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How to Become a Social Worker: Steps and FAQs

How to Become a Social Worker: Steps and FAQs

You want to become a social worker but have no idea where to start when it comes to education paths, training, or certifications. This guide can help you take the first step. Keep reading to learn more about how to become a social worker.

Social workers are needed now more than ever. Especially as the nation continues to recover from the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, social workers are in high demand according to the Baylor School of Social Work. The pandemic led to mass layoffs, isolation, family stress, profound health problems, and grief over the loss of loved ones. All these factors took a toll on individuals and communities mentally, physically, and emotionally. If you’re passionate about helping others through struggles like this, maybe now is the time to pursue a degree in social work.

Is becoming a social worker right for me?

Social work is demanding and stressful work but also rewarding. It requires an empathetic and compassionate person with communication, organizational, and critical thinking skills. As a social worker, you’ll find job opportunities in various niches. Some social workers, for instance, specialize in substance abuse prevention, a problem that the National Institute of Drug Abuse says significantly increased in the U.S. since the national emergency was declared in March 2020. Others work with survivors of domestic violence, which skyrocketed during lockdowns and was dubbed the “shadow pandemic.” Social workers are also an integral part of the healthcare system. They counsel families that experienced loss due to illnesses like COVID-19 and provide resources for end-of-life arrangements. If this type of work interests you, continue reading this guide to learn how to become a licensed social worker.

How to Become a Social Worker: Step-by-Step

Social work isn’t just a job; it’s a calling and an opportunity to inspire change not just in one person’s life but within entire communities. Social workers confront and challenge social issues in society and even shape policies that eradicate system injustices. To help you get started, this step-by-step guide details how to become a social worker. 

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

Social workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, typically need bachelor’s or master’s degrees in social work from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). The most common requirement for an entry-level, nonclinical social worker position is a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW). Generally, a BSW program teaches students how to work with diverse populations, enable positive change in social welfare policies, and follow ethical and professional standards within the field. In some cases, you can also become a social worker by first earning a psychology or other type of bachelor’s degree, though this may mean a dual bachelor’s and almost always requires also earning a master’s degree in social work.

Most BSW programs take about four years to complete, with many colleges and universities offering degrees you can earn entirely online. However, social work degree programs typically require supervised fieldwork or internships that must be completed in person. For example, Portland State University’s School of Social Work offers an online BSW program that can be completed in two years. Classes are offered entirely online in a mostly asynchronous format, but students are required to complete 500 hours of field placement work in a social service agency or organization within their communities. Other institutions, like King University, offer accelerated programs that earn you your BSW sooner. Full-time students can earn their BSWs in as few as 16 months and complete their field practicums in their hometowns.

It’s also possible to make a start as a case aid or assistant without holding a BSW. This requires mainly office-based skills like record keeping, scheduling meetings, and other clerical work. While this is a great way to get your feet wet in the field of social work, you still need a degree to become a licensed social worker.

Step 2: Decide on Your Social Work Specialty

Social workers specialize in various areas within the field, from working with children and families to lobbying for policy changes. Therefore, it’s important to choose a concentration that aligns with your interests before you decide on a degree program. For example, Walden University offers a social work degree program that focuses on the study of criminal behavior. Graduates provide counseling to clients in prisons and family and juvenile courts. They also often work with individuals dealing with divorce, custody battles, and abuse.

Here’s a look at other types of social work specializations.

Geriatrics: Gerontology social work focuses on assisting aging patients. These types of social workers provide emotional support to the elderly, including helping them deal with age-related mental illnesses like dementia and Alzheimer’s. They also help their clients manage their finances and seek government services. 

Administration: A specialization in administration prepares you to fill in some of the most influential positions within the field. Positions include being an agency leader, program director, social work supervisor, or college professor. 

Disaster, Crisis, and Intervention: This type of specialization allows you to address societal challenges, disasters, and crises. That might mean advocating for crime victims involved in a mass shooting or working with those affected by a natural disaster like a wildfire. You would be on the front lines implementing action plans to help residents cope with trauma.

Step 3: Complete Your Supervised Internship

Just like in any other profession, social workers need experience to become established in the profession. The more someone knows, the more they can contribute to the field. That’s why most, if not all, social work degree programs require you to complete a certain number of hours in an internship or other field practice positions. This allows you to apply what you’ve learned in the classroom to real-life situations, which better prepares you for entering the workforce. 

Hands-on experience is a key part of the BSW program at Azusa Pacific University. The program, accredited by the CSWE, trains students to seek ways to inspire change in people’s lives and their communities. That includes participating in programs for the homeless and role-playing client interactions with trained actors. During the last year of this faith-based program, students also must complete a 400-hour internship tied to their interests.

Obtaining your BSW opens the door to earning your master’s in social work degree (MSW). Earning your master’s degree, which usually takes about two years, could lead to a competitive edge in the job market, career advancement, and better pay. It’s also the first step to becoming a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW) and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). Some social work positions — a clinical social worker, therapist, and administrator, for example — require you to have an MSW.

Although most starting social work jobs require a master’s degree, you don’t necessarily need a BSW to earn your MSW. You can earn a psychology degree to become a social worker, for example, or even begin with a bachelor’s degree in public policy and social services or social science.

Step 5: Apply for Professional Certification

According to the Association of Social Work Board (ASWB), licensing is for all social workers, not just clinical social workers, and most states offer various categories of licensure that recognize the different scopes of practice. Requirements vary by state, but you generally need a social work degree before you take the appropriate social work licensing exam and apply for your license. Additionally, if you are pursuing a job as a clinical social worker, you also need to complete a certain number of hours of supervised practice.

