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.

What is social work?

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 struggling with 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 helping?
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.

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 health care 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?


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.


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. 

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. The NASW website includes educational information about choosing the profession of social work, in addition to helpful information for social work practitioners.

The Grand Challenges for Social Work are championed by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare. They call for scientific and interdisciplinary solutions to large societal issues. The Grand 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 UB School of Social Work for more than 10 years, and new episodes are released monthly. 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!)