For anyone interested in meaningful work and stable career prospects, there are few better options than studying to become a social worker. This kind of profession is in high demand across a wide range of institutions, is well-respected by the general public, and offers rewarding and challenging work. There are also many varied career options available for somebody who graduates with a Master of Social Work (MSW), with plenty of room for further development.
In this article, we examine the typical job description of a social worker, the kind of areas in which they usually operate, and also the potential careers that someone with an MSW might go into, from clinical social workers to child welfare workers and community organizers. We also look at the qualifications needed to become a social worker, the further importance of practical experience and lifelong learning, and the skills and attitude required to succeed in this field.
Assisting those in need
Social workers generally work with vulnerable people within the community. While there are many different aspects to this kind of job, some of the typical tasks or duties include providing counseling or therapy to individuals or families; helping people or groups to access vital resources such as healthcare, mental health treatment or housing; or providing support for people with severe disabilities.
Often, social workers will help individuals to cope with specific issues in their lives that are causing them severe problems. These can include physical illness, discrimination, addiction to drugs or alcohol, poverty, divorce or bereavement. Social workers may also be asked to help families deal with money issues, relationship dysfunction, or childcare or mental health issues. Social workers may also work with groups as well as individuals, providing support in a particular neighborhood, for example, by helping to organize voting, conduct drug outreach programs or combat poverty.
Unsurprisingly, given the number of challenges they might take on, social workers may operate in a range of different contexts and institutions. In many cases, they are employed by the state, though they may also work in private contexts. While many social workers may be employed in hospitals, mental health centers or substance abuse clinics, it is also common to encounter these professionals in child welfare and human service agencies, community development organizations or schools, and adoption agencies or even halfway houses. So, what kind of specialist roles might someone with an MSW take on within these frameworks?
Working in health
In terms of career choices, one of the most common roles for someone who has completed an MSW is to become a clinical social worker. This is a specialist role, where the social worker generally operates in a mental health setting and is responsible for assisting with the assessment, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness. As well as offering individual therapy, clinical social workers also tend to offer group or family treatment, while in some cases they may also be involved in providing advice or support for the wider community.
A medical social worker, on the other hand, will typically operate in the field of general healthcare. Their primary responsibility is to provide support to patients suffering from illness, as well as their families. In addition to working to improve patient outcomes and helping the patient to understand their illness and treatment, they will also look to identify resources that will help them cope with the issues that can arise with the diagnosis of a more severe illness or condition. These can be of an emotional, financial, material or psychological nature. In each case, the social worker’s role is to ensure that the patient and their family are able to access the resources they need to ease their burden and improve their overall level of wellbeing.
Helping society’s youngest and eldest
In addition to various branches of healthcare, many social workers also operate in education. Regrettably, in many schools there are often numerous serious problems among the student population that require specialized assistance, and often social workers are able to provide the kind of support that cannot always be offered by the teachers. In this case, school social workers provide a vital connection between the school, home and community by working directly with teaching staff, students and families on issues such as discipline, mental health issues, crisis management and general learning support.
Child welfare workers can also play a crucial role when it comes to tackling issues with younger people, though they will often focus on matters centered on the family. While their scope of activities can vary, child welfare workers will often be asked to assist families who are experiencing significant difficulty or strain in specific areas. In some cases, the social worker may be required to intervene in family life in order to help protect the child. However, they will also look to address the concerns and areas of difficulty within the family in a positive manner and to build on the strengths that they possess in order to help create a positive, warm and more stable environment.
On the other end of the scale, some social workers are specifically trained and employed to assist the elderly. Geriatric social workers, for example, are responsible for assisting people with any factors related to older age. They provide targeted support in certain areas, such as helping to ensure independence and autonomy when possible, and also looking to identify areas where older people can receive support when needed.
