How to Become a Social Worker
Social work is a very versatile and rewarding career. It’s focused on helping people and also offers many specialization options which may allow you to pursue your dreams and talents. Social work is a field where no two days are alike. You’ll need to be organized, sharp, and most of all, prepared.
The Origin of Social Work
School social work jobs have been an occupation since the 1800s as the role of truancy officers began to expand and include more responsibilities. Truancy officers were initially responsible for ensuring that students attended school, which later evolved into a counselor position and eventually the role of a social worker. Formal social worker positions began to appear in schools during the 1940s and 50s.
Before modern social work, evidence of similar efforts can be seen throughout human history. The Roman emperor Constantine was known for legalizing the Christian Church in the 4th century. The church grew into an organization focused on helping its community. Church members took it upon themselves to build homes for the elderly, the poor, as well as the construction of hospitals and orphanages. The church’s practice of helping the community eventually expanded into formal monasteries that served as hospitals, orphanages, and rest stations for travelers. This was the foundation of modern social work.
Jane Addams is recognized as the mother of modern day social work. She founded the U.S. Settlement House movement in the 1880s. By 1913, the movement had grown to 413 settlements in 32 states and by 1920 almost 500 settlement houses had been established. People like Dorothy Day and Ellen Gates Starr continued this work, as settlement houses became known as hospitality houses in the 1930s. Jane Addams along with Ellen Gates Starr left a substantial legacy to the industry.
This article will help give clarity to those interested in working within the field of social work. Social work is an academic discipline that seeks to improve the well-being of individuals, families, and groups. Social workers belong to numerous professional associations that provide ethical guidance, resources, and other support. Social work aims to address social injustices and alleviate the effects of social disadvantages such as poverty.
Getting Started: How to be a Social Worker
How long does it take to become a social worker? The first step towards your social work career will be finding out what’s required for your specific field. It’s a good idea to write down all of the things you’ll need to accomplish in order to become a social worker. As you progress, you can check them off your list. Everything that’s required from you will depend on the country you live in and the University you attend.
At the minimum, you’ll have to earn your Bachelor’s degree in social work. A BSW will prepare you to enter the industry as well as allow you to qualify for certain entry-level jobs. In order to complete your program, you’ll need to maintain certain grade point averages, write personal letters on why social work is interesting to you as well as earn letters of reference from reputable figures in your life. You’ll also have to go through personal interviews when it’s time to enter your faculty. Of course, social worker requirements for admission and graduation will vary depending on the university you choose.
The skills required to be a successful social worker rely heavily on communication. Your degree program will prepare you for solving problems, managing cases, interviewing people, and becoming a better communicator. You’re likely to encounter courses such as psychology, human behavior, as well as more hands-on tasks such as social work practice.
After completing your bachelor’s of social work you’ll need to decide if you want to pursue your master’s degree. Higher levels of education allow you to perform social work in different capacities and higher levels. A bachelor’s or master’s in social work can be the difference between working a lower paying job and one with far better compensation.
In order to become a licensed clinical social worker, you’ll need at least a master’s in social work. More or less any undergraduate program is acceptable for entrance into masters of social work programs. Depending on where you live, some places require social workers to get licensed or certified. You’ll have to check the requirements for your area and plan ahead if there will be any extra costs.
There’s no wrong option when it comes to your social work education, but it’s important to know what you want out of your social work program in order to define the specific path that you’ll go down. Make sure you double check what’s required of you depending on the school you choose and how this relates to your overall goals.
Most countries require that you work under supervision for two to three years before fully launching your career. This is the stage of your career in which you generally gain real work experience as well as pursue licensing and certificates. It’s important to know which certifications are available in your area and research them appropriately so you know which ones to get.
Different areas of social work specialization will require you to attain certain specific licenses or certificates. Here are a few examples of the licenses you can get.
- Initial License – This is usually the first level of requirements that social workers will have to meet. The requirements for this license will depend on the area you attend school in. After getting this license, you’ll mostly like have to work under close supervision until you’re approved to work on your own.
- Clinical License – A clinical license gives you full professional clearance to practice social work. You’ll need a current initial license and graduate degree in social work to order to qualify for this license. You’ll need several years of on the job of experience and you’ll be required to pass an exam.
- Master License – When you have both your initial license and graduate degree, you can qualify to be recognized as a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW), or master in social work. You’ll need to pass an exam to qualify and get some practical work experience under your belt. This license allows you to apply for high level, specialized positions. It is possible to get online masters in social work.
