The Five Most Popular Social Work Careers

A career in social work requires compassion and dedication to serving vulnerable populations. Earning a Master of Social Work degree can help to provide the knowledge and skill set necessary to embark on a fulfilling career in the field. While a graduate who earns an online MSW degree can serve in many positions, here are five of the most popular fields that continue to draw professionals to social work:


Medical and public health

Social workers in this field are in high demand. The number of jobs in medical/public health social work is projected to grow by 20 percent from 2016 to 2026, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Medical/public health social workers can work in any facility that provides care to patients to ensure they receive proper attention and treatment. They often facilitate communication between a patient and their caregivers and assist with paperwork and decision-making. Medical/public health social workers are also advocates for patient rights and serve as an important source of comfort during difficult times.

Workplaces: Hospital departments ranging from emergency rooms to surgical oncology and neonatal intensive care units; physical rehabilitation centers, nursing homes and hospices; insurance companies and public health agencies. 

Voices in the field: Timothy Chamberlain, ICU and advanced clinical care social worker at Stanford Hospital & Clinics in Palo Alto, Calif., says working with the California Transplant Donor Network has been one of the most rewarding aspects of his job. “Working with those families is just an incredible experience, and I’m a very strong advocate for organ donation,” Chamberlain tells Social Work Today.


Substance use

Social workers in this field serve as a liaison between the medical caregivers and the person's community, home and family life, and they are also members of the diagnostic and therapeutic team. Patience and compassion are required to deal with mood swings, relapses and anger resulting from substance use and misuse. However, a great deal of satisfaction can come from playing an important role in people’s lives during recovery.

Workplaces: Rehabilitation facilities, prisons, private practices, for- and non-profit organizations, insurance carriers and juvenile detention facilities.

Voices in the field: “I wanted to save the world,” says Connie Bookman, executive director of Pathways for Change, a Pensacola, Fla., organization that offers education, prevention, and intervention for people who are substance abusers and-or live criminal lifestyles. “It’s helping them understand what they’re meant to do,” she tells Social Work Today. “That kind of work is transformative — helping people understand their purpose in life.”


Mental health

One area of social work where a master’s degree is required is mental health in the realm of clinical practice. Many mental health social workers provide therapy, which requires advanced education and licensure as a clinical social worker (LCSW). A mental health social worker –- or clinical social worker –- can provide a variety of mental health services, including assessing clients’ mental health, diagnosing mental disorders, developing treatment plans and assisting in the daily living of those with mental disorders. Jobs range from clinical social worker, licensed clinical social worker, mental health specialist, counselor, director or case manager, according to the National Association of Social Workers

Workplaces: Community mental health centers, mental hospitals, private practices, hospitals and schools.

Voices in the field: Tyler McCord, clinical social worker, tells Psychology Today: “One of the most fulfilling aspects of working in the mental health field is being able to provide support to others during the most challenging moments in their life. Moreover, this profession provides the privilege of offering compassion, inspiring hope, and teaching others the necessary skills required to overcome their current circumstances.”

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Child welfare

The National Association of Social Workers credits the U.S. Children’s Bureau with defining the complexities of child welfare work: “Child welfare in its broadest sense is a composite of the social and economic forces in community life which make it possible for a child's own family to nurture him through the years of childhood; and of the instrumentalities, both public and private, which supplement the capacities and resources of a child's natural family in such measure as may be necessary to insure wholesome growth and development.” Child welfare social workers provide services to children who are abused and neglected by their parents or to children from lower-income families who cannot afford to properly care for them. They collaborate with child protective services to investigate reports of child abuse and neglect, intervene when a child’s home environment is deemed unsafe, and help to place them in a safe environment.

Workplaces: Public and private agencies, non-profit community organizations, hospitals and shelters.

Voices in the field: For Ray Liles, a professor and clinician at California State University, San Bernardino, who specializes in mental health and child welfare social work, an early role model influenced his career path. “I had to work my way through junior college and got a job as a ‘house parent’ at a home for children operated by a fraternal organization,” he tells Social Work Today. “The superintendent there had his MSW, and one of the most transformative experiences was talking to him. He shared a box full of the journals Social Work, and I can clearly remember sitting there looking through all of them and thinking, ‘This is definitely what I want to do.’”


School social work

School social workers are liaisons between school and students’ families, essentially bridging children’s personal lives and education to meet their needs. They might work with special needs children to help them integrate into mainstream classes. They also are often required to navigate systems such as education, juvenile justice, family-children’s health, mental health, and child protective services, according to the American Council for School Social Work. School social workers handle behavioral intervention, truancy prevention, sex and health education, crisis intervention and effective communication between parents, teachers and students.

Workplaces: Schools of all levels (preschool through high school), school districts and community agencies.

Voices in the field: “When I tell someone I'm a social worker, people often think that means I work with Child Protective Services and spend all day breaking up families. That's not even close to what I do!” writes Virginia school social worker Ana Bonilla for Cosmopolitan. “I work in an elementary school, [where I] identify and solve problems and provide interventions, so all children are able to learn, regardless of their circumstances.”


Other social work fields

With a social work degree, individuals have found employment opportunities outside traditional venues, including with banks or other businesses as community outreach coordinators. “Non-traditional social work careers are viable options for Master of Social Work students because they expand job possibilities to industries that do not typically hire MSW professionals,” says Carrie Lew, Associate Dean and Director at USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “These jobs are important to the social work profession because they help educate key stakeholders about social workers’ expansive skill set. Social workers in nontraditional settings can have organization-wide impact.” Florence Chung, who is CEO of The Hetty Group, has an MSW and worked in Target Corporation’s assets protection division, agrees. “Social workers are trained to think a certain way, and they’re qualified for many fields,” Chung tells NASW’s Social Work Blog. “We can do so many things to impact the community in many different ways, such as working in policy and getting involved with local community outreach opportunities.”

What can you do with a social work degree:

  • Management
  • Financial coaching
  • Life coaching
  • Marketing
  • Fundraising and development
  • Community outreach
  • Policy analyst
  • Health care administrator


How to get a job in social work

Placement

Field placements can lead to the payoff for all the hard work put into your social work degree from the MSW@USC. They allow students to take the theory and lessons from the curriculum and apply them in real life. Social work students are matched to social service agencies, government entities, private organizations or even nontraditional settings such as banks or retail businesses. The matches are based on location, experience, goals, career interests and agency need.

Job market

While growth will vary by specialization, employment of social workers is expected to increase 16 percent from 2016 to 2026. In 2016, the top median annual pay exceeded $60,000. To get an idea of the job opportunities, check out the MSW@USC’s job bank.

MSW@USC

The University of Southern California consistently ranks among the nation's top accredited social work graduate programs by U.S. News & World Report. The Master of Social Work program, the oldest in the West, is recognized as one of the best for preparing clinical social workers, with alumni equally successful in policy practice, advocacy and program administration. Students spent more than 1.5 million hours at their field placements and internships, a service that is valued at more than $40 million in Southern California and nationwide.

Emerging fields

The MSW@USC offers students exposure to a growing number of specializations in social work, including: