Reviewed by Harleny Vasquez

As a first-generation latina, woman of color, I always knew that I was born to make an impact. From my upbringing in a low-income home, I developed an appreciation for people in my community who had to balance their lives lacking some crucial resources. At one point when I was younger, I thought I may someday become a doctor, nurse, teacher or even a psychologist because of my passion focused on helping others in need. As I got older, I always found different opportunities to help others through paid or volunteer work.

Ultimately, this people-focused calling across my formative years and into early adulthood would help shape my personal journey towards becoming a licensed social worker.

In this article, I share my own experience to give you more insight on how to become a social worker. Through a focus on the different types of social work degrees and programs, the different social work roles, and the credentials that social workers need to practice, I hope I can give you more context on how important, rewarding, and inviting this field can be.

A Less Traditional Path Into Social Work

I started my college career with some experience working within early childhood development. I worked at a day school, where I was an assistant teacher for pre-school and kindergarten students. It was here that I started to understand the different stages of child development.

In college, I majored in psychology because at the time, I felt it was going to give me the foundation I needed to determine where I wanted to go with my career. But if I’m honest, I was unaware that a bachelor’s of social work degree existed. Furthermore, if I knew more about the degree track, I absolutely would have followed that path.

Instead, I ended up finishing my bachelor’s degree in psychology. After graduation, I explored jobs with my current bachelor’s degree. Ultimately, my goal was to pursue a Master’s degree, partly because my options were so limiting with just a bachelor’s degree. 

The truth is, I didn’t have a clear idea of what to study. Becoming a psychologist, a doctor or even a nurse, would mean more years of school and additional prerequisites. So, I decided to take a year off from school. It was clear I needed the time and space to figure things out. 

I started working in local shelters serving at-risk youth in New York City. This opportunity opened my eyes to the social work profession. Working with psychologists and licensed social workers allowed me to witness  first-hand the impact social workers make each day. I came to the realization that I too wanted to make an impact in the lives of others. I applied to graduate school for a master’s degree in social and was accepted to all schools for which I applied. Fast forward five years, I am now a licensed social worker with a total of ten years experience in the profession.

I then decided to apply to graduate school for my Master’s degree in social work and got accepted to all the schools I applied for. Five years later, I am now a licensed social worker and have been working within the profession for 10 years.

Social Work Education Requirements

Different social positions have different educational requirements. In this section, I offer an overview of the different levels of social work education. Associate’s, bachelor’s, Master’s, and doctoral degrees each provide students unique insights and serve different purposes.

  • Associate degree in Social Work: Within the social work profession, you can earn an associate degree as more of an introduction into the field. Programs at this level can provide students with the basic knowledge and foundations in the field of social work. An associate degree in social work can lead to a career as a social work assistant or community health worker. While similar types of programs can provide great entry points, it is highly recommended to advance your studies to be able to push your social work career to the next level.
  • Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work: It’s not necessary to complete an associate degree to enter into a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW or BASW). A typical bachelor’s program takes about 4 years to complete unless you have previous earned credits at an accredited institution to apply to your studies. In addition to social work classes, students must complete an internship or practicum. The number of hours you’ll need to complete is dependent on the requirements of the program. A BSW can lead to careers in entry-level social services positions and other roles within nonprofit organizations, research firms, and governmental bodies.
  • Master’s Degree in Social Work: Those with a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university who would like to advance their studies in social work can obtain an MSW degree. A typical MSW program takes two year to complete if enrolled full-time.An internship or practicum will also very likely be required, while the number of mandatory fieldwork hours will vary based on the social work program. An MSW can lead to roles in clinical social work and/or community organizing.
  • Doctorate in Social Work: Once you obtain your MSW, you can pursue a doctoral degree in social work (DSW), which is the highest degree in this field. It takes about five years to earn a doctorate, and most programs will require applicants have completed and scored well on a standardized test known as the GRE. A DSW prepares students for roles in research, policymaking, and teaching.

