What Social Workers Do
Social workers help people in times of crisis. Some focus more on one-on-one counseling while others help connect the people they serve with resources that can help them overcome their issues or cope with the challenges they’re facing. Some also work more in an advocacy or administrative capacity. It’s a very broad career with lots of opportunity for people to choose who they serve as well as what work environment they have.
Child Family and School Social Workers: These social workers focus more on children and, because of this, also interact with those who impact the lives of children. They often work in places like schools, for government agencies, or for foster care agencies. They may work one-on-one or serve groups.
Community Social Workers: Generally speaking, community social workers focus on a single issue within a community and help devise and implement strategies to help the community overcome the issue. For example, some may help those in poverty or the homeless, while others may address those impacted by a disaster or outbreak. While these social workers may work one-on-one, they usually help groups.
Medical Social Workers: Hospitals and other medical facilities often employ medical social workers. These individuals sometimes work to educate the public about a certain disease or condition, but may also help individuals and their families cope during an illness.
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers: Oftentimes, those who help people with mental health and substance abuse issues are certified counselors or licensed social workers who have a master’s degree in social work, psychology, or sociology. They typically work one-on-one, but may address groups or hold group sessions.
Military Social Workers: Like those who help people with mental health and substance abuse issues, those who serve people in the military and their families typically hold counseling certifications and have master’s degrees. They may address issues like PTSD or help families cope with their loved ones being away.
Administrative Social Workers: While most social workers do have direct contact with the people they’re helping, a few work on an administrative level. They might handle research, advocate for legislative changes, or help an organization obtain funds to continue work.
Who would enjoy a career in Social Work?
Those drawn to careers in social work have a strong passion for improving the lives of others. Because there are so many different niches and countless roles social workers can take, it’s easy for an individual to find the right fit based on their preferences and personal causes. For example, someone who likes to work with children could help those in schools or the foster care system, while someone who is more analytical and drawn to research could become a lobbyist who tries to have legislation changed, so the needs of a specific population are met better. Naturally, people skills and comfort with tech are beneficial.
Who mightn't like the career?
A career in social work is often emotionally rewarding, but pay is relatively low, even for those with advanced degrees. For this reason, it’s not a career for someone who likes to live a luxurious life. It can also be emotionally challenging for the tender-hearted, as social workers routinely come into contact with people in difficult situations and not everyone can be helped.
Although careers in social work can be found at the associate degree level, these are the rare exception and typically surround entry-level roles, like volunteering and client intake. Those who provide services or work to promote change usually have at least an undergraduate degree in social work, psychology, or sociology. Those who work one-on-one and handle diagnosis and treatment are known as clinical social workers, and must usually have a graduate degree in either area as well as a counseling certificate or be licensed. The laws and regulations for becoming a licensed or certified vary based local laws and are typically handled at a state or provincial level.
Candidates should prepare for each interview by researching the organization, its mission, and the population it serves. Questions will likely surround experience the candidate has which relates to the target demographics and how one deals with stressful situations. Competition for positions is often fierce, so it’s a good idea to prepare an “elevator pitch,” or quick synopsis of why you’re the best candidate for the job as well.
Moving into Social Work from another career
When it comes to transferring into social work, it’s usually more about the degree one has than the related experience. Those with psychology and sociology backgrounds at either a grad or undergrad level are generally qualified for non-clinical role. Outside of those degrees, it’s difficult to make the transition.
Due to the diversity of the field, there is no linear career ladder for a social worker to climb. Those who take government positions may receive wage increases and titles based on time spent in a position, while others working for a private agency may hold the same title an entire lifetime if they remain with the company. Some may consider opening a private practice as the ultimate goal, though this is only possible for those with master’s degrees and licenses and is not the desired goal for many who get into social work. Some genuinely prefer pounding the streets to connect with needy community, while others work at desks. The opportunities are as diverse as the people who choose this path.
Hours vary quite a bit. Most work a standard 40 or 45-hour workweek, but some pour themselves into work and easily top 60 hours per week, while others choose to work only part-time.
The amount of travel done by social workers varies depending on the specific job. Some travel across the globe while others simply work from home or out of an office in their city.
It’s important to note that although titles may not reflect one’s time or tenure in this career, certain skills impact salary. For example, having a master’s degree and license will increase wages. Those who can conduct group therapy and counseling sessions also see a small increase of 2-5% over their peers. Those working in a medical capacity and assisting with geriatric patients, patient counseling, hospice, or psychiatric issues will likely see a 7-14% increase in wages too. Being bilingual further increases wages, by as much as 18%. Unfortunately, going into specific fields can also decrease wages. For example, working in crisis intervention or child advocacy will sometimes result in a small dip in wages, though the amount is negligible.
Entry-Level (0-5 years): According to PayScale, social workers entering the field earn an average of USD$40,000 per year in the United States. In the United Kingdom, the average is £26,000, whereas salaries are CAD$47,000 and AU$60,000 in Canada and Australia, respectively.
Mid-Career (5-10 years): USD$46,000, £31,000, CAD$55,000, AU$70,000
Experienced (10-20 years): USD$51,000, £33,000, CAD$63,000, AU$76,000
Late Career (20+ years): USD$55,000, £33,000, CAD$64,000, AU$79,000
Bonuses and profit sharing are occasionally part of a social worker’s take-home pay and may amount to a few hundred or few thousand per year.
Why a Social Worker moves on
Social work is a competitive field and some, particularly those outside of large cities, struggle to find employment with livable wages. Furthermore, people typically become social workers because they’re highly empathetic and want to change the world. This rose-colored-glasses outlook makes them invaluable to the populations they serve. However, it also makes them prone to burnout. Social workers often pour themselves into helping so much that they do it at the cost of themselves, putting in too many hours and emotionally fatiguing themselves. When the balance between work and quality of life shifts, the slow progress of change and low wages diminish the emotional satisfaction one derives from the job, thus eliminating the very reason why people begin in social work. Sometimes, restoring the balance or changing employers is enough to keep someone motivated and happy in the career. However, others report difficult placements, such as being assigned jobs they’re not a good fit for, being expected to work extra hours without pay, and being sent into dangerous environments as reasons for leaving. Those who choose to leave the field typically have a great deal of people and case management skills, which readily transfer to a number of careers.
- Real World Clinical Blog: Quit Your Social Work Job
- To My Fellow Burnt Out Social Workers: Career Change from Social Work
- No headaches, no guilt: why I left social work for support work
- Why I quit social work…after four months
- Why I had to leave local authority child protection work
- Why do so many social workers leave that line of work?
- Alternative Careers for Social Workers