Social Work Degrees and Careers
Social work is a broad field that focuses on a common goal: To help people who are struggling with some aspect of their lives. The International Federation of Social Workers provides the following global definition of social work:
Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility, and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities, and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance well-being.
While many people do not immediately realize the connection between social work and criminal justice, a number of career paths and systemic needs in criminal justice directly tie the two together. People who end up in the criminal justice system, whether as suspects, victims, or prisoners, often have a significant number of concerns to work through. Certain social issues correlate highly with different criminal acts.
An extensive knowledge of social work theories and research may help you understand, prevent, and assist others to properly react to crime. By identifying socioeconomic and social issues that may pave the way for a criminal mindset later in life, you may be able to create programs that steer people off of this path.
If you’re interested in social work in the field of criminal justice, read on to learn more about what a social worker does, career and salary information, undergraduate and graduate degrees, and licensing requirements.
What Does a Social Worker Do?
The primary duty of a social worker is to help people. How so depends on who the social worker works with. They might help a newly unemployed breadwinner secure food stamps or healthcare for their family. Alternatively, they might show school bullies an alternative outlet for their anger.
In summary, social work is a wide-open field with many career options.
Common Social Worker Jobs
People need help in a lot of different ways. Here are some of the better-known career options open to you in the field of social work.
- Mental health and substance abuse counselor: Social workers in this field counsel individuals with mental, emotional, or substance abuse problems. They assess and provide treatment using methods such as individual and group therapy. They also deal with crisis intervention, case management, client advocacy, prevention, and education.
- Child and family counselors: These social workers focus on the emotional and mental well-being of children. They might work with children who are navigating the foster care system or who have been abused. Because family life plays an important role in child behavior, they also work closely with families.
- School counselor: Often grouped with child and family social workers, this type of social worker receives referrals from school teachers and administrators. They work with students who have behavioral and/or academic problems by identifying the larger issues causing poor academic performance. Once they have a better understanding of a student’s issues, a social worker can connect the student with the proper resources.
- Healthcare worker: Healthcare is a huge field with many options for social workers. For instance, hospice social workers prepare terminally ill clients and their families for death and provide bereavement support. Others help patients recovering from illness to navigate medical bills and therapy appointments. Social workers work alongside doctors and nurses as patient advocates.
- Social and human services assistant: In the area of human services, social workers provide assistance to people looking for services from government agencies and private charities. Their mission is to match individual needs with services in their area — whether that be a program to winterize older homes or provide disability insurance services.
Social Workers in Criminal Justice
While the social workers mentioned above may make some forays into the criminal justice system — for example, working with a child who winds up in juvenile hall or someone in a court-ordered drug rehabilitation program — some social work professionals are more directly involved in criminal justice.
These social workers generally work in the areas of law enforcement, court systems, and corrections. Following are some specific roles they might play.
- Correctional social workers: Over 10,000 inmates are released from America’s state and federal prisons every week. In order to mitigate the chances of these people committing crimes again, it is important that they are prepared for the major transition of integrating into life beyond bars. Correctional social workers provide assistance in a number of ways. They perform psychological assessments, provide individual or group counseling sessions, and teach inmates the life skills they will need in order to succeed in their lives. These social workers also help inmates navigate the social services system, which provides help with employment, housing, and other essential areas.
- Probation and parole officers: Probation officers work with people who have committed a crime but are being given a chance to avoid prison. Through regular check-ins, probation officers make sure people are following the court’s orders. Parole officers work with former prisoners to ensure they are properly rehabilitated. Both groups may conduct drug tests and assess a person’s home life and mental health.
- Social workers in the court systems: Public defender offices may hire social workers to diagnose defendants. Such social workers can draw up extensive reports of the defendant’s mental health and background with recommendations for treatment and rehabilitation. They may also provide expert testimony in court.
- Victims’ advocates: Prosecutors and law enforcement agencies hire social workers as victims’ advocates to guide victims and/or their families through the legal process. This includes providing them with emotional support, attending court hearings alongside them, walking them through the process of giving testimony, and helping them apply for compensation.
- Law enforcement counselors: Police officers and others in law enforcement are regularly exposed to the traumas of violence and abuse. Some law enforcement agencies employ social workers to provide counseling.
- Social workers in restorative justice: Some jurisdictions are embracing restorative justice as an alternative to punitive measures, especially for nonviolent crimes. Restorative justice is a process that brings victims together with perpetrators. Social workers are necessarily a part of this emotional and dialogue-heavy process.
Social Worker Salary and Career Outlook
While social worker salary is competitive with other helping professions, such as teachers and counselors, your pay expectations will likely depend on the types of clients you work with and your work environment.
