Social workers seek to improve the quality of life for others. They tackle both big-picture social problems, and their local impact on individuals, families and communities. Students can gain some insight into this rewarding, but often difficult field, through several online social work courses made available free of charge from universities across the country.
The International Federation of Social Workers defines the profession as promoting social change, problem solving in human relationships and providing means of empowerment and liberation to enhance the well-being of others. Social workers are agents of change in society and in the lives of the individuals, families and communities they serve, figuring out ways to help others reach their full potential.
Social workers are most often separated into two categories: direct-service social workers are those who help people with everyday problems, while clinical social workers diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional issues. Both direct-service and clinical social workers often specialize within their field to focus on a particular population, such as children and families, schools, healthcare, gerontology, hospice and palliative care, mental health and substance abuse.
A social work degree includes courses on major social ills, as well as how to solve those problems through client management and social work theory. The following is a sample course list taken from the University of Washington's School of Social Work bachelor's degree program, and the undergraduate program at the University of Pittsburgh.
- Human Behavior and the Social Environment
- Social Welfare Policy
- Cultural Diversity and Justice
- Case Management
- Aging in a Multicultural Society
- Economics and Social Work
- African-American Health Issues
- Introduction to Social Work Research
- Community Service Learning
Internships or supervised fieldwork are common in nearly all types of bachelor programs.
Students usually only specialize above the undergraduate level. Some bachelor's programs allow students to focus their studies through a minor or a designated focus during undergraduate work, which can serve as a foundation for someone wishing to pursue a master's degree or licensure as a clinical social worker. Here are some options to get you thinking:
The Simmons School of Social Work, for example, offers specializations including child and family; trauma and interpersonal violence; mental health and addictions; and health and aging. Simmons also offers a specialized course on training social workers to deal with larger issues in their urban community through the Urban Leadership Program in Clinical Social Work (ULP).
Boston University offers options to earn certificates or specializations in the following: clinical social work and behavioral medicine; family therapy; group work; human services management; and gerontology.
Ohio State University offers specializations in disability studies, early childhood intervention, international studies, literacy studies, sexuality studies, African American studies, research methods in human resource development, statistical data analysis and women's studies.
There are credentialing opportunities at all levels of higher education. At the community college level, student's can obtain an associate's degree in social work through programs like this one at El Paso Community College. A two-year degree will get you an entry-level position in the field. Community colleges and vocational schools often offer certificates that enable advancement or employment in specialized fields, such as a Drug/Alcohol Abuse Counseling Certificate of Completion, or a human services certificate.
A bachelor's degree is required for most direct-service social work positions, but some positions and settings require a master's. Clinical social workers will need a master's degree and a license to practice. A Ph.D. in social work is geared for those who want to pursue a career in academic research or teaching at the university level.
Ideal Candidates for Social Work
Compassion might be one of the most important traits for a social worker. The ability to understand and empathize with people who are going through a hard time is critical to developing relationships and impacting the lives of others.
Being a good listener, who can work with a diverse number of people is critical — social workers have to listen to others to understand their needs and offer services or direction.
Social workers are also notoriously over-worked, so time-management skills and organization are important. Caseloads are often full, and social workers must manage paperwork, documents, and needs for all their clients, all at the same time.
The field of social work is expected to grow by more than 25 percent through 2020. Especially in arenas that deal with the aging baby boomer populations, such as gerontology and rehab. The demand for mental health and substance abuse social workers is also expected to grow by 31 percent, as more people seek treatment for mental illness and addiction, and the justice system continues to use treatment programs as an alternative to jail time.
The median annual wage for social workers in May 2010 was as follows:
- $47,230 for healthcare social workers
- $40,210 for child, family, and schools social workers
- $38,600 for mental health and substance abuse social workers
- $51,500 for all other social workers
The field of social work can be demanding and stressful, but it's in high demand and incredibly important for the health and vitality of communities. Research is important for finding your way in this diverse field, so volunteer and talk to experts in potential programs and universities. There are plenty of jobs and plenty of specializations in the field, so take proactive steps to find which direction inspires you the most before committing to an academic program.