Often considered a rewarding profession, social work can be a fulfilling career path for people who care deeply about diversity, equality, and social justice. From fighting to end child labor in the early 1900s to helping struggling families and communities today, social workers have been changing people’s lives for more than 100 years.
Americans ranging widely in age, educational background, and professional experience have chosen to become social workers for many reasons, including these:
Social workers build key relationships with others. Social workers experience personal and professional growth as they build relationships with clients and colleagues who share their desire to fight social injustices.
Social work provides job security and career growth opportunities. Because the number of vulnerable Americans is increasing, employment in the social work field is expected to grow 16 percent by 2026, considered faster than average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Social work makes every day meaningful. More than just a career, social work represents an ongoing commitment to fight for diversity and equality while making a difference for vulnerable populations.
Clinical social work is the educational focus of SocialWork@Simmons. The Simmons online MSW program is a single-concentration clinical program that trains social workers to work directly with individuals and groups of all sizes across myriad settings and within organizations and communities. Our graduates help individuals, families, and groups address and cope with challenges including health and mental health disorders, addictive disorders, social and emotional stressors, and interpersonal violence. SocialWork@Simmons alumni also use their knowledge of social welfare services and systems as well as public policy and advocacy skills to help clients gain access to critical resources.
As you consider whether a degree and career in social work are right for you, we invite you to learn more about the mission, values, trends, and career opportunities that make this one of the nation’s fastest-growing and most rewarding professions.
Our students, faculty, and the social work community at Simmons College choose social work for many different reasons:
“I decided to become a social worker to honor the life and legacy of my son who lost his battle with cancer at the age of 16 months old. Specifically, I became a social worker in order to effectively advocate for those in our society who are most often overlooked so that they might have a voice in order to influence our policymakers. While my passion is advocating for children with special health needs, as a policy practitioner, I also have the opportunity to work on issues that improve the lives of marginalized and oppressed groups such as the working poor and immigrant communities. “ – Kathryn Audette, Adjunct Faculty, SocialWork@Simmons
“After practicing law for 20 years, I decided to pursue my MSW to be able to make a meaningful difference in the lives of my clients. Complete client advocacy includes promoting social justice and helping to empower clients to make a meaningful difference in their own lives.” – Kimberly Matthews, SocialWork@Simmons Student
Visit our Why I Do It page to learn even more reasons that the Simmons Social Work community has chosen this field.
What Do Social Workers Do?
Social workers perform a variety of activities that help individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities achieve greater well-being. Whether they’re working directly with clients or advocating for policy changes that affect entire communities, social workers play a key role in tackling social problems.
Through advocacy and direct practice, social workers address a variety of challenges, including the following:
addiction and mental health disparities
illness or disability
racism and oppression at structural and institutional levels
barriers to access to social support systems
Social workers provide key services within community health centers, hospice care, hospitals, prisons, schools, senior centers, and substance abuse and mental health clinics. They may also engage in ongoing research that they use to influence public policy, inform legislative advocates, and enhance the resources available to vulnerable communities.
Among the helping professions, social work is unique in its emphasis on challenging social injustice and empowering people to function more effectively within their own environments.
Qualities of a Social Worker
Social workers are expected to uphold core values that ensure the best possible outcomes for their clients. Successful social workers commit to these values:
Serve others, helping individuals in need and addressing social problems.
Challenge social injustice, pursuing social change on behalf of oppressed individuals and groups.
Respect the dignity and worth of every person, regardless of differences.
Recognize the central importance of human relationships, working to strengthen relationships that empower people and promote change.
Act with integrity, consistent with the profession’s mission, values, and principles.
Practice within your area of competence, continuously striving to develop your professional expertise.
Choosing Between Social Work and Other Helping Professions
People who are interested in helping others also may be considering a master’s degree in counseling or psychology. Here are the characteristics that distinguish social work from the other helping professions.
Social work is:
Grounded in a commitment to fight for social justice on behalf of the oppressed and vulnerable.
Defined by its focus on helping people function effectively within their own environments — whether in schools, hospitals, prisons, or in their own homes.
Driven by core values that respect each individual’s dignity and culture.
Beyond these distinguishing features, you also may want to consider the field’s respective societal roles, education requirements, and opportunities.
Social Work vs. Counseling
Both mental health counselors and clinical social workers provide psychotherapeutic services. However, counselors help clients struggling with a specific set of challenges while social workers often treat a broader range of client needs, providing both therapy and support in navigating the social service system. Though a social worker may provide counseling, a counselor may not perform social work.
