22 Direct, Indirect, and Clinical Social Work Careers That Change Lives
Are you driven by a desire to support people who are dealing with tough circumstances? Both non-clinical and clinical social work careers allow you to help people overcome hardships and regain control of their lives. They make it possible to earn a living and do some real good in the world at the same time.
Why be a social worker? Because you get to help people in need change their lives in positive ways. Many people in this field say that a social work degree is worth it because of the immense personal satisfaction that comes from helping their fellow citizens overcome significant challenges. In fact, in one survey, more than 80 percent of social workers said that the work they do is meaningful and makes the world a better place.1
Plus, the field is extremely diverse and offers a wide range of fulfilling opportunities. You can develop social policies, work one-on-one with clients, organize community-level programs, and much more. And there is great demand for social workers, with employment in many specialties projected to see double-digit growth between 2016 and 2026.2
This article will help you understand what being a social worker means. It outlines the many different types of jobs in social work, the training and licensing you'll need, and the range of salaries you can expect. Keep reading to learn about a variety of rewarding possibilities for your future!
- What is a social worker?
- Types of social workers
- 9 careers with a social work degree at the bachelor's level
- 13 careers for social workers with a master's degree
- Social worker education requirements
- Licensing and certification
- Typical salaries for social workers
What Is a Social Worker?
Social work is all about improving the well-being of individuals, families, and communities. As a social worker, you get to help people work through struggles and overcome challenges. You may assist people who are dealing with a wide range of issues, from unemployment, homelessness, and poverty to terminal illness, domestic violence, and substance abuse.
So, what do social workers do? They identify people in need and provide help to them. Depending on their focus, they might counsel clients who need support, connect people with relevant community resources, or research and develop policies and programs. Some concentrate on social work with kids, families, or older adults. Others work exclusively with people who have disabilities or people who are struggling with addiction.
You can find social workers at work in hospitals, schools, government offices, corporations, correctional institutions, adoption agencies, health departments, rehab centers, nursing facilities, and other settings. Many clinical social workers also work in private practice.
Types of Social Workers
Anyone who is a social worker is dedicated to helping people cope with and overcome hardships. However, there are many different ways to do that. The field is incredibly diverse and offers numerous paths. Broadly speaking, there are three types of social work:
- Macro or indirect social work—Focuses on researching, developing, and evaluating social programs and government policies for groups and communities. In this type of work, you are concerned with the overall function of the social system. You might develop budgets, design programs, or manage strategies.
- Direct service (non-clinical) social work—Involves linking people with services, managing cases, performing administrative functions, and offering some counseling (but not psychotherapy). As a non-clinical social worker, you can do eligibility screening, present people with options, and help them make decisions. A child case worker is an example of a direct service social worker.
- Clinical social work—Concentrates on helping individuals, families, and groups cope with mental health challenges and behavioral disturbances. As a licensed clinical social worker, you can diagnose mental health disorders, develop treatment plans, conduct psychotherapy, and help people with the practical aspects of living with a mental condition. You can also operate your own private practice.
In addition, there are many social work specialties that allow you to focus on particular issues or populations. Here are a few of the possibilities:
- Child and family social workers help kids and families work through a variety of psychological and social challenges. For example, they might help families find housing, facilitate adoptions, or intervene to remove children from unsafe environments.
- School social workers act as a bridge between students, parents, and teachers, and they make sure that children's needs are being met at school. For instance, they might develop crisis intervention strategies, help special needs students integrate into classrooms, or deal with bullying or truancy issues.
- Medical social workers help patients transition from hospital to home and connect them with services or support groups to help them manage their conditions. They act as patient advocates and ensure smooth communication between patients and caregivers. They also provide social support to those with terminal illnesses.
- Mental health and substance abuse social workers provide counseling and therapy to people struggling with addiction or other mental disorders. They develop treatment plans and help their clients cope with daily living.
- Military social workers help armed forces personnel and their families cope with deployments, injuries, financial hardships, and other issues. For example, they might treat soldiers for post-traumatic stress, provide family counseling, or support service members who are transitioning to civilian life.
- Community social workers work with large groups of people rather than individuals. They push for programs and resources to solve problems or improve conditions for a community. It's the kind of work that can involve applying for grants or lobbying local politicians.
Careers With a Social Work Degree at the Bachelor's Level
If you aspire to have a career as a social worker, a bachelor's degree is a good place to start. A Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) can prepare you for non-clinical roles in a variety of sectors, including case management, community outreach, and administration. It's entirely possible to build a satisfying social worker career without ever going to graduate school.
