How to Become a Social Worker

How to Become a Social Worker

The minimum educational requirement to qualify for most social work jobs is a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work (BSW). Some jobs in public or private agencies, as well as clinical positions, may require a Master’s Degree (MSW).

Most supervisory, administrative and staff training jobs require an MSW. College and university teaching positions and most research positions require a Doctorate in Social Work (DSW or Ph.D.).

1. Earn a Bachelor's Degree (4 Years)

An undergraduate social-work program will prepare a graduate for a direct service position, such as a case worker or a home counselor, and generally includes courses in the following areas:

  • Values and ethics of social work
  • Methods for dealing with a culturally diverse clientele
  • Dealing with at-risk populations
  • Methods for promoting social and economic justice
  • Interaction of human behavior and the social environment
  • Policies and services of social welfare
  • Social work practices
  • Methods for social research

Accredited BSW programs will require a minimum of 400 hours of supervised field experience.

2. Take the Graduate Requisite Exam (GRE)

Most graduate programs revolving around forensic science require the GRE for admittance. It's a 3 hour and 45 minute, standardized, multiple choice exam that covers analytical writing, quantitative reasoning, and verbal reasoning.

The GRE is broken down into six primary sections:

Section Section Breakdown
1 Analytical Writing Section
  • 2 writing assignments
  • 60 minutes
  • Tests student's abilities to assess arguments and communicate ideas.
2 Quantitative Reasoning Sections
  • 20 multiple-choice questions
  • 35 minutes per section
  • Tests student's abilities to solve mathematical problems and interpret data.
2 Verbal Reasoning Sections
  • 20 questions per section
  • 30 minutes per section
  • Tests the ability to understand and analyze written material
1 Unscored Section
  • A duplicate of one of the above sections

You can find study materials, GRE registration, and test scores on the GRE website.

3. Earn a Master's Degree in Social Work (2 Years)

A master's degree is necessary for clinical positions, administrative positions, and for school social work. In a master’s degree program, graduates will work in their selected field and continue to develop the skills they’ll need to perform clinical assessments, manage large caseloads, adapt to supervisory roles, and to explore innovative ways of managing client needs.

MSW programs last for two years and require a minimum of 900 hours of internship, or supervised field instruction.

Most MSW programs will offer an advanced standing to students with a Bachelor’s Degree from an accredited social work program.

For MSW candidates holding a bachelor’s degree in a different field, they need to have completed certain prerequisite courses such as:

  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Economics
  • Biology
  • Political Science
  • Social Work

4. Earn a Doctoral Degree (Optional)

A PhD is totally optional and is really only needed if you want the esteem that comes with having a PhD, or you plan on doing research and teaching at a University.

If you work at hospitals MDs will probably take you more seriously with a PhD, but you can get most social work jobs with a Masters.

Sometimes having a PhD, if you don't plan on teaching or researching, will over qualify you for many positions you could've landed with a Masters.

With that being said, continuing education is never a bad thing and if you have a PhD you could impact policy and work on an international level.

Most PhD programs take 2 more years, but a ton of intern hours. In some states, they require you to complete 3000 hours of internship before you can get your credentials.

And paid internships are rare. If you just want to practice, and not teach or research, get the master's.

5. Earn the Required License & Certification

Social work practice and the use of professional titles is governed in all states and the District of Columbia by licensing, certification and registration requirements.

While licensing standards vary by state, an increasing number of states are placing heavier emphasis on communication skills, professional ethics, and a demonstrated sensitivity to cultural issues.

For consideration as a licensed clinical social worker, most states require at least two years of supervised clinical experience.

There are 5 different levels of licensing tests administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB).

Depending on your level of education and experience, you can only take certain tests:

  • Associate Exam - Community College, (test not required in some states)
  • Bachelor's Exam - BSW Degree w/ complete internship
  • Master's Exam - MSW Degree (Post-Grad clinical experience not necessary)
  • Advanced Generalist Exam - MSW + 2 yrs of supervised clinical work
  • Clinical Exam - MSW + 2 yrs of unsupervised clinical work

* Additionally, candidates will have to pass a 170 question test geared towards their licensing level.

Credentials are essential in private practice, as some health insurance providers will not reimburse for services by Social Workers without licensing and credentials.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers a voluntary credentialing program. Social Workers who hold an MSW can become certified through the Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW), the Qualified Clinical Social Worker (QCSW) or the Diplomate in Clinical Social Work (DCSW) credential.