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How to Become a Social Worker


Social workers help people function as best as they can in their environments in spite of barriers that include physical and mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction or poverty. Learn how to become a social worker, beginning with the personal characteristics that will help you succeed in this field.

Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Social Worker?

Senior woman answers door to community careworker
Andrew Bret Wallis/Photodisc/Getty Images
There are skills needed for every field that can't be taught in school. You are either born with them or have to develop them on your own. Social workers must be sensitive, objective and have good listening skills. They have to be able to understand directions and information, whether spoken or read, as well as convey information effectively to others. A social worker must be good at identifying and solving problems, and making decisions. Should you become a social worker?

Required Education

To be a social worker you need at least a bachelor's degree, generally in social work (BSW), but some employers will accept a bachelor's degree in another subject such as psychology. It generally takes four years to complete an undergraduate degree program. Some typical courses in a BSW program are:
  • Introduction to Social Welfare and Human Services
  • Principles and Practice in Social Work
  • Human Behavior Theory
  • Issues In Social Welfare
  • Social Work Practice in Research
  • Statistics For Social Work Research


An MSW (Master's Degree in Social Work), which students usually earn in two years, is required for many positions and, if you want to provide therapy, it is a must. Master-level students take more advanced courses that focus on their areas of concentration. Examples of MSW courses are:

  • Child Abuse and Neglect
  • Social Work With Children and Adolescents
  • Practice in Home and Community Settings with Older Adults


If you eventually decide that you want to teach in a social work program at a college or university, you will have to earn a Doctorate in Social Work (DSW or Ph.D.). This takes about four years. DSW programs are clinically based, while the focus of Ph.D. programs is on research. Doctoral students train to become leaders in the field. They learn how to advance the profession through scholarly research and are trained to teach others to become social workers.

The Council for Social Work Education accredits bachelor's and master's level social work programs that meet certain standards. You can find a list of those programs on the organization's website: Directory of Accredited Programs.

In addition to classroom education, training of social workers also consists of field education. All students participate in internships that will give them the opportunity to apply the theories they learn in the classroom in a work setting.

Getting into a BSW, MSW or Doctoral Program

Many BSW programs will not admit students until they have completed the core curriculum of that college or can transfer the credits for that coursework from another school. For example, Fordham University's Baccalaureate Program in Social Work states that "Students may apply for program admission following completion of approximately 50 credit hours and most prerequisites." Requirements are similar at New Mexico State University's School of Social Work. This program tells prospective applicants "it is important that you complete 60-65 countable degree credits including the NMSU general education requirements."

An undergraduate degree in social work is generally not a prerequisite for admission to an MSW program, although one is needed in order to be admitted to an advanced standing program. Generally, one must have a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or be about to graduate. Those who apply to doctoral programs usually need an MSW or a master's degree in a related field. Usually, applicants must go through a stringent interview before being admitted. Often, those who apply to graduate school, whether it's a master's degree program or a doctoral program, take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). For general information on graduate school admission, Graduate School Admissions 101 on About.com's Graduate School Site is a must-read.

What You Must Do After Graduation

Regardless of the degree you earn, you will need a license to practice as a social worker anywhere in the United States. Requirements vary by state, but usually include supervised work experience. You may be required to pass a written exam as well. In California, as one example, to become licensed you must have an MSW from an accredited program, with some required courses, and 3200 hours of supervised work experience over 104 weeks. Upon completion of these requirements, you will have to pass a written exam (California Department of Consumer Affairs, Board of Behavioral Sciences).

To find out what the requirements are elsewhere, check with the licensing agency of the state in which you are interested. The National Association of Social Workers maintains a list of those agencies on their website. Be aware that in some states there are also continuing education requirements to maintain licensure. Some states also have different types of licensing depending on the way in which one wants to practice, for example in Nebraska, a social worker who wants to provide mental health services must become licensed as a mental health practitioner (Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services).

Getting Your First Social Work Job

Although the road ahead of you may seem very long, eventually you will complete your education and have to look for a job. You should be aware of the qualities, in addition to a degree, prospective employers will be seeking. Of course this will vary by employer, but to give you an idea of what some of them are, here are specifications excerpted from job announcements found in various sources:

  • "Ability to exercise self-control in potentially volatile situations such as being verbally or physically confronted in a threatening or aggressive manner."
  • "Must possess good oral and written communication skills along with excellent interpersonal skills."
  • "Keeps abreast of MSW Homecare reimbursement guidelines."
  • "We want individuals that make patient care a top priority."


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