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Guide To Starting A Career In Social Work

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Social work as a career is concerned with improving the lives of vulnerable people, groups, and communities. Social work focuses on understanding human behaviour and creating institutions that will enhance the overall well-being of a population.

Who is a Social Worker?

A social worker is a professional who helps individuals and societies with their basic and complex needs. Social workers are committed to addressing biases in society, advocating for and creating opportunities for recovery, growth, and development. They identify issues people and communities face and work towards building solutions to manage or solve these problems.

The daily tasks of a social worker will vary with their specialization. A social worker could be responsible for organizing counselling sessions, helping people access social services, and in some cases diagnosing and treating mental and behavioural disorders.

Levels of Social Work

Generally, there are three levels to social work practice. The roles of social workers at these levels differ to suit their target clients. Here are the typical levels of social work:

  • Micro Social Work: Social work practice at this level involves direct interaction and communication with individuals and families to address specific needs, and provide counselling, support and access to a range of social services.
  • Mezzo Social Work: At the mezzo level, social work practice focuses on groups rather than one-on-one individual interactions. This level of social work involves promoting social justice and the implementation of social initiatives at the local and small-scale levels. This could involve prisons, schools, communities, and hospitals.
  • Macro Social Work: This level of social work typically involves policy-making, advocacy and administration on a large scale level. Social workers at this level focus on organizing campaigns to address social issues on a larger scale.

What are the steps to becoming a Social Worker?

1. Find out if a career in social work is for you.

Starting a career in social work is a big commitment so it’s best to do your research and find out if this career aligns with your interests and long-term plans. Research the skills needed and then understand the educational commitment required. Are you able to listen to people’s problems without judging? Can you figure out creative and innovative solutions to help people navigate their problems? You should also look out for possible areas of specialization and career advancement opportunities in that field.

2. Meet the undergraduate requirement.

A Bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field is the minimum requirement when starting a career in social work. A Bachelor’s degree in Social Work (BSW) will provide you with the required foundation in this field. You will take courses in social services, social welfare, human behaviour and case management to acquire essential skills needed as a social worker. Typically a BSW degree will take four years to complete.

While a bachelor’s degree in social work may allow you to apply for direct-service positions, most roles require a Master’s degree in social work (MSW). For example, to practice in a clinical capacity or provide treatment plans, you need to have an MSW and any other license your state requires.

You should also note that some graduate programs in social work allow bachelor’s degrees from related fields as an undergraduate requirement. This means that you do not need an undergraduate degree in social work to pursue an MSW.

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3. Choose a speciality and earn an accredited MSW degree.

After completing an undergraduate program in social work or any related field, you should decide what area of social work you’ll like to specialize in. Once you decide on your area of specialization, you can then apply for an accredited MSW program with that concentration. A master’s degree in social work not only helps you develop specialized skills within your field but also allows you to apply for certain licensure and qualify for advanced positions.

If your undergraduate degree is not in social work you can apply for a traditional standing MSW program which runs for two years. However, if you completed your undergraduate program in social work, you’ll be able to apply for an advanced standing MSW program. Advanced Standing MSW programs can be completed within a shorter period as you’d have completed the foundation coursework during your BSW.

As a part of your MSW program, you’ll be required to complete a specific number of internship hours as your field experience. This may vary with your area of specialization and the state you are practising.

4. Apply for a license to practice.

To become licensed as a social worker, you’ll need to have completed an accredited MSW program along with any required licensing exam of the state. Most states in the US require students to complete the ASWB social work licensing exam. Depending on your area of specialization, you could apply for a license with a Bachelor’s in social work.

Though not all roles in social work require a license to practice, obtaining a license in social work makes you a more credible applicant when applying for roles especially those that require a direct relationship with clients.

5. Begin your career in a social work role.

Once you’ve gotten the required license from your state, you can start practising as a social worker. There are several roles in social work that you can explore. Look out for opportunities that align best with your skills, interests and long term goals. As a social worker, you can find employment in various organizations like schools, hospitals, care homes, correctional facilities and government agencies.

What skills do you need to succeed as a Social Worker?

During your degree program, you will learn concepts in social work, mental health, and social justice that will be useful in your career. You will understand the dynamics of different societies and cultures and also laws around child protection. In addition to these hard skills, here are a few soft skills you need to have to succeed in your role as a social worker:

  • Strong communication and observation skills:
    Communication is an essential skill in social work. Social workers need to have active listening and communication skills to allow them to build healthy relationships with their clients. These communication skills promote clarity and transparency when relating with a client or solving a misunderstanding.
  • Problem-solving skills
    The ability to manage conflict, negotiate plans and figure out the best solutions in tough situations is needed to succeed as a social worker. Your primary role as a social worker is to help people access the best services and facilities for their well-being.
  • Empathy
    Your career as a social worker will benefit from emotional skills like empathy, compassion and patience when dealing with clients. Being able to understand and share a client’s feelings will help in seeking solutions during difficult situations.
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Specializations in Social Work

By helping improve the lives of people with various challenges, social work presents a fulfilling career path with several rewarding employment opportunities. The Bureau of Labour Statistics projects that with the increasing demand for social work in the healthcare and social services industry, the social work field will experience a much higher employment growth by 2030 than the average growth rate of other occupations.

Here are a couple of social work specializations you can choose to practice in:

  • Clinical Social Work: Clinical social workers assess and diagnose mental health disorders in a client. These social workers are also responsible for developing treatment plans and offering counselling services to help improve the lives of their clients.
  • Child and Family Social Work: These social workers are primarily responsible for improving the quality of life of children and families through therapy or counselling. They typically help children struggling with abuse, learning disorders or behavioural issues. These professionals also help provide displaced children with the best foster care.
  • School Social Work: School social workers act as an advocate for students by creating safe and suitable learning environments for them. These professionals assess behavioural, psychological and mental health challenges that could affect a student’s academic life and overall well-being. They work with the school, families, and communities to provide support systems to address any issues students may face.
  • Community Social Work: These professionals focus on the well-being of larger groups like communities. They identify problems facing communities and develop strategies to raise awareness and provide solutions to these challenges. Community social workers are typically concerned with policy creation and the implementation of ideas to improve communities.
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