What Does a Social Worker Do (and How Do I Become One)?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Learn how you can help improve the lives of others with a role in social work.

[Featured image] A social worker holding a case file and a cup of coffee smiles at the camera.

A social worker is a trained professional who works with all types of vulnerable people, groups, and communities to help them learn to live better lives. Social workers tend to work work with populations that may be suffering due to poverty, discrimination, or other social injustices. 

The goal of professional social workers is to create change and encourage the resilience of individuals, families, and communities. This can be a fulfilling career for those who enjoy giving back to the community and making a difference in society.

Let’s take a closer look at what social workers do, why you should consider a career in social work, and how you can get started.

What is 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,” as defined by The International Federation of Social Workers [1]. As a social worker, you can implement important changes to the social services and well-being within your community. 

Social workers are needed in settings such as:

  • Hospitals

  • Mental health facilities

  • Child welfare and human service agencies

  • Community development organizations

  • Schools

  • Halfway houses

  • Adoption agencies

  • Private practices

Tasks and responsibilities of a social worker

Social work combines many aspects of counseling and psychology while focusing on client case management. Take a look at what types of responsibilities you'll have if you become a social worker in one of these main settings:

  • Family and schools: Social workers who work with families in the community may advocate for what’s in the best interest of a child’s upbringing. Social workers in educational settings work with teachers, students, and families to solve problems impacting children, such as bullying and learning challenges.

  • Health care: Social workers in medical and public health settings support critically ill patients and their families by helping them find resources and health care needs. Geriatric social work is a growing need in health care because of the rapidly aging population, especially in the United States.

  • Substance use disorder: Social workers in mental health and substance use disorder settings assist patients with therapy and finding financially available rehabilitation. Social workers may also work in the community to participate in outreach and preventative programs related to substance use disorder.

Learn more about the three main categories of social work:

Social workers work with different populations doing different things, and with people of all ages. When learning about the field of Social Work, you'll often hear about methods of practice falling into three categories.

Social worker skills and knowledge

Depending on where you work, you will need specific skills and knowledge relevant to the population you are working with. Building a strong foundational skill set will empower you to help others in the most effective way possible. 

Set yourself up for success by building the following interpersonal skills

  • Communication skills help you form relationships with people so you can gather information about their challenges. This includes active listening, setting boundaries, and effective communication.

  • Empathy equips you to understand how another person feels about a situation.

  • Critical thinking helps you to objectively analyze information about a client’s situation based on observations, interviews, and research.

  • Organizational and time management skills are necessary to manage and document complex cases and the many needs of multiple clients.

  • Self-care techniques empower you to maintain a healthy work-life balance in what can be an emotionally demanding field.

As you earn your degree and progress in your career as a social worker, you’ll build more specialized knowledge targeted toward your day-to-day work: 

  • Core frameworks of social work create the foundation to help you understand ecological systems, social justice, cultural humility, and other practices that define populations. 

  • Active and reflective listening skills equip you to engage in meaningful conversation with someone to understand their thoughts and allow for effective problem-solving.

  • Interviewing and counseling techniques include a range of approaches used with clients to help them understand how they can make desired changes in their lives. 

  • Global assessment of functioning (GAF) is a tool used to assess a client’s ability to function. 

Read more: Strategies in Communication: Your Guide to Better Connections

Why pursue a career in social work?

As a social worker, you can make a real difference in your community by addressing growing problems in mental health, aging, child abuse and neglect, substance abuse, chronic illness, homelessness, and food insecurity. Social work is regarded as one of the five core mental health professions, according to the National Institutes of Health.

How much do social workers make?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics,  the median annual salary for social workers in the United States was $50,390 in 2021. Depending on where you live and other factors, you could earn from $36,520 to $82,840 annually [2].

Social worker job outlook

The overall employment of social workers is set to grow at 9 percent between 2021 and 2031, which is faster than average [2]. The fields of health care, substance abuse, and mental health will see the most significant growth due to a large aging population and a trend toward more mental health treatment programs.

Professionals with master's in social work and interested in mental health can look into becoming a therapist. Within talk therapy, there are many psychological modalities that you'd work with that require specialized training, but this can also be a fulfilling and well-paid career (depending on your location and qualifications).

How to become a social worker

As you pursue a career in social work, you can choose whether to work in a clinical or non-clinical capacity. 

As a non-clinical social worker, you can offer services such as job, career, and academic counseling or work on policies that affect welfare and social assistance. Counseling and entry-level administrative roles typically require a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree.

Your responsibilities as a clinical social worker require specific knowledge to handle many difficult situations, including substance abuse counseling and support, family abuse cases, and working with patients with post-traumatic stress disorders.

To be a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), you'll need the following:

  • A Master of Social Work (MSW) degree (a Doctor of Social Work, or DSW, is required for leadership positions)

  • Two years of post-master degree supervised clinical experience

  • A license in the state you plan to practice

Read More: Your Guide to Social Work Degrees

Get started with Coursera

If you are passionate about helping people who are in need obtain the social support that they need, then take the next step in your career with the Social Work: Practice, Policy and Research MasterTrack® Certificate from the University of Michigan (the top-rated school of social work in the United States). You can earn a university-issued credential in as little as six months. If you decide to enroll in the University of Michigan Master of Social Work (MSW) program, your coursework will count toward your degree.  


Social Work MasterTrack® Certificate

University of Michigan

MasterTrack® Certificate

Article sources


IFSW. "Global Definition of Social Work, https://www.ifsw.org/what-is-social-work/global-definition-of-social-work/." Accessed January 9, 2023.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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