Social Work Degrees and Careers
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 issues to work through. Being the victim of a crime can significantly impact a person's relationships and ability to function in social environments, while certain social issues correlate highly with different criminal acts.
If you're interested in social work as a career, read on to learn more about the different undergraduate and graduate degrees you can earn to become a social worker, licensing information, and career and salary information.
How to Become a Social Worker
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 and direct them to more productive paths.
The most common path into a career in social work is through a bachelor's degree. Those who hold a degree in psychology, sociology, or criminal justice are often hired for entry-level social work positions. These fields provide a good foundation for a career in social work, and they allow you to continue your education and obtain a master's in social work (MSW) without a lot of additional time or classes. An advanced degree will help you advance your career in social work.
Undergraduate Social Work Degrees
There are multiple paths to a career in social work, but most include obtaining at least one of four different degrees. While the most common is a bachelor's degree in social work, a degree in psychology, sociology, or criminal justice will let you begin a career in social work. A bachelor's degree in any of these four areas also provides the foundation you need for a master's degree in social work (MSW).
An undergraduate degree in psychology provides a solid understanding of human behavior, while a degree in sociology will give you a background in areas like urban society and statistical analysis. A criminal justice degree can provide great value since social workers can spend a lot of time dealing with law enforcement officials, attorneys, judges, and the court system.
Many social work positions require a master's in social work (MSW). In most states, becoming a social worker requires a professional license. States that require a license will offer it to those who hold an MSW from an accredited program. You'll find more information about licensure further down the page.
Bachelor's in Social Work
The most common social worker education begins with a degree in social work. You can choose a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work (BASW) degree.
These programs provide a sound foundation for generalist social work practice and prepare students for entry-level positions upon graduation. Students 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. Specialties can be chosen and developed in graduate school.
Admission requirements for a bachelor's in social work varies by school, but applicants typically 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)
BSW and BASW Curriculum
Students seeking a bachelor's of social work degree 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.
Courses for a bachelor's degree in social work may include classes such as:
- 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: Provides awareness of problems and concepts of the policy process in the U.S. Explores the political, economic, and institutional frameworks which structure public social welfare choices.
- Human Behavior and the Environment: Physiological, psychological, and social changes and their implications for social work practice.
- Research Methods in Social Work: Social research and problems of project design and programming. 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 field work under the direct supervision of an approved, experienced social worker is an important part of a social worker's education.
Bachelor's in Psychology
Psychology and social work are related fields. Companies often offer entry-level social work positions to people who have a degree in a 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 (BA) in Psychology and a Bachelor of Science in Psychology. Many schools will offer one or the other, but not both. That means students need to find out which degree is offered and how it could impact their career path.
A Bachelor of Science in Psychology degree emphasizes scientific study and research. It requires more math, science and lab courses than a BA. A Bachelor of Arts in Psychology provides a liberal arts education, including electives delineated by the psychology department.
Requirements for acceptance into a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology program vary by school. Typically, students must complete:
- At least one college-level psychology course
- A minimum number of college credits, as established by the institution
- GPA of 2.0-3.0 GPA (on a 4.0 scale)
Psychology Bachelor's Curriculum
With a psychology major you'll develop a solid understanding of human behavior and mental processes. You'll learn how human biology, psychological experience, and cultural contexts influence actions and thoughts.
The study of psychology is concerned with individuals in the context of society, as well as practical application in the mental health field. Professionals are trained and educated to handle various issues and participate in a required number of hours of approved volunteer work, internships, or a practicum.
Psychology students interested in social work jobs should take:
- Introduction to Psychology: A broad introduction to the field of psychology.
- Introduction to Statistics: Provides basic statistical concepts and methods.
- Introduction to Social Psychology: The study of the way people think about, feel, and behave in social situations; introduces perspectives, research methods, and empirical findings of social psychology.
- Cross-Cultural Psychology: How ethnic and cultural background influences patterns of human thought and behavior.
Bachelor's in Sociology
Sociology and social work both focus on the study of people as members of society. A bachelor's degree in Sociology can help you get a social work position as a caseworker, community aide, housing coordinator, youth outreach worker, or other entry-level social work jobs. Both traditional and online social work programs provide a foundation for a satisfying career.
Typical requirements for admission to a Sociology major include:
- Completion of at least one college-level social and behavioral sciences course
- Overall GPA requirement varies by school; ranges from 2.0-3.0 (on a 4.0 point scale)
- A copy of a transcript from another college or university (if any attended)
Sociology Bachelor's Curriculum
The study of sociology helps students develop appreciation for diversity, culture, and human behavior. It teaches how to look more objectively at the way parts of a society fit together and change, and to understand the consequences and impacts of social change.
A major in 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. Requirements vary, but most programs require 3-5 core courses and an additional 7-9 elective classes, plus a specified number of elective classes.