So, what jobs can you get with a social work degree at the undergraduate level? Here are a few examples:
1. Social services manager—$65K3
Social services managers organize, direct, and oversee social programs and outreach activities. They develop policies, raise funds, manage budgets, recruit and train staff, and evaluate the effectiveness of various initiatives. This is one of the highest-paying jobs with a social work degree. Additional courses in healthcare administration or business management can boost your employment prospects.
2. Parole or probation officer—$53K3
The main goal of parole and probation officers is to aid in the rehabilitation of people who have been released from prison or who have been placed on probation. These criminal justice professionals supervise the progress of parolees or probationers and help connect them with social services such as employment training, housing assistance, or drug abuse counseling. Many work exclusively with either young people or adults.
3. Admissions coordinator—$47K4
In this role, you manage the intake process for nursing homes and other residential treatment facilities. Admissions coordinators are responsible for screening potential residents, determining appropriate placements, and arranging for social services as necessary. They also deal with insurance and billing paperwork. In addition to a BSW, some healthcare administration training can come in handy.
4. Juvenile court liaison—$40K5
Ensuring the smooth processing of court cases that involve minors is the job of juvenile court liaisons. They are in charge of coordinating communication between schools, families, and attorneys. Court liaisons also provide youth and their families with information and advice about available programs and services, such as mental health counseling or legal assistance. Many have backgrounds in social work, criminal justice, or law enforcement.
5. Child welfare case worker—$39K5
Are you passionate about safeguarding the well-being of children? Child welfare case workers have one of the best-known careers in social work. Their primary task is to keep kids out of dangerous environments. They investigate allegations of neglect or abuse, help families access community resources to stabilize and improve conditions in the home, and place children in foster care when necessary.
6. Crisis intervention counselor—$38K5
Helping people deal with intense mental trauma can be a rewarding way to use your social work degree. Jobs in crisis counseling focus on providing stability and support, and giving people the coping skills they need to get through the immediate crisis so they can begin to heal. These counselors often work with police departments, schools, community health organizations, and disaster services groups.
7. Discharge planner—$37K5
Patients leaving a hospital or other treatment center frequently need continuing care. It's up to discharge planners to organize that care and figure out what the next steps will be. They work with a team of healthcare professionals to assess the needs of each patient and make referrals to home care or other agencies. They also arrange for follow-up consultations to make sure all is well.
8. Employment support specialist—$36K6
Providing job searching and training assistance to people with disabilities or mental health challenges is the role of employment support specialists. They evaluate each client's strengths, interests, and needs, and strive to find job placements that would be a good match. They also help with resume and interview preparation as well as on-the-job training.
9. Community outreach worker—$32K5
Community outreach workers develop and manage programs to benefit large groups of people. They act as a link between a community's people and its social services. For example, they might organize a group of volunteers to pick up trash in a neighborhood park, hold meetings to inform the public about immunization drives or cancer screenings, or promote programs to help new immigrants find housing.
Careers for Social Workers With a Master's Degree
While it's possible to get started in social work with a bachelor's degree, a master's opens up a much wider range of career possibilities. A Master of Social Work (MSW) degree is required for clinical work and is often a prerequisite for higher-level positions in the social work field.
MSW career options run the gamut from mental health counseling and family therapy to hospice work and adoption facilitation. Even if clinical work or direct service aren't your thing, there is a lot more you can do with a social work degree at the master's level. For example, alternative careers for social workers who prefer dealing with big-picture issues could include social science research or policy analysis.
Here are some examples of the many possible jobs with a master's in social work:
1. Employee assistance program counselor—$65K7
Many companies offer employee assistance programs (EAPs) to help workers deal with personal issues that can affect their professional lives, including stress, depression, addiction, or financial problems. EAP counselors provide short-term support and may refer clients to other community resources that can address their longer-term needs. Many positions call for advanced degrees in social work, counseling, or psychology.
2. Corporate social worker—$63K3
Among the less-traditional jobs for those with a master's in social work is that of corporate social worker. A growing number of private companies are hiring in-house social workers to teach employees how to manage conflicts and be more productive. Corporate social workers also provide career coaching, team-building services, and cultural sensitivity training. Some focus on managing and directing corporate social-responsibility programs.
3. High school guidance counselor—$56K3
Guidance counselors support students' academic, social, and personal development. In addition to helping students establish good study habits or develop career goals, they can also offer counseling related to personal issues such as anxiety or bullying. Some positions are available to those with just a master's degree in social work, but many states require additional licensing or certification. You might also need teaching credentials.
