Skip to content

How to Chart Your Social Work Career Path

 |  7 Min Read

Different types of social work

As a future social worker, your social work career path is completely up to you. There are many As a future social worker, your social work career path is completely up to you. There are many different social work career paths your future can take; the first step is to decide the type of social worker you want to be. The field of social work is very diverse, and can allow you to pursue a career that aligns with your personal and professional interests.

Community Social Work

Community social workers identify areas of improvement for communities, create and implement plans to remedy problems, and measure effectiveness to foster new growth. With a career as a community social worker, you could work for international organizations, travel abroad, or work for nonprofit and grassroots organizations.1 Are you able to cope with disastrous situations in your community? Do you feel comfortable working with disadvantaged or impoverished communities? Does the idea of helping communities grow and transform give you a sense of fulfillment? If so, the community social work career path may be the right one for you.

Medical, Health, and Hospice/Palliative Care Social Work

Healthcare social workers provide frontline services to patients and their families to alleviate the social, financial, and psychological hardships related to adverse health conditions. Health care social workers are most often employed in medical/surgical hospitals, home health care or individual and family services, nursing care facilities and outpatient care centers.2 Are you comfortable with illness and death? Are you familiar with the healthcare system, or willing to learn how the system works to help patients and their loved ones? If you answered yes, then now if the time to explore this social work career path.

Child, Family, and School Social Work

Social workers in this career path help children and their families with a number of challenges. They optimize family well-being and academic performance of the kids. A social worker in this role may also arrange adoptions and find foster homes for abused and abandoned children. They counsel children who have a history of mental or physical abuse or illness. As a child, family, and school social worker you can work in diverse settings such as government agencies, schools from k-12, outpatient care centers, and individual and family services.3 Are you comfortable dealing with situations such as abuse and poverty? Do you think you can work with children who may have already faced a number of challenges at a young age? If you have this experience, you could prepare to apply your innate skills to this career path.

Military and Veterans Social Work

Social workers who work with active military, veterans, and their families provide essential services for one of the country’s most vulnerable populations. These social workers help military and veterans cope with chronic or life-changing injuries, mitigate the effects of PTSD, obtain financial assistance, and find a civilian job after being discharged. Given the need for social workers qualified to work with this special population, you could be employed in a number of career settings such as: military bases and hospitals, mental health clinics, addictions facilities, community centers and medical facilities. Are you comfortable working with someone who has gone through a traumatic experience? Do you harbor any negative feelings about the military? This social worker career path could be a rewarding option.

Explore Certification, Experience, and Education Requirements

After you decide which social work career path to specialize in, the next step is to look into the requirements for working in that capacity. Make sure you understand what it takes to work as a licensed social worker in your chosen field. Different positions may have unique requirements in terms of licensing, experience, and education. Check with your state’s Board of Social Worker Examiners to learn about licensing requirements where you live and/or intend to work.

You should also look at advertised job openings to learn more about the requirements employers seek. This can help you chart your career path by comparing your current qualifications with those needed to practice in a specific field. Job boards, like the ones below, are a great place to start exploring certification, licensure, experience, and education requirements for different types of social workers:

Make a Professional Development Plan

You’ll need to determine where you are versus where you need to be in order to practice as a social worker. The easiest way to do this is to look at your resume and plan to address the areas that need improvement. The three categories to focus on when planning your immediate and long-term development are:

1. Licensing and Credentials

The first and most important step is to learn what it takes to become licensed. States and jurisdictions have varying licensing requirements, so check with the licensing board where you live or plan to practice social work. This information will allow you to start building your professional development plan, and ensure you will meet the licensing requirements where you live or plan to work.

If you’re already practicing social work in some capacity and want to move up in your career, you might also consider professional association credentials as part of your professional development plan. NASW Professional Social Work Credentials and Advanced Practice Specialty Credentials from the National Association of Social Workers widely provide a strong proof point to having in-depth knowledge, proven work experience, leadership capacity, competence, and dedication to the social work profession. Some professional associations issue credentials to social workers who meet specific criteria, signifying that the recipient has satisfied the requirements to be considered a professional among his or her peers.

2. Core Competencies

Competencies are measurable practice behaviors that demonstrate the knowledge, values, and skills of a particular job. To excel in your career and advance, focus on the core competencies of social work practice. As you chart your social work career path, look for opportunities to develop the competencies employers are seeking. The National Social Work Competency Framework (NWSCF) identifies nine domains of knowledge and skill competencies required of all direct practice social workers.

  • Casework
  • Group Work
  • Community Work
  • Social Work Supervision
  • Research and Program Evaluation
  • Professional Leadership
  • Ethics, Values, and Legislation
  • Systems Linkage, Analysis, and Development
  • Environmental Systems and Social Policies

If you already work in the field, you can develop your competencies through on-the-job shadowing. Communicate your desire to take on new challenges and experiences that will enrich and enhance your social work skillset. Another way to learn the knowledge, values, and skills of the trade is to enroll in a MSW program.

3. Education

Although a bachelor’s degree in social work is the most common requirement for entry-level positions, a growing number of social workers in various fields have advanced degrees. According to the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), a master’s degree is the required education level for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors, mental health social workers, and family social workers. In the field of healthcare social work5, 92 percent of respondents said that a master’s degree is required5.

If you want to advance in social work or start a new career in the field, a master’s degree in social work is a good investment—particularly for those with a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field and limited social work experience. Once you have completed an MSW, your career path could lead down a variety of different fields in social work.

Our Lady of the Lake University’s MSW will help you build the foundation for a career in social service leadership and advanced direct practice. OLLU’s Worden School of Social Service is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, and allows you to earn your MSW online in as little as two years. Request more information or call 855-275-1082 to speak with an admissions advisor.


  5. O*Net

Recommended Articles

View All
Back to Top