Expert Contributor

Chad Dion Lassiter
Chad Dion Lassiter

Chad Dion Lassiter, MSW, LSW, is the executive director of Red Cross House, an emergency shelter that services eastern Pennsylvania. He is also a national expert on race relations.

Social workers are both detectives who ask questions and advocates who provide answers. Each day they perform a balancing act as they allocate resources to their clients and direct them toward paths to improve their overall well-being. Social workers are often the primary source of advice and assistance during times of crisis. They are a voice for those who have been victims of social ills, including neglect or abuse. Social work can also involve working with populations who are marginalized or disadvantaged. Some social workers provide therapy for mental health issues, such as substance abuse and behavioral problems.

Typically, a bachelor’s degree in social work is the minimum requirement to enter the field. Career options widen significantly with the addition of a master’s, especially since licensing generally requires a graduate degree. Those with doctoral degrees may teach at the postsecondary level, work in administration, or perform in-depth research.

Psychology is an expansive professional scientific field focusing on the study of human behavior. Psychologists and mental health professionals work in a number of specialty areas, including the following:

Starting a Social Work Career

Depending on the specific type of social work that interests a person, several degree paths exist. The first step is usually a bachelor’s degree. A degree specifically in social work is an excellent way to enter the field immediately after college, but it is not a prerequisite for becoming a social worker. If a student intends to earn a master’s degree before joining the workforce, the bachelor’s degree can be in any number of areas that suit the student’s interests and abilities, although most opt for a major that lends itself well to further education in social work, such as psychology.

Since a master’s degree is sufficient for becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), many students choose to stop there. A select few want to maximize their opportunities for promotion and advancement, and choose to pursue a doctoral degree, which can open doors to high-level research and teaching at the university level.

What Social Workers Do

Social work is a vast field: professionals may find themselves serving children or the elderly, in settings ranging from police stations to healthcare facilities to private homes—sometimes within the same day. Part of the attraction of the job is its varied challenges; however, there are some basic job responsibilities that are within the purview of almost any social worker, and form the core work of individuals in the field. Throughout their careers, social workers can expect to:

Review populations or groups of people and identify those who may need extra attention or help
Listen to the problems or complaints of those in need, and assess their situations
Assist people who are adjusting to significant and/or traumatic life events
React to a crisis, such as a death, natural disaster, addiction or abuse
Research treatment options or available resources for those in need
Serve as an intermediary between clients and organizations
Assess the effectiveness of programs, services and treatments
Provide follow-up care or support after service has been provided
Advocate on behalf of vulnerable or disadvantaged individuals or groups of people
Counsel individuals on how to most effectively obtain or use government benefits

A Social Work Professional Perspective

Social Worker Chad Dion Lassiter discusses his work to help aspiring social workers get a feel for what the job entails.

What led to your decision to pursue a degree in social work?

While an undergraduate, I wanted to know how one could use their life to alleviate the suffering of others. Themes of social justice and inequality were driving forces for me, and social work was the instrument that could bring about true change from an institutional and policy perspective.

I have always been attracted to finding ways to serve humanity so social work became a natural fit. Moreover, servant leadership teaches you to give of yourself for the greater good of humanity. I was born to be a social worker and social change agent.

What is your educational background, and how does it apply to your current job?

My educational background includes a BSW from Johnson C. Smith University (1995) and a MSW with honors from the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice (2001). In my current capacity as the executive director of the Red Cross House, I use theory and research along with an expertise with communities to assist those who have been impacted and displaced by disaster.

Having a social work background, I am able to train my staff on various theories about resilience to assist vulnerable families and children. Additionally, I am able to see those systems that impact families and make an assessment of how they will prove useful to the recovery process. Having a knowledge of human development has also proven useful, as I am able to recognize signs of depression and post-traumatic disorders, to name a few of the challenges that arise due to disaster.

What does your day-to-day work entail?