4. Social policy analyst—$55K5
Are you interested in studying social issues such as crime, poverty, violence, hunger, and unemployment? Social policy analysts gather and analyze data to evaluate the effectiveness of different policies and come up with ways to improve them. Most work for government agencies, but opportunities are also available with think tanks and consulting firms.
5. Clinical social worker—$55K5
Providing counseling and therapy services is the essence of clinical social work jobs. With an MSW and appropriate licensing, you can perform such work in hospitals, prisons, schools, rehab facilities, military bases, or even your own private practice. Clinical social workers consider both a client's state of mind and the social supports around him or her when setting goals and planning treatments. A huge range of specialties are available.
6. Psychiatric crisis screener—$52K8
It's up to psychiatric crisis screeners to quickly assess people in acute mental distress and figure out appropriate interventions or placements. They perform psychosocial evaluations and identify people at risk of suicide or other harmful behavior. Many screeners answer telephone crisis hotlines; others do face-to-face assessments in mental health clinics or hospital emergency departments.
7. Social science research analyst—$51K5
Collecting the hard data that jobs like social work depend on is the task of social science research analysts. They prepare proposals, develop survey questionnaires and focus group protocols, and summarize research results in written reports. They often focus on areas such as mental health, child welfare, or drug abuse. Experience with statistical analysis software can help your prospects.
8. Hospice social worker—$49K5
Hospice social workers (also known as palliative care social workers) offer compassionate end-of-life care. They evaluate patients and provide counseling, emotional support, and bereavement services to terminally ill people and their families. They also refer patients to outside resources such as financial or legal assistance as needed.
9. Gerontological social worker—$46K5
Helping adults over 65 manage their mental, physical, and emotional needs is the focus of gerontological social workers. They act as advocates for older adults and link them with government or community-based resources related to housing, home care, transportation, meal delivery, and more. They might also help seniors transition into assisted living facilities.
10. Adoption counselor—$46K3
How would you like to help children find loving families and vice versa? Adoption counselors interview and evaluate families that are looking to adopt, and they match children with appropriate homes. Once children have been placed, counselors follow up with home visits to monitor the transition and deal with issues that arise. They also provide counseling and other support services to foster or adoptive families.
11. Mental health counselor—$45K3
Mental health counselors assist people who are dealing with stress, depression, grief, relationship problems, and suicidal impulses. They offer psychological and emotional support and help their clients develop the skills and mindsets they need to bring about change. Some specialize in working with specific populations, such as children or the elderly. This is clinical work that requires licensing.
12. Substance abuse counselor—$45K3
As a substance abuse counselor, your job is to support people who are dealing with addiction and guide them toward recovery. Typical tasks include evaluating clients' health, setting treatment goals, teaching coping skills, and leading therapy sessions. You might also refer clients to employment services or support groups. Licensing requirements vary by state.
13. Child and family therapist—$42K5
Child and family therapists provide counseling and treatment to clients who need help getting through difficulties that are affecting the overall function of the family unit. The idea is to promote resiliency and help families find healthier ways to interact. Therapists often address issues such as personal conflicts, behavior problems, depression, grief, divorce, and domestic violence.
Social Worker Education Requirements
When learning how to become a social worker, the first thing to understand is that regulations vary from state to state. Plus, the qualifications to become a social worker depend on the specific kind of work you want to do. For instance, if you want to become a child and family social worker, education requirements generally include a bachelor's degree in social work; some (but not all) states also require licensing. On the other hand, if your goal is to offer one-on-one psychotherapy services, you'll need a master's degree and a clinical license from your state.
Any path to becoming a social worker starts with a college degree. You'll want to choose a program that's accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.
You can begin learning how to be a social worker at the undergraduate level. With a bachelor's degree in social work (BSW), you can pursue entry-level roles in administration, counseling, advocacy, and case management. It takes four years to become a social worker at this level. BSW programs typically include courses in social justice, ethics, social welfare policy, and human behavior. Students also get the chance to complete supervised field experience.
Master of Social Work (MSW) programs provide advanced training and allow you to specialize in a particular area. They also include a supervised practicum. You don't necessarily need to have a bachelor's in social work first; you can also qualify for an MSW program with a degree in a field such as psychology or sociology. MSW programs generally take two years, but if you already have a BSW, you may be able to finish your master's in less time.
Some states have specific social worker class requirements. For instance, you may have to take additional courses in ethics, aging, or child abuse before you can be licensed.
You must have an MSW if you want to provide clinical services. An MSW is also frequently required for social work careers in schools and healthcare facilities. Administrative roles are available with a BSW, although many employers prefer to hire candidates with an MSW.
