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Career Pathway: Social Work


Social work is a growing field and has the ability to draw a large number of prospective job seekers since the field touches many other industries (healthcare, education, social work, substance abuse, military, etc.). Professionals in this field are in high demand, which means job seekers can spend time exploring the right job fit and enjoy room for growth. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2022), social worker employment is expected to grow 7% from 2022 to 2032. Social workers may also be particularly well positioned for future job outlook and stability based on their abilities to provide specific treatment services.

Not convinced yet? Here are a few data points to give you an idea of what the industry has to offer and where it’s heading.

An infographic explains three benefits to developing social work skills, including access to high growth rate, positive impact, and developing specialized skills.
Source: Bureau of Labor and Statistics (2022), NASW (2023)

Let’s review this skill set together by discussing how social work expertise can be acquired, applied, and transformed into a fulfilling career.

What can I do with social work skills?

Social workers perform a wide range of tasks depending on their specific roles and the settings they work in. Let’s delve into some of the different types of social work and the responsibilities typically associated with the different social work sub-categories.

Clinical/Mental health social work — Offers social work or psychotherapy services in clinics, public agencies, medical facilities, and private practices. They often diagnose mental illnesses, conduct treatment and goal planning, and perform evidence-based modalities. 

School social work — Specializes in helping students with school-related and personal issues that affect their lives. Working at one or more schools, these social workers mediate between community resources and students who need special services.

Medical social work — Helps people who have serious or chronic health problems. They advise individuals and families about how best to deal with being ill. They also find services, such as nursing care, nutrition classes, and therapies that are available to help sick individuals and their families.

Macro social work — Advocates on behalf of a group or community toward a common goal. They may conduct needs assessments, plan or administer programs, or allocate resources to the community. Macro social work is unique because the community and social workers often work actively together. 

Listen as medical social worker Carl shares what a typical day in his life looks like. 

A headshot of Carl.

A typical day with me would be basically coming in, I would say starting off with…organizing my patients list of who I would see that day, giving them a call, scheduling appointments to go out on a visit. Once I complete that visit with that patient, I would normally just do what they call a psychosocial assessment.

[I’m] trying to also assist that patient with community resources, services that’s basically needed communicating with other agencies that’s in the community. Also talking with I would say Adult Protective Services and also Children’s Services if they have any kind of issue with abuse or neglect.

Discover your career opportunities

As the demand for social work grows, so do the job opportunities. Here are a few job titles available to individuals with social work skills:

An infographic shows social work-related job titles.

Expert advice

“There are many social workers who do very similar work but have different paths. For example, a school social worker might end up doing work very similar to a child and family therapist. A substance abuse social worker may have a similar daily experience to that of a mental health social worker at a behavioral health clinic. Your landscape as a social worker could end up being very broad or more specific. Your degree and license are important, but there is a lot of crossover between types of services provided, so when you are considering this question, just know that it’s a fluid question.”

– Christine C., career expert at edX

A headshot of Christine C.

How can I acquire social work skills and turn them into a career?

If you are interested in pursuing your own social work career, we recommend taking these steps:

Research is key when it comes to any career, and a career in social work is certainly no exception. Take advantage of all the information out there, whether through browsing the internet for job titles, listening to relevant podcasts, or getting connected to professionals in the areas or positions that interest you. 

Pro tip:
Explore your career possibilities. As part of your research, take every opportunity to learn more about topics in your desired field. Browse the edX course catalog at edx.org to see what social work-related topics, courses, and programs interest you, and start building your social work skills today.

One key part of the research phase is networking. This simple step is often overlooked and undervalued but can significantly impact your career trajectory. To clarify your career goals and aspirations, you must talk with professionals about what the work looks like. 

You open a door of opportunity in your career by reaching out to professionals in your targeted fields, positions, and companies. Connecting with social work professionals who could vouch for you and provide hard-to-find intel about the industries or organizations of interest is invaluable.

Pro tip:
We highly recommend scheduling informational interviews to learn from and connect with social work professionals and hiring managers to gather information. These contacts can help you learn new skills, offer advice, and share job opportunities.

Check out our Networking guide and Networking outreach samples for help getting started.

To supplement your understanding of what others are doing professionally, gain clarity on your own goals and aspirations. Ask yourself what about social work interests you — the possibilities are endless.

An important question to ask yourself: Who am I interested in working on behalf of? Your response may help determine which social work skills will best serve your career. 

