Social Work Profession


People looking for a career with meaning, action, diversity, satisfaction, and an abundance of options are often drawn to social work. Social workers are highly trained professionals who care about people, who want to make things better, and who want to relieve suffering. There are over a half million professional social workers in the United States who have all committed their lives to making a difference.

Who are Social Workers?

Social workers help people overcome social and health problems, such as poverty, mental illness, child abuse and neglect, emotional instability, illness, economic uncertainty, domestic violence, homelessness, and drug abuse. They work directly with individuals, couples, families, and groups to identify and overcome these problems. Some social workers also work with communities, organizations, and/or systems to improve services and/or administrate social and health programs.

Social workers are found in many settings, including private practice, mental health, health, schools, community agencies, public welfare, agency administration, and policy and planning. Social work’s approach is unique among the helping professions because it focuses on people’s problems in the context of their social environment. Social workers believe that people are influenced by the strengths and weaknesses of those around them – in their families, communities, workplaces, and organizations.

Social workers apply their professional knowledge and skills to help people make the most effective use of their own abilities. When adequate services do not exist in a community, social workers promote the development of new services and programs.

Common Work Activities:

Examples of Social Work Jobs

Career Specialties

For sheer variety, few occupations can match social work, which offers the broadest range of opportunities and settings. Social work is a broad professional field that encompasses several major areas of work and/or specialization:

Social Workers may also specialize in treating specific problems, such as mental health disorders, marriage problems, domestic violence, substance abuse, or living with long term illnesses such as cancer and HIV/AIDS. You will find social workers working with special populations of people, such as in aging or gerontology, developmental disabilities, juvenile services and probation, child welfare, or public welfare, to name a few. A social worker may also develop specialized skills in conflict resolution and mediation, violence and victim services, emergency preparedness and disaster relief.

Client Profiles

Bob is experiencing stress as a single parent. He is referred by a social worker to a good child care agency. The social worker also helps Bob explore flextime with his employer and works with a coalition of local employers to make flextime and child care more available to others in the same situation. In addition, the social worker provides therapy to help this young father handle the immediate stress of raising children on his own.

Tara, a new mother, is 16 years old. She lives with her grandparents and hasn’t finished high school. Her social worker helped her child get health insurance and regular check ups, and helped Tara apply for public assistance. With her social worker’s support, Tara enrolled in evening classes to finish high school, and found a support group to help young mothers with parenting skills.

Scott is 8 years old and loves to learn. He began skipping school after bigger kids started teasing him. His school’s social worker alerted Scott’s teachers who helped control the bullying. He met with Scott’s parents to suggest ways to help the situation. Now, he and Scott talk a lot--not only about bullies, but also all the things Scott is excited to be learning about.

More About Social Work Jobs:

In Social Casework (case management), social workers help clients who become eligible for a variety of services designed to improve their economic, social and/or health functioning. They administer established social, health and/or public welfare services through public, private, community or sectarian agencies and organizations.

Medical Social Workers help patients and their families cope with the many problems that accompany illness or inhibit recovery and rehabilitation, such as economic need, disability, and lack of resources after discharge to home. They also collect and analyze patient information to help other health professionals understand the social, emotional, and environmental factors underlying a patient’s condition, or affecting their optimal recovery. In hospitals, medical social workers often coordinate services for home care and equipment following discharge, or for referral to rehabilitation and long-term care facilities. In hospice, long-term care, and rehabilitation facilities, they assess patient and family functioning on an ongoing basis, providing or recommending services as conditions change. In outpatient settings, medical social workers provide referral services and supportive counseling, and coordinate after care and follow up services.

School Social Workers help students and families overcome the social, behavioral, emotional, or economic problems that prevent learning. They interview students to determine problems, use professional judgment to assess conditions, refer for appropriate professional or community services, and follow up to assure that services are provided and that conditions improve.

Community Organization Social Workers work to improve systems and develop new resources so that more people in the community will have access to the services they need to function at their best. They work for or with governmental, private, or community groups and organizations to determine community needs, and to recommend and develop new resources.

Clinical Social Workers provide a full range of mental health services, including assessment, diagnosis and treatment. They draw on a variety of psychotherapeutic theories and tools to help individuals, couples, families and groups deal with emotional problems, mental disorders, and substance abuse/chemical dependency.

In Administration and Management, social workers oversee the provision of public and private social and health service programs. They understand the mission of the organization and administer the resources and money necessary to make the program operate effectively to help people. They evaluate the program’s effectiveness to continually improve services. They employ social workers and other professionals to provide direct services to individuals, families and groups of people.

In Social Policy social workers may conduct research projects to determine how to address pressing social concerns, such as substance abuse and child welfare services. Through the collection and analysis of research data, social workers plan and implement interventions with an emphasis on changing policies and advocating to reform social conditions. Social workers in social policy practice also guide the implementation of social policy projects.

Social Work Researchers engage in research to measure the effectiveness of agency or program operations as well as studying the causes of larger social problems such as poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse. They analyze results and use their findings to recommend ways to improve social policies and conditions.

Social Work Standards

The social work profession has its own body of knowledge, code of ethics, practice standards, credentials, state licensing, and a nationwide system of accredited education programs. These equip the professional social worker to combine the desire to help others with the knowledge, skill, and ethics needed to provide that help.

Education, Licensing, and Credentials


To be a NASW member, you must have a degree in social work from a college or university program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. The undergraduate degree is the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). Graduate degrees include the Master of Social Work (MSW) and the Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) or PhD. An MSW is required to provide therapy. For information about accredited schools of social work, contact the Council on Social Work Education at 1600 Duke Street, Alexandria, VA 22314, 703-683-8080,

Degree programs involve classroom study as well as practical field experience. The bachelor’s degree prepares graduates for generalist entry-level work, whereas the master’s degree is for more advanced clinical practice. A DSW or PhD is useful for doing research or teaching at the university level.


Most states require practicing social workers to be licensed, certified, or registered, although standards vary. Contact the state regulatory board directly or the American Association of Social Work Boards,, 400 South Ridge Parkway, Suite B. Culpepper, VA 22701, 703-829-6880, for a list of regulatory agencies or for a comparison of state regulations.


NASW establishes and promotes additional standards and credentials required for excellence in the practice of social work. A credential certifies that a social worker has achieved competence and professionalism beyond a college degree or state license. Credentials generally require a degree, supervised experience, and a standard examination. NASW members may obtain one or more of the following certifications:

Social Work Salaries

It is difficult to assign a definitive range to social work salaries given the variety of positions and employers within the field. But one thing is certain: demand for social workers is on the rise.

Additional Resources

National Association of Social Workers
750 First Street NE, Suite 700
Washington, DC 20002-4241
202-408-8600 | 800-638-8799

Copyright 1997-2002, National Association of Social Workers, Inc.