Social Work Careers Guide: A Comprehensive Guide to Career Paths in Social Work

Written by Rebecca Munday
Last Updated: May 2023

When most people think of social workers, they envision them helping children find foster or adoptive homes. Yet, that’s only one of the rewarding social work careers you can choose if you want to help and advocate for people.

Social workers care for children, but they also care for veterans, older adults, and people with chronic health conditions. Find out more about all the careers you can pursue with a degree in social work.

Social Work Careers by Degree Level

The career opportunities you can pursue in social work depend on your degree. Most roles, such as a child and family social worker or a healthcare social worker, require a master’s degree in social (MSW). Yet, you can pursue an entry-level position, such as a case manager or community outreach worker with a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW).

Bachelor’s Degree in Social WorkMaster’s Degree in Social WorkPh.D. in Social Work
  • Behavioral Management Aide
  • Case Manager
  • Community Outreach Worker
  • Eligibility Worker
  • Human Services Specialist
  • Juvenile Court Liaison
  • Probation Officer
  • Rehabilitation Case Worker
  • Social Work Assistant
  • Behavior Supervisor
  • Child Welfare Researcher
  • Executive Director, Social Services Organizations
  • Professor
  • Psychologist

What Do Social Workers Do?

Social workers help individuals, families, and communities through difficult, stressful, and sometimes even crisis situations. Some of the situations they help clients with include domestic or child abuse, illness or disability, poverty or unemployment, mental health conditions, and the loss of a loved one.

Social workers provide advice, create programs, connect their clients with resources, and follow up with their clients to make sure they’re managing or improving their circumstances. Clinical social workers may also diagnose and treat mental health conditions with counseling or psychotherapy. They work in hospitals, governments, schools, correctional facilities, or other social service programs.

Responsibilities for social workers vary by work setting, but some duties across settings include:

  • Maintaining case files and records
  • Researching and advocating for community resources such as childcare and healthcare
  • Helping prevent and respond to crisis situations such as abuse or mental health emergencies
  • Monitoring client situations and following up to make sure they improve
  • Assessing, diagnosing, and treating mental health conditions with psychotherapy services

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Why Pursue a Career in Social Work?

Individuals interested in a meaningful, people-centered profession should consider a career in social work. Social workers help others for a living. They serve at-risk or underserved individuals, communities, and organizations. Social workers help those in need achieve their goals, access social services, and identify treatment options. The career paths for social workers are diverse and can be rewarding.

Some of the advantages to pursuing a career in social work include:

  • The ability to positively impact individuals, families, and communities through counseling and connecting them to resources
  • A variety of populations to work with, including veterans, older adults, people with chronic health conditions
  • A career advocating for positive change in policy and communities
  • Strong projected employment growth over the next decade

Because social workers must complete continuing education credits to renew their state license, the career requires a commitment to a lifetime of learning. Many states require social workers to fulfill continuing education requirements in subjects like ethics, domestic violence, and suicide prevention. Social workers must remain up-to-date on current developments in the field.

Where Can I Work as a Social Worker?

Most social workers work in the government or individual and family services. More than 29% of social workers work in either local or state government. Many of these social workers help families make sure their children grow up in a safe and healthy home. They find foster homes for them and work with families to create and execute a plan to reunite the family. If that cannot happen, social workers create a plan for adoption.

Social workers also commonly work in hospitals and other healthcare settings. In these settings, they facilitate communication between the patient, the family, and the healthcare team in a variety of ways. They also help in the continuity of care when a patient is discharged and assess the patient’s emotional responses to diagnosis and treatment.

Top 10 Industries by Employment of Social Workers
IndustryPercentage of Social WorkersAverage Annual Salary
Individual and Family Services18.3%$49,830
Local Government, excluding schools and hospitals14.6%$64,730
State Government, excluding schools and hospitals12.7%$55,220
General Medical and Surgical Hospitals7.9%$72,550
Elementary and Secondary Schools7.8%$67,600
Outpatient Care Centers7.0%$59,320
Home Health Care Services3.5%$67,500
Residential Intellectual and Developmental Disability, Mental Health, and Substance Misuse Facilities2.9%$46,010
Federal Executive Branch2.6%$86,030
Community Food and Housing, and Emergency and Other Relief Services2.4%$44,640

Source: BLS

Population Types

Social workers help diverse populations ranging from individuals to entire communities. The list below does not represent a complete list of careers in social work but provides a sampling of communities that social workers typically serve.

Although some social workers specialize in one population or issue, they should understand how to provide care and advocate for a wide spectrum of clients. Social workers should understand, prepare for, and express willingness to help anyone in need.

