The Ultimate Guide to Careers in Social Work

The core mission of social work is to address social problems at the individual, community, state, and national levels, and to alleviate the sufferings of vulnerable populations. Within this core mission, an incredibly diverse set of social work roles and work settings are possible. Social workers work not only at child welfare agencies, but also at military facilities, medical and psychiatric treatment centers, schools and school districts, community service centers, and correctional facilities. They can work closely with individuals and groups, engage in research and/or advocacy, and develop programs that educate and support certain populations within the community.

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Social work roles can generally be divided into the following categories:

Direct-Service Social Workers

Direct-service social workers work closely with individuals encountering challenges that are negatively impacting their quality of life, such as unemployment, substance abuse, divorce, and child neglect. Direct-service social workers typically take on case management duties such as connecting individuals to resources in their community, coordinating their care, and providing emotional support and short-term counseling (they do not, however, provide psychotherapy). They tend to work at human services organizations such as child welfare agencies, community clinics, and government departments. Social workers with a bachelor’s degree in social work from an accredited institution are typically eligible for direct service social work positions.

Clinical Social Workers

An important subset of direct-service social work is clinical social work. Like direct-service social workers, clinical social workers support individuals experiencing life challenges that are negatively affecting their well-being. However, clinical social workers have additional training and qualifications that allow them to evaluate, diagnose, address, treat, and prevent psychological and emotional problems that individuals face as a result of mental illness, trauma, and/or family, social, and financial hardships. Clinical social workers tend to work with clients one-on-one or in small groups, helping to guide them through the process of managing their mental, emotional, and relationship challenges. In order to practice as a clinical social worker or to become licensed as an independent clinical social worker, students must complete a Master’s in Social Work program from a school that has been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

Clinical social workers can work in military battalions and veteran health centers, hospital departments and psychiatric facilities, prisons, child and family service centers, and substance abuse treatment programs, among many other environments. Some clinical social workers can also engage in macro level social work practices (see below), such as research and advocacy, in addition to their clinical work.

Macro Social Workers

Macro social workers tackle many of the same problems that clinical social workers address, but on a different scale and through different methods. Macro social workers investigate social problems by researching their causes and effects on individuals and the community at large, and also design programs and advocacy initiatives that seek to address these problems at the community, state, and national levels. Macro social workers can work at social justice and advocacy organizations, research institutions such as universities, government departments and think tanks that develop human services programs, and non-profits.

Macro social workers typically need specialized knowledge and skills in research, advocacy, and/or program development, and thus many of them complete graduate-level social work courses in these areas, typically as part of an accredited MSW program. Many macro social workers also spend some time completing direct-service or clinical work, in order to better understand the challenges the populations they wish to help face.

Career Resources on OnlineMSWPrograms

To assist prospective social workers and social work students in their research of relevant careers, created in-depth guides to different careers in social work. To gain first hand knowledge of these different fields, we interviewed over 35 social workers. Their detailed responses provide key insights into what it is like to be a specific type of social worker including what they do, the challenges they face, and why thy decided to work in that specific field. Our career guides include in-depth information on clinical social work, macro social work, military social work, school social work, pediatric social work, forensic social work, child welfare social work, psychiatric social work, and medical social work.

Ready to make an impact? Read more on How to Become a Social Worker.


Learn more about social work careers by checking out our guides and “how to become” resources below. You may also find our guide to social work degrees helpful.

Social Work Career Guides


Introductory Guide to Child Welfare Social Work
This guide describes how child welfare social workers assist vulnerable children and families, and explains the challenges they face on the job. It also offers advice from practicing child welfare social workers on how to prepare for this career.


Introductory Guide to Clinical Social Work
This guide explains the types of careers in clinical social work, describes the core assessments, therapeutic modalities, and case management services that clinical social workers provide, and details the unique rewards and challenges of this field.


Introductory Guide to Forensic Social Work (Criminal Justice)
This guide describes the unique roles and responsibilities within forensic social work, and explains the challenges and rewards of the field. It also provides advice to social work students who are interested in becoming forensic social workers.


Introductory Guide to Gerontological Social Work
This guide explains where gerontological social workers work, their daily and long-term responsibilities, and the challenges and rewards of their profession. It also provides advice to social work students on how to prepare for working with elderly populations.


Introductory Guide to Hospice and Palliative Social Work
This guide describes the work settings and responsibilities of hospice and palliative care social workers, and explains the rewards and difficulties of the profession. This article also explains how individuals can prepare for a career in hospice social work.


Introductory Guide to Macro Social Work
This guide discusses the key ways in which macro social workers can effect positive change at the local, state, and national levels, and also provides advice for prospective social workers about entering this broad and diverse field of practice.


Introductory Guide to Medical Social Work
This guide describes the diverse work settings and core responsibilities of medical social workers, and explains the challenges and rewards of the profession. It also provides advice on how social work students can prepare for a job in medical social work.


Introductory Guide to Military Social Work
This guide explains the different types of military social work roles and work environments, describes the typical responsibilities that military social workers fulfill, and provides advice to students considering a career in military social work.


Introductory Guide to Pediatric Social Work
This guide describes pediatric social workers’ typical responsibilities and work environments, and explains the challenges and rewards of the profession. It also offers advice from practicing pediatric social workers about preparing for this career.


Introductory Guide to Private Practice Social Work
This guide explores different types of private practices that licensed clinical social workers can establish, the kinds of client populations they can assist, and the unique challenges and rewards of starting one’s own private psychotherapy practice.


Introductory Guide to Psychiatric Social Work
This guide describes the challenging and complex responsibilities that psychiatric social workers have, as well as the settings in which they work. It also provides advice for social work students interested in entering this field.


Introductory Guide to School Social Work
This guide provides detailed information about school social workers’ daily and long term responsibilities, and offers advice from practicing school social workers regarding how to prepare for this career.

How To Become Resources


How to Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
This resource explains how to become a LCSW including the different educational paths that are available to students and the requirements post-graduation from an MSW program.


How to Become a School Social Worker
This resource explains the general process that social work students must complete in order to work as a school social worker, including educational, internship, and certification requirements.