Becoming A Social Worker For Dummies
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If you’re interested in becoming a social worker, you need to start by understanding what exactly social work is. When you understand the helping process social workers use, you’ll be able to approach your work thoughtfully, regardless of whether you’re working with individuals, families or groups, or communities or systems. Finally, understanding your options when it comes to formal education can help you plan your future. Read on to find out more about what social work involves and how to become a social worker.

What is social work?

The social work profession is dedicated to addressing and tackling significant, complex issues, commonly referred to as social problems. Social workers are trained to comprehend the origins of these problems and equipped with the tools to take practical action in addressing them. Social workers are interventionists. They don’t just talk about or express concern over problems. They get down to work, roll up their sleeves, and take action.

The mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and meet the basic needs of all people by empowering individuals and communities, with a particular focus on addressing the needs of vulnerable, oppressed, and impoverished individuals and systems. This mission is guided by six core values and six corresponding ethical principles.

The values and principles are interconnected in the following ways:

Value Principles
Service Social workers help people and address social problems.
Social justice Social workers challenge social injustice.
Dignity and worth of the person Social workers respect the inherent dignity and worth of each person.
Importance of human relationships Social workers recognize the centrality of human relationships.
Integrity Social workers behave in a trustworthy manner.
Competence Social workers practice in areas of competence and develop in their area of expertise.

Social work follows ethical principles that state that the profession must solve social problems and challenge social injustice. These principles aren’t a by-product of the work — they’re central to the work.

Social work is done through humanistic approaches to helping and paying attention to the history and context of providing service.

Critical self-reflection is a fundamental competency within the social work profession and practice. Social workers actively engage in deep personal reflection to understand how their upbringing and environment impact their approach to providing help and support. This involves a careful examination of how their own lived experiences intersect with the diverse backgrounds of the individuals and systems they assist. In essence, it delves into the question of how a social worker’s personal history shapes the delivery of their services, both positively and negatively. This process not only addresses the potential “savior complex” that individuals may bring to the profession but also illuminates how issues of oppression and privilege manifest within their work. Consequently, it underscores that social work is not simply a volunteer role driven by compassion but rather a discipline demanding training, introspection, and continuous self-reflection.

The social work helping process explained

There is a science to the helping process of social work practice. Social work isn’t just about being nice to people, and it’s not just an elevated form of volunteering. Social work is about doing thoughtful interventions using an evidence- or science-supported method.

Social work uses the person-in-environment framework to inform how we understand the person and community/system that has an unmet need. Using this framework, social workers use a process called the planned change model to assess and address social problems. The change model consists of six steps: engagement, assessment, planning, intervention, termination, and evaluation.

Before using this method to intervene, social workers clarify where they’re intervening. They can intervene at the micro level (with individuals), the mezzo level (with groups and families), or the macro level (with communities or systems). Where social workers are intervening determines the kinds of assessment and interventions they use to do the work.

Here are examples of the planned change model at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels:

Process Stage Description Micro Level Mezzo Level Macro Level
Engagement The first step of the helping process where the social worker connects with the client, group, or system to build trust and mutuality and convey respect with verbal and nonverbal cues. In the initial meeting with the client, the social worker builds rapport by clarifying their role and the scope of their work and respectfully invites the client to share some information about themselves. The social worker introduces the group to each other and facilitates an open discussion about the purpose of the group. The social worker engages the group on what can help build a sense of belonging and trust among the members of the group. The social worker convenes the first meeting with a group to identify the unmet need or issue the community is facing through gathering data, holding town hall meetings, and having initial meetings with decision makers.
Assessment The assessment stage involves gathering and analyzing information to understand clients’ needs, strengths, and challenges. It forms the basis for effective social work practice. The social worker conducts an assessment of the individual to understand the problems and barriers the condition is causing. The social worker conducts an assessment of the family unit or the group. The social worker does an assessment of the organization, community, and any stakeholders that are impacted by the policy or area they’re attempting to address.
Planning Planning is the process of setting clear goals, identifying resources, and creating strategies to address clients’ identified needs and achieve positive outcomes. The social worker collaboratively develops an individualized treatment plan with the client and establishes mutually agreed-upon goals. The social worker collaboratively creates a family or group intervention plan to address the needs of the family or the group. The social worker develops a strategic plan to address the community or neighborhood’s needs with input from community members.
Intervening This stage involves implementing the planned strategies and providing direct services to clients or groups, aiming to address their needs and promote client-centered goals. The social worker conducts one-on-one sessions to assist a client in managing troublesome symptoms through evidence-supported techniques. The social worker utilizes evidence-supported methods in group- or family-level interventions to address mutually agreed-upon and prioritized problems.. The social worker implements the strategic plan at the neighborhood, community, organizational, governmental, or global level.
Termination This stage of the helping process can be a planned, unplanned, or sudden ending to the helping process. It is the ending of the professional relationship between the social worker and the client, community, or system. The client and social worker end the relationship. In the best-case scenario, it’s planned and the client has met their goals. In other instances, it can be unplanned (for example, the client or social worker becomes ill) or sudden (where the client does not want to return to sessions). The family or group has met their goals, resolved their dynamics, and transitioned into being able to adapt at higher level. Conversely, the group or family members stop coming to treatment in unplanned manner. The conclusion of the organization program, initiative, legislative process, or social action.
Evaluation Evaluation is the ongoing process of assessing the effectiveness of interventions, measuring progress toward goals, and making adjustments as necessary to achieve desired outcomes. The social worker continuously assesses the client’s progress in sessions, using reliable and valid tools, reviewing treatment goals, and modifying the treatment plan as needed. The social worker routinely monitors whether the group or family is achieving their goals and makes necessary changes and adjustments. The social worker establishes the evaluation process at the beginning of the helping process and implements it throughout the intervention, following the plan and employing scientifically sound evaluation methods and processes.

