What Is a Social Worker?
The profession of a social worker promotes social change by working with individuals and communities to empower and guide them through difficult circumstances. As an academic discipline, social workers call on the social sciences and humanities theories to help people adjust to their challenges, with the goal of achieving well-being.
The above definition lays the foundation for a social worker's duties or basic job description. These duties include the following:
- Identify individuals and communities in need of assistance.
- Determine the client's goals by considering the situation related to the client's needs and their present support system.
- Assist clients in adjusting to changes in their lives and the challenges life events such as illness, unemployment, and divorce present.
- Refer clients to resources that will help them through new challenges. These resources may include food stamps, healthcare, and childcare.
- Respond appropriately to emergencies such as mental health crises and child abuse.
- Maintaining records is crucial as it helps social workers monitor their clients' situations.
- When necessary, refer clients to psychotherapy services.
Social Worker Education Requirements
Some individuals demonstrate their propensity for a social work career by their tendency toward compassion, ability to listen, and desire to help others. However, those qualities alone will not qualify you for social work. Social workers are highly trained professionals, and the role requires both broad and specialized education.
Start in High School
Consider taking these steps while still in high school to set yourself up for the path to becoming a social worker:
- English to develop excellent written and verbal communication skills
- Psychology to assist in understanding the behavior and mindset of clients
- Algebra and statistics to help you understand mathematical concepts as they pertain to illness and rehabilitation statistics
- Biology and anatomy to develop a core knowledge of disease and illness
- Foreign languages so you can help clients who may not speak English or speak English as their second language
In most communities, high school students should easily find volunteer opportunities to help them prepare for a career in social work or other people-centered professions. Try seeking out volunteer positions through the following sources:
- Churches and community-based organizations
- The United Way
- The Red Cross
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How Long Does It Take to Earn a Social Work Degree?
Now we get to the question: How long does it take to become a social worker? The higher education requirements to become a social worker depend on the level and type of work one wishes to obtain. Consider the following steps as you plan your career as a social worker:
- Conduct preliminary research to see if a career in social work makes sense for you. Take a look at the different specializations, the educational requirements, and potential salaries.
- Complete the undergraduate requirements at an accredited college or university. Make sure that the undergraduate program you pursue will set you up for graduate and licensure programs.
- Look into graduate education options that align with your career goals. Choose your graduate program carefully to prepare you for the specialization or career path you plan to follow. You may find accredited programs at brick-and-mortar institutions, online facilities, or an in-person and online learning hybrid.
- If applicable, pursue a Master of Social Work (MSW) graduate education.
- Complete the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exam.
- Complete the licensure requirements for your state. Most states will offer three primary licensure options:
- LBSW (licensed baccalaureate social worker): This license requires completing a four-year bachelor's degree in social work.
- LMSW (licensed master social worker): This license requires the completion of an MSW to comply with your state's requirements.
- LCSW (licensed clinical social worker): This license also requires an MSW and specific clinical training and practicums.
- Create a resume and apply for positions to begin your career in social work. Many social work programs will include residency or practicum segments. You may also want to seek employment that corresponds with your social work career during your studies.
- Keep up with continuing education requirements. Even if you remain in one position as a social worker, you most likely will need to take classes to keep up with the changes and updates regarding that job. Some professionals take their continued education to the level of achieving a DSW (Doctor of Social Work) or Ph.D. in Social Work. The doctorate level of education will typically qualify you to do peer-reviewed research, teach, and hold high-level management positions. These high levels of education usually include a year of additional coursework and the completion of a dissertation, which may take from one to four or more years. So even though the answer to "How long does it take to become a social worker?" may only involve four years, becoming an expert in the field may span your entire career.
The Three Levels of Social Work
As you plan your academic career to become a social worker, consider the three levels of social work. According to your strengths and weaknesses, you will want to choose which level best fits your work and learning style.
- Macro social workers deal with creating and changing policy. These individuals often work for governmental agencies and accomplish positive change through advocacy and administration.
- Mezzo social workers find themselves in group settings at hospitals, schools, and non-profit organizations.
- Micro social workers handle cases involving the needs of individuals and their families.
Career Opportunities and Specializations in Social Work
A person who achieves a Bachelor of Social Work may work directly with clients as a community outreach representative, child advocate, probation officer, youth officer, and more. Some jobs of a more clerical nature require a BSW but don't necessarily require licensure. In 2020, the median salary for an individual with a BSW came in at nearly $52,000 annually. For many, careers requiring a BSW represent lifelong job satisfaction. In the event that you complete your education with your BSW, the answer to "How long does it take to become a social worker?" may be only four years.