Licensing and Certification
All states require clinical social workers to have an MSW and a clinical license. Beyond that, licensing requirements vary significantly between states.
In some areas, you have to have a license in order to do any form of social work; in others, you only need a BSW or MSW. A few states will grant licenses to human services workers with an associate degree or high school diploma, whereas many others require a master's degree. Be sure to research the requirements for the state you want to work in.
The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) develops and administers social work licensing examinations. There are four common licenses, but not every state uses all four. Again, it's important to check with your state's regulatory board.
- Licensed Bachelor of Social Work (often abbreviated as LBSW, LSW, or CSW)—Candidates must have a BSW and pass the ASWB bachelor's exam. Work experience is not usually required, and you can apply for this license as soon as you graduate with your BSW.
- Licensed Master of Social Work (often abbreviated as LMSW, LGSW, or LSW)—To get this license, you must have an MSW and pass the ASWB master's exam. You are eligible for this license once you have your MSW; no post-graduate work experience is required. In some states, this is the most advanced license available for non-clinical social workers.
- Licensed Master Social Worker-Advanced Generalist (often abbreviated as LMSW-AG, LMSW-AP, LISW, or LMSW-M)—Applicants must have an MSW, complete at least two years of supervised non-clinical experience, and pass the ASWB advanced generalist exam. In states that offer this license, it is the highest level available to non-clinical social workers.
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (often abbreviated as LCSW, LICSW, or LMSW-C)—For this one, you must have an MSW, complete two to three years of supervised clinical work, and pass the ASWB clinical exam. This license allows you to independently provide clinical services. As a licensed clinical social worker, you can work in schools, hospitals, treatment centers, and other settings. You can also go into private practice.
In addition, the National Association of Social Workers offers specialty certifications that can enhance your employability. These certifications are not required and do not take the place of state licensure. To qualify, you must have either a BSW or an MSW, along with varying levels of experience and continuing education.
The following certifications are available to candidates with a BSW:
- Certified Children, Youth, and Family Social Worker
- Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Social Worker
- Social Worker in Gerontology
- Certified Social Work Case Manager
- Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families Social Worker
And these certifications are available to those with an MSW:
- Certified Social Worker in Health Care
- Certified School Social Work Specialist
- Qualified Clinical Social Worker
- Certified Advanced Children, Youth, and Family Social Worker
- Certified Advanced Social Work Case Manager
- Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families Clinical Social Worker
- Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families Advanced Social Worker
- Advanced Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Social Worker
- Certified Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs Social Worker
- Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology
- Advanced Social Worker in Gerontology
Typical Salaries for Social Workers
Licensed social workers make median salaries of anywhere from about $43,000 to $65,000 per year. As you might expect, you can typically earn more with a master's in social work than with a bachelor's in social work. Salary amounts also vary by specialty. For instance, a clinical social worker salary will generally be higher than a child social worker salary.
Below are the median and top-end earnings for a range of social work careers as of May 2017 (rounded to the nearest thousand). You can also see what state has the highest pay for social workers in each specialty.2
Social and community service manager
- Median pay—$64K
- Top pay—$110K and up
- Region with highest average salary—District of Columbia ($107K)
Healthcare social worker
- Median pay—$55K
- Top pay—$82K and up
- Region with highest average salary—Nevada ($79K)
Child, family, and school social worker
- Median pay—$44K
- Top pay—$76K and up
- Region with highest average salary—Connecticut ($68K)
Mental health and substance abuse social worker
- Median pay—$43K
- Top pay—$76K and up
- Region with highest average salary—New Jersey ($76K)
All other social workers
- Median pay—$62K
- Top pay—$87K and up
- Region with highest average salary—Rhode Island ($76K)
All other community and social service specialists
- Median pay—$42K
- Top pay—$70K and up
- Region with highest average salary—New Jersey ($57K)
Learn How to Lend a Hand
As you can see, there is an enormous range of direct, indirect, and clinical social work careers, as well as other fulfilling options in the human services field. So, do you feel called to serve those who need help the most? Have you thought about how to get the training you'll need? Vocational schools and career colleges can help you develop the skills required to make a positive impact on people's lives. Find convenient training options in your area by entering your zip code into the search tool below!
1 PayScale, "The Most and Least Meaningful Jobs," website last visited on April 6, 2018.
2 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, website last visited on April 9, 2018.
3 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, website last visited on July 25, 2019.
4 Salary.com, website last visited on April 30, 2018.
5 PayScale, website last visited on April 30, 2018.
6 Indeed, website last visited on April 9, 2018.
7 SalaryExpert, website last visited on April 6, 2018.
8 Neuvoo, website last visited on April 6, 2018.