Social work degrees and specialties

In order to be a social worker, you can earn an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, or a doctorate degree in social work.

Associate’s degree

The associate’s degree in social work exposes you to the principles of the social work profession and to the helping process. People with this educational background are employed as direct-level care workers who work one-on-one with people and help implement interventions. You can get an associate’s degree at a community college.

Common job roles for people with associate’s degrees in social work include the following:

  • Case aide/case worker: Provide administrative support to social workers and help clients with basic needs and paperwork.
  • Residential counselor: Work as a residential counselor in a group home or shelter, offering support and supervision to residents.
  • Victims advocate: Work as a domestic violence crisis hotline operator in a shelter or nonprofit organization, providing immediate support and guidance to individuals experiencing domestic violence and helping them access resources and safety planning.

Bachelor’s degree

A bachelor of social work (BSW) degree allows you to work independently, carry your own cases, and have incremental salary increases consistent with your tenure at the job. Many child welfare case workers have BSW degrees and retire from their positions with good benefits, pensions, and sustainable incomes. A BSW opens up more opportunities for specialized roles and positions that involve direct client interaction than you would get with an associate’s degree.

Some job roles for people with BSWs include the following:

  • Child welfare case worker: Work with at-risk children and families to ensure their safety and well-being.
  • School social worker: Work in educational settings, addressing students’ emotional and social needs, providing individual and group counseling, and collaborating with teachers and parents.
  • Geriatric care coordinator: Play a vital role in enhancing the quality of life for older adults and their families by providing holistic support, promoting independence, and facilitating access to essential services and resources.

For both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, you must attend a Council of Social Work Education board-accredited school of social work and do coursework and an intensive practicum, which can range from 500 to 1,000 hours of internship. This gives you specialized coursework and provides a guided apprenticeship so you can do the work on your own.

Master’s degree

The master of social work (MSW) degree is the terminal degree, it provides the necessary education and credentials for professional practice. Although it is the terminal degree, it isn’t necessarily the end of the educational journey. You can still earn a PhD in social work if you’re interested in research or academia. But the MSW degree allows you to have the highest level of independence in your work and the most flexibility, especially if you’re licensed.

Here are some examples of jobs you can do with an MSW degree:

  • Licensed clinical social worker (LCSW): Work as a clinical social worker, providing therapy and counseling services to individuals, couples, and families.
  • Medical social worker: Work in health-care settings, helping patients and families cope with medical issues, navigate the health-care system, and access resources.
  • MSW commissioned officer in the military: Provide specialized social work services to support the well-being of service members and their families.


Although the MSW is the terminal degree, you can also earn a doctorate in social work by getting a doctor of philosophy (PhD) or doctor of social work (DSW) degree and become an expert and thought leader in the profession. Doctoral programs equip you with the research skills needed to conduct impactful research and contribute to the development of evidence-based social work practices. This level of expertise and leadership helps advance the profession, addresses complex social issues more effectively, and trains the next generation of social work practitioners.

Here are some examples of jobs you can do with a doctoral degree:

  • Social work educator/professor: Teach future social workers at universities and colleges, shaping the next generation of professionals.
  • Policy analyst/researcher: Engage in research and policy analysis, influencing social policies and advocating for change at a macro level.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Dr. Yodit Betru, a licensed clinical social worker, has practiced in various settings, including schools, shelters, jails, child welfare agencies, and private and public mental health agencies. Currently, she’s a college professor and director of the master of social work program at the University of Pittsburgh, specializing in trauma, race-based stress, and homelessness. She maintains a small private counseling practice and serves on the boards of community organizations aiding women, children, and families.

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