Social Work Degree & Career Overview

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Social workers are responsible for assisting people with their everyday issues that impact their daily lives, like personal, family, and relationship issues.  Sometimes social workers are involved in helping clients with disabilities, diseases, or social issues like substance abuse or unemployment.  Families with domestic conflicts can also turn to social workers for relief and guidance during difficult times.  Social workers are often specialized in a particular service or setting, like child, family or school social work.  Coordinating the relationships between families, agencies, and other institutes is a social worker’s responsibility, and they should be well aware of how to work between their clients and other institutions. 

There are multiple specializations of social work available, but all forms of the career require that social workers take the time to understand the conditions of their clients and work to improve these conditions in effective and safe ways.  Social workers must establish a trustworthy connection with clients in order to maintain a healthy relationship, and must also work to build their client’s own abilities so that they can take the skills and opportunities provided by the social worker and apply them on their own. 

Most social workers receive extended educations through the bachelor’s degree level; while some degrees are available at the master’s level, many choose related master’s degrees for positions in health or school settings or in clinical and research work rather than other forms of social work. 

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Education & Certification Requirements

Social workers generally pursue a bachelor’s degree in their specialization, and this degree is required for almost all entry level positions.  Some students also pursue majors in psychology, sociology or other related fields that can qualify them for work in some smaller agencies.  Most social workers enter the field with a bachelor’s degree, but more advanced positions usually require a master’s degree in social work.  In June 2009, the Council on Social Work Education had accredited 468 bachelor’s programs and 196 master’s programs in social work.  There are also 74 listed doctoral programs in the U.S. as listed by the Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education.

An associate’s degree in general studies is required prior to entering a bachelor’s degree program.  There are no associate’s degree specialized towards social work, but psychology and communicative courses can be taken as electives in order to eliminate the need for them in a bachelor’s program.

The bachelor’s degree in social work takes a total of four years to complete, with the first two being dedicated towards completion of an associate’s degree.  These degrees help prepare students for “direct service positions” such as residential counselors, metal health assistants, case workers and group health workers.  Bachelor’s programs instruct students in the values and ethics of social work while familiarizing them with the policies of social welfare, methods of social research, and field education that observes human behavior in social environments.  This field experience is key to the program, since all accredited programs require 400 hours minimum of field experience conducted under professional supervision. 

Master’s programs are pursued by many social workers, especially since these programs prepare specific concentrations with skills needed to manage multiple caseloads, work as supervisory, perform and prepare clinical assessments and research projects, and develop new forms of social service skills.  These programs can take two to three years to complete, and do not always require a bachelor’s degree before receiving admission.  They do require 900 hours of supervised field instruction, and this can be completed in a full or part time program. 

Every state, including the District of Columbia, has licensing, certification or registration requirements for social work and professional titling.  Many require two years or an equivalent of 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience for licensure.  Different states do have requirements that restrict unlicensed social workers, so students should check the certification requirements for their state before proceeding into a program.  (BLS)

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