The median salary for all types of social workers in the U.S. was $49,470 as of 2018. Social workers based in hospitals tended to earn the most, taking home an average median salary of $60,100. The individual and family services industry paid less: $41,810 on average. Here’s the breakdown for the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) categories:
|Social workers, all other||$63,140|
|Healthcare social workers||$56,200|
|Child, family, and school social workers||$46,270|
|Mental health and substance abuse social workers||$44,840|
Those numbers may go up if the law of supply and demand holds. The BLS rates social work to be a fast-growing profession, with job growth projected to hit 16% from 2016 to 2026. That’s over 10,000 new jobs added every year. Healthcare, mental health, and substance abuse social workers are expected to see the majority of this growth.
In the area of criminal justice, the BLS reports that the median salary for probation officers and correctional specialists was $53,020 as of May 2018. The growth rate for these positions is 6%, which is about average; however, with nearly 1.5 million people living in prison in 2017, and a high turnover rate in the field, the BLS predicts that there should be plenty of job opportunities in the future.
Is a Social Work Degree Right for Me?
Helping people cope in the face of barriers such as addiction, poverty, and incarceration can be a daunting challenge. Before you get a social work degree, consider whether you’ve got the right traits to succeed:
- Are you compassionate and empathetic? You will need to identify with a client’s problems and develop workable solutions.
- Are you a good listener? You will have to be ready with relevant questions to guide clients as they talk through their issues.
- Are you able to set boundaries? You’ll have to be realistic about what’s possible given the time you have with your client. Otherwise, you’ll get burned out chasing small improvements.
- Can you be impartial? Part of empathy is reserving judgment. You can’t help people if you think they’re not worthy of help.
- Can you work with people whose actions might upset you? In the criminal justice system, you will be working with people who have committed crimes — some of which are horrific. You will need to be able to put your judgment of their actions aside in order to help them.
- Can you handle working with people who are hostile and unwilling to face change? Not everyone who needs help is accepting of it. You will need to be patient and understanding in the face of resistance.
- Are you able to handle ethical dilemmas? You’ll have a legal obligation to report certain issues, which may put you at odds with clients you’ve developed a rapport with.
How to Become a Social Worker
There are multiple paths to a career in social work, but most start with obtaining a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related area such as psychology, sociology, or criminal justice. Although a bachelor’s degree can open the door to a number of entry-level positions, a master’s degree is a prerequisite for employment in many social work positions.
After you complete your degree program, you may need to get licensed. For more information, refer to the licensure section on this page.
Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work
The most common path into a career in social work is through a Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.) or a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work (B.A.S.W.) degree.
These programs provide a foundation for generalist social work practice and prepare you for entry-level positions upon graduation. You will be trained to provide services to individuals, groups, families, and communities. The focus is on working with underserved or oppressed populations. Becoming a social work generalist lets you enter almost any social and human service field. (You can choose a specialty in graduate school.)
Although requirements vary by school, in general you will need:
- High school diploma or GED equivalent
- GPA that meets the standard set by the school (2.0–3.0 or higher on a 4.0 point scale)
- Acceptable SAT or ACT scores (set by the institution, typically 1200 SAT or 26 ACT)
- Copy of high school transcripts
- Completed application
- Personal essay (if required by the institution)
- Letter(s) of recommendation (if required by the institution)
In a bachelor’s of social work degree program you can expect to learn about human behavior, social welfare policy, research methods, and practices for working with individuals and groups, such as families and communities.
Typical courses for a bachelor’s degree in social work may include:
- Introduction to Social Work: A basic survey of the history, development, and formation of social welfare policies, and the role of the social work professional
- Introduction to Social Policy: Explores problems and concepts of the policy process in the U.S., including the political, economic, and institutional frameworks that structure public social welfare choices
- Human Behavior and the Environment: Delves into physiological, psychological, and social changes and their implications for social work practice
- Research Methods in Social Work:Focuses on social research and problems of project design and programming, and characteristics of investigations directed to planning, administrative, and scientific objectives
Practical experience is as important as textbook knowledge, so students also participate in a required number of volunteer hours, an approved internship, or practicum. This real-world fieldwork under the direct supervision of an approved, experienced social worker is an important part of a social worker’s education.
Other Bachelor’s Degrees
There are several other types of bachelor’s degrees that will provide you with the necessary education to work in the field or move on to get a master’s or doctorate degree.
Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology
Psychology and social work are related fields. Companies often offer entry-level social work positions to people who have a degree in psychology because an undergraduate degree in psychology provides a sound understanding of human behavior.
Students considering a psychology program can choose between a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in Psychology and a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Psychology. Many schools will offer one or the other, but not both. That means you need to find out which degree is offered and how it could impact your career path.