Students also gain real-life experience and perspective by completing a capstone experience that can take the form of an internship, a practicum, or completion of a specified number of volunteer hours under the direction of an experienced social worker. Students are expected to maintain at least a 2.0-2.5 GPA.
It's particularly helpful for those interested in sociology to take classes such as:
- Introduction to Sociology: An introductory course covering the basic principles and concepts in sociology.
- Introduction to Social Research: An introductory course on social research methods to acquire the skills necessary to conduct and understand social research.
- Social Inequalities: A survey of inequalities based upon criteria such as race, ethnicity, sex, age, religion and social class in contemporary societies.
- Theories in Sociology: An introduction to theories and issues in contemporary American sociology.
Bachelor's 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 need a Master's degree in Social Work (MSW).
Many social work positions require a MSW. The graduate classes, combined with the required hours of work in the field, provide valuable knowledge and experience that make you more effective.
There are more and better opportunities available to you if you have a Master's in Social Work (MSW). The jobs provide greater authority and prestige, and they usually offer a significantly higher salary. Earning a master's in social work online or in person may give you the chance to influence positive change in the criminal justice system.
Master's in Social Work Programs and Curriculum
Master's programs in social work are some of the most diverse and popular options for students, so you may have many options to consider. 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.
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. A general MSW degree, combined with an undergraduate criminal justice degree, may be adequate preparation for your career.
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 between 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 three or four years. If you pursue an online 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.
Social Worker Requirements and Licensing Information
Most states require social workers to be licensed. This usually involves a combination of education and 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).
Some states will grant licenses to seasoned human service professionals with a high school diploma or associates degree. For example, in Massachusetts, candidates may progress to a LSW (Licensed Social Worker) with a high school education. However, it will take ten years of experience working under the supervision of a BSW or MSW. Candidates who have some college education will need between two and eight years of experience (depending on how much college they completed).
Some states allow licenses for those holding bachelor's degrees in Social Work (BSW). Alabama, Missouri, South Carolina, and other states will license social workers who have a baccalaureate from a CSWE-accredited program. Others accept a bachelor's degree, but also require supervised clinical experience. For example, Illinois requires that candidates with a bachelor's degree must work in the field for three years before applying to take the LSW exam.
Many states, like Indiana and California, will only license those who hold an MSW from a CSWE-accredited institution. If you receive a BSW prior to applying to graduate school, you may be eligible for advanced standing that would allow you to complete an MSW in less time (typically, one year rather than the traditional two-year program).
As you can see, states can vary significantly in their requirements, so be sure to find out the requirements for the state where you're interested in becoming licensed.
Social work licensure includes:
- Licensed Social Work Associate (LSWA) - The first level of licensure in some states.
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW) - This is the first level of social work licensure in a number of states and is a critical step to become a Licensed Social Workers (LSW) in a few states.
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) - LCSW's work with clients in a variety of specialties such as mental health, substance abuse, public health, school social work, medical social work, or children and family therapy.
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW) - Available with an earned Master of Social Work degree. Depending on the state, you may only be required to possess a MSW degree and pass an examination. Other states require supervised work experience as well.
- The Independent Social Worker (ISW) - This is a Master's level license that allows you to practice at a high level in a clinical setting.
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW) - Requires extensive experience in clinical situations under appropriate supervision in addition to the exam and degree requirements,
- Certified Advanced Practice Social Worker (CAPSW) - Those who have a Master's in Social Work, (MSW) can obtain this advanced level of licensure.
- Certified Independent Practice Social Worker (CIPSW) - The highest level license for clinical social workers in some states. This title will allow you to work in a private clinical practice.
- Licensed Independent Social Worker – Advanced Practice (LISW-AP) - The highest level of social work licensure in some states. This title allows you to own and operate a private practice.
Many social work Master's degree programs allow you to apply for licensure as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). With this certification, you can legally provide counseling services.
Social Worker Salary and Career Outlook
After earning a degree in social work, you may have a number of career options to consider. Of course, you may work in conventional criminal justice jobs in policing, corrections, or legal issues. If you go this route, your background in social work may help you respond to criminals' needs in a way that improves their chances of successful rehabilitation and minimizes their risk of recidivism.
Since many people who end up in the criminal justice system have underlying behavioral, substance abuse, or behavioral issues, working in a correctional setting as a counselor could really improve outcomes. Through the year 2026, job openings for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors are expected to increase much faster than average. The average salary for a counselor in this specialty is $43,300 per year (BLS, 2017).
Along that same line, you may want to become a social worker and work directly with those who are at risk of turning to crime. Job growth for social workers is expected to increase 16% through 2026 and the average annual salary is $47,980.
Your MSW may give you special insight into criminology, technology, and other complex areas of criminal justice, so you may consider a career in teaching. Job growth for professors in the field is expected to grow 3.4% through 2026 and the median income for a criminal justice professor is $69,980 per year (BLS, 2017).
If you want to improve the field of criminal justice, there are many routes you can go. Social work programs can show you how to implement changes that address the root of the problem.
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