Social workers lend a hand to those who need help when others look away or ignore them altogether. Deeply compassionate, kind, and determined, social workers enable suffering men, women, and children to take control and carve their own path toward a positive life.
Part I: The Social Work Industry
This is a field with a very broad definition. Students need education and training in issues like diversity, ethics, populations-at-risk, and socioeconomic justice — but the career options are wide-ranging and, in many cases, interchangeable.
An Overview of the Field
The Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) divides social work into two categories of work: those who provide direct-service to people cope with problems in their everyday lives, and clinical social workers who diagnose mental, behavioral, and social issues.
- Child and elderly protection: These social workers help clients in a number of environments. Some help abused or neglected children in the foster care system. Others teach parenting skills, and others work with adoption agencies. School social workers partner with students and teachers to understand cognitive, behavioral, and social problems. The elderly also need services, and many social workers help individuals and families cope with aging in multiple capacities.
- Medical and public health: These professionals serve clients who have major long-term health issues. They may work with families to provide advice and care, or offer services in a nursing facility like exercise and nutrition classes.
- Mental health and substance abuse: This field of social work involves the work of clinically trained professionals, and patients who are struggling with drugs, alcohol, or mental illness. Social workers may provide therapy to identify problems and diagnose treatment. They also impart life skills, reach out to patients’ relatives and provide treatment that enables patients to take care of themselves.
Given these overarching descriptions, it is easy to see that academic preparation for this career will draw on a number of different academic disciplines; these include economics, statistics, sociology, anthropology, and public administration. As a social worker, you will need to handle sensitive information in environments that are often unstable, help clients manage different problem areas of their lives, maintain confidentiality and act in the best interest of the people you serve (and, in many cases, their families). The National Association of Social Workers (NASW), code of ethics will help you understand this dynamic employment field — as will courses from your college and university.
Social workers require a four-year degree, and there are many positions that require a master’s degree. Clinical social workers need a master’s degree and a license, depending on the state. Students who know they want to work in the field of social work have a lot of flexibility with the university and program they choose – many social workers have an undergrad degree in psychology or sociology, not just social work or health and family services.
Many aspiring social workers learn a specialization in college. It is important to find a program you love, and a major that interests you. Here is a comprehensive list of majors, employers and jobs to get you thinking in the right direction.
Salary and Career Outlook
As of May 2008 social workers earned a salary of $43,120. CNN Money rank social work at the top of the pile for stressful jobs that pay poorly. Even though social workers are in short supply, many programs are underfunded; as a result, many professionals earn meager paychecks without a strong chance for advancement.
With an aging U.S. population, social work related to the elderly is estimated to record especially strong growth. The BLS expects the same for social work positions in schools. Competition is often fierce in cities, but rural locations are in need and might be a good place for a recent graduate to look for initial employment.
Overall employment growth among social workers is expected to increase 16% between 2008 and 2018, significantly higher than most other professions. Job growth in certain areas of social work practice is expected to be even more substantial, with some disciplines anticipating an over 20% increase in available jobs, including the sectors of mental and public health, as well as substance abuse.
Four out of ten social workers work for the government; the Department of Veteran’s Affairs is the largest current employer of social workers. This agency is expected to continue to grow as more veterans return home. Nearly 6,000 social workers are on staff helping veterans and families with counseling, crisis intervention, and substance abuse.
Part II. Top U.S. Social Work Programs
Penn State (Online)
The Penn State World Campus first opened in 1998, when online education was still a brand new concept. Today, Penn State offers over 90 programs online and boasts nearly 12,000 graduates.
- Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education
- Specialized Degrees: The Online Certificate in Children, Youth and Family Services is an excellent introduction into a variety of roles in the social work field including family health, welfare and child and youth services.The 30-credit certificate can serve as an introduction to higher education for students who want to make sure the field is right, and then transfer or continue on with the online BA or associate programs.
- Industry Perception: Penn State continues to be one of the most prestigious universities in the country for its academic rigor. The Student Services department ensures online students are granted that same quality. The online undergraduate and graduate degrees were recently ranked among the top 25, according to the U.S. News and World Report.
- Cost: The tuition per credit is around $500, for a total certificate cost of $15,000.
- Financial Aid: Online students are eligible for federal financial aid, including loans, grants and scholarships. Tution can also be paid through a deferred payment plan.
Northeastern University (Boston & online)
A selective admissions process ensures admitted online students get a high-quality learning experience including attention and time with faculty and instruction. High retention rates speak to the university’s quality.
- Accreditation: New England Association of Schools and Colleges
- Specialized Degrees: The Bachelor of Science (BS) in human services preps students for work in government agencies, community organizations, or non-profit groups. The curriculum includes courses in public health, sociology and politics. Students can specialize in one of three areas: child and family studies, human development, and health and social issues.
- Industry Perception: Faculty undergo an online training education in order to prep for instruction to virtual learners. An online tutoring system, video conferencing and voice tools bring the classroom to the masses and create a productive learning environment for students.
