You may want to consider going to college to become a social worker if you seek a rewarding job that involves helping people. Social workers don't carry magic wands, but they seem to find solutions to the most vexing problems in society. Job opportunities can be found in many settings, such as mental health clinics, hospitals, schools, nonprofit agencies, prisons, drug treatment centers, homeless shelters, group homes and facilities for elders.

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Professional social workers hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree along with a state-issued social work license. Some states also offer a social work technician license to graduates of an associate degree program in social work.

Amount of Schooling

The amount of schooling you can anticipate depends on the type of job in which you see yourself. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, social work generalists need a bachelor’s degree in social work or a closely related field.

Clinical social workers must have a master’s degree and extensive on-the-job training. Social work professors typically have a Ph.D. Most states require a Bachelor of Social Work or a Master of Social Work from an accredited school to qualify for licensing and employment as a social worker in that jurisdiction.

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Associate of Arts in Social Work

Earning an Associate of Arts in Social Work at an accredited community college provides an excellent introduction to human development, diversity and the social work field. From there, you can find paraprofessional jobs as a case aid under the supervision of a licensed social worker, counselor or teacher in an agency, hospital or school.

The AASW is a great option for anyone who wants to work in human services before enrolling at a four-year college or university and committing to a social work major. AASW courses count toward a four-year bachelor’s degree.

Associate of Applied Science in Human Services

The fast track to a job in the helping professions is a two-year Associate of Applied Science degree. Students pursuing an AAS in human services learn about crisis intervention, chemical addictions and case management, for instance. Applied associate degrees emphasize hands-on learning in real-world settings. During your practicum, you might work in a group home, social service agency or a domestic violence shelter, for instance.

An AAS degree can lead to jobs such as caseworker aid, addictions specialist or human service worker. Courses may transfer to a four-year college if you later decide to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

Bachelor of Science in Social Work

Social work majors typically spend four years earning their BSSW degree at a college or university. Online programs are another option and can take less time to finish. Social worker education is comprehensive because assisting at-risk, vulnerable populations requires special sensitivity and in-depth training. Social work is a highly regulated profession to protect the public from harm.

Your time in college will involve a combination of classroom instruction, self-reflection, research papers, exams, field observation and internships. Your plan of study will also include general education courses that will help you become culturally aware and well rounded. To better the odds of graduating in four years or less, create a four-year plan of study if your department does not already have one available.

Discuss your plan with an adviser to see if it will work. One of the biggest reasons that students take five or six years to graduate is because they did not take classes in the correct sequence. Check the college bulletin to find out which semesters certain classes are offered, and do not assume that required courses are offered frequently. Note any prerequisite classes and make those a priority.

Master of Social Work

Earning a Master of Social Work generally takes one to two years. MSW programs are available online and in traditional classroom settings. Many schools don’t require applicants to have an undergraduate degree in the field of social work.

Applicants who do have an undergraduate degree in social work may receive advanced standing in the program, which allows them to finish their degree sooner. For instance, graduate students with advanced standing at the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work can receive their MSW after finishing 45 credit hours instead of the usual 60 credit hours.

Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work

At some schools, ambitious full-time doctoral students can finish a Ph.D. in two to three years depending on their concentration. For instance, students attending the Columbia School of Social Work spend two years in advanced social work classes. Courses in statistics and research methodology are also required.

After completing academic requirements, doctoral students must pass an oral examination and finish a scholarly dissertation. A Ph.D. is conferred after the dissertation is submitted and approved by a faculty committee. Although earning a doctorate is a lot of work, the long years of study may be worth it if you aspire to be a college instructor or a researcher for a government think tank.

Prepare for Social Work Subjects

Consider taking AP psychology in high school as well as courses in sociology and English to prepare yourself for college-level work. Admission to the social work major is competitive. Pre-social work students must have above average grades to be formally admitted to the major. Failing grades can result in dismissal from the program.

Choose electives that will deepen your understanding of human behavior, culture and society. Take courses like ethnic studies and gender studies to learn about power, privilege, colonization and systemic oppression.

Complete Core Social Worker Classes

Social work education varies from one school to the next. However, there are certain core competencies and learner outcomes common to social work pedagogy. The curriculum covers subjects like social welfare systems, poverty, at-risk populations, human development, social work ethics, psychology and social research.

