Social work is a helping profession in which practitioners work closely with clients to connect them with the tools, resources, and support systems that can help them achieve their personal goals. A social worker may work to diagnose client mental health conditions (if certified for clinical social work), partner with health care specialists in managing cases, or lead community advocacy groups meant to help at-risk members of the population.
With such a wide range of potential Master of Social Work jobs available, individuals who pursue an MSW could have a lot of career options. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects job growth at an 11% rate in the sector, which is double the average across all industries. The median annual salary for social workers in 2018 was nearly $50,000.
While that median salary may seem a bit low for somebody holding a master’s degree in social work, it represents the median across the entire industry. Many social work positions only require a bachelor’s degree, while some are accessible to those with an associate degree. MSW programs tend to be more aligned with work in specialty segments of social work or management roles. Pursuing an MSW is also a key part of licensure in many states. Looking beyond these broad, industry-wide statistics, here’s a look at a few social work job roles that are often options for those with an MSW degree:
Child, Family, and School Social Workers
Social work jobs interacting with children and families or within school systems can exist across a variety of career levels. At the entry level, social workers may serve as assistants for teachers or help connect families to services that are relevant for their children. Higher-level positions in the field involve a much wider range of responsibilities, including assessing the social and psychological functioning of children and clients, the BLS explained.
According to the BLS, child, family, and school social workers may take on a wide range of opportunities, including:
- Arranging adoptions
- Finding foster homes for children who have been abandoned or abused
- Working in school systems to address behaviors or situations that can be problematic for children or their families
- Consulting with teachers and members of staff
Social workers in this sector are often advocates, analysts, and case managers, helping families navigate varied social services based on their specific needs and helping to foster an environment of positive, safe development for children.
According to the BLS, more than 79,000 child, family, and school social workers were occupied in individual and family services in 2018. Another 65,200 social work professionals worked in state government, excluding schools and hospitals, while nearly 61,000 were employed in local government, excluding schools and hospitals. Working in elementary and secondary schools is also common for social workers, as more than 43,000 practitioners were employed in such settings in 2018. What’s more, those working in such settings received the highest median annual salary for child, family, and school social workers, at $63,000.
Hospital and Health Care Social Workers
The health care system is often complex and challenging for many patients to navigate. This is especially evident when patients and their loved ones need to make difficult decisions about care strategies. Social workers practicing in hospitals and similar care settings are frequently tasked with helping patients and their families understand their options and handle the stresses of going through health-related transitions.
For example, a hospital social worker may step in to advocate for patients who lack the faculty to make decisions pertaining to their care. In these scenarios, it’s important to understand the legal designations patients have made for sharing data with others, such as giving a partner power of attorney or documenting preferred strategies for care that need to be communicated to physicians. Social workers can serve as communication hubs, knowing what can be done to inform various parties with updates on a patient’s status and situation and provide relevant background information to assist with decision-making.
Hospital and health care social workers may also:
- Connect patients with services to continue their care when they have left the hospital.
- Hand off case details across components of a care network.
- Assist patients and family members in understanding the financial implications of care strategies.
- Work with management to advocate for at-risk patients in policy and process creation.
Licensed clinical social workers may also provide clinical care for individuals in health care settings, something that can include diagnosing mental illnesses or disabilities and developing treatment plans.
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers
These two facets of social work practice are tightly linked. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, more than one out of four adults with a serious mental health problem also have a substance use problem. Furthermore, many illegal drugs can contribute to symptoms of mental health disorders, and both share similar underlying causes.
As such, the skills and experience that inform social work with clients facing mental health challenges are tightly linked to helping clients dealing with substance abuse. According to the BLS, social workers in this field work to assess and treat individuals with mental, emotional, or substance abuse problems. This can include:
- Engaging in crisis prevention and intervention
- Serving as an advocate for clients
- Promoting education and prevention, both with individual clients, families, and at the public level
- Performing individual and group therapy
- Handling case management as clients interact with various services
The BLS found that most social workers practicing in this sector work in outpatient care centers. Almost 26,000 social workers functioned in such settings in 2018. The second most likely work destination for this job role is in individual and family services, where nearly 17,000 social workers were employed in 2018.
Geriatric and Hospice Social Workers
Demand for health care services for the elderly is rising quickly. As people tend to live longer, the need for care and access to support services increases. In 2015, approximately 9% of the U.S. population was aged 65 or older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2030, that figure will climb to 12%. By 2050, it will reach 17%. As more people age, the relative number of working-age professionals available to engage with them is shrinking.
In such a climate, advocating for the needs of the elderly, helping families understand their opportunities in caring for their loved ones, and connecting elderly clients to relevant government and health care services ― even something as simple as helping a client sign up to get rides to physician appointments ― can be instrumental in promoting health and wellness.
