Social Work Career Paths

young male social worker meeting with elderly male client on couch

The intent of social work is to assist those in need of help, whether it be personal, financial or emotional aid. Social workers might support children living in dangerous home situations or find ways to provide homeless people with access to food and shelter. If you’re passionate about pursuing a career in service to others, there are many types of social work jobs to consider. Explore social work career paths and read about examples of social work in action.

In This Article:

Examples of Social Work Careers

Social workers can be found in a variety of workplace settings, including schools, hospitals, mental health centers, clinics, businesses, prisons and research facilities. Social work embraces a wide range of subfields, providing many opportunities to find a perfect fit. You can choose to focus on a single area of interest or branch out, all while helping diverse populations with multiple issues.

There are many career opportunities in social work to explore, including those in the following areas:1

  • Administration and management
  • Advocacy and community organization
  • Child welfare
  • Developmental disabilities support
  • Healthcare
  • International social work
  • Justice and corrections
  • Mental health
  • Occupational and employee assistance programs
  • Policy and planning
  • Politics
  • Public welfare
  • Research
  • School counseling
  • Senior care

The number and range of possibilities allow individuals to tailor their social work careers to their interests. Therefore, people who enjoy doing research, but who would prefer not to do it in a scientific setting, can conduct studies on public health issues in the community. People who want to help children, but don’t want to be teachers, can work in the child welfare field.

Why Pursue Social Work Career Paths?

A career in social work has many advantages. Not only will you help others, but you will also learn and grow from the challenges presented by the job. People and communities will continue to need help to develop and thrive, and social workers are trained and positioned to offer the help they need.

Social workers fight for social justice and advocate on behalf of their clients. There are many reasons to consider career opportunities in social work, including:

  • Flexibility: You will have the opportunity to learn about a multitude of populations and different types of practice. For example, you could help victims of child abuse and neglect, empower the elderly or work with prisoners as they seek to re-enter society.
  • Personal fulfillment: Social work is a career that you may find personal fulfillment in. A job is arguably more than a paycheck; it can also be part of your self-identity. If you’re the type of person who enjoys helping others, then social work could be right for you.
  • Job stability: 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.2

Types of Social Work Jobs

Choosing one of the many social work career paths can be difficult. However, at GCU your generalist degree will let you explore all areas with a goal to be ready to work with diverse populations and settings. If this is the case for you, here are a few popular subfields to hone in on.

Child Welfare

Social workers who specialize in child welfare have several options. They can focus on the well-being of children at home, from advocating for those who are suffering from abuse or neglect to working with adoption centers and foster care facilities to help place children in the safest and best environment. They can also work in places like schools to help ensure the well-being and success of all students, including those with disabilities and special needs.

Mental Health

Graduates with a degree in social work often go into the mental health field.3 Some may decide to pursue the qualifications necessary to obtain licensure as a counselor or therapist. These professionals can not only help patients manage and thrive in their day-to-day lives but can also assist them in finding services like employment or housing.

Other mental health professionals work in substance abuse facilities and rehabilitation centers, supporting patients through their recovery journeys. They can help patients refocus on priorities, such as their families, and can advocate for future employment, education and other services.

Senior Care

Another field social workers commonly pursue is senior care. In this field, they advocate for older adults and help them maximize their independence and quality of life. Professionals in this specialization help older adults set and work toward personal health and wellness goals. They respond to their clients’ needs by helping them live their best life.

Social Workers Can Work Across Sectors

Because social work is so versatile, professionals are likely to find themselves in a variety of work environments over the course of their careers. The details of the various options within each available sector can make all the difference, so it’s important to understand these differences before choosing a specific social work career.4

The Public Sector

When you think of the public sector, the first thing that likely comes to mind is local, state or federal government work. While these comprise much of the public sector, many additional subcategories fall under this grouping, including:

  • Prisons
  • Public health departments
  • Public hospitals
  • Public schools
  • Social services

The public sector offers the largest range of positions in the social work field. Governments are responsible for providing services to people in their communities and will always need social workers to help deliver these services, whether through a government agency or the public school system.

Professionals who represent the government often interact with the general public. Therefore, they must conduct themselves in a professional manner and adhere to all the rules, regulations and trainings required by government agencies.

Public sector social workers have influence in the communities they work with and can even effect change in public policy.

The Private Sector

The private sector offers opportunities for social workers as well. Social work career paths in this sector include:

  • Couples or family counseling
  • Work in private healthcare facilities
  • Sports psychology
  • Therapy

These opportunities may offer greater flexibility and independence, as people in this sector often start their own practice and tailor it to their chosen specialty. Social workers in this situation can shape their businesses to their needs and preferences and set some of their own standards and rules.

The Nonprofit Sector

Work environments in the nonprofit sector vary widely depending on the area of interest and the community served. Nonprofits are not always held to the same strict standards as public sector institutions. These organizations frequently offer niche services not provided by the government.

Because professionals working in the nonprofit sector can provide specialized services to specific communities, they often build connections with these communities and their co-workers, creating a potentially rewarding work experience and a close-knit work environment.

When looking into nonprofit work in smaller organizations, be alert for challenges you might not expect. For example, some organizations require employees to handle responsibilities outside of their specialty. Although this environment isn’t for everyone, some enjoy the stretch and the variety, and it’s a good opportunity to learn new skills while making a lasting impact on the communities around you.

How To Pursue a Career in Social Work

Before you get started working toward a career in social work, it’s important to understand that the job requirements differ depending on whether you wish to become a clinical or non-clinical practitioner. A non-clinical social worker is a professional who may work in public advocacy groups, schools, government agencies or hospitals. Their job is to help their clients access community resources and advocate for public policies.

In contrast, a clinical career in social work involves the diagnosis and therapeutic treatment of a disorder, such as a mental health or behavioral disorder. Clinical social workers are able to deliver therapy to help their clients cope with difficult life circumstances, navigate transitions and recover from mental health disorders.

If you wish to become a non-clinical social worker, you will need to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work from an institutionally accredited university or college. An undergraduate degree may be all that’s needed to pursue entry-level, non-clinical positions. However, some states may still require non-clinical social workers to obtain a license, so check your state’s requirements.5

If you’d like to become a clinical social worker, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in social work. You’ll also need to complete supervised training and work experience hours, and you must pass a clinical exam in order to obtain a license. Specific licensure requirements vary by state, so research the requirements for the state in which you plan to work before you enroll in a degree program.5

If you’re excited to explore career opportunities in social work, consider applying for enrollment in Grand Canyon University’s Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree program. Graduates can be prepared to pursue entry-level positions in the field or to pursue licensure by entering a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree program. Fill out the form on this page to learn more about GCU’s social sciences degree programs.

1National Association of Social Workers. (n.d.). Types of social work. Retrieved Sept. 14, 2023. 

2COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 and 2021 may be atypical compared to prior years. Accordingly, data shown is effective September 2022, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Social Workers, retrieved on Oct. 9, 2023. 

3National Association of Social Workers. (n.d.). Practice. Retrieved Oct. 23, 2023. 

4Human Services Guide. (n.d.). An overview of human services employment in the public, non-profit and private sector. Retrieved Sept. 14, 2023. 

5U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2023, Sept. 6). How to become a social worker. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Retrieved Sept. 14, 2023. 

Approved by the director of social work of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Oct. 24, 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.