If you are someone who is caring and empathetic, you may be searching for a career where you can apply these qualities to your professional life. As you are researching degree programs that are a good fit for your natural skills, social work may come up as a possibility. People who study social work often learn that it is an incredibly meaningful and rewarding career.
Earning a social work degree opens the door to a wide variety of career options. Social workers often work in public agencies or with nonprofit organizations. They can also be found at schools, hospitals, nursing homes and even within the legal system on police forces, court systems and in prisons.
In addition, some social workers go into private practice. These private social workers offer their services individually to people or communities who need them rather than being assigned a caseload by their employer.
What Is Social Work?
Social work is both an academic and practice-based field. These professionals work with individuals, families and communities, helping them work through challenges to improve their quality of life. Social work often takes place in underserved communities, although there are many opportunities within the field to work with diverse groups of people and overcome interesting challenges.
When you earn a social work degree, you will find yourself helping people and families overcome problems such as addiction, mental illness, poverty and abuse. In addition to connecting people with the resources they need, you may also be helping them find counselors or treatment centers, or connecting families with housing resources and students with academic support.
Social workers work with individuals and families and are focused on improving the environment and circumstances for the people they work with. They not only help these individuals improve their lives, but also work with community leaders to consider how the greater environment impacts people's well-being. These social workers become advocates for the people they work with, fighting for social justice within the community.
Why Become a Social Worker
If you enjoy advocating for people who need help, social work may be the career for you. Working as a social worker is a personal calling, as you are committing yourself to helping others. This can be an exceptionally rewarding career because you see firsthand how the work you do makes a positive impact in people's lives. However, it’s not the right path for everyone.
Some social workers who work in hospitals help people deal with chronic illness, which can be emotionally challenging. They help patients understand what their options are and what resources are available once they are released from the hospital. Social workers might also help connect patients with therapy or community health centers post-release.
Other social workers in schools may work with children who are at risk of dropping out, helping those students get the academic support they need. School social workers also ensure that students’ home lives are conducive to their ability to thrive at school. They may conduct home visits to make sure the students have a place to sleep, food to eat and a workspace.
Social workers also work as community advocates for nonprofit organizations. They understand the challenges that certain populations face and seek to share this information in hope that circumstances will change. They encourage government agencies to address inequities and to adopt budgets that help people improve their lives, acting as the front lines of social change initiatives.
Qualities of an Impactful Social Worker
When you earn a social work degree and find a job in the field, you commit to becoming an agent of change for others. There are many skills that all professionals in this field need in order to positively impact the people and communities they work with, including:
A social worker must be able to understand their clients’ experiences and points of view. They need to treat everyone as a unique case rather than assuming that all people share the same needs, and must show empathy by creating individualized treatment plans.
Working with people who are going through challenging times requires skillful communication. A social worker must be mindful of both their verbal and nonverbal communication, using body language to convey that they are listening to and respectful of their clients’ challenges. They must also be able to communicate with clients regardless of differences in cultural background, age, ability or gender.
It’s also important for these professionals to clearly report their findings to certain organizations. For example, social workers who work in the court system testify to the work they do with their clients, which requires clear and professional communication about care practices and client progress.
Social workers often have heavy caseloads involving many different clients who are facing unique challenges. All their client cases require different documentation and reporting, so a social worker must be organized enough to keep all this information accessible and in order. They must manage their time well to balance face-to-face time with their clients and their required administrative tasks.
Listening is another key skill for these professionals to have, as it is the best way to understand a client's needs. Social workers must listen to what a client is saying—as well as to what they aren’t saying. This helps them ask the right questions in order to develop the best treatment plan. Social workers develop trust with their clients by being good listeners.
In order to make the best decisions possible, a social worker gathers and analyzes information from a client as well as from other parties involved in the case. Sometimes the solution to one client’s problem is not as clear-cut as it is for other clients.
In these cases, social workers must use critical thinking to consider all the options for every situation. This allows them to work without prejudice, making informed decisions that are in the best interests of their clients.
Life as a Social Worker
Because social workers work mainly with individuals, their work can look very different from day to day. They can never really predict what clients will need, so they must always be prepared with information about community resources, treatment options and how to help people access the resources they need.
Some of the more common aspects of a social worker's job include:*
- Identifying and working with people who need help
- Assessing specific client needs and understanding their situations
- Connecting clients with supportive networks to meet their goals
- Assisting clients who are adjusting to major changes in their lives
- Researching and referring clients to resources such as childcare, healthcare and food assistance
- Being prepared to respond to crisis situations
- Maintaining client records and case files
Social workers are advocates for their clients and for the field, working at the local, state and national levels to ensure that underserved populations have a voice.
Some social workers who are appropriately licensed can diagnose and treat various mental, behavioral and emotional disorders. These social workers can provide therapy to individuals, couples and families and can use their advanced training to develop treatment plans alongside their clients and other healthcare professionals.
Types of Social Work Degrees
When it comes to social work degrees, you can earn one at just about any level. Although there are associate degrees in social work that help lay the groundwork, if you’re looking to work in the field as a social worker, you will need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree.
Bachelor of Social Work Degree
While earning a bachelor's in social work, you will study social work practices, welfare issues and psychology. This degree will usually take about four years to complete and often includes a practicum of hands-on work in the field, which can lead to a non-clinical practice.
A bachelor’s in social work is the starting point for someone who wants to practice social work with clients. Although this degree can get you a job as a general social worker for a large organization, a master’s degree can take you farther in your career.
Master of Social Work Degree
A Master of Social Work will include specific coursework where students can specialize in certain areas, such as family counseling, child development, addiction and mental health. Most master's degrees in social work will also include clinical social work theory and practice courses that can lead to clinical licensure.
There are many concentrations available to students looking to earn a master’s degree in social work, including:
- Substance abuse
- School social work
- Healthcare and medical social work
- Family social work
- Aging population social work
- Mental health
Because it leads to clinical licensure, this degree requires field experience. Each state has specific requirements for clinical licensure, and many social work positions require a minimum of a master's degree in social work.
Earning a master’s in social work will help you attain a more specialized career, as many social work positions require this degree. Social workers can also choose to provide one-on-one therapy with clients in an office setting if they complete their hours of supervised training while earning their master’s. The options for students who earn a master’s degree in social work are plentiful.
Related Jobs You Can Get With a Social Work Degree
Even if you decide to earn a social work degree, you don’t have to follow the path of becoming a social worker. Instead, what you learned during your social work degree program can translate to many other careers.
Some other jobs you can get with a social work degree include:
- Health educator
- Community health worker
- Probation officer
- Correctional officer
- Rehabilitation counselor
- School counselor
- Social service manager
- Social and human service assistant
- Mental health counselor
- Substance abuse treatment counselor
At Grand Canyon University, you can earn a bachelor's degree in social work and a master's degree in social work while specializing in several fields. These degrees will help you begin to improve the lives of others at the center of your social work career. Use the Request Info button above to start your journey in social work today.
*Retrieved from The Balance Careers, What Does a Social Worker Do? in May 2021
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.