How To Become a Social Worker

Young female social worker with elderly client.

If you’re seeking a career that would enable you to directly serve people in need in your community, you might consider becoming a social worker. When thinking about your future career path, it’s natural to have some questions. You may be wondering, What do social workers do? How long does it take to become a social worker? And what’s the process for how to become a social worker?

Let’s take a closer look at this profession, including how to become a social worker and what you can expect from the licensure process.

In This Article:

What Do Social Workers Do?

Social work can be difficult to define because it encompasses so many areas. Broadly speaking, social workers help individuals and families deal with challenging situations, such as major life transitions and adversities. You will find social workers at hospitals, publicly-funded institutions, private organizations and nonprofit entities.

Social workers evaluate and treat their clients’ mental, behavioral and emotional needs, and often, help connect them to needed community resources. Every day can be a little different in the life of a social worker, as their daily tasks depend on the needs of their clients. In general, however, a social worker may do any of the following:

  • Assess clients’ circumstances, needs and support networks, and define progress-oriented goals
  • Provide counseling services to help clients cope with life challenges — ranging from divorce to unemployment and beyond
  • Advocate for clients, such as by helping them obtain community resources or public benefits
  • Provide crisis intervention services in cases of mental health emergencies, child abuse and similar emergent situations

Social workers can specialize in certain areas. For example, a social worker may choose to specialize in child and family needs, addiction, mental health or healthcare (e.g. working with people with chronic or severe medical conditions). Social workers may also choose to specialize in a certain client population, such as students in a school.

Exploring the Pros and Cons of Being a Social Worker

Before deciding whether social work could be the right career path for you, it is helpful to consider the pros and cons of the profession. Social workers are often drawn to this career because they feel a calling to serve others in their community. They may find personal fulfillment and meaning in helping others. 

This is one of the most compelling advantages of choosing this career. Others include the following:1

  • Varied work opportunities and diverse work settings
  • Opportunities for professional advancement
  • Job satisfaction
  • Opportunities to specialize in a particular area of interest
  • Potential for personal growth when working with culturally diverse populations

In addition, the social work profession exhibits favorable job growth for the foreseeable future. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job growth rate for social workers from 2022 through 2032 is expected to be 7%, faster than average. This indicates that employers expect to hire about 53,800 new social workers through this time period.2

As with every other job, social work can have its disadvantages. Some of them are as follows:3

  • High caseload: Many social work agencies are understaffed, requiring individual social workers to handle a high client caseload.
  • Compassion fatigue: Working with victims of child abuse, rape, drug disorders and similar societal problems can be emotionally and spiritually draining.
  • Erratic schedule: Although some social workers work primarily in an office setting with regular business hours, they may also be called upon to handle emergencies and crises, and they may be required to drive to their clients’ homes.

Deciding Which Type of Social Worker You Want To Become

Before you can get started on the process of how to become a social worker, it can be helpful to consider which type of social worker you’d like to become. There are three main types of social workers: macro, direct practice and clinical. Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

Macro Social Workers

Macro social workers do not work directly with clients. Rather, they advocate for social program development and implementation. They also work toward public policy enhancements that can benefit communities and individuals by addressing the causes of societal problems.

Direct Practice Social Workers

Direct practice social workers do work directly with clients. They cannot diagnose or treat mental health disorders, but they can work as case managers and advocates to help clients navigate difficulties and transitions in life.

For example, a direct practice social worker may help a client struggling with addiction access a treatment program. Some work for school systems, where they focus on students in need, while others may conduct home visits to assess child safety and evaluate potential foster homes.

Requirements can vary from one state and employer to the next, but in general, a direct practice social worker may pursue certain non-licensure positions with a bachelor’s degree. Advancement opportunities may be possible if a direct practice social worker chooses to obtain a master’s degree and licensure.4

Clinical Social Worker

Like direct practice social workers, clinical social workers work directly with clients. However, they have the ability to diagnose and treat mental health disorders via counseling services.4

A clinical social worker must have at least a master’s degree and state licensure. It should be noted that, although clinical social workers may also hold a bachelor’s degree in social work, this isn’t a strict requirement. If you have a bachelor’s in another subject area and you’d like to make a career transition to social work, you may be able to obtain a Master of Social Work (MSW) and licensure.5

How To Become a Social Worker: A Look at the Steps To Take

If you think you might like to become a social worker, it may be time to take a look at the steps you’ll need to take. The process can look a little different for each person, often depending on which type of social worker you’d like to become and whether you already have college education or if you’re a high school graduate. The following information focuses on how high school graduates can become licensed clinical social workers.

How Long Does It Take To Become a Social Worker?

