Social workers use their education and skills to help individuals, families and small groups, and entire populations. With the field set to grow by 19 percent between 2012 and 2022, students who graduate with a degree in social work should be ideally positioned for a career with numerous options and opportunities for fulfillment. The following guide offers an overview of the social work field, the educational components of a social work degree at the associate and bachelor’s levels, and scholarship resources for prospective students.

About the Social Work Degree Program

In 1898, Columbia University offered the first course in social work; since then, the profession has grown exponentially, continuing to be one of the country’s fastest-growing careers. Whether serving children or seniors, homeless individuals or those suffering with mental illness, social workers are dedicated to supporting individuals, families and groups through psychosocial support and advocacy programs.

Social workers may be found in clinical or therapeutic settings, criminal justice or corrections agencies, community development organizations, homeless shelters and educational settings. They are sought out by both public and private organizations, from government agencies to charities. They may work with their clients on a short-term basis, such as at an emergency shelter, or they may see clients on a long-term basis in care facilities. Whatever the setting, it’s a profession that consistently attracts competent professionals who want to make a difference in people’s lives—locally, nationally and internationally.

Associate Social Work Degree Programs

While no school offers an associate degree specifically in social work, students interested in this career path can use their first two years of education to build a foundation for future specialized coursework. Programs in pre-social work or human services can provide students with a survey of common topics studied at the bachelor’s level, including psychology, anthropology, child development, and research methods.

By completing an associate degree prior to enrolling in a bachelor’s level program, students get a better sense of the social work field and its job responsibilities and prospects. Armed with such information, they can make better decisions about their future educational pursuits. Students looking to lessen the financial burden of a traditional four-year degree can also save money by first completing a two-year program; credits earned in these programs can often be applied to a bachelor’s degree. To get a fuller understanding of how an associate degree can be relevant to a future social work career, examples of common coursework are given below:

Introduction to Psychology

Students are provided an overview of the field, learning about its history as a discipline, and how psychology helps define human thoughts and behaviors.

Abnormal Psychology

Students gain insight into abnormal psychological behaviors and mental disorders, studying their underlying symptoms and causes, as well as assessment and treatment plans.

Childhood Development

Key changes that occur between birth and adulthood are examined; students discover the physical, cognitive, social and emotional factors contributing to human development and how these elements inform individual behaviors.

Society and Human Behavior

Students learn how to take a larger lens to their clients as they explore the overarching forces shaping cultures, societies and human behavior. Topics covered are broad, and meant to help learners consider all factors when assessing clients.

Bachelor’s Degree Social Work Programs

After completing a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), graduates are prepared to accept entry-level roles in the field, thanks to a comprehensive curriculum at the undergraduate level. Undergrad students learn what it means to be a social worker from ethical, legal, clinical and service-oriented perspectives. They are exposed to the many facets of their roles as social workers, including those of advocacy, intervention, assessment and evaluation, and research. Classes are designed to allow students to assemble a toolbox of skills and knowledge, collectively geared to understanding different cultural and societal frameworks, diverse populations, modern issues in society, mental disorders, and the mechanics of administering to individuals or groups in the most effective ways.

Ideally, graduates will be steadfast in their commitment to social and economic empowerment, devoted in particular to helping individuals and populations that have been historically underserved. They should also acquire the practical skills needed to conduct research, analyze and evaluate data and statistical information, and undertake their own projects. Lastly, they are trained to understand the value of lifelong learning, and the necessity to stay abreast of current research and findings. Classes targeted to achieving these goals may include:

Foundations of Social Work

Students learn about the historical underpinnings of the field dating back to the late 1800s, exploring the contributions of pioneering social workers and how the discipline has evolved.

Social Welfare Policy

Working to improve existing social frameworks is a central role of a social worker; in this class, students learn how to critically evaluate these systems and policies, and how to implement changes and improvements that elicit the best possible care for their clients.

Methods of Intervention

Students survey various problem-solving frameworks and their intended outcomes, developing an understanding of appropriate models and their effective use for different types of clients and circumstances.

Social Work Group Process

Understanding the theoretical and real-world forces at work in group dynamics is a central goal in this course, and students analyze how these factors affect different groups, populations and societies. Coursework is specifically focused on marginalized or historically disadvantaged groups.

Ethnicity, Race and Culture

Students learn how economic, social, communal, and political influences play a significant role in the everyday lives of their clients, specifically those who struggle with mainstream assimilation because of ethnic, racial, or cultural factors. Students learn about diverse populations and how to employ social and economic justice ideologies to best serve their clients.

Human Behavior and Family Life:

With a focus on understanding how relationship dynamics affect both individuals and families, students examine key transition points between infancy and adulthood, study the impact of significant life events, and learn how family plays a role.

Beyond the Classroom:

Fieldwork and Advanced Study

Students enrolled in social work programs have access to an array of opportunities for experiential learning, including volunteer work, field placements and internships. Commonly, students may expect a fieldwork experience to span two semesters, total at least 500 hours and include two different settings. Some schools require students to complete a volunteer placement before moving into a fieldwork role, allowing them to get a sense of available settings before committing to hundreds of hours at a specific agency or organization. Work in these professional settings allows students to gain first-hand knowledge and real-world experience; in addition, the time may be applied toward the mandatory experience required for licensure upon graduation.

A bachelor’s