Part of the additional requirements you complete should be an internship. Internships enable you to build your network while at the same time getting tangible work experience. If you’re having trouble finding an internship, be creative with how you approach it.
Any situation where you interact with people and build your skill set will be beneficial to you. Volunteering looks great on your resume and it’s also an excellent way to meet people. Putting in the time to take these extra steps will make it easier for you to get your first job in the social work industry.
Once you have a degree, you’ll still need to do something to stand out from other applicants for the positions that interest you. The more you can practice your skills, gain certified recognition, and grow your network, the smoother your social work programs and career will flow.
Online Education Options
It’s possible to earn a social work degree online. This is a more flexible option that works well if you have a job or a family to take care of. In these courses, you’ll learn the basics of human development, sociology, mental health, and the basics of psychology, along with the best MSW programs.
You’ll also learn how to analyze and explore issues such as discrimination, obesity, and poverty. The further you get into your program the more specific the knowledge will get, you’ll also get the chance to put your theory into practice.
When it comes to online Universities, you have to make sure to do your research properly. First, make sure whatever program you are looking at is accredited. Unaccredited schools sometimes limit your ability to apply for financial aid, you may be unable to transfer credits to other schools, and potential employers may not even recognize your courses. Any program you take should be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education or at least recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
When selecting an online university, you also want to take a close look at the professors. At the bare minimum, they should have masters of social work programs level degree and ideally further certifications. Members of the faculty should likely have doctorates and executed extensive research on their social work specialties.
The accreditation you look for should be LSW’s (licensed social worker), CSW’s (certified social worker) or ACSW’s (social worker accredited by the National Association of Social Workers). Some of your professors may also hold a master’s of Public Administration, which shows they have experience in the government and nonprofit aspects of the social work field. International social work jobs may require even more experienced educators.
You want to make sure the online university you dedicate yourself to has a collection of experienced staff willing to help you grow a social worker. Don’t be afraid to contact different universities and speak with the staff and professors if possible and see how you feel about them. Remember that an online education puts more responsibility in your hands, so do your research properly the first time.
After you complete your bachelor of social work online, you again have the opportunity to pursue your master’s of social work. It’s important to be clear on the path you want to take so you don’t waste time and money on courses that aren’t necessary when getting your social worker degree online.
Picking A Social Work Specialty
In the field of social work, you can focus on working with specific demographics (children for example), or you may want to work closely with young parents. Specialization as a social worker will also define the environments that you work in.
Social workers can be found in all types of public places such as hospitals, hospices care homes, and schools. The specialization you choose will determine what environments you’ll be working in. Here are a few different areas that you can specialize in as a social worker.
Military/Veteran Social Worker Positions
Social work is crucial in high-stress fields—especially the military. Social workers can work with active or retired soldiers and help them deal with stress. Common issues include PTSD, survivor’s guilt, night terrors, or an inability to adjust to a regular life.
Social workers in this discipline also help veterans come to grips aging and mortality. They help with emotional support, getting financial and other affairs in order, and living on a fixed income. Military social workers, geriatric social workers, hospice employees, and dementia Alzheimer’s specialists are all similar specialties that fall under this umbrella.
Community Social Worker Positions
Community social work focuses on making a direct impact on a specific community. Social workers in this situation usually work with local nonprofit organizations to plan events and organize efforts to aid their community. Community social work is also crucial in case of natural disasters to help survivors cope and rebuild.
Community social work can also expand into the public health sector. Social workers introduce people to the social services available to them and guide them through the application processes, which can be quite complex. This can be done at the city, state, or federal level. Community social workers include disaster relief specialists, occupational therapists, and community health center workers.
Mental Health Social Worker Jobs
Mental health social work usually focuses on individuals struggling with addiction, mental health conditions, or substance abuse. Social workers in these situations help both the patient and family work together to find short and long-term solutions.
Mental health social workers usually work in rehabilitation facilities, clinics or hospitals. This is a specialization that relies heavy on psychology and communication skills on.
About 1 in 5 adults in the United States is diagnosed with a mental illness. This is a growing specialization that continues to see improvements in how to best deal with mental heal issues. You should be able to get a job with a bachelor’s degree relatively easy in this area, however, the more educated and specialized you are, the more opportunities available to you.
Health and Wellness Social Worker Specializations
This type of social work is usually done in hospitals where the social worker’s requirements include working directly with patients and their families. There are a lot of emotional, physical, and financial struggles that come with long-term hospital stays; social workers help families navigate through the toll everything takes on them. Social workers in this specialization will also sometimes have to help people make difficult health related decisions.