Identify your target audience 

Determining who you want to work with will enable you to decide what type of skills you want to pursue. The list below encompasses options for the audience you may want to consider:

  • Children or adolescents
  • Families or couples
  • Individuals with mental health diagnoses
  • Individuals with substance use disorder
  • High school students
  • College students
  • Individuals with health issues
  • Hospital patients 
  • Individuals in the corrections system

Skill set for social work

You‘ll also rely on a variety of social work tools in your practice, which will depend on whether you decide to implement a clinical or macro focus. View the list below for examples of these skills:

  • Qualitative research
  • Program evaluation
  • Advocacy
  • Program management
  • Program development
  • Strategic planning
  • Grant writing
  • Capacity development
  • Community organizing
  • Policy analysis
  • Fundraising
  • Treatment planning
  • Group facilitation 
  • Crisis intervention
  • Case management
  • Behavioral therapy modalities
  • Trauma-informed care

The different types of roles within the social work field require varying levels of education, training, and licensure. Once you’ve explored which type of social work role you want to pursue, you’ll need additional research to determine the level of clinical training required to advance in that path. If you are in the early stages of exploring, here are some options to informally explore more about the social work field:

Self-education If you want to learn asynchronously, informally, or casually, self-education is a great place to start and determine if social work continues to be a career path of interest. Many approaches to this learning style support career goals, budgets, and time commitments. Here are some to consider:

  • Informal opportunities: Gain a greater understanding of the industry by reading. Explore books, articles, and even research papers to expand your knowledge and learn what’s happened or is happening in the field. Not a reader? Plenty of videos, podcasts, and other forms of multimedia can teach you a thing or two about careers or work related to education
  • Online courses: edX.org offers several instructor-led and self-paced social work courses that may be of interest.

Degree programs If you do not have career experience in psychology, counseling, social work, or education, you may want to consider a degree program. Many social work-related positions require advanced clinical skills, and degree programs can be an efficient way to acquire these skills. Education, psychology, and sociology are popular degree programs among social work professionals.

Professional licensure Licensure is required in certain social work settings, organizations, or scopes of work, so you’ll want to determine whether the type of social work you want to pursue requires this and, if so, figure out the steps to get there. Licensure requirements vary by state, so make sure you research your options. Licensure is also a great addition to your resume and a way to prove your clinical skills for roles in social work.

Interviews for social work positions will likely include behavioral interviewing questions. These questions will ask about your behaviors in past scenarios as a way to gauge how you would react in future settings. Potential employers will want to know how you stay adaptable, manage tasks, and how you engage with clients.

Helpful resources:
The career team at edX has resources and workshops to help you fine-tune your application materials and prepare for interviews. Start with our Social work sample interview questions, Sample LinkedIn summaries for social work professionals, and Social work resume sample.

Once you achieve your social work career goal, celebrate your success. The career journey is full of ups and downs, and every victory deserves acknowledgment. 

With that said, your journey doesn’t end here — it’s only just beginning. Give yourself grace and understand that careers are not linear. Here are some ways you could continue growing your social work skills:

Continued learning   Always reference our course catalog on edX.org for continued learning opportunities. It never hurts to brush up on your skills, expand your knowledge within the industry, or learn about other subjects that could apply to your work, interests, or something in between.

Promotions — As the social work industry continues to grow, so will future job opportunities. To position yourself well for promotions, you will need to stay current on continuing education opportunities and develop leadership skills.

Promotions in social work
Here are examples of senior roles you may want to work toward as you advance your career in social work:

Director of clinical services/Social work — Lead and oversee a team of social workers or a clinical program that provides evidence-based therapeutic modalities and crisis management or intervention to patients.
Licensed independent clinical social worker (LICSW) — LICSWs have achieved the highest form of licensure after having received hours of supervision under the guidance of another LICSW in addition to qualifying for and taking multiple clinical exams. LICSWs are able to independently diagnose and treat patients.  This means they can open up their own private practice and work for themselves, or they can work under an umbrella organization where their level of licensure allows them to bill insurance providers for their work. They can also supervise aspiring social workers for licensure to sponsor others looking to progress their futures in the field.

Pivots — Make sure to regularly check in with yourself and your satisfaction with daily tasks. If you are dissatisfied in your current role, take stock of what you like and dislike about it, keep your eyes out for company-sponsored growth opportunities, and pursue career pivots that optimize your background, skill set, and interests.

What could my career look like with a social work skill set?

It is difficult to say exactly what your life would look like as a social worker, but we can provide some insight. Consider how these may factor into your life plan:

Opportunity to make an impact — Social work has the potential to positively impact individuals’ lives in so many facets and settings, including schools, residential facilities, substance abuse programs, hospitals, and individual lives. Consider how you could use your social work skills to positively impact the lives of others. 

Life-long learning — Social workers must stay up-to-date on clinical modalities and evidence-based practices, and you can expect a career that provides many learning opportunities, especially if you pursue licensure, which means you’ll be required to maintain continued learning opportunities.

Carl talks social work

“Being able to do both “nonverbal” and verbal communication. To me that is always the key…because if you don’t know how to interact with patients, you have to know how to interact with families, you need to be able to communicate with that person verbally and nonverbally without being judgmental at all. That’s always been my biggest key. Everything I’d say is communication. How do you deal with your patients and the individuals you interact with on a day to day basis.”

-Carl R., medical social worker

A headshot of Carl.

What are my next steps?

Learn more about social work:

Register for a course on edX.org to learn about a variety of social work topics including Introduction to Social Work, Areas of Social Work Practice, and Social Learning for Social Impact.

Watch a session

Watch a relevant session on our Events page to learn more about the industry and other professionals’ experiences within it.

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