Why Pursue a Bachelor's Degree in Social Work?
The social work profession, unlike some other mental health fields, has a career ladder beginning at the baccalaureate level. If you are interested in helping others and the social work profession calls to you, why wait? There are two main reasons to pursue a social work degree at the bachelor's, or BSW, level. The first is that there is likely to be a job waiting for you at graduation. The second is that if you do decide to continue your social work education at the graduate level, your BSW may put you at a significant advantage.
Baccalaureate Scope of Practice
Each state has the privilege of setting the scope of practice for social workers at different steps on the career ladder. Baccalaureate social workers often do case management and intake and connect individuals with resources in their community. They take on 'macro' roles like community organization or program management. They may be allowed to offer counseling in some circumstances -- when it relates to life adjustment and decision making.
They will probably not be allowed to do psychotherapy. States tend to limit clinical social work to master's trained individuals, even when working under supervision. There is often a ban on private practice as well. However, some states do allow private practice for baccalaureate social workers who are working within their acceptable scope of practice. This may be tied to a supervised practice requirement.
Not all states license baccalaureate social workers. This doesn't necessarily mean practice is prohibited. Some jurisdictions only have mandatory licensing for the highest level(s) of practice. The credentialing process is fluid. Oregon, for example, just recently began offering a baccalaureate level credential -- and restricting the title "social worker" to those who had credentialing. But that doesn't mean bachelor’s social workers just started finding employment within the state! In this case, the credentialing signifies that standards got more rigorous. It’s best not to make assumptions, though. Before beginning a social work program, you should become familiar with your state board and your jurisdiction's practice act. Your state chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) may be another resource.
Baccalaureate social workers do sometimes develop expertise in specialty areas. NASW, which offers specialty certifications for social workers, makes four available to those at the bachelor's level. They are available in child, youth and family social work, gerontology, casework, and hospice and palliative. NASW certifications are based on member surveys – an indication of what's valued out there in the real world -- so they give a sense of what baccalaureate social workers are doing!
What to expect from a BSW program
The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which accredits U.S. programs, notes that undergraduate programs offer preparation for the generalist social worker. One thing that all BSW students can expect is 400 hours of fieldwork. This is typically completed at a social service agency.
Typical coursework includes human behavior, social welfare policy, and treatment/ interventions that can be employed with different populations. Students can expect an introduction to social work research. There may be an opportunity to take seminars in areas of interest.
Making Yourself Competitive
Admission to a social work professional program is typically a separate process from general university admission. Sometimes students do their general studies at one institution and enroll in social work degree completion programs.
How do you make yourself competitive for a Bachelor of Social Work program? There may be prerequisites. There will likely be a minimum GPA, though it may be modest -- 2.5 or even 2.0. Expect to write a professional statement and submit references.
Preparation for Graduate School
If you do decide to go on for a master's, will your Bachelor of Social Work degree aid you? Very likely yes. Master's social work programs are typically 60 semester hours. However, there are a number of programs that offer advanced standing to candidates with BSWs. This actually is closely tied with CSWE standards -- the CSWE mandates that MSW candidates not repeat material that they already acquired at the BSW level. Your state board may set requirements about courses that must be taken at the graduate level. However, an undergraduate social work degree can often reduce graduate requirement to one year (approximately 30 semester hours). Your social work experience can also make you an attractive candidate.