What is Social Work and What Do Social Workers Do?

Social work is a profession in which trained professionals are devoted to helping vulnerable people and communities work through challenges they face in everyday life. Social workers practice in a wide variety of settings, united in their commitment to advocating for and improving the lives of individuals, families, groups and societies.

On this page:

What is the role of social workers?

While there is a diverse array of settings in which social workers practice, together social workers share the commitment to:

  • Promote social welfare
  • Help people from all backgrounds overcome the individual challenges they are facing
  • Advocate for social and economic justice for members of diverse communities
  • Embody the social work code of ethics

Who do social workers help?

Social workers work directly with, and on behalf of, a wide variety of populations. Some examples are:

  • Children and adolescents.
  • Individuals with disabilities.
  • Individuals who are experiencing poverty or homelessness.
  • Medical patients.
  • LGBTQ individuals.
  • Individuals suffering from addiction.
  • Students.
  • Individuals with mental health concerns.
  • Refugees and immigrants.
  • Aging individuals.
  • Couples and families.
  • Victims of violence or trauma.
  • Individuals who are incarcerated or in the criminal justice system.
  • Veterans.

Social workers are uniquely positioned to help our fellow members of society who are vulnerable, oppressed, or marginalized.

Not sure where to start?

Ask yourself: WHO are you most passionate about heping?
Chances are, you can make a difference with that population as a social worker!

Scope of social work practice

Social workers create change in many ways- from high, systems-level change (macro practice) to the individual level (micro practice). Social Workers make an impact at all levels of practice.

Micro

When most people think of social workers, they think of micro level social workers. These are the individuals who are working with people one-on-one to help them create change in their individual lives. Examples of micro level social workers include:

  • School social workers who help students to cope with problems they are facing at school and at home.
  • Child and family case workers at a county social services department helping a variety of at-risk populations.
  • Legal advocates helping individuals navigate the criminal justice system.   
  • Clinical social workers who provide counseling services (addictions, mental health, marriage and family, trauma, etc.).
  • Medical social workers that provide and coordinate services for patients during and after their treatment.

Mezzo

Social workers at the mezzo (or middle) level, tend to work with larger groups or institutions as opposed to individuals, or they may have a more administrative role overseeing a program or service delivery. Some examples of mezzo social work roles include:

  • Social workers that supervise a team of others who provide direct practice interventions.
  • Leaders of non-profit or community agencies.
  • Community organizers who work with community members to create change within neighborhoods, towns, or regions.
  • Health educators who provide training to various groups about public health issues.
  • Faculty members at a university teaching and training new social workers.

Macro

Social workers at the macro level are working to create high-level change. While they don't necessarily work with populations directly, the changes they are making in programs, policy, research, and other areas, trickle down to affect many. Some examples of macro level social work include:

  • Social work researchers and data analysts.
  • Policy makers and grant writers.
  • Local, state, and federal representatives, lobbyists and political advocates.
  • Program development and evaluation specialists.

Macro level social workers less frequently have the words "social worker" in their official job title as compared to micro-level social workers, but they are still able to step into a myriad of roles as a result of their comprehensive graduate education. 

Where are social workers employed?

There are a diverse range of agencies that employ social workers, and the job descriptions for social workers vary greatly depending on where they work. Some examples of places that employ social workers are:

  • Schools (all levels, including higher education).
  • Hospitals and healthcare agencies.
  • Government Agencies (local, state, federal), including Veteran's Affairs (VA) agencies and the military.
  • Community development and outreach agencies.
  • County, state, and federal legal agencies (courts, prisons, etc.)
  • Clinics and counseling agencies.

Some social workers are also self-employed in private practice as licensed clinical social workers (LCSW). 

What are the education and license requirements for social work?

Education

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the national accrediting body for all bachelor's and master's level social work programs.

Some entry-level social work positions only require a bachelor's degree in social work (BSW) or another related field. Many individuals find, however, that in order to expand their job opportunities and earning potential, they need a master of social work degree (MSW), as individuals with MSW degrees have more in-depth training which leads to different and higher-level job responsibilities.

Many jobs may also require a social work license. Depending on the state, individuals may need to have their master's in social work (MSW) in order qualify for licensure.

Individuals do not need to have a bachelor's degree in social work (BSW) in order to obtain their master's in social work (MSW). Many MSW programs (including ours!) admit students from all kinds of undergraduate programs. Psychology, sociology, criminal justice, English, and other liberal art majors are often found in MSW programs, but any bachelor's degree can prepare students well to become social workers. Read more about our MSW admissions prerequisites here. 

Licensure

Social work licensure varies from state to state. 

Each state licensing board determines the different kinds of licenses social workers can earn, what level of degree is required, and the scope of practice (what they are allowed to do). View the licensure requirements and types of credentials for your state or province on the ASWB page

In New York State, social workers are only licensed at the master's level, which means they first need to earn their MSW degree. The New York State Office of the Professions is the official licensing body for a variety of licensed professions, including social work. There are a few different kinds of licenses individuals with an MSW degree can earn. 

NY Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

Not all states have the equivalent of New York's LMSW, which is the initial general practice social work license individuals can earn once they complete their MSW degree from an accredited program and pass a licensure exam. Many, but not all, social work positions in New York State require an LMSW.

NY Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

All states require a license to practice clinical social work. Clinical social workers offer therapeutic counseling to clients struggling with health, mental health, addiction, and other issues. Social workers holding clinical licensure are qualified to make diagnoses and provide clinical treatment.

In New York State, this license is the LCSW, which stands for "Licensed Clinical Social Worker." The LCSW is an advanced license for those interested in clinical practice.  Not all social workers need to get their LCSW, as it is just for individuals who want to practice this specific subset of social work.

LCSWs in New York need to have an MSW degree that includes clinical coursework and post-graduate supervised work experience in a clinical setting before they can take the licensing exam. 

Social workers with their LCSW can then work towards obtaining the additional supervised practice hours to add their "R" (which would update their license to LCSW-R). The "R" indicates that the social worker has psychotherapy privileges. 

Learn More: Reliable Resources for Information about the Profession

The Occupational Outlook Handbook is compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and includes information about all kinds of careers, including social work. In addition to information about the profession, it also has data regarding average salary and future job outlook. 

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) is a professional organization whose membership is made up of social workers from across the country. They have educational information about choosing the profession of social work on their website, in addition to helpful information for social work practitioners.

The 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work are championed by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (AASWSW). They call for scientific and interdisciplinary solutions to large societal issues. The 12 Challenges include some great examples of issues social workers care about and are working to mitigate. 

The inSocialWork Podcast has been produced here in the School of Social Work at UB for the past ten years, and new episodes are released bi-weekly. We bring in experts from across the country to discuss different social work topics and issues. Listening is a great way to explore the different populations and issues relevant to social work, as well as to learn about the variety of roles they fill in our society.

If you aren't sure where to start, here are our top five episode recommendations in no particular order (but feel free to look for other topics you are interested in!)