In addition to classic social worker roles, people with an MSW degree may also find themselves working in various other related professions. Community organizers, for example, are often qualified social workers, and use their expertise in dealing with social issues. In this case, the focus is less on any one individual, and more on helping to build the community as a whole, whether in practical, social or economic terms. Generally, community organizers will focus on identifying grassroots ways of improving specific aspects of the community in question and uniting citizens in the cause, whether it is to increase greener areas, reduce crime or substance abuse, offer greater access to mental health care, or work on community-building projects.
At times, social workers may also be asked to provide analytical or consultancy work. For example, they may find work as a policy analyst, where they would typically operate alongside civil service workers, politicians and other stakeholders to identify how to best adapt policy plans to meet the needs of a particular community. In this case, the social worker may be responsible for helping to shape legislation and policy so that it will better serve the interests of the community and take into account the most vulnerable members of society.
Finally, some social workers will go on to work in private practices, where they operate in a private setting, either on their own or in partnership. Typically, this occurs when a more experienced social worker, who has in the past worked for agencies or institutions, decides that they would enjoy more independence or flexibility in their work. Private practice social workers may fulfill any number of different roles, but just like most other social workers, they will typically focus on addressing specific areas, such as personal or mental health issues, addiction or trauma.
The right preparation
So, what kind of education is required to become a social worker, and how can people best prepare for the kind of area they would like to specialize in? In most cases, prospective social workers in the US will initially need to complete a bachelor degree – usually, this can be in any subject. They will then be required to require an advanced degree in social work. At Florida State University (FSU) there are several options. FSU online MSW and Advanced MSW programs provide students with a thorough grounding in the field and also help them to achieve state authorization. Once this has been achieved, it is possible to begin officially operating as a social worker.
Online courses are particularly popular with students who have work or family commitments and would like to retain a degree of flexibility while completing their studies. With an online MSW from FSU, for example, graduates will emerge with a significant understanding of the most important theories and techniques related to social work, the practical realities of the profession, and the context of the community in terms of socioeconomic factors, race and culture. The online nature of the course also makes it possible for someone to complete it full- or part-time while students also have the chance to gain practical experience in a clinical or real-world setting.
Continuing the learning experience
Naturally, even upon graduation, students have much to learn. Although some social workers will immediately begin operating in one of the specialist positions described above, many others will likely try a variety of different roles. After all, being a social worker is a multifaceted job, and often people will spend several years working in different areas before settling into a particular area. Of course, experience, just like with any job, is an extremely valuable asset and must be developed over time, though it is also true that in this kind of job, the enthusiasm, innovative thinking and dedication of youth can also be exceptionally valuable.
There are also plenty of other ways for social workers to expand their knowledge and abilities. Many newer social workers, for example, may be invited to participate in mentoring programs, where they receive advice and guidance from a more experienced colleague. Peer-to-peer conversations and debate can also be a crucial part of the learning process, as well as a way of providing each other with vital support. Many social workers also look to further their education in a formal setting through training courses, attending conferences or even joining professional associations. Informal learning, such as reading relevant articles and books or taking part in online education, can also be an extremely valuable tool, while social workers may also look to complete a further specialization in a particular field of interest. In each case, the focus is on the importance of lifelong learning and showing a willingness to take on new challenges and information.
A meaningful path
Overall, it is clear that anyone who decides to complete an MSW will be providing themselves with a superb opportunity to perform meaningful, varied work and help a huge range of different people. By doing so, they will also open themselves up to an impressive array of possible options, with huge potential for personal growth and development throughout the course of their career. Often, they will experience many different aspects of the profession in this time, and will almost certainly enjoy an active working life, with plenty of rewards and successes, as well as challenges to overcome.
Naturally, to truly succeed as a social worker, the individual concerned must have the right preparation and education, and also the skills and abilities needed to thrive in the job. A social worker must not only have a large degree of empathy in order to help assist people with whatever issues or problems they may have, but must also possess a significant amount of resilience and endurance. After all, many of the problems and challenges faced by the most vulnerable people in society can at times seem almost insurmountable – which is why determination and courage are essential. And, just like in the cases they will face in their work, to ensure a fruitful and fulfilling career in this profession, social workers should plan their path carefully and intelligently, and always be certain to check that they are heading in the right direction.