Before starting to work toward the requirements, you may wish to consider how many years of college you will need to become a social worker. Everyone’s journey is a little different, but in general, it traditionally takes about four years of full-time classes to earn a bachelor’s degree.

An MSW degree will vary in its time to completion, depending on your schedule of classes and the program you choose. An MSW program that leads to licensure will include supervised training and experience hours. After graduating, you must meet any additional licensure requirements for the state in which you plan to work. This generally involves passing a clinical licensure exam.4

Earning Your Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work

All aspiring social workers must have at least a bachelor’s degree.5 It’s ideal to apply to a bachelor’s degree program that specializes in social work, such as a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). This specialized degree program will likely explore key subject areas, such as:

  • The cultural applications of social psychology
  • The underlying causes of social problems and issues
  • The principles, practice and policies of social work
  • The perpetuation of societal stratification and inequalities

In addition, an accredited social work degree program should explore case management skills and social work direct practice skills. 

Applying to a Graduate Degree Program

If you intend to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), you must earn a master’s degree.5 A Master of Social Work degree program typically explores matters pertaining to social justice and societal inequalities as well as ethical and professional behavior. In addition, students have the opportunity to develop advanced social work practice skills to empower clients who are struggling with various challenges, including psychopathologies.

Gaining Supervised Work Experience

The licensure requirements to become an LCSW vary from one state to the next. You should double-check the requirements for the state in which you plan to practice. In general, you can expect to complete a certain number of supervised work experience hours before acquiring licensure.5 Depending on the MSW program, you may be able to complete some of these hours during your program.

During your supervised work experience, you can expect to work directly with individuals and perhaps with groups. You will have the opportunity to use evidence-based mental health therapeutic techniques to help your clients overcome their struggles. You may also connect them to needed community resources designed to help them get their lives back on track. You will meet with your supervisor at regular intervals to discuss client cases and therapeutic procedures.

Passing the ASWB Exam

Before you can apply for a state license to become a clinical social worker, you must pass a licensure exam. Every state uses the licensure exams administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), which offers licensure exams for those with a BSW or MSW, and those applying for clinical licensure.6

The ASWB exams will evaluate your knowledge in areas such as:6

  • Human development
  • Diversity and cultural competency
  • Behavior in the environment
  • Professional relationships and ethics
  • Client interventions

Additionally, the clinical licensure exam evaluates your understanding of psychotherapy, clinical interventions and case management.6

Acquiring Appropriate State Licensure

The last step in becoming a social worker is to acquire a social work license in the state in which you wish to practice. Your state licensure board will detail the requirements, which generally include documenting your supervised work experience hours and providing proof of your education.

In addition, it’s important to note that there are different types of social worker licenses, often depending on the level of education you have achieved and the type of social worker you’d like to be. Here’s a look:

  • Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW): Requires a BSW and successful completion of the ASWB bachelor’s exam, and provides a pathway to pursue entry-level work in the field
  • Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW): Requires an MSW and successful completion of the ASWB master’s exam, and provides opportunities to pursue work as a macro social worker
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW): Requires an MSW, completion of supervised clinical experience hours and successful completion of the ASWB clinical exam, which enables LCSW professionals to practice clinical social work

Advancing Your Career in Social Work

Once you’ve become a social worker, there are steps you can take to maintain or potentially advance your career. For example, if you have a license, you’ll need to renew it by completing continuing education credits in accordance with your state’s requirements. You might also choose to obtain specialty certifications from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). There are multiple certification options, depending on the specialization you choose to pursue.

At some point during your career, you may wish to participate in social work research initiatives to add to the body of knowledge in the field. You may choose to publish your work in social work journals and speak at professional conferences.

You can begin your journey toward becoming a social worker by enrolling at Grand Canyon University. The online Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree, offered by the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, is designed to instill foundational competencies in the social work field. Fill out the form on this page to learn more about joining the online learning community at GCU.

1 Virginia Commonwealth University. (2022, March 29). 5 Benefits of Being a Social Worker. Retrieved Nov. 8, 2023. 

2 COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 to 2022 may be atypical compared to prior years. Accordingly, data shown is effective September 2023, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Social Workers, retrieved on Oct. 24, 2023.

3 Wadsworth, J. (n.d.). What are the main challenges of a career in social work? Charles Hunter Associates. Retrieved Nov. 30, 2023.  

4 Upson, M. (2023, Sept. 7). Clinical vs. direct practice social work (a complete guide). BestColleges. Retrieved Oct. 24, 2023.

5 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2023, Sept. 6). How to become a social worker. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Retrieved Oct. 24, 2023. 

6 Munday, R. (2023, June). Become a social worker: education and licensure requirements. Retrieved Oct. 24, 2023.

Approved by the director of social work of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Nov. 20, 2023.

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.