What Does a Social Worker Do?

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Want to work closely with people and make a difference in their lives? Few careers afford as many opportunities to help people as social work. What do social workers do? What education do you need? What can you expect to earn? Is social work right for you? Here's what you need to know about the opportunities that come with a graduate degree in social work.

What Does a Social Worker Do?

Listening is part of the job
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Social work is a helping field. A social worker is a professional who works with people and helps them manage their daily lives, understand and adapt to illness, disability, death, and obtain social services. These can include health care, government assistance and legal aid. Social workers may develop, implement and assess programs to address social issues such as domestic violence, poverty, child abuse, and homelessness

There are many different kinds of social work careers. Some social workers work in hospital settings, helping patients and families understand and make difficult health care choices. Others work with families who are experiencing domestic conflicts -- sometimes as state and federal investigators. Others work in private practice, counseling individuals. Other social workers work as administrators in social service settings, write grants for nonprofit agencies, advocate for social policy at various levels of government, and conduct research. 

What Do Social Workers Earn?

What can you expect to earn?

According to Salary.com, the median salary for an MSW-level social worker across specialties in 2015 was about $58,000. Salaries vary with geography, experience and specialty area. Clinical social workers, for example, tend to earn more than child and family social workers.  Moreover, jobs in social work are growing about 19 percent faster than the average through 2022.

Is a Career In Social Work Right For You?

Is this career path for you?
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The most common social work role is that of care provider. Working closely with people requires a special set of skills and personal characteristics. Is this career for you? Consider the following:

  • Do you have what it takes to work closely with people in a therapeutic setting?
  • Are you a people person?
  • How comfortable are you with managing and resolving conflict?
  • Do you enjoy problem-solving? Are you good at it?
  • Are you patient?
  • How well do you manage stress? Deadlines?
  • Are you a good listener
  • Do you work well independently?
  • How well do you juggle multiple responsibilities?
  • How well do you work with others?
  • How well do you handle criticism and disagreements with peers?
  • How comfortable will you feel working alongside other professionals such as nurses, doctors, psychologists, and physical therapists?
  • Are you willing to work nights and weekends?

What is a Master of Social Work (MSW) Degree?

Just a few more years of school
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Social workers who provide therapy and services to individuals and families typically hold a master's in social work (MSW) degree. The MSW degree is a professional degree that enables the holder to practice social work independently after completing a specified number of hours of supervised practice and obtaining certification or licensure -- that varies by state. Typically the MSW entails two years of full-time coursework, including a minimum of 900 hours of supervised practice. Independent practice requires additional supervised work plus certification.

Can You Have a Private Practice with an MSW?

You can start a private practice
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An MSW-level social worker may engage research, advocacy and consulting. In order to work in private practice, a social worker must have at minimum an MSW, supervised work experience and state certification. All States and the District of Columbia have licensing, certification or registration requirements regarding social work practice and the use of professional titles. Although standards for licensing vary by state, most require completion of an exam plus two years (3,000 hours) of supervised clinical experience for licensure of clinical social workers. The Association of Social Work Boards provides information about licensure for all states and the District of Columbia.

Many social workers who engage in private practice maintain a job at a social service agency or hospital because a private practice is difficult to establish, financially risky, and does not provide health insurance and retirement benefits. Those who work in research and policy often earn doctor of social work (DSW) degrees or PhD degrees. Whether to earn an MSW, PhD, or DSW degree depends on your career goals. If you are considering a graduate degree in social work, plan ahead to ensure that you understand the application process and are well prepare

What is a DSW?

A doctoral degree affords new opportunities
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Some social workers seek further training in the form of a doctor of social work (DSW) degree. The DSW is a specialized, degree for social workers who wish to gain advanced training in research, supervision and policy analysis. The DSW prepares graduates for careers in research and academia, administration, grant writing, and more. The course work tends to emphasize research and qualitative and quantitative analysis methods as well practice and supervision issues. Graduates engage in teaching, research, leadership roles, or in private practice (after seeking state licensure). Typically the degree entails two to four years of coursework and a doctoral candidacy examination followed by dissertation research.

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Kuther, Tara, Ph.D. "What Does a Social Worker Do?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/careers-in-social-work-facts-1685909. Kuther, Tara, Ph.D. (2021, February 16). What Does a Social Worker Do? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/careers-in-social-work-facts-1685909 Kuther, Tara, Ph.D. "What Does a Social Worker Do?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/careers-in-social-work-facts-1685909 (accessed June 10, 2023).