The field of social work spans across multiple career options, depending on the type of social work degree you pursue and your personal career goals and interests. Many people choose a social work career based on the types of people they want to help as well as the work environment they prefer. You can read more about the different types of social workers below.
Top 10 Reasons to Pursue a Career in Social Work
Are you considering a career in social work but not sure if it’s the right career for you? There are many reasons people choose a social work career. We’ve compiled our top ten reasons below:
- You like working with people. Social workers are almost always interested in helping people, either individually or on a big picture level.
- You or a loved one have been helped by a social worker in the past, so you became interested in their work.
- You or a loved one have experienced a hardship such as addiction or abuse and you would like to help others overcome similar challenges.
- You have an interest in a field commonly addressed by social workers such as poverty, mental health, or community organizing.
- You would like to work in a certain environment, such as a hospital or a school, but you are more interested in providing clinical or case management services than healthcare or education.
- You have a strong interest in working with a certain population such as children, the mentally ill, or older adults.
- You enjoy volunteer work and making a difference and are interested in extending your passion into a career in non-profit management, program development, or direct social services.
- You enjoy working in a fast-paced environment addressing crisis situations while managing a large number of tasks.
- You are interested in a flexible career in an ever-changing field allowing you to work in different settings, each with their own goals and challenges, but with a shared purpose of serving the common good.
- You want to have a career focused on helping people and making the world a better place.
What Does a Social Worker Do?
There are so many potential career paths in social work that it can be challenging to answer the question: what does a social worker do? Many social workers provide clinical and case management services directly to individuals, couples, families, and groups. Social workers serve clients dealing with a range of challenges including poverty, physical and mental health issues, addiction, and family problems. They may provide clinical services, such as therapy or counseling, and connect people to resources in the community to help them overcome challenges. You can read more about this type of career in our micro social workers section below.
Most social workers believe that everyone is impacted by their environment. This person-in-environment perspective informs many areas of social work. Some social workers do not work directly with individual clients. Instead, they work in community organizations, government, and advocacy groups to alleviate poverty and social injustice on a big-picture level. These social work careers include legislative advocacy, policy analysis, and community organizing to break down barriers and drive reform. Read more about these types of social workers in the section about macro social workers section below.
Many social workers’ careers include both individual client-centered work and big picture work. Whether professionals choose a career as a school social worker, child social worker, medical social worker, or another social work path, their work will likely involve individual services for people in need of support along with program development and advocacy to improve the institutions, systems, and policies impacting their client population. Read more about these types of social workers in our section about mezzo social workers section below.
Social Worker Job Description
While the tasks associated with each job vary within the field of social work, some common social work tasks are listed below.
- Identify people who need help, such as vulnerable children and older adults, those struggling with mental illness or addiction, and families living in poverty.
- Assess clients’ needs, strengths, and goals, and develop a plan to support individuals and families as they work toward their goals.
- Counsel people to manage challenges in their lives such as illness, loss, unemployment, and family problems, providing connections with community resources addressing such challenges.
- Assist individuals and families in meeting basic needs by connecting them to food assistance resources, child care, and healthcare.
- Help clients navigate government assistance and benefits programs such as Medicaid, Social Security Disability Insurance, and food assistance programs.
- Respond to crisis situations such as mental health crises and spousal or child abuse reports.
- Advocate for access to resources needed to improve people’s lives.
People They Serve
Most social workers spend their days working with people. The type of work social workers do varies based on the groups of people they serve. Common groups of people that social workers serve include:
- Older adults
- People with disabilities
- Patients with chronic, acute or terminal diagnoses
- People coping with grief or loss
- People with mental illnesses
- People struggling with addiction
Where They Work
Most social workers work in an office setting, though many spend a large portion of their time visiting clients in their homes, schools, and in the community. Social workers most often work in the following settings:
- Hospitals, medical clinics, and nursing homes
- Community mental health agencies and substance misuse clinics
- State and local governments including child welfare agencies and departments of health and human services
- Schools and other youth-serving organizations
- Military bases and veterans affairs clinics
- Correctional facilities
- Private practices1
Types of Social Workers
Social work practice can take place at the micro, mezzo, or macro level. Micro social work is practice that concentrates on the individual and family levels. Macro social work is focused on driving change in community systems, institutions, and larger group units, commonly through government or other non-profit agencies. Mezzo social work is focused on groups that fall between the individual and the community, such as neighborhoods, task forces, and support groups.
These levels refer to the scale of the systems being analyzed in each type of practice and are complementary to one another; as a result, there can be considerable overlap between the micro, mezzo, and macro levels of social work practice. Further, not all social work professionals agree on how different groups and interactions should be categorized. However, understanding the effectiveness of differing approaches and interventions on each level and how these can work together to build positive social change is important for effective practice.
Micro Level Careers
Clinical Social Worker
Clinical social workers are the largest group of professionally trained mental health providers in the US, providing over half of all counseling and therapy services.2 These social workers diagnose and treat mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders. They provide individual and family therapy, couples counseling, and group treatment. They also counsel clients to develop new ways of thinking, change behaviors, and cope with challenging situations. Clinical social workers collaborate with doctors, other mental health professionals, and clients to develop treatment plans, and they may monitor and adjust treatment plans based on each client’s needs and progress. Besides direct therapeutic support, clinical social workers connect clients to community resources and services such as support groups, resources for basic needs, and wellness activities. Many work in private practices either with other mental health professionals or independently. Others are employed by hospitals or community mental health agencies.1 While some clinical social workers are generalists and work with clients facing diverse issues, others specialize in areas such as rural social work, family practice, or child welfare. Social work at the clinical level always requires a minimum of a master’s degree in social work (MSW) and state licensure.
Psychiatric Social Worker
Psychiatric social workers, also known as mental health social workers, who engage in mental health social work, often work in hospitals or inpatient psychiatric treatment centers. They assess patients’ social, emotional, interpersonal, economic, and environmental needs, along with their strengths, to develop an effective treatment plan. Social workers support patients suffering from psychiatric illness to manage family relationships, employment, and other affected parts of their lives. Using individual counseling, group therapy, and family therapy, they connect psychiatric patients to hospital and community resources and plan for successful discharge, transitioning patients back to their families and communities. Most psychiatric social workers work in hospitals and residential treatment centers, but others work in outpatient mental health centers and substance misuse treatment facilities providing similar services to clients. Many schools offer degree programs with a concentration in mental health social work to help students prepare for this career. Psychiatric social workers typically need at least a bachelors’ degree in social work (BSW) to practice.
Child and Family Social Worker
Child and family social workers, also known as youth and family social workers, provide a range of case management services to support children by improving the functioning of their families and/or engaging support and supervision outside of the family. Each child in need requires a unique range of services. Common services provided by child and family social workers for parents and families include job placement, medical assistance, debt counseling, addiction treatment, family therapy, and financial support. Social workers in this field may serve as an advocate for each child and a liaison between the child and his or her school, medical and mental health providers, courts, and home. They also may manage adoptions, seek supervised foster care services, and placements in residential treatment facilities. Many child and family social workers work for local government agencies such as departments of health and human services or departments of children and families. The related area of child welfare social work focuses on the needs of children and adolescents.