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Social work careers

By Georgie Miller
Published on March 4, 2014.

Social work exists at the crosswalk between human behavior and development, and studies how they interact with and are impacted by cultural traditions, social environments and economic situations. The practice of social work means understanding and applying fundamental, well-established principles and values to do the following:

  • Provide counseling services in individual, family or group situations
  • Help others gain access to material resources in their local area
  • Improve health and or social services at the local, state or federal level
  • Work on public policy or legislative initiatives

Social workers bridge practices from several areas, education and therapy, research and administration, and couple these varied elements with personal compassion to be agents of change. Whether by providing direct counseling services to a person in need, helping a single mother connect to child care agencies, or working on a campaign to raise awareness about domestic violence, social workers use their talents to serve others and make their communities a better place.

Types of social work

Social work offers a variety of potential areas of practice, allowing students to match both their professional goals and personal interests to an area that's the best fit for them. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) lists 13 specializations, ranging from aging to behavioral health, clinical social work to children, youth, and families, school social work to adolescent health.

For an example, here are short overviews of two specific concentration areas:

Clinical social work. A health care-based profession, clinical social workers work in both the prevention and the treatment of mental health, behavioral or emotional disorders. According to American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work, clinical social workers make up the largest group of mental health providers in the country.

School social work. Based in and around educational settings, school social workers may provide assistance to students, parents, teachers and educational administrators alike. In this role, social workers may handle a range of issues, such as helping a family through a period of homelessness, conducting student assessments, counseling students facing bullying and more.

Education and training

Various educational paths exist within the social work field, including undergraduate and graduate degree programs. To enter the field, students must possess at least a bachelor's degree from an accredited program, according to the NASW.

  • Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). Completing a BA degree traditionally allows students to begin pursuit of entry-level employment in the field.
  • Master of Social Work (MSW). The MSW is a terminal degree that allows students to practice in clinical social work settings.
  • Doctorate in Social Work (DSW). The DSW is a professional degree preparing students for advanced roles in various practice settings.
  • PhD in Social Work (PhD). The PhD is traditionally considered an academic degree that places a greater emphasis on research and teaching.

Career outlook

Because social work is a diverse, wide-ranging field, numerous occupations fall under its umbrella. Overall, the national median wage for social workers in the US was $44,200 in 2012, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

A review of national earnings data from the BLS of four specializations revealed the annual wages (nationally) ranged from approximately $25,000 (bottom 10%) to $60,000 and up (top 10%). Specifically, the national median wages in 2012 for those careers were as follows:

  • Mental health counselor. $41,500
  • School social worker. $41,530
  • Family therapist. $46,670
  • Health care social worker. $49,830

In the U.S., the BLS projects an average 22% growth rate for those four careers between 2012 and 2022, with 19% expected for the profession at-large.


American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work,

Bureau of Labor Statistics, OES, Social Workers, May 2012,

Bureau of Labor Statistics, OES, Healthcare Social Workers, May 2012,

Bureau of Labor Statistics, OES, Family Therapists, May 2012,

Bureau of Labor Statistics, OES, Mental Health Counselors, May 2012,

National Association of Social Workers,

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