Empathy and communication are crucial skills for this area of social work specialization. This can be a very personal type of work, as sometimes social workers have to lobby healthcare establishments on the behalf of patients who may not be able to themselves, physically or mentally. You’ll need to be extremely organized for this type of social work since you’ll need to track all of your patient’s progress and make changes as you move along.
After you’ve decided on what specialty you would like to pursue, you’ll need to learn as much as you can about the social work industry overall. Simply going to school won’t be enough: you’ll need to try different tactics to get truly yourself involved in the social work industry. This will help you meet similar people and shape your thinking, which will prepare you for a job in the future.
Working as a Social Worker
A necessary quality for a social worker to possess is the ability to change your mindset and the way you approach problems. Social workers are focused on human growth and development and hold a unique set of principles that most industries don’t. As you grow as a social worker, you’ll undergo new experiences that will get you thinking in new ways.
Another tactic that will help with your growth as a social worker is to consistently read industry related content. When you read what other people have to say about your industry, it helps you gain new perspectives and see how a theory works in practice. Reading industry case studies will give you perspective on real life situations and how social work professionals handle them.
Try subscribing to a few magazines such as The New Social Worker to keep your knowledge up to date. It’s also a good idea to seek out blogs and forums about social work. The more content you can find and read, the better and faster you can facilitate your growth in your social work career.
After you get the necessary degrees and certifications, your next learning area will be an entry-level job. The experience will be invaluable. You’ll quickly learn that classroom instruction is important, but learning how to apply your skills to real life situations is key. As your skills and knowledge grow, you’ll be better able to make decisions on what you want to do with your social work career.
What Skills Do You Need to be a Successful Social Worker?
Strong communication skills are at the core of being a successful social worker. Communication includes knowing the difference between active and passive listening as well as being able to show empathy for the people you work with. You’ll also need to able to communicate with people who are in the middle of experiencing strong feelings.
As a social worker, a strong sense of self will be a great asset. You’ll need to be able to show empathy while still being detached enough from the situation to be able to give helpful advice and encourage meaningful dialogue. You’ll also need excellent time management skills because it can be easy to spend an entire day helping just one or two people. A strong sense of self will also help you to not feel overwhelmed by dealing with people on a daily basis. Social workers can encounter a lot of emotionally draining situations; it’s important that you’re able to protect your own mental health.
As a social worker, you’ll also need some technology skills, especially as we advance into the future. A vast majority of social workers use case management software to handle schedules, communicate with colleagues as well as save and review patient information. When you first start out you may get a job as an administrative assistant, which may require learning things like how to use billing software. Keep in mind that technology is something likely to come up in your social work career.
The Importance of Volunteering as a Social Worker
The next key thing to do on your path towards becoming a social worker is volunteering. Volunteering is a wonderful way to make your presence felt in your faculty. Volunteering gives you great opportunities to meet people who you’ll probably encounter again as your career progresses. Don’t wait until late in your school career to volunteer, the earlier you start, the better.
Volunteering also gives you a chance to collaborate with other people in social work, which will be valuable. Collaborating can be a difficult skill to develop. Volunteering helps you practice maintaining your social work identity while working with different people, as well as how to pick up on new techniques from your colleagues.
Volunteering also puts you in touch with people who can write you references or letters of recommendation. When applying for your first job, if you can get acknowledgment from a professional who’s already in the industry, it can really boost your credibility. Your volunteer positions will also look great on your resume and show that you have industry relevant experience.
There are many paths you can take as a volunteer, but each path will require a different level of education. If possible, beginning the first day as a social worker, start volunteering and making connections in your industry—you’ll never know when they’ll come in handy.
Future Projections for the Social Work Industry
According to the BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics), social workers specializing in healthcare are expected to see a 27% growth in job opportunities between 2012 and 2022. Thanks to numerous public events such as a collective increased social consciousness on social media and the passage of the Affordable Care Act, social work is something that will continue to grow in demand. Additionally, social workers specializing in mental health are expected to see a 23% increase in job opportunities and a 15% increase for those specializing in child/family affairs.
These societal shifts in thinking have increased the range and intensity of the social work needed in communities. By now the need for social work in most communities has outgrown the current infrastructure. Additionally, community networks are quite popular in our society and encourage people to take care of social services. This will further increase the demand for social services and the need for social workers.
Becoming a social worker is a very rewarding career when you’re passionate about it. If you enjoy communication, helping people, working in teams and showing empathy this could be an ideal career for you and the time to get your PHD in social work is now. Remember to plan out your education by first starting with what you want to get out of social work.