Where geriatric social workers help clients and their families navigate the aging process, hospice social work focuses on providing end-of-life care that improves the quality of life for those dealing with serious illnesses and their loved ones, a report from Today’s Geriatric Medicine explained. This can involve providing counseling and psychotherapy, assessing clients for suicide risk, educating clients and families on coping skills and symptom management, running community education programs, and mediating conflicts.
This is just a snapshot of responsibilities highlighted by Today’s Geriatric Medicine, which also discussed crisis intervention, conflict mediation, and advice on legal matters ― all of which are common social work tasks across a variety of disciplines ― as common components of hospice social work care.
Whether working with aging clients or those needing end-of-life care, social workers in this segment of care have an opportunity to help patients navigate major life changes in the most positive ways possible.
Correctional Social Workers
Social work is an essential component of the rehabilitation process within the U.S. criminal justice system. However, social workers in corrections settings aren’t there exclusively to help inmates build toward their futures. In addition, social workers are heavily involved in promoting human rights and ensuring inmates are protected from conditions that would be considered cruel, unsafe, or otherwise in violation of basic rights.
This is a complex matter, especially as the criminal justice system faces numerous challenges in providing adequate health care services for many inmates. According to a report from The New Yorker, public health emergencies are impacting the corrections sector to a significant degree, with issues such as mental illness and opioid addictions emerging as especially problematic challenges that jails and prisons must contend with.
The New Yorker explained that social workers in larger prisons, particularly in urban settings, will typically work on site, providing direct care for inmates while collaborating with other care providers. In more rural settings, a social worker may visit correctional facilities once or twice a week.
Working in jails and prisons is not the only option for social workers seeking to practice in the criminal justice system. Many social workers will function as parole officers or within the courts. In these settings, social workers either help those accused of crimes handle the complexity of the legal system and understand their options, advocate for plaintiff rights, help convicts adjust to life outside of prison, and connect clients with services to help them return to society in the most positive way possible.
Clinical Social Work
Practicing as a clinical social worker isn’t exclusive to working in any of the job roles discussed up to this point. However, a licensed clinical social worker is trained for specialized practices that equip them for specific occupations within these sectors. According to a Medium report, primary responsibilities for clinical social workers involve assessing client psychological conditions, administering therapy, managing interventions, and providing case management services. Clinical social work can also involve evidence-based treatment and similar hands-on counseling work with clients.
A licensed clinical social worker may function as a school, prison or mental health social worker. The difference would be the type of tasks they complete, as they would focus extensively on diagnosing and treating mental health conditions.
While clinical social work skills are applicable in a wide range of job roles, it does require highly nuanced skills. As such, practitioners must obtain state licensure prior to unsupervised practice. Licensure requirements can vary from state to state, but completing an MSW degree is a common prerequisite prior to sitting an exam for certification.
According to the Association of Social Work Boards, clinical licensure general requires an MSW degree as well as two years of post-master’s direct clinical social work experience.
The online MSW program at Regis College incorporates work placement as part of the program, giving students a starting point in supervised clinical work. We strongly recommend that students considering our program take a close look at state requirements for licensure before committing to their pursuit of an MSW.
When thinking about social work private practice, the most common setting would be a licensed clinical social worker running an independent operation to work with clients. There are many benefits to private practice, including:
- Freedom to determine your own schedule, something that is often impacted in part by when clients are available to visit you.
- Opportunities to work in specific areas of care based on your primary interests and skills without having to worry about organizational requirements.
- Flexibility to create a practice environment that reflects the kind of atmosphere and care setting that you prefer instead of having to fit within the confines of an office that you have limited ability to change.
Independence can be great for those prepared to handle the responsibility. Being your own boss is nice if you have an entrepreneurial spirit, but it also comes with some risks, including:
- Needing to manage the business side of operations, which could distract from clinical care.
- Having to be aware of all applicable regulatory standards and take sole responsibility for compliance.
- Facing potential issues such as isolation and overwork, as private practice can separate practitioners from a professional network that may provide support.
Private practice is a great fit for some, but the extra responsibility and management burden can be distracting for others.
Considering an MSW to Achieve Your Career Goals
There may be some social work fields that you can work in without an MSW. However, many management, specialist, and clinical positions demand this degree. The online MSW at Regis College puts social work education at your fingertips, letting you take your classes and engage with peers online, with scheduling flexibility so you can pursue your professional goals in a way that aligns with your life.
To learn more about our curriculum, student outcomes, or other elements of our program, reach out today to connect with our enrollment team and get the details you need to get started on the path toward an MSW degree.