A Bachelor of Science in Psychology degree emphasizes scientific study and research. It requires more math, science, and lab courses than a B.A. A Bachelor of Arts in Psychology provides a liberal arts education, including electives delineated by the psychology department.
In this degree program, you should expect to take courses such as:
- Introduction to Psychology: Introduces the field of psychology
- Introduction to Statistics: Provides an overview of basic statistical concepts and methods
- Introduction to Social Psychology: Explores the way people think, feel, and behave in social situations; introduces perspectives, research methods, and empirical findings of social psychology
- Cross-Cultural Psychology: Examines how ethnic and cultural background influences patterns of human thought and behavior
Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology
Sociology focuses on understanding the interplay between the individual and society, the causes and consequences of social inequality, and the social structures and processes that shape diverse lives.
Courses in this degree program may include:
- Introduction to Sociology: Provides an overview of basic principles and concepts in sociology
- Introduction to Social Research: Introduces social research methods to acquire the skills necessary to conduct and understand social research
- Social Inequalities: Surveys inequalities based on criteria such as race, ethnicity, sex, age, religion, and social class in contemporary societies
- Theories in Sociology: Discusses theories and issues in contemporary American sociology
Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice
A criminal justice degree can provide an excellent foundation for a career in social work because social workers often communicate and interact with law enforcement and attorneys. Social workers can be subpoenaed to testify, so it’s important they understand court and prosecution processes and procedures.
If you’re interested in an undergraduate degree in criminal justice, visit our page for degrees in criminal justice.
Master’s Degree in Social Work
A bachelor’s degree will help you get an entry-level job in social work, but if you want to advance your career, you’ll likely need a Master of Social Work (M.S.W.).
In order to become licensed as a social worker, you will need a master’s degree. You can also specialize at this phase in order to pursue your particular interests.
Master’s programs in social work are some of the most diverse and popular options for students. For example, if you are transitioning directly from a bachelor’s degree to a master’s degree, you may prefer a traditional social work program that runs in 15-week semesters. There are also master’s degree social work programs that include a concentration in criminology or criminal justice. With this option, you take graduate-level criminal justice courses in addition to your graduate-level social work classes.
This degree may help you build connections with professionals who have experience in the criminal justice area of social work or provide you with more targeted practical experience.
Admissions requirements vary among schools. The following requirements are often the baseline for consideration:
- Undergraduate GPA of 3.0
- High GRE score
- Bachelor’s degree in social work or criminal justice
Once you begin studying at your school of choice, you may be able to graduate in as little as 18 months. Part-time options may extend your schooling to 3 or 4 years.
If you pursue a master’s in social work with an emphasis in criminal justice, your curriculum may have core courses like those listed below:
- Social Welfare Policy and Services
- Human Behavior and Social Environment
- Theoretical Foundations of Criminal Justice
- Theories of Crime
- Administration of Justice
- Special Topics in Criminology and Criminal Justice
Master programs in social work typically require some type of practical experience. Depending on the school you choose, you may complete a semester-long internship, work through practicum courses, conduct an independent research study, or create a capstone project.
However, if you have a career to maintain, you may want to consider accelerated options. These programs allow you to take one class for four to eight weeks before moving onto the next class. There are often online social work master’s programs that fit these schedules.
Online Social Work Degrees
An online social work degree is seldom fully online; most require some hands-on practical experience working directly with clients. Still, you’ll need to take a lot of coursework providing theoretical background, as well as general education classes. These can be taken online at your own pace.
In addition to flexibility, online programs can pass along savings, according to a 2018 report from the Boston Consulting Group. Still, costs vary widely, so you’ll need to compare prices across several schools.
You’ll also want to compare academic results between online programs, although there’s some evidence, supported by a recent U.S. Department of Education report, that online students outperform their on-campus peers academically. Students in hybrid programs see the most benefits, so online social work programs with hands-on practicums are ideal.
Social Worker Requirements and Licensing Information
In most states, becoming a social worker requires a professional license. However, there is currently no specific licensure for criminal justice social workers — although the National Association for Social Workers (NASW) is advocating for its development. Many criminal justice social workers overlap with treating mental health or substance abuse clients and, as such, may become Licensed Clinical Social Workers or Licensed Clinical Addictions Specialists.
Licensing usually involves a combination of a particular level of education and a licensing exam. By requiring a license, states ensure professional standards are met and maintained to protect and benefit the public (requirements vary by state). Most states also require a degree from an institution accredited by the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE).
States can vary significantly in their requirements, so make sure to find out the requirements for the state you want to practice in. For a list of regulatory boards in each state, go to the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) website.