Types of Programs

There are different types of programs to guide you toward completing your BSW, BASW MSW, or DSW degree. Programs are of various lengths and can be conducted fully online, hybrid, or on-campus. Depending on your state requirements, you may be able to practice as a social worker without a Master’s degree and/or licensure.

Importantly, social work programs should hold programmatic accreditation. The Council of Social Work Education (CSWE) accredits social work programs when they provide consistent review to ensure each program remains qualified within the academic standards.

Social Work Personal Statement

One of the most important – and challenging – aspects of applying to an advanced degree program in social work is the personal statement. As a mainstay requirement for nearly every MSW program, a personal statement is an essay that highlights your background, your education, and your career goals.

Here are 5 tips to help you craft your social work personal statement for admission into graduate school.

  1. Include relevant and personalized information for admission into the program. Do your research and take into consideration the mission and goals of the program and within the university –this is key.
  2. Develop a structure to write your personal statement. Follow the model of introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion. Share who you are, what challenges that you have faced, and how you overcame them. Highlight the reasons you want to become a social worker. These reasons will ultimately argue why you can be an asset to the program and how the program goals align with your own mission and values. For your conclusion, summarize your key points and showcase why you are an ideal candidate for their program.
  3. Give examples of your relevant skills and experience that can enable you to make an impact within the social work profession.
  4. Take your time and plan. Make sure to proofread and ask for help if needed.
  5. Focus on your unique strengths and recognize that you have so much to offer.

Choosing a Social Work Program

When choosing the type of social work program to apply for, start with assessing your goals and your unique skills. Determine the type of setting, role and program in which you can thrive.  Different programs will have different focuses. Ultimately, social work is what you make it, and there is so much you can do with your degree regardless of your area of concentration.

Practically all of the concentrations and specialization tracks that social work degree programs offer can be boiled down into three different areas: micro, mezzo, and macro. Below is a brief overview of their focuses.

  1. Micro social work focuses on helping individuals, families, and groups. There is a clinical component within this area of concentration that involves counseling and therapeutic work. Individuals that social workers serve here are known as clients or patients.
  2. Mezzo social work focuses on the micro component with an addition to working with groups to assist clients across all systems. Mezzo is known for the mixed work to incorporate work with clients at the extremely local level, like in community initiatives and schools. There is a pronounced social work component in doing community work and evaluations all within one role.
  3. Macro social work focuses on large client systems that involves policy management evaluation, community organization, and administration. Taking social action is a huge role for macro social workers in their line of work. It can also involve working within the community to build awareness for others around systematic injustice. This is a concentration that not many social work programs offer, which is why it’s important to make sure to research schools with this area of concentration before applying.

Choosing Your Career Path in Social Work

It’s important to also consider which area of concentration in a social work program aligns with your own values and ideal career goals. Within the social work profession, there are many roles you can obtain with your MSW regardless of your area of concentration.

In my professional journey, I started working within the social work profession prior to obtaining my MSW degree. During the first few years after I graduated, I was not licensed and worked within social services. Here, I started out as a medical case planner before moving on as a substance abuse counselor. From that point, I worked as a case manager and sociotherapist for children in foster care. After working in that role, I decided to become a social work supervisor within social services.

By utilizing my previous skillset and experience, I pivoted into a recruiting position within social work and coordinated within higher education with social work students. My previous roles within my career also led me towards an entrepreneurship journey. In 2019, I started my own business as a social work career coach. As someone who is multi-passionate, I understand the importance of tapping into areas inside and outside of the social work industry. I’m living proof that anything is possible with the proper education, determination and focused passion.

Below are 4 positive affirmations to take into consideration when determining what your next moves should be as you navigate your career path.

  1. You hold all the power to create the success you desire.
  2. Non-social work roles have transferable skills that can help you position yourself as an asset.
  3. It’s your social work degree, and it’s your investment. Therefore, you are the CEO of your career.
  4. No social work handbook exists. Be multi-passionate and tap into any industry.