  • Infants/Children: Social workers may advocate for children in foster care programs, help children experiencing neglect or abuse, and support children going through an adoption process. They may also work with infants with developmental, behavioral, or emotional disorders. Many professionals work in schools, adoption agencies, and government organizations.
  • Adolescents: Adolescents can have a variety of emotional, situational, developmental, and behavioral issues. Some may live in violent or impoverished households, while others experience depression, substance misuse, or criminal behavior. Whatever the case, social workers help at-risk adolescents overcome their obstacles. They ensure adolescents complete their education and find a safe place to live.
  • Families: Many social workers help families in crisis. These families may face problems with substance use, physical violence, extreme financial stress, trauma, unemployment, or homelessness. Social workers help families locate services necessary to restore a safe and supportive setting. They connect families to counseling, job training, and mental health and substance use services.
  • Couples: Social workers who help couples typically intervene during a crisis or dilemma. They may help couples seeking a divorce, repairing problems in their relationship, pursuing adoption, or struggling with mental health issues. While their role usually involves therapy, they may also help couples access additional services.
  • People Experiencing Homeless: Social workers help homeless people locate shelters, find affordable housing, apply for jobs, and access treatment for any mental health or behavioral conditions. They may work in a homeless shelter or for a nonprofit that addresses the greater issue of homelessness.
  • Chronic Health Conditions: Social workers help those with chronic health conditions manage their day-to-day life. They make sure their clients can access healthcare and manage their finances. Social workers also monitor for signs of depression or other mental conditions. They may support family members and caregivers.
  • Geriatrics: Social workers who assist older clients typically work in hospitals, hospice centers, nursing homes, mental health clinics, or community centers. They may also meet with clients in their homes. These social workers help their clients with financial, medical, emotional, and social problems. They monitor for signs of abuse, neglect, and depression. They may also help clients find jobs or access medical services.

How to Become a Social Worker

Although the process of becoming a social worker varies from state to state, all social workers must complete a few fundamental steps. The first step is earning a social work degree. Jobs for social work graduates may include clinical social work or nonclinical social work, depending on their degree and license.

While some states allow social workers to earn a license with only a bachelor’s in social work (BSW), most states require social workers to hold a master’s in social work (MSW). All clinical social workers in the U.S. must hold an MSW. A BSW typically requires four years of school, and an MSW requires an additional two years. Most MSW programs require an internship, fellowship, or fieldwork component, allowing candidates to acquire hands-on experience before applying for licensure in their state.

In order to legally practice within each state, all social workers must first earn a social work license. The licensure process varies depending on the state, as do the types of licenses available. Social workers should research and understand the licensure requirements for the state where they hope to work.

To earn a license, social workers typically complete an application, pay a fee, and pass an Association of Social Work Boards exam. The exams consist of 170 multiple-choice questions and cost between $230 and $260. Clinical and independent practice licenses typically require two or more years of supervised professional experience.

How Much Do Social Workers Make?

Social workers make an average salary of $59,440 per year, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Social workers with doctoral degrees could earn up to $20,000 more than MSW-degree holders, according to limited data from Payscale as of May 2023.

Licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) earn a higher average salary because of their increased experience and authority. LCSWs are licensed to practice individual clinical care. They can diagnose and treat mental health conditions and connect clients to the necessary services to improve their situation. According to Payscale data from May 2023, LCSWs make a median salary of $63,000 annually.

Find out the average salary for popular social work careers such as case manager and child and family social work in the table below.

Average Annual Salary for Popular Social Work Careers
CareerAverage Annual Salary
Child and Family Social Worker$56,680
Healthcare Social Workers$62,760
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers$60,130
Behavior Analyst$68,340
Case Manager$44,770
Licensed clinical social worker (LCSW)$62,600
Policy Analyst$63,250
School Social Worker$51,061
Social Services Director$60,527

Sources: BLS and Payscale

Average Annual Social Worker Salary by Experience
ExperienceAverage Annual Salary
Entry-Level, Less than 1 Year$46,000
Early-Career, 1-4 Years$49,000
Mid-Career, 5-9 years$55,000
Experienced, 10-19 years$59,000
Late-Career, 20+ years$60,000

Source: Payscale

Social Work Career FAQs

What is the career path of a social worker?

A social worker’s career path may include getting a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field like psychology, finding an entry-level position, earning a master’s degree in social work, becoming licensed in their state, and finding a role in generalist or clinical social work. Some social workers should expect to complete post-degree supervised experience depending on their license and state.

What are the highest-paying jobs in social work?

Some of the highest-paying jobs in social work include behavior analysts, policy analysts, licensed clinical social workers, and healthcare social workers. Healthcare social workers, policy analysts, and licensed clinical social workers make an average of about $63,000 annually. Behavior analysts make an average of more than $68,000 annually. According to data from BLS, government, healthcare, and education offer higher-than-average salaries for social workers.

How can I advance my career in social work?

Social workers can advance their careers by obtaining relevant experience and earning advanced degrees. A master’s in social work opens up more doors than a bachelor’s degree. Social workers with a master’s can conduct clinical work and run private practices. For individuals who hold a doctorate in social work, job possibilities include high-level administrative positions and university professorships.

What careers are like social work?

The most closely related careers to social work are counseling, psychology, and psychiatry. Clinical social workers and clinical psychologists both use the DSM-5 to help diagnose, assess, and treat patients. Other careers with similar responsibilities include mental health or psychiatric nurses, corrections or probation officers, university professors, or non-profit directors.