree levels are bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Moreover, your institution of study must offer Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited programs, without which you will be unable to qualify for licensure.

2. Seek Fieldwork Experience

Fieldwork experience is a crucial component of social work education. You’ll gain real-world experience in the field through internships or supervised clinical hours. Additionally, this helps you develop your skills and learn the ins and outs of the profession to be successful once you begin practicing independently.

Besides, your fieldwork experience and supervision may determine your eligibility for a specific license type. For instance, if you plan on becoming an LCSW, you must have supervised clinical hours before applying for licensure. According to California state law, obtaining an LCSW license requires 3,000 hours of post-degree professional experience under supervision, which includes 104 monitored weeks.

Also, each state board of social workers or counseling has unique fieldwork requirements. Therefore, checking with your state board before pursuing internships and supervised clinical hours is essential.

3. Obtain a License

Most states require you to be licensed before practicing as a social worker. Depending on the state, licensure is typically awarded by taking an assessment or completing formal education and supervised clinical practice. The most common types of licensure are Licensed Baccalaureate of Social Work (LBSW), Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW), Licensed Clinical Social Work (LCSW), and Certified Social Work Associate (CSWA).

Licensure is required to practice as a social worker, and the requirements may vary from state to state. For instance, some states require applicants to have earned their master’s degree in social work (MSW) before applying for licensure. You may also be required to pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exam or other exams depending on the state.

4. Get Certified

Certification is voluntary but may help you stand out in the job market and provide your clients with higher service levels. It demonstrates your expertise in social work and commitment to the profession. Several certifications are available in different specialty areas, such as mental health, hospice and palliative care, clinical social work and child welfare.

For instance, Certified Social Work Associate (CSWA), Certified School Social Work Health Counselor (C-SWHC), and Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW) all require applicants to have completed their master’s degree in social work, passed the ASWB exam and met other requirements. You may also need continuing education credits or supervised clinical hours to maintain your certification.

5. Look for Job Opportunities

Once you have the required education, certification, and licensure to practice as a social worker, you can look for job opportunities, and this is how to become a social worker. Social workers usually work in public agencies, local governments, or private practices. The type of job you choose will depend on your specialization and other factors such as location and salary.

Additionally, you may become a self-employed social worker and deliver services on your terms. This can give you the freedom and flexibility to make decisions while delivering quality care to needy clients. But remember that self-employed social workers must still meet licensing requirements and abide by the regulations of their state board. Several years of fieldwork experience may be required before you can practice independently.

Furthermore, since social workers are in high demand, don’t be afraid to get creative with how you pursue job opportunities. Consider networking with other professionals or creating a profile on online job boards.

Top Specializations in Social Work

Social work is a highly diverse field in which professionals work to help people in need. Before pursuing a career as a social worker, it’s essential to understand the various specializations in the field. Depending on your interests and professional goals, you may choose to specialize in a certain area of social work. Here are some key specialties within the field of social work.

Military Social Work

Military social workers serve those transitioning out of active-duty service or spouses/children of veterans. This specialization focuses on helping military personnel with PTSD, depression, substance abuse, and other mental health issues. Military social workers also provide counseling and crisis intervention services.

Child Welfare Social Work

Social workers in child welfare are committed to assisting children who require counseling. Therapy for children who have experienced trauma or difficult family situations is a part of this specialty. They can spot child abuse and neglect indicators, offer support to families, collaborate with foster homes, and aid in reunification.

Forensic Social Work

Forensic social workers specialize in working with criminal justice and court systems. This includes providing counseling to victims of crime, assist in investigations, offer expert testimony in court cases, and aid in the rehabilitation of criminals.

Addiction Social Work

Social workers that specialize in addiction care assist those who are addicted. In this profession, patients get individual and group therapy, treatment plans for substance misuse are developed, patient assessments are performed, and referrals to rehab facilities or other services are made. Addiction social workers also assist the relatives of those whose loved ones are battling addiction.

School Social Work

Learners facing difficulties with their mental health, behavior concerns, and other issues receive assistance from school social workers. This specialization includes offering counseling services to kids, consulting with families, creating intervention plans for troublesome students, working with teachers and staff to achieve academic objectives, and contributing to developing safe school environments.

Gerontological Social Work

Finally, gerontological social work focuses on older adults who may need assistance in their communities. This specialty involves providing resources to elderly individuals, helping them find housing, connecting them with financial assistance programs, and developing plans for long-term care. Gerontological social workers may also work on end-of-life issues such as advance directives or hospice care.

Social Work Salary and Career Prospects

As reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for social workers is $50,390 per year, or $24.23 per hour. From 2021 to 2031, the employment of social workers is expected to expand by 9%, faster than the average for all occupations. An estimated 64,000 more job opportunities are anticipated throughout this time.

Moreover, specialization and industry impact the average income for social workers. For instance, based on the findings of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual compensation for social workers in the healthcare field is $60,840, while that for those in the mental health and drug addiction field is $49,130. The average yearly salary for individuals working in local government is $61,190, while that of those in ambulatory healthcare services is about $58,700.

Increased demand for social workers and the potential to earn a relatively high salary make this an attractive career option. However, it is essential to note that local, federal, and state budget constraints may limit employment growth.

Additionally, other fields are anticipated to have the largest job vacancies, including mental health and drug misuse, healthcare, children, families, and schools. In fact, it is predicted that between 2021 and 2031, there will be 74,700 employment openings for social workers every year.

Furthermore, the baby boomer generation and the consequent rise in elderly people needing help are also anticipated to develop social worker employment. As a result, several lucrative employment options are available in this industry.

Best Cities for Social Work Professionals

If you desire to become a social worker, then why not consider the best cities for social work professionals? Here you’ll find information on some of the top locations in the U.S. that offer great opportunities and support for social workers.

Moreover, these cities have high concentrations of qualified practitioners, well-run organizations, and supportive communities, making it easier for social workers to do their job, professional development, and networking. Below are a few top cities you can work in as a social work professional.

  1. San Francisco, California
  2. Los Angeles, California
  3. San Diego, California
  4. New York City, New York
  5. Washington, D.C.
  6. Chicago, Illinois
  7. Seattle, Washington
  8. Austin, Texas
  9. Boston, Massachusetts
  10. Denver, Colorado

Social Worker FAQ

Q: What are the duties of a social worker?

A: Social workers have a variety of duties and responsibilities that vary depending on their practice setting and specialty. Generally, social workers help individuals and families cope with mental health issues, disabilities, addiction, poverty, unemployment, abuse, divorce, adoption, and other issues. They help individuals access healthcare, housing, job training, or financial assistance. Social workers also advocate for policy change to improve the quality of life for vulnerable populations.

Q: Do I have to have a degree in social work to become a social worker?

A: Yes, most employers require social workers to hold at least a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) from an accredited college or university. Additionally, some employers may require higher-level qualifications such as a master’s degree in social work (MSW)and licensure or certification. It is essential to check with your state requirements for more information.

Q: What personal qualities should I have to be successful as a social worker?

A: Success as a social worker requires many qualities, including excellent communication and interpersonal skills, empathy, cultural sensitivity, problem-solving abilities, organization, and patience. Additionally, successful social workers can remain calm in stressful situations and manage multiple cases effectively while maintaining a positive outlook.