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What Does a Social Worker Do? (Duties & Responsibilities)

social worker with elderly woman

As a social worker, you advocate for others, be they young or old. You’ll work with clients from every station in life, and sometimes dire economic backdrops, to ease them through transitions, hardships, and mentally tough times.

You’ll be the person who assists them in finding the proper resources to get the care or supplement they need to sustain a certain quality of life. You may also be the link between people and caregivers in the health and psychology professions. As a social worker, you’ll find reward, take risks, and offer viable options for those who may not be capable—or willing—to help themselves.

What does a social worker do?

There are two basic types of social workers: direct social workers and clinical social workers. One works and interacts with the community while the other offers assistance in a clinical setting:

On the job, direct social workers will:

  • Identify those in need
  • Help people of all life stages cope with and solve everyday problems
  • Advocate for and develop plans to improve clients’ well-being
  • Research and refer clients to community resources
  • Work with individuals, families or groups
  • Respond to clients in crisis situations
  • Work in a variety of public and private organizations

Clinical social workers will:

  • Observe client behavior, assess needs and create treatment strategies
  • Diagnose psychological, behavioral and emotional disorders
  • Develop and put treatment plans in place
  • Consult with doctors, therapists and medical professionals
  • Administer social service programs
  • Instruct clients’ families during treatment

Curious about what you can earn as a social worker? Learn about pay and job growth projections.

What education do I need to become a social worker?

A bachelor’s degree in social work is the most common requirement for entry-level social work positions. These degrees prepare candidates for jobs as caseworkers and assistants. They require many hours of supervised fieldwork or an internship. Some employers hire social workers with a bachelor’s in a related field such as psychology or sociology.

All clinical social workers must earn a master’s in social work. This will take one- to-two years to obtain. You can work toward a master’s in social work even if your undergraduate degree is in a different field.

Becoming a licensed clinical social worker requires 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience after graduating with your master’s. Licensing and certification guidelines for psychologists vary by state so be sure to check the guidelines for the region in which you plan to study.

What career paths can I take in social work?

Social workers are involved with every aspect of the population. You can work in hospitals and clinics, nursing homes, community mental health clinics, government, schools, substance abuse clinics, military bases and hospitals, and in private practice. You can choose to work with a specific population, such as with teenagers, the incarcerated, families and the elderly.

If you’d like to seek more education after earning your master’s, you can pursue a doctoral degree in clinical psychology or one of its many specializations. This will require a time commitment of an additional five to seven years, and will broaden your employment opportunities to include academic research, consulting and more.

Tips from a professional MSW

Nikelle Butler-Rosier maintains a thriving private practice and also acts as a Social Worker for the Juvenile Unit of Associated Counsel for the Accused in Seattle.

She offers a few survival tips about the job, its challenges, rewards, and ways to take care of yourself:

  • Take a deep breath and know it will be overwhelming at first. Allow yourself to learn all you can and let it flow.
  • I work to live, not live to work. Having interns keeps me fresh because I have to be positive for them, and this helps me from becoming burned out. Sometimes there are not good outcomes, and I feel like a crash test dummy beating my head against the wall. I need to keep my sense of humor. Having my private practice keeps me balanced, as well. And, exercise!
  • I am fortunate because with two part-time jobs I have some flexibility. It’s about balance. I have to do things for myself that I enjoy—snowboarding, a hike with the dog, running and spending time with friends. Many working mothers sacrifice individual joys for family and resent it down the road. I teach—and believe—that attitude is choice, and I choose to be happy and have a positive outlook.