Exploring a Career in Social Work

young male social worker meeting with elderly male client on couch

A career in social work can take many forms, depending on one’s preferred focus. The intent of social work is to assist those in need of help, whether it be personal, financial or emotional. For example, social workers might remove children from dangerous home situations or find ways to provide homeless people with access to food and shelter. No matter the circumstance, if the job description includes assisting those in need, there is a good chance that the job can be done by a social worker.

Categories of Social Work

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 areas of social work to explore, including: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. For example, people who enjoy doing research but 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.

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.

Popular Paths in Social Work

Choosing one of the many career options in the social work field can seem overwhelming. 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 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. Some advance their education with a master’s degree or PhD to become 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. 

Work Environments for Social Workers

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.2

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 employees also have a wealth of resources available to them and often find that their work offers stability and security. They have influence in the communities they work with and can even effect change in public policy. This situation can yield substantial career satisfaction.

The Private Sector

The private sector offers opportunities for social workers as well. 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.

Professionals in the private sector are often hired by others for their specific skills in a particular field. Many social workers in this sector earn a master’s or doctoral degree to stay competitive and marketable.

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 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.

Getting a Degree in Social Work

For an aspiring social worker, earning a bachelor’s degree in social work is the first step to becoming a successful professional in your desired area. This degree program prepares students to understand human behavior in a variety of social environments from conception through late adulthood. Having this desired skill set before you pursue a graduate degree will benefit you and give you a solid foundation of social work knowledge. 

You might also want to consider a master’s degree to acquire a deeper understanding of certain aspects of the field or the profession. For example, a Master of Education in School Counseling or a Master of Science in Childhood and Adolescence Disorders would offer insight into the field of working with children in an academic setting. 

Earning a Master of Social Work, however, would help you best acquire real-life experience in social work and increase your appeal to future employers. Degree programs in social work include courses in: 

  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment
  • Social Psychology and Cultural Applications
  • Social Research and Statistics
  • Stratification and Inequality in a Diverse Society

In a social work degree program, students can expect to learn tools like applied sociology or sociological perspective and analyses that illuminate how social work functions in today’s communities.

How To Pursue a Career in Social Work

In addition to moving toward a degree in social work, it’s important for future social workers to look into the licenses, certifications and registrations that might be required to pursue the job of their choice. For example, clinical social workers must have a minimum of two years of supervised clinical experience post-graduation and must pass a clinical exam to be able to practice. When considering social work, researching the requirements of the state where you want to work is a wise step.

Grand Canyon University now offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs that are suited to a future career in social work. You can apply to the Bachelor of Social Work degree program or several graduate programs such as the Master of Social Work program to further your education. Use the Request Info button above to learn more about the pursing a career as a social worker at GCU.


Retrieved from:

1The National Association of Social Workers, Types of Social Work in March 2021

2Human Services Guide, Employment in Human Services in March 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.

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