The Most Popular Careers in Social Work

Social workers create positive change in the lives of people of all ages and from every walk of life. The field of social work provides many different opportunities for those passionate about helping others. Careers in social work take place in a wide range of settings. These include child welfare and family services, mental health and addictions treatment, health care, and support for older adults. Some of the most popular careers in social work illustrate the variety of options available to graduates of master’s in social work programs who want to make a difference in the communities in which they live and work.

Mental Health

As the largest group of professional mental health providers in the country, clinical social workers supply more than half of all therapy and counseling services. Clinical social workers in mental health and substance use settings work as members of professional teams in community mental health centers, hospitals, family service agencies, schools, residential treatment centers, and psychiatric hospitals. Many clinical social workers also work in private practice settings after they achieve independent/advanced licensure.

Health Care

Medical social workers provide a supportive link between patients and health care providers. They work in hospitals and clinics where they assess patients’ needs, manage recovery services, and formulate post-hospitalization plans. They also educate patients and their families and help them deal with personal and emotional problems related to their medical condition.

Child Welfare

Child welfare social workers are advocates for children. They investigate reports of child abuse and neglect, make recommendations about temporary foster care, and work within the court system on behalf of children. They also counsel families and connect parents with community services that include job training, parenting classes, and substance abuse treatment. Employers include child protective services, adoption agencies, and public and private child welfare organizations.

Substance Abuse and Addiction

Social workers with training in alcohol and substance abuse are increasingly stepping into roles previously filled by substance abuse counselors in inpatient and outpatient treatment facilities, residential rehabilitation settings, and methadone maintenance clinics. Responsibilities include individual and group work, case management, family counseling, policymaking, and education. Social work jobs in the mental health and substance abuse fields are expected to grow almost 20 percent from 2016 to 2026.


The practice of gerontological social work focuses on older adults and their caregivers and families. Geriatric social workers practice in nursing homes, adult day care centers, caregiver support programs, elder abuse programs, home health care and hospice agencies, senior centers, and veterans’ service agencies. Gerontological social workers often coordinate with multiple caregivers so that there is continuity between elderly clients, their families, and their care providers. According to the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), 60,000 to 70,000 geriatric social workers will be needed by 2020, when one in six Americans will be 65 or older. Less than 10 percent of that number is now available.

Justice and Corrections

Social workers employed in courts, police departments, and correctional facilities are involved in a broad spectrum of activities, from victim assistance to offender rehabilitation. They testify in court as expert witnesses, work in partnership with attorneys, act as mediators in child custody cases, help with domestic disputes, and become involved in child welfare situations. Social workers also serve as parole and probation officers.

School Social Work

School social workers are employed by school systems to help children who are experiencing physical, emotional, and learning difficulties. They also provide support and counseling for children facing abuse and neglect and for families dealing with domestic violence, poverty, and other problems. School social workers are employed by elementary and secondary schools as well as counseling centers, early intervention programs, and special education placement offices.

International Social Work

International organizations such as the World Health Organization, the Red Cross, and UNICEF employ social workers to manage programs in developing countries. They provide direct service related to disaster relief, education, health care, refugees, and international adoptions. Social workers who practice in this field must have foreign language skills and a desire to travel.

Social workers are needed in many different settings to help people in all walks of life. With the different types of services social workers provide, there are plenty of career options available based on how you want to make a difference.

Citation for this content: SocialWork@Simmons, the online Master of Social Work program from the Simmons School of Social Work.