As you observe the world around you, do you recognize needs everywhere you look? Every community is full of them. Children, families, those with mental health needs, veterans, people with disabilities, and on the list goes.

As you look to your own future, you know you want more than just a job. You want a career that’s fulfilling, one that creates meaningful change. If you feel compelled to create positive change for the people in your community, a career in human services as a social worker is one path that would allow you to do so.

In this post, you’ll learn all about becoming a social worker and the human services field — including the next steps you should take toward this career path.

What Do Social Workers Do?

Social workers fill a vital role in communities, working to protect vulnerable children and to support families in need. They help people deal with problems and identify those who may be vulnerable or in danger.

Some social workers go on for further training and become clinical social workers. These professionals are qualified to diagnose and treat certain mental, behavioral, and emotional issues.

Social workers typically work for human services or social services departments within a community, though some may also operate through hospitals, charities, and nonprofits.

Responsibilities in this role vary widely, as do the needs that social workers seek to meet. Some work as child and family services workers, protecting children who are in danger while also working to solve problems in families that may need assistance, such as finding housing or help with benefits or childcare.

Other roles within social work and human services include:

  • School social workers: work with students and families to improve academic performance, attendance, and behavior
  • Healthcare social workers: perform social work in the context of a medical facility, providing resources to patients & their families, including elder care, hospice, and palliative care
  • Mental health and substance abuse social workers: assist those with mental illnesses or addictions

Social Worker Personality Traits and Skills

While there is no single set of traits and skills that make a person a perfect social worker, the demands of the job do tend to focus in some areas more than others. If you’re considering a career in social work, consider whether you have (or are willing to develop) these traits and skills.


Social workers seek to help people who are in difficult situations, often when they aren’t at their best. Effective social workers must possess strong empathy skills so that they can show understanding and care for their clients rather than frustration or judgment.

Emotional Intelligence

Along the same lines, social workers may frequently find themselves in stressful situations, and they may need to work with people who create a hostile or challenging environment. Social workers need high emotional intelligence so they can remain self-aware and in control no matter what situation they find themselves in.

Communication Skills

Social workers must communicate with a wide range of people in many contexts, from supervisors to law enforcement to clients and client families. Depending on specialization and assignment, social workers may need to communicate with people with disabilities, cognitive impairments, developmental delays, substance use disorder, or simply English as a second language. These and other scenarios require extra attention to clear communication.

Organizational Skills

Case workers must juggle the responsibilities and paperwork of multiple cases or clients, including documentation of visits and treatment. They must also maintain a workable and accurate schedule full of client visits, including with clients that may be hard to reach or who fail to respond. Strong organizational skills (not to mention problem-solving skills) will go a long way toward success in this field.

Career Options for Social Workers

As we’ve already mentioned, there isn’t just one job type called “social worker.” The social and human services field is nuanced and complex, with multiple types of care and multiple credentialing levels. Let’s break down the types of social work and then examine the salary and career outlook in this field. Types of social work include:

Nonclinical. Entry-level social work positions require a bachelor’s degree (typically in social work or human services degree, though other related fields, like psychology or sociology, are acceptable at some firms). Nonclinical positions are sometimes called bachelor’s social workers and tend to be more administrative in nature. They do work with organizations and groups to seek change and improve programs. They may also work with individuals in a nonclinical capacity, serving as caseworkers or mental health assistants.

Clinical/Licensed Clinical. Working more directly with patients is reserved for social workers with more advanced credentials. The clinical social worker (or licensed clinical social worker) holds a master’s degree, has completed two years of supervised training and experience, and holds a state licensure from the state in which the social worker practices.

Clinical social workers are qualified to diagnose and treat certain mental health conditions, producing and adjusting treatment plans for patients. These social workers may provide therapy to the people they care for, and they may also refer out to other health and mental health professionals when necessary.

Master’s. A social worker who has completed the master’s degree but not the required two years of supervised training may be called a master’s clinical worker. This position is temporary, somewhat akin to a doctor’s residency program.

Public vs. Private. Social workers serve in a wide range of places. The most visible may be the ones who work in public (government) agencies and schools. But many private entities, from private hospitals to private practices and even some corporations, also hire social workers for a variety of purposes. Whether public or private, job responsibilities can and do vary widely.

Salary & Career Outlook

Because of the variety of positions and education levels within the social work profession, salaries can vary considerably. According to the BLS, median pay for all social workers in 2020 was $51,760 per year.

Clinical and licensed clinical social workers tended to make more than the median. With a median of $57,630, those working in healthcare social work did just as well while those working in community and family services saw a lower median of $43,820.