For starters, you will take introductory classes in social and behavioral science during your first four semesters of college. Typical classes include introduction to social work, sociology, psychology, economics and government.

You may also be required to gain proficiency in another language, which may include foreign languages or American Sign Language. You will be immersed in social work classes and fieldwork experiences the last two years of college. Lessons will focus on social welfare policies, government regulations, data privacy, ethics and practical skills.

Explore Popular Social Work Courses

Progressive schools of social work advocate for social justice. Students take classes related to community organizing, social responsibility and nonviolent conflict resolution, for instance. Attending a school with a social justice emphasis is helpful preparation if you are passionate about being an advocate, activist or social reform leader on the local, national or global stage.

Social work students also benefit from traveling as a group to participate in service-learning projects. Many schools take students abroad to study social issues. Often, students immerse themselves in the culture instead of simply going as a tourist.

Many schools and study-abroad companies sponsor volunteer service trips. For example, you could help build sustainable homes, tutor children and teach English in Africa, China and Laos.

Gain Real-World Experience

A critical component of social work education is applying theories to practice. You will interact with many different populations, such as teen runaways, immigrants, military veterans and adults and children with disabilities in both public and private settings. You will counsel individuals and facilitate support groups.

Under supervision, you will complete intakes, assessments and referrals to community resources. Other responsibilities may include community organizing, crisis intervention or program planning.

Volunteer for Community Service

Social worker requirements include demonstrating that you are authentic, honest, compassionate, nonjudgmental and appreciative of other cultures. Such professional dispositions are best learned through experiential learning and reflection. You will likely be encouraged or required to help out at a community event or an agency.

For example, students at the University of Texas at Austin must volunteer 45 hours in the community to fulfill the requirements of Social Work 312: Generalist Social Work Practice: Knowledge, Values and Skills. The volunteer hours are in addition to hundreds of practicum and internship hours.

Follow Your Academic Plan

Understandably, you are eager to complete a degree in four years or less and launch your career. However, staying on that trajectory will require a solid plan of study. Unless you have the time and money for summer school, you should take a full course load each term.

Being a full-time student is a job in itself. There will be times when you feel overwhelmed and anxious about looming deadlines. You may worry about how to assist the clients with whom you are meeting at your practicum site. Remind yourself that stress is a normal part of the college experience.

Finding ways of managing your emotions while you are in college can help you with the challenges that lie ahead when you enter the social work profession. Even the most dedicated social workers are vulnerable to burn out, which is why self-care is essential. Eat healthy foods, exercise, listen to music, meditate, socialize with friends and look for reasons to feel happy.

Fulfill Social Worker Licensing Requirements

Even if you have a degree in social work from an accredited program, you cannot use the title of social worker in most settings unless you pass a criminal background check and obtain a state license. Rules pertaining to social work licensing vary by state.

Like psychologists, licensed clinical social workers are tightly regulated. Most states require documentation or two or more years of postgraduate clinical supervision, passing scores on a clinical exam and an academic transcript as proof of an MSW degree.

Research licensing board requirements that apply to the practice of social work in your state before you enroll in a school of social work. For instance, if a school is not accredited by the Council on School Social Work, you may not be eligible to sit for a licensing exam after graduation. Licensed social workers must also renew their license on time or face disciplinary action by the board for practicing social work without a valid license.

Consider Job Demand for Social Workers

Job outlook and earning potential are important considerations when deciding how many years you want to invest in your education and training. Overall, job demand for social workers looks promising.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected an impressive 16 percent increase in job openings for social workers between 2016 and 2026, resulting in the creation of 109,700 new jobs. Some specializations within the field of social work are projected to grow even faster. The demand for health care social workers will jump by 20 percent. Jobs for mental health and chemical dependency social workers will increase by 19 percent.

The BLS salary estimates for social workers show that social workers made an average annual salary of $56,810, or $27.31 per hour as of May 2017. Social workers in the upper 10 percent income bracket made over $81,560. An ability to speak multiple languages can be advantageous in landing a high-paying job and being tapped for supervisory or management promotion.

About the Author

Dr. Mary Dowd is a dean of students whose job includes student conduct, leading the behavioral consultation team, crisis response, retention and the working with the veterans resource center. She enjoys helping parents and students solve problems through advising, teaching and writing online articles that appear on many sites. Dr. Dowd also contributes to scholarly books and journal articles.