What Is a Social Worker?

what does a social worker do

Verywell / Alex Dos Diaz

Social work is an exciting career area that is highly related to psychology. Are you looking for a career that is rewarding yet challenging? Do you want to contribute to society by helping people overcome difficulties and improve their lives? Social work fits this description, which is why many psychology undergraduates opt to pursue it.

While many individuals who work in this field start by earning an undergraduate degree in social work before moving on to graduate school, some psychology majors opt to switch to a social work master's program after earning their degrees.

What Is a Social Worker?

So what exactly is a social worker? These mental health professionals help people with a broad range of issues, including psychological, financial, health, relationship, and substance abuse problems. Learn more about what social workers do, the educational requirements, and the projected job outlook for the field.

Fast Facts

  • Social workers held approximately 707,400 jobs in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Most jobs in the field require a Master's degree in Social Work.
  • Social workers are employed in a variety of settings, including hospitals, mental health clinics, schools, nonprofit agencies, and government offices.

What They Do

The field of social work utilizes social theories to understand human problems, to help improve people's lives, and to improve society as a whole. Many who work in this field specialize in particular areas, such as helping children, assisting those life-threatening problems, or aiding people in overcoming addictions.

Social workers:

  • Act as advocates for their clients
  • Educate clients and teach them new skills
  • Link clients to essential resources within the community
  • Protect vulnerable clients and ensure that their best interests are observed
  • Counsel clients who need support and assistance
  • Research social problems to look for remedies

Work Environment

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about half of all social workers are employed as child, family, and school social workers, a trend that is projected to continue through 2028.

Government agencies employ another three out of every ten social workers at the state and local levels. Professionals who work in government positions might conduct child welfare assessments, help individuals in need of public assistance, and work with people who have come into contact with the criminal justice system.

Salary Information

Salaries can vary based on various factors, including geographic location, educational background, and specialty area. According to the National Association of Social Workers, those just starting out in their career with an undergraduate degree in social work earn mean incomes of $31,327 per year. Those with a Master's degree typically average a mean income of $44,418.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports the following median yearly earnings for different specialty areas in social work:

  • Child, Family and School Social Workers: $46,270
  • Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers: $44,840
  • Healthcare Social Workers: $56,200

Educational Requirements

In order to become a social worker, a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree is the minimum requirement. However, some individuals with psychology, sociology, and education degrees are able to find entry-level jobs in social work.

If you are interested in providing therapy services, then a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree is required. Are you interested in teaching at the university level or conducting research? Then you will need to earn a doctorate degree in social work (DSW).

Requirements vary by state, but most states require social workers to be licensed, registered, or certified in their field. For example, becoming a licensed clinical social worker generally requires taking an exam and completing at least two years of supervised clinical experience.

Specialty Areas

Medical and Public Health Social Workers

Those who specialize in medical or public health social work offer psychosocial services to individuals, families, and groups who are affected by acute, chronic, and terminal illnesses. These services might involve providing psychological counseling, connecting clients with resources in the community, and helping families who are caring for a sick loved one.

Child, Family, and School Social Workers

Child, family, and school social workers work with children and families. Some work in school settings to help children with academic, social, and emotional issues. Others may work with foster children, help arrange adoptions, and assist single parents.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers

Mental health and substance abuse social workers assess and treat individuals suffering from mental health problems or addiction and substance abuse issues. Social workers in this specialty area may provide crisis counseling, individual therapy, group therapy, skills education, and psychosocial rehabilitation services.

Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that social work careers will grow 11 percent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations. While it is predicted that employment opportunities in urban areas will be more competitive, the Department of Labor suggests that job demand will also be good in rural locations.

If you're unsure whether this career path is right for you, a psychology careers self-test can help you find out.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Social workers work environment. In Occupational Outlook Handbook.

  2. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. What social workers do. In Occupational Outlook Handbook.

  3. Salsberg E, Quiqley L, Acquaviva K, Wyche K, Sliwa S. New social workers: results of the nationwide survey Of 2017 social work graduates: the National Social Work Workforce Study. George Washington University Health Workforce Institute.

  4. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Social workers: pay. In Occupational Outlook Handbook.

  5. Association of Social Work Boards. About licensing and regulation.

  6. National Association of Social Workers. NASW Standards for Social Work Practice in Health Care Settings.

  7. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Social workers job outlook. Occupational Outlook Handbook.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."