Social Work Licensure and Credentials

It’s critical that both students and graduates of social work take note of the difference in licensure requirements within the social work profession. First, licensure requirements vary from state to state. I reside in New York and the current state requirements declare you must first earn an MSW degree before becoming a licensed social worker. In New York state, there are two different types of social work licensure: Licensed master social worker (LMSW) and licensed clinical social worker (LSCSW).

Before discussing the differences between both licensures and their requirements, I must highlight that licensure depends on your area of concentration within the social work profession. Licensures are often for social workers who have an interest in working directly with clients and want to diagnose and/or have an interest in starting a private practice someday.

Allow my experience in this context to fill in some gaps. I am currently a licensed social worker who does not practice clinical social work at this time. It was my own personal choice to become licensed.

Social workers can do it all regardless of their concentration. Of course, some type of licensure is required for most clinical roles, and that credential can provide you with more opportunities within the clinical space. For macro social workers, often it is not required due to the level of work that in the areas of community advocating, organization and taking social action.  – this whole section could be cleaner but not a dealbreaker.

Social Work State Licensing Process

Next, let’s review the general conventions of the licensure process. Since I practice in New York state, I’ll use this as a point of reference; however,  research your respective state licensing requirements. 

To become a licensed master social work (LMSW) in New York, you must first obtain your MSW degree from an accredited CSWE program. After you’ve completed your degree, you must pass the ASWB-Mater’s level exam. The fee to take the test is $294 USD. Prior to the exam, take advantage of the many licensure workshops and programs that can help you best prepare.

The test format is as follows:

  • Answer 170 multiple choice questions
  • Complete the exam within the four hours allotted
  • Answers are scored and you receive a pass or fail. 
    • If you fail, you must wait 90 days before retaking the exam. Repay the fee and complete a new application. 
    • If you fail within 5 points of passing and your job depends on a passing grade, submit a waiver.

In addition, you must earn 36 hours of continuing education credits (CEU) every three years. To renew your license, it’s a $224 USD fee. 

If you fail your exam with a score of less than 5 points, you can submit a waiver if your job is in jeopardy.  There are many licensure workshops and programs that can help you prepare for this exam. You must also earn 36 hours of continuing education credits (CEU) every 3 years and then pay a fee of $224 USD to review your licensure.

Social Work Clinical Supervision

The state of New York requires that after you have obtained your LMSW, you must earn three years of clinical supervised experience in diagnosis, psychotherapy, assessments-based treatment planning to be eligible to take the licensed clinical social work exam (LCSW). Once you are eligible, the same standards apply as an LMSW.

The following covers the process of the LCSW exam:

First, you must submit an application and pay a fee of $294 USD. This test format is also a multiple-choice exam, and you are provided four hours to complete the exam. Once you obtain your LCSW, you must earn 36 hours of CEU’s and renew in 3 years and pay a fee of $224 USD. Out of state LCSW applicants who have at least 10 years of practice can apply for endorsement as an LCSW in New York State and must submit appropriate documentation to provide proof. Again, these requirements are specific to the state of New York, but hopefully they offer some greater context for what you should expect through your own state’s licensing process.

What Social Work Means to Me

Overall, becoming a social worker was the best decision I ever made! It’s granted me unexpected opportunities to expand my career, inside and outside of the profession.

As you are navigating the next steps in your social work career, ask yourself the following questions: which program best aligns with my personal goals and which program offers the type of setting where I can thrive in my academic journey.

Explore the comprehensive resources offers as you begin your personal journey into social work.

Harleny Vasquez is a Licensed Social Worker and a Latina woman of color. She is the founder of her business yourEVOLVEDmind, where she is a social work career coach helping both aspiring and established social workers at every stage of their career. She’s a speaker, workshop facilitator, and host of the Social Work Insider Podcast. Check out her website below to learn more: