Social Workers


Education and Training Requirements

High School

To prepare for a social work career, you should take courses in high school that will improve your communications skills, such as English, speech, composition, and and a foreign language (such as Spanish). On a debate team, you could further develop your skills in communication as well as research and analysis. History, social studies, and sociology courses are important in understanding the concerns and issues of society. Although limited work is available for those with only an associate's degree (as a social work aide or social services technician), the most opportunities exist for people with more advanced degrees in social work.

Postsecondary Training

There are approximately 533 accredited B.S.W. (bachelor's in social work) programs and 288 accredited M.S.W. (master's in social work) programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). The Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education lists more than 80 doctoral programs for Ph.D.'s in social work or D.S.W.'s (doctor of social work). The CSWE requires that five areas be covered in accredited bachelor's degree social work programs: human behavior and the social environment; social welfare policy and services; social work practice; research; and field practicum. Most programs require two years of liberal arts study followed by two years of study in the social work major. Also, students must complete a field practicum of at least 400 hours. Graduates of these programs can find work in public assistance or they can work with the elderly or with people with mental or developmental disabilities.

The CSWE offers a directory of accredited social work programs at https://www.cswe.org/Accreditation/Directory-of-Accredited-Programs.aspx.

Although no clear lines of classification are drawn in the social work profession, most supervisory and administrative positions require at least an M.S.W. degree. Master's programs are organized according to fields of practice (such as mental health care), problem areas (substance abuse), population groups (the elderly), and practice roles (practice with individuals, families, or communities). They are usually two-year programs that require at least 900 hours of field practice. Most positions in mental health care facilities require an M.S.W. Doctoral degrees are also available and prepare students for research and teaching. Most social workers with doctorates go to work in community organizations.

Other Education or Training

The National Association of Social Workers offers online courses, webinars, and other continuing education opportunities. Topics include everyday practice issues, social media, career planning, and ethics. The Association for Childhood Education International, Council on Social Work Education, and the Canadian Association of Social Workers also provide professional development courses. Contact these organizations for more information.  

Certification, Licensing, and Special Requirements

Certification or Licensing

Licensing, certification, or registration of social workers is required by all states. To receive the necessary licensing, a social worker will typically have to gain a certain amount of experience and also pass an exam.

The National Association of Social Workers offers two professional social work credentials and 15 specialty certifications (11 for M.S.W.s and four for B.S.W.s). These credentials are particularly valuable for social workers in private practice, as some health insurance providers require them for reimbursement purposes. Contact the association for more information.

Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits

One way to gain experience in preparation for a career in social work is to help people in need in your community. Volunteer with community and religious organizations and in any other setting where you can help people. College social work students gain valuable practical experience by completing a field practicum of at least 400 hours.

Social work requires great dedication. As a social worker, you have the responsibility of helping whole families, groups, and communities, as well as focusing on the needs of individuals. Your efforts will not always be supported by the society at large; sometimes you must work against a community's prejudice, disinterest, and denial. You must also remain sensitive to the problems of your clients, offering support, and not moral judgment or personal bias. The only way to effectively address new social problems and new client groups is to remain open to the thoughts and needs of all human beings. Assessing situations and solving problems requires clarity of vision and a genuine concern for the well-being of others.

With this clarity of vision, your work will be all the more rewarding. Social workers have the satisfaction of making a connection with other people and helping them through difficult times. Along with the rewards, however, the work can cause a great deal of stress. Hearing repeatedly about the deeply troubled lives of prison inmates, the mentally ill, abused women and children, and others can be depressing and defeating. Trying to convince society of the need for changes in laws and services can be a long, hard struggle. You must have perseverance to fight for your clients against all odds.