Social Work vs. Psychology
Psychologists and licensed clinical social workers both diagnose and treat problems associated with mental health, but the fields differ in education and licensure requirements as well as the overall approach. Psychologists need a Ph.D. to work one-on-one with clients as clinicians or counseling psychologists, but social workers can practice as clinicians with an MSW. Further, social work takes a holistic approach to therapy, taking into account the client’s environment as well as his or her unique challenges. By comparison, the psychologist focuses on the specific problem in a specific setting.
Areas of Social Work
At its broadest level, social work has three main areas: clinical or micro social work, mezzo social work, and macro social work.
Micro or clinical social work involves working directly with individuals, families, groups, and communities to facilitate social, emotional, and behavioral change.
As the largest group of mental health providers in the U.S., clinical social workers work in a wide variety of settings, including hospitals, schools, substance abuse treatment centers, and private practice.
As a micro or clinical social worker, you will need an understanding of human development, relational and group processes, cultural differences, and social policies. Your typical job duties might involve:
Diagnosing and treating mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders.
Providing group, family, or couples therapy.
Collaborating with clients and other health care professionals on treatment strategies.
Developing and implementing treatment plans.
Mezzo social work involves working with small to medium-sized groups or organizations such as schools, community service organizations, or businesses to promote cultural or institutional change.
As a mezzo social worker, you could be involved in:
Facilitating group discussions or processes to improve decision making or strengthen relationships within a team, business, or community group.
Evaluating a social service agency’s goals, structures, and operations to improve its client services.
Providing group therapy or counseling or to support groups or community organizations.
Organizing community groups or leading human services programs or agencies.
Macro social work involves working on large-scale systems to drive change at the organizational, community, societal, or even global level.
As a macro social worker, you could be involved in:
leading nonprofit organizations or human services programs at the local, state, national, or international level
organizing communities to identify and address community-based issues or build community capacity
conducting research that informs decisions surrounding social welfare policies
advocating for public policy changes that have the potential to affect entire communities or populations
Social Work in Today’s Society
Over the last 100 years, social work has constantly evolved to meet changing social needs and sociopolitical priorities. Today, four areas of social work are especially affected by recent social and political trends.
Health Care: With implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), 32 million previously uninsured Americans will gain access to health care — driving up demand for social workers in hospitals and clinics. With the ACA’s investment in health homes and affordable care organizations, the types of organizations requiring health care social workers also will increase. Social workers in these settings also may find their skills in greater demand as institutions strive to meet accountability standards mandated by the legislation.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health: Approximately 57.7 million (or one in four) Americans experience a mental disorder in any given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. With recent federal legislation requiring that insurance plans cover mental health treatment as they do other chronic illnesses, more Americans will likely seek the care they need.
With clinical social workers already the largest providers of mental health services in the country, demand for substance abuse treatment and mental health services will continue to grow — by 19 percent between 2016 and 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Children and Families: Multiple socioeconomic factors are driving demand for child and family social workers:
More than 20,000 youths “age out” of foster care each year without sufficient housing or financial assistance.
Combined with ongoing social problems such as substance or alcohol abuse, homelessness, and neglect, these challenges spell increasing demand for highly trained child and family social workers.
Trauma and Interpersonal Violence: Sixty percent of adults were exposed to trauma or violence in childhood, and 26 percent of children in the U.S. will witness or experience violence before they are four years old. Fortunately, our understanding of trauma, its scope, and its treatment, has grown significantly during the last 30 years.
Once limited to specific experiences such as domestic violence or combat, trauma is now understood more broadly as any event that overwhelms our capacity to cope with daily life or threatens our sense of personal safety and control. We now understand neglect and post-disaster work, for example, as sources of trauma. Trauma treatment has evolved as well, placing a priority on restoring traumatized clients’ sense of safety and ensuring that social services do not inadvertently re-traumatize them.
With this heightened awareness and understanding of trauma as well as improved treatment options, social workers in the field today will have growing opportunities to help traumatized clients regain control of their lives.
Social Work Career Outlook
Driven by evolving social needs and shifts in public policy, social work careers overall are projected to grow by 16 percent between 2016 and 2026. That growth rate is considered faster than the average for other occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Learn more below about three of the fastest-growing areas of social work.