How to Become a Social Worker

Education and Licensing Requirements

Do you want to help people learn how to function in their environments as best they can, even when they face some serious barriers? You may want to become a  social worker. Professionals in this field work with clients who are struggling with physical and mental illnesses, drug and alcohol addiction, or poverty. Find out what you need to do to become a social worker and then take the Social Work Quiz to see if you have what it takes to succeed in this field.

What Education Do You Need?

Social Work Students in Classroom
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If you decide to pursue this career, you will need, at least, a bachelor's degree. It should be in social work (B.S.W.), but you may be able to get into this field with a degree in another major such as psychology. It takes most people four years to complete an undergraduate degree. Some common courses in a B.S.W. program are:

  • Introduction to Social Welfare and Human Services
  • Principles and Practice in Social Work
  • Human Behavior Theory
  • Issues In Social Welfare
  • Social Work Practice in Research
  • Statistics For Social Work Research

Many positions require a Master's Degree in Social Work (M.S.W.), which students can usually earn in two years. If you want to do therapy, you will need this degree. Master-level students take more advanced courses that focus on their areas of concentration. Examples of M.S.W. courses are:

  • Child Abuse and Neglect
  • Social Work With Children and Adolescents
  • Practice in Home and Community Settings with Older Adults

If you eventually decide you want to teach in a social work program at a college or university, you will have to earn a Doctorate in Social Work (D.S.W. or Ph.D.), which will take at least four years to complete. D.S.W. programs are clinically based while the focus of Ph.D. programs is on research. Doctoral students train to become leaders in the field. They learn how to advance the profession through scholarly research and are trained to teach others to become social workers.

The Council on Social Work Education accredits bachelor's and master's level social work programs that meet certain standards. You can find a list of those programs on the organization's website: Directory of Accredited Programs.

In addition to classroom education, training of social workers also includes field education. You will participate in internships that will give you the opportunity to apply the theories you learn in the classroom to a work setting.

How to Get into a B.S.W., M.S.W., or Doctoral Program

University Application Form
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Many B.S.W. programs will not admit students until they have completed the core curriculum (general education requirements) of that college or transferred the credits for that coursework from another school. For example, Fordham University's Bachelor Program in Social Work states that "Students may apply for program admission following completion of approximately 50 credit hours and most prerequisites." Requirements are similar at New Mexico State University's School of Social Work. This program tells prospective applicants "it is important that you complete 60-65 countable degree credits including the NMSU general education requirements."

You do not need an undergraduate degree in social work to be admitted to an M.S.W. program. You must have a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or be close to graduating.

Many graduate programs have an option for applicants who already have a bachelor's degree in social work. These are called advanced standing programs and students who get into them begin with a certain number of credits and therefore need fewer credits to graduate with their M.S.W. degrees. Since they already have a background in social work, they can begin their field placements sooner than students who do not have a B.S.W. Typically their undergraduate degree must have come from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

Applicants to doctoral programs usually need an M.S.W. or a master's degree in a related field. You can expect to go through a rigorous interview before the program admits you. To apply to graduate school, you will have to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE).

Becoming a Licensed Social Worker (LSW)

Social Worker
A social worker in a session with her client. Peter Dazeley / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images

Regardless of the degree you earn, you will need a license to practice as a social worker anywhere in the United States. Requirements vary, but they usually include supervised work experience. You may be required to pass a written exam as well. In California, as one example, to become licensed you must have an MSW from an accredited program, with some required courses, and 3200 hours of supervised work experience over 104 weeks. Upon completion of these requirements, you will have to pass a written exam (California Department of Consumer Affairs, Board of Behavioral Sciences).

To find out what the requirements are in the state in which you want to work, check with its licensing agency. The National Association of Social Workers maintains a list of them on their website. Be aware that some states have continuing education requirements for maintaining licensure. There are also different types of licenses depending on the way in which one wants to practice. For example in Nebraska, a social worker who wants to provide mental health services must become licensed as a mental health practitioner (Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services).

Getting Your First Job As a Social Worker

Manager and a social work candidate in a job interview
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Although the road ahead of you may seem very long, eventually you will complete your education and have to look for a job. You should be aware of the qualities, in addition to a degree, prospective employers will be seeking. Of course, this will vary by organization, but to give you an idea of what some of them are, here are specifications from job announcements found in various sources:

  • "Ability to exercise self-control in potentially volatile situations such as being verbally or physically confronted in a threatening or aggressive manner."
  • "Must possess good oral and written communication skills along with excellent interpersonal skills."
  • "Keeps abreast of M.S.W. Homecare reimbursement guidelines."
  • "We want individuals that make patient care a top priority."

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