How to Become a Social Worker

Should You Get a B.S.W., M.S.W., or Doctorate in Social Work?

Do you want to help people learn how to function in their environments as best they can, even when they face very 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, addiction, or poverty. Find out what education you need to become a social worker. Then take the Social Work Quiz to see if you have the characteristics 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. Ideally, you should major in social work and earn a B.S.W.(Bachelors of Social Work). However, if you already have a college degree in a related major such as psychology, you may be able to get a social work job.

It takes most people four years to complete a B.S.W. Some courses commonly found in undergraduate social work program curriculums 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 jobs require a Master's Degree in Social Work (M.S.W.), which students who already have a bachelor's can usually earn in two years. If you want to do therapy, you will need an M.S.W. Students at this level take more advanced courses that focus on their areas of concentration. Examples are:

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

If you eventually decide 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.). It will take at least four years to complete this degree. D.S.W. programs are clinically based while Ph.D. programs focus 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 programs that meet certain standards. You can find a list of them on the organization's website: Directory of Accredited Programs.

In addition to what you will learn in a classroom, your training will also include field education. These required internships will provide 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 who have not completed the core curriculum (general education requirements) of that college or transferred the credits for that coursework from another school. Classes usually include English, social science, science, and math.

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 when you apply.

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 already have a certain number of credits in social work and therefore need fewer classes 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 they must have an undergraduate degree from a program that has received accreditation from 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 which degree you earn, you will need a license to practice as a social worker anywhere in the United States. Requirements vary by state, 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 M.S.W. 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 state-by-state list of licensing agencies on its 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 on Indeed.com:

  • "Effective problem solving & crisis intervention skills that contribute to desired treatment plan outcomes"
  • "Comprehensive knowledge of community and state programs and resources"
  • "Excellent written and verbal communication and organizational skills"​​
  • "Maintains a professional approach to handling confidential information"
  • "Provision of care in an interpersonally and culturally sensitive manner"
  • "Capable of working with diverse social, racial and ethnic groups and collaborate with professionals from many different social service organizations and government agencies"

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