Career outlook for this field remains strong. According to the BLS, there were more than 700,000 social worker jobs in 2019 in the US. Over the ten-year span from 2019 to 2029, social worker positions are expected to grow by 14 percent — a full 10 percent higher than the average of all occupations.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Social Worker?

The path to becoming a social worker can be a lengthy one, depending on what level of social work you want to pursue.

Nonclinical social workers must earn a bachelor’s degree, which typically takes four years. A bachelor’s in social work or human services will contain supervised fieldwork or an internship, as well. Some states require licensure for bachelor’s-level positions, though this does not typically add significant time to the process of becoming a social worker.

Master’s social workers add on the time it takes to complete a master’s degree, and fully licensed clinical social workers require an additional two years of supervised training. In a conventional program, then, an individual might need eight years from start to finish to become an LCSW.

Of course, many colleges and universities offer accelerated or hybrid programs that may allow you to complete this journey in a shorter span of time. At Siena Heights, our bachelor’s degree in community and human services requires only 39 major credit hours, along with 100 clock hours of experience.

What Degree Do You Need to Become a Social Worker?

Depending on the position or type of social worker you want to become, you need to complete either a bachelor’s or master’s degree, along with state licensure (required for clinical social work in all states and for bachelor social work in some). For full clinical licensure, you’ll also need two years of supervised training after completing your master’s degree.

That’s which degree type you’ll need, but which specific degree program should you pursue? We’ll outline the typical options by degree type.

Bachelor’s Degrees

The most common degree program for those working in social work at this degree level is the bachelor’s in social work. However, not all schools offer a degree by this exact name. You might see degree programs in human services or social services, which are similar, roughly equivalent programs. Siena Heights offers a bachelor’s in community and human services, for example, as well as a concentration in family systems.

States and employers vary in terms of degree expectations, though, and some will accept applicants who hold a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as sociology, psychology, or counseling.

Master’s Degrees

Those seeking to become licensed clinical social workers must complete a master’s degree in social work before they can begin the required two years of supervised training. The master’s in social work, or MSW, helps students and professionals develop clinical assessment and leadership skills. This degree includes a set of core classes and allows students to choose an area of specialization with the remaining credits.

Typically, master’s students do not need a bachelor’s in social work specifically to be accepted. But students with that bachelor’s may be able to complete their master’s in one year instead of two.

Multiple Program Formats Available

Various institutions offer both bachelor’s and master’s-level degrees in social work in a variety of formats. You’ll find all-residential programs, all-online programs, and even hybrid programs (though we should note that even a “100% online” program will still contain in-person practicums, supervised fieldwork, or some similar experience).

You can even find innovative program formats (like the program at Siena Heights) that are built for students with some previous study or experience in the social sciences. These programs can allow students to complete their bachelor’s degree in much less time, using previous experience to offset some of the credit load.

Types of Coursework

Coursework in social work degree programs is a mix of classroom learning and hands-on experience in the form of a practicum or supervised fieldwork. Some programs also contain a capstone project that may meld the two. Students can expect to take a core set of courses specific to the degree. Depending on the program, students may have the opportunity to customize their degree, adding a concentration or a specialization.

Differences Between Social Work Licenses and Requirements

If you’re pursuing a position as a clinical social worker, you must be licensed in the state you practice. Many states require licensure for nonclinical or bachelor social workers, as well, so be sure to verify what the requirements are in your state. The Association of Social Work Boards offers a resource to help.

While you should certainly look up the requirements for your state, here are some general points to review:

  • Clinical social workers must pass a clinical exam at the conclusion of their two-year supervised experience.
  • In states that require exams for both degree levels, the exams are different, scaled appropriately for the training a degree earner should have received.
  • Additionally, on the master’s level, there are specific exams for clinical and advanced generalist in some states, including both Michigan and Ohio.

Resources for Social Workers

Below are two additional resources that may be useful as you continue exploring this career path.

License Requirement Comparison Tool

The Association of Social Work Boards has developed a useful tool for comparing license requirements between states. This tool can be especially useful if you plan to practice in a state other than where you earn you degree.

Professional Organizations

There are a variety of professional organizations relevant to the field of social work. The Council on Social Work Education, or CSWE, accredits social work degree programs and serves as an advocacy group for the field.

More interesting to practitioners (or aspiring social workers) may be the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), an industry membership association offering development, advocacy, and networking.

If you are interested in advancing your career in your field of expertise, Siena Heights University offers customizable degree completion programs, including in community and human services. Could Siena Heights be the right fit for you? Contact us today for more information on any of these programs!