- Cost: The BS requires 160 credit hours to be completed full-time over four years, or seven years for part-time students; the estimated tuition is $53,600
- Financial Aid: Aid for online students includes the typical offerings of federal financial aid including grants, loans, and scholarships. An aid webinar makes it easy to get the details.
Oregon State University (online)
The OSU Ecampus awards undergraduate and graduate degrees in more than 30 fields of study, and provides students with flexibility in order to tailor their degrees to their career aspirations – this is great for students pursuing a career in the broad field of social work.
- Accreditation: Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
- Specialized Degrees: Bachelors of Science (BS) in human development and family sciences, which opens the door for many different careers including: social worker; marriage and family counselor; emergency relief worker; adoption agency counselor; and child care coordinator.
- Industry Perception: OSU’s ECampus was ranked No. 8 on SuperScholar annual list of the 25 best online colleges and universities in America for its “degree selection diversity, market credibility and prestige, academic quality, student support and student satisfaction.”
- Cost: The BS requires a total of 180 credits at $260 per credit for BS tuition total around $46,800.
- Financial Aid: Online students are eligible for both state and federal financial aid through the FAFSA form. Students eligible for need-based aid can obtain an Ecampus grant through the Extended Campus office.
Boston University (Online)
It can be hard to make a transition to a master’s program — especially if you’ve already landed a job in the field. Fortunately, programs like the online Master’s through Boston University provide you with the opportunity to pursue both.
- Accreditation: Council on Social Work Education
- Specialized Degrees: Boston University’s School of Social Work (SSW) offers an online Master of Social Work program. The part-time structure allows students to keep their full-time career, and includes an internship component in the student’s geographic location. An option to concentrate in Clinical Social Work Practice also prepares students for licensure.
- Industry Perception: As a global university Boston’s program are well-regarded in the field. The QS World University Rankings named BU 64th, up 6 spots from last year.
- Cost: The program requires 33 credits at $685 per credit for a total of $22,605.
- Financial Aid: Students are eligible for the range of typical financial aid programs through FAFSA, and university specific aid programs. It’s wise to check with your employer, to see if they offer tuition reimbursement.
Part III. Launching a Career
From the moment you decide this is the field for you, it is never too early to start the job hunt. Remember, this is a broad field, so the options are limitless!
Organizing the Job Search
Before you start applying to careers in social work, spend some time evaluating the trajectory of your career path. Identify your skills, interests, preferences, and values. In a field like social work, burnout is high, and those who don’t spend time thinking about what is important for them in a workplace are often the first to quit. Use this career guide from Boston University to help you get started. Once you’ve decided on a direction, here are a few rules to keep in mind:
Follow social work news – Even if you aren’t ready for the job market, it can help you think about the skills you need and the kinds of jobs that seem most interesting. Try these to start:
Think globally – Social workers are needed far and beyond the borders of your state — the need for international social workers is just as big, so don’t feel the need to fence yourself in. There are positions available in non-governmental organizations (NGOs), university-based, religious, and non-profit sectors around the world.
Volunteer – There are opportunities all around you. Consider community housing, job training programs, corrections facilities, homeless shelters, child centers, non-profits, soup kitchens, battered women homes, and/or literacy programs.
Never stop networking – Informational interviews are an excellent way to establish contacts while also getting the opportunity to get candid advice, tips and experiences from a professional in the field. Here is a great list of resources, including questions to ask, a mock letter request and corresponding resume tips.
Tips from High-Impact Social Workers
- Volunteering is a great route for gaining experience, so consider the opportunities the voluntary organisation you go for can offer you. How wide ranging is its client base and the services it provides? What are the training opportunities for its volunteers and what agencies does the organisation regularly work in partnership with? — Julie Joseph, managing director and founder of the social work agency, Common Thread
- The training to become a social worker is arduous, demanding, and complex..I learned a great deal—but what it seemed that no one shared with me during these years, or seemed to discuss among themselves as either teachers or therapists, was the sheer exhaustion experienced in clinical work as we do our very best to meet the needs of others day after day, year after year. — SaraKay Smullens, MSW, LCSW, CGP, CFLE, BCD, private & pro-bono clinical social work on the importance of self-care to prevent burn-out
- You are most likely a loving and kind person. There are clients who will touch you in a personal way. Their stories will be sad. Their words will trigger thoughts and feelings in you. You will need to breathe deeply in sessions, so you can keep the focus on your client. It’s important to consider your own personal therapy and to also use supervision to process feelings that clients trigger in you. — Lisa Baron, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker on tips for new social workers.
Real Work for Real Change
Don’t let the demands of social work intimidate you. If you’ve got the heart for helping others, then you will find the rewards of social work as valuable as any other. It is a labor of caring and love, and when you see your hard work make a real difference in the life of another, it will all be worth it.