If you move to another state, you need to re-apply to legally practice within that new jurisdiction even if you’re providing services remotely. If you already hold a license in one state and are in good standing, you might be able to expedite the licensing process since an existing license is often accepted as evidence that you’ve fulfilled licensure requirements in that new state. 

Social Work Specializations to Consider

Social work is never boring, and there’s a wide range of specializations where you can develop expertise in a particular topic that interests you. These include mental health, politics and government, child development, criminal justice, and many others. Before deciding on a specialization, research the pros and cons of each niche. Factors to consider include specific responsibilities, work environment, and the required education and training associated with that concentration. Even which bachelor’s you earn before moving on to your master’s can play a role in your specialization. In other words, if you become a social worker with a psychology degree, you probably will have a different focus than someone who earns a bachelor’s in public policy and social services first.

Here’s a look at a few different specializations.

How to Become a Medical Social Worker

Medical and clinical social work are similar in many ways. Both require a lot of the same skills and both advocate for their patients. However, the education requirements are different. To become a medical social worker, you need to earn an MSW degree, complete supervised clinical work, and pass a licensure exam. You can also pursue additional certifications in specific areas of interest such as hospice or grief counseling.

How to Become a School Social Worker

To become a school social worker, you need to earn both BSW and MSW degrees with a concentration in school social work or child studies. You also need to research state requisites and pass any required exams to earn certification or a license. You can also become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) to provide counseling for students. Syracuse University, for example, offers an online MSW degree program with a concentration in advanced clinical practice to prepare you to provide mental health services.

How to Become a Family Social Worker

You need a BSW to work as a family social worker. However, earning an MSW would increase your chances of obtaining a specialization and nabbing higher-paying leadership positions. Widener University’s MSW requires students to enroll in social work practice, theories of human behavior, policy, and research courses. It also offers courses on the treatment of trauma as well as a trauma certification program.

How to Become a Child Social Worker

The minimum education requirement for a child welfare social worker is a bachelor’s degree. Students can take courses in psychology, social welfare, and human behavior, among others. You also need to complete an internship, which provides on-the-job training. Upon graduation, you can apply for a license in social work (LSW). There are several different types of social work licenses, so do your homework. Most employers also require social workers to pass a background check, especially when they work directly with children. Finally, you might want to consider pursuing any additional certifications to give you an edge in the job market.

How to Become a Healthcare Social Worker

The first step to becoming a healthcare social worker is earning a master’s degree in social work from an accredited program. You also need at least two years (about 3,000 hours) of experience working in a paid, supervised position in an organization or agency that provides treatment to individuals and families affected by a medical condition. Another requirement is passing the ASWB exam and a current certification or license issued by the state in which you want to work. Healthcare social work typically encompasses both medical and clinical social work.

State-Specific Social Work Requirements

The requirements needed to work as a social worker vary depending on the state you reside in as well as the area of specialization. Generally, you need a degree in social work from an accredited program – though, as mentioned already, a degree in another field like psychology is also sometimes an option for becoming a social worker – and the level of degree depends on the type of social work you want to practice. Additionally, each state has its own requirement for social work licensure and licensure level. 

You also have to pass the licensure exam and have experience in the field. The ASWB offers a standardized test for social work licensure.

Below are some examples of how to become a licensed social worker in a few different states.

How to Become a Social Worker in California

The state of California offers two types of social work licensure: an LCSW and an Associate Clinical Social Worker (ACSW). To obtain a license, you need an MSW degree and to pay a fee. You need to pass a clinical exam and complete 3,000 hours of clinical work to work as an LCSW.

How to Become a Social Worker in Texas

Texas offers four different types of licensures: a Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW), Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW), LCSW; and Licensed Master Social Worker-Advanced Practice. To earn your license, pass an exam for each category in addition to passing a clinical and Advanced Generalist exam. All licenses, except for the LBSW, also require applicants to hold an MSW or a Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) degree. Additionally, you need at least 3,000 hours of supervised experience.

How to Become a Social Worker in New Jersey

In New Jersey, you can either work as a Licensed Social Worker (LSW) or as an LCSW, both of which require you to hold an MSW or a DSW. To earn your LCSW, you also need 3,000 hours of clinical experience. You can also pursue a certification as a Certified Social Worker (CSW), which requires a BSW, Bachelor of Arts (BA), or Bachelor of Science (BS). However, you need 1,600 hours of supervised experience if you only hold a BA or BS degree.

How to Become a Social Worker in Florida

The state of Florida only recognizes a Registered Clinical Social Worker Intern, a Certified Master Social Worker (CMSW), and an LCSW, all of which require at least an MSW degree. If you pursue your LCSW, you need to pass the clinical exam and complete 1,500 hours of clinical work. To work as a CMSW, you need to take the Advanced Generalist exam and complete 3,000 hours of supervised experience.

How to Become a Social Worker in North Carolina

To be a social worker in North Carolina, you need to apply as a Certified Social Worker (CSW), a CMSW, a Certified Social Work Manager (CSWM), a Licensed Clinical Social Worker Associate (LCSWA), or an LCSW. You also need to pass an exam, depending on the type of licensure you’re pursuing. However, you don’t need to take an exam to work as an LCSWA. To work as a CSW or CSWM, you need at least a BSW. Additionally, you need to complete 3,000 hours of supervised practice to work as an LCSW or as a CSWM.