Those who wish to work in more specialized fields and a clinical setting will need to complete a Master of Social Work, followed by the appropriate licensure. Some of the specializations that those with MSW and licensure pursue include:
- Clinical social work, which often requires additional coursework and hands-on clinical training. This specialization deals with helping those with mental health issues.
- Military social work, which deals with active military and Veterans. These workers work with the service members and their families on service-related issues such as PTSD.
- Medical social work, which helps individuals deal with all aspects of comprehensive medical care, such as financial, physical, and social.
- Psychiatric social work, which requires the ability to provide treatment and intervention for those who have a severe mental illness.
- Substance abuse, which represents a specialization that guides people through the path to recovery from destructive drug and alcohol abuse.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of jobs for social workers in the U.S. rose to over 715,600 in 2020. Between 2020 and 2030, social work jobs will most likely increase by over 89,000, representing a growth rate more than 12% higher than other industries.
How Many Years of College Does It Take to Become a Social Worker?
When assessing how long it takes to become a social worker, it’s helpful to consider the coursework you’ll need to reach your goals. It might take two to four years to earn a BSW, while someone who aspires to a DSW might need ten years.
The number of years you spend pursuing your career as a social worker will depend on the end goal you wish to achieve. Your previous degree and coursework will also influence the length of time it takes to complete the level with each higher degree level.
For example, if you received your BSW and decide to specialize in Substance Abuse, courses that you took relating to substance abuse during your BSW studies may count toward your MSW program.
The number of years you spend in college studying to become a social worker also depends on how many classes you take and whether you register as a whole or part-time student.
Many online schools offer flexible scheduling programs for working adults and those with family responsibilities. You may also find accelerated programs that allow you to finish your degree more quickly if your schedule permits. Accelerated online learning can shorten the answer to the question: "How long is a social work degree?"
It's important to note that with regionally accredited online social work programs. However, the bulk of the coursework may be online in a virtual classroom. To obtain licensure, you will need to complete in-person residencies or practicums. Additionally, some licensure requirements include working a set number of hours in a profession before moving on to a higher degree level.
When pursuing a degree in social work with licensure in mind, look for colleges with regional accreditation. The list below is a sample of such programs:
- Baylor University-Waco, Texas
- Boston University-Boston, Massachusetts
- Central Florida University- Orlando, Florida
- Florida State University-Tallahassee, Florida
- Fordham University-Bronx, New York
- University of Houston-Houston, Texas
- Humboldt State University-Arcata, California
- Indiana University-Indiana-Bloomington, University
- Liberty University-Lynchburg, Virginia
- University of Missouri-Columbia-Columbia, Missouri
- University of Nevada-Reno-Reno, Nevada
- University of New England-Biddeford, Maine
- University of New Hampshire-Durham, New Hampshire
- University of North Alabama- Florence, Alabama
- University of West Florida- Pensacola, Florida
- University of Texas Rio Grande Valley- Edinburg, Texas
- Purdue University-Indianapolis, Indiana
- Rutgers University-New Brunswick
- University of Southern California-Los Angeles
- Yeshiva University-New York, New York
How Long Does It Take to Get a Bachelor's Degree in Social Work?
A Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) will typically take two to four years, depending on whether the student attends classes full or part-time. In addition to the coursework, the student may also sit for an LBSW, or licensed baccalaureate social worker, exam.
Preparing for a college career by taking the appropriate classes in high school will also keep your degree on track by ensuring the successful completion of your courses.
How Long Is a Master's Degree in Social Work?
If you've completed a BSW, you will usually complete your Master of Social Work (MSW) coursework within two years. You may also apply for an MSW program if you possess a bachelor's degree in another field. Starting the MSW with a bachelor's degree in a different area may require you to take specific prerequisites, which may lengthen the time it takes to complete your degree.
Those receiving an MSW often go on to complete a licensure program. Practicums or residencies will typically add several months or a year to the program, depending on how long it takes the student to complete the required hours.
If you're considering a career as a social worker, we would love to discuss your degree and career options with you. And we can help you answer the question: "How long does it take to become a social worker?" At Counseling Degrees Online, we'll help ensure that the degree you choose is accredited by the Council on Social Work (CSWE). The CSWE accreditation will prepare you for licensing exams and set you on the right path for a successful career in social work.