It varies. It can include responding to disaster or providing counseling to someone who has been devastated by disaster. I may look at research about resilience theory or review operational and safety metrics for the Red Cross House. I may also meet with prospective donors who want to support us, and I supervise a staff of 15. I sit on two boards, one for the Community College of Philadelphia and one for the Philadelphia Prison System, so that work keeps me busy. I also teach two social work courses and one political science course at West Chester University. Finally, I am a national expert on race relations, so this work involves lecturing widely and doing commentary for various media outlets around the world.

Do you have any advice for students interested in entering social work?

My earnest advice for all students entering the profession is to fundamentally know that social work is global. It is a wide-ranging field, and social workers can be found within various private or government agencies, think tanks, political spheres, etc. There is an art and science to the work we do. The code of ethics is important to know in theory and in practice, as you must be an intellect, pragmatist, and practical-thinking human being. Lastly, I would like for students to know that being an agent of social change, addressing and attempting to dismantle all forms of oppression and marginalization, is where a profound personal joy resides.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to embark on a career in forensic psychology or a related field?

Know yourself. Know what personal biases you bring to the table and know whether or not you can check that at the door every day. Engage in supervision. Find a mentor who can help you process things you hear in treatment. You hear a lot of terrible stuff every day and it’s important that you can process that information in a healthy way.

Becoming a Social Worker

A bachelor’s degree in social work can open the door to entry-level jobs immediately upon graduation, but depending on the ultimate career goals, a master’s degree is recommended for those seeking to stay in the field long-term. This graduate degree is necessary to become licensed in most states, and more advanced positions will require a master’s, specifically a Master of Social Work (MSW). Usually, any liberal arts degree will be sufficient to be admitted into a social work master’s degree program, but applicants who hold a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field may have an advantage when it comes to admission to the more competitive graduate programs.

At the doctoral level, there are two primary options for social workers: the PhD or the DSW (Doctor of Social Work). The former is more research-oriented, while the latter is geared more toward practice or administration. Neither degree is necessary to become a licensed social worker, but they do open up career opportunities in teaching and administration.

Social Worker Licensure and Certification Q&A

What is social work licensure?

Licensure is the process through which social workers demonstrate a minimum level of competency, knowledge, and skills, and are subsequently granted the right to practice in a given state. Requirements may include a base level of education, field experience, and an exam.

Why get licensed?

Every U.S. state requires licensure in order to become a clinical social worker. In non-clinical settings, licensing is not always required, with each state having its own set of regulations. However, even if a particular job doesn’t require licensure, it confers a distinct advantage on the holder, increasing marketability and proving a certain level of knowledge in social work.

Who grants licenses?

The Association of Social Work Board (ASWB) handles the licensing examination process. However, each state has its own social worker boards and specific licensing process, so be sure to check with the board of the chosen state to determine exact requirements.

Who is eligible for a license?

A graduate degree from a school accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is required by many states to become licensed. However, some states offer licenses to those with only a bachelor’s degree (with additional requirements).

What is the process for licensure?

The licensing process varies from state to state, but in general, individuals will request and submit an application, and obtain approval to take the license examination. After taking and passing the exam, they pay any remaining requisite fees.

What is social work certification?

Certification is the process by which individuals demonstrate they have a certain amount of knowledge and/or experience about a given specialty in their field. Certifications are typically the next step after licensure.

Why get certified?

Certification is not required to practice social work. However, it can increase a social worker’s potential career advancement and pay. Since the process is voluntary, certification does set apart social workers who are particularly committed to their careers and have acquired additional knowledge and skills. Certification also serves as proof that an individual’s expertise in a specialty has been verified by an independent and unbiased organization.

Who certifies?

The most prominent credentialing organization for social work is the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). The NASW offers certifications and credentials in areas such as gerontology, case management, healthcare and palliative care. Another major credentialing organization is the American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work (ABECSW), which offers the following certifications to clinical social workers: advanced generalist practice, children and families, clinical supervision, and psychoanalysis.

Who is eligible for certification?

In order to obtain a credential from the NASW, the general requirements include: a master’s degree in social work; two or more years of relevant experience; three professional evaluations that show the candidate has the appropriate knowledge, skills and understanding of the specialty; and 20 hours of continuing education. The ABECSW has varying requirements for certification, depending upon the certification sought.

Social Work Skills

Social work can be extraordinarily demanding, and its practitioners find that certain skills and personality traits are necessary in order to succeed (and survive) in this career. While some of these may be innate to an individual, others will be gained and honed during the course of social work education and early experience. Social workers should strive to have:

Thick skin

Social work often involves dealing with people at very difficult points in their lives. They frequently have high stress levels, and some may be the victims of traumatic and painful events. The assistance of a social worker may seem to be ineffective or unappreciated. Social workers must deal with situations even when happy endings seem unlikely.

Empathy

It’s not always easy to establish a good rapport with clients who are facing severe problems. Empathy is critical to help provide the care and compassion needed.

Communication skills

Social workers need to be active listeners, along with honing their ability to speak effectively with others. Communication from clients may be limited or ambiguous, and social workers must learn how to understand the nuances.

Social perception

Similar to active listening, social perception is helpful in being able to understand the implications of nonverbal communication or subconscious actions. The things left unsaid are often just as important—if not more so—than those that are verbalized.

Good organization

Social workers are commonly spread thin among many cases or clients. Time and resources are at a premium, and productivity relies on being able to use them effectively.

Critical thinking skills

Social workers are in the position of trying to resolve or alleviate other people’s problems, but they might be missing critical information. They need to analyze the facts, even if incomplete, and fill in the gaps to formulate a logical and rational approach.

Understanding of human psychology

Human behavior doesn’t always make logical sense, but knowing the underlying principles, theories and concepts that explain human thinking and actions can help social workers navigate the process of helping others.

Social Work Salary

Many social workers will say that sometimes the job’s pay is not on par with the time and effort put into it, but they find fulfillment in areas other than financial reward. Future social workers can also expect to be enter a profession with a high anticipated demand; the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the field will grow 19 percent between 2012 and 2022, well more than the 11 percent growth rate for all occupations. Social work salaries vary according to specialty and experience, but the national average ranges from about $41,000 to $51,000. Workers with master’s degrees can expect a bump to closer to $59,000 annually. The following map shows median salaries for a variety of social work careers in each state.

Social Work Related Careers

Some people who wish to work for social good may find themselves drawn to jobs that are outside the traditional realm of what is considered “social work,” or do not require one to become a licensed social worker. However, many of the skills and traits that help shape good social workers will also hold graduates in good stead if they choose to try out one of these related careers. (All numbers are courtesy of the BLS.)

Substance Abuse and Behavior Disorder Counselor

2014 Median Salary: $39,270

2012 to 2022 Job growth: 31%

Education and Training: High school diploma or equivalent

Social or Human Service Assistant

2014 Median Salary: $29,790

2012 to 2022 Job growth: 22%

Education and Training: High school diploma or equivalent

Social or Community Service Manager

2014 Median Salary: $62,740

2012 to 2022 Job growth: 21%

Education and Training: Bachelor’s degree

Rehabilitation Counselor

2014 Median Salary: $34,380

2012 to 2022 Job growth: 20%

Education and Training: Master’s degree

Clinical, Counseling or School Psychologist

2014 Median Salary: $68,900

2012 to 2022 Job growth: 11%

Education and Training: Master’s degree at minimum, typically a doctorate

Mental Health Counselor

2014 Median Salary: $40,850

2012 to 2022 Job growth: 29%

Education and Training: Master’s degree

Community Health Worker

2014 Median Salary: $34,870

2012 to 2022 Job growth: 25%

Education and Training: High school diploma or equivalent

Health Educator

2014 Median Salary: $50,430

2012 to 2022 Job growth: 19%

Education and Training: Bachelor’s degree

Social Work Resources

Prospective social workers can benefit from the wide variety of resources, job boards and other information available about the field and its career possibilities. The list below is a sampling of the many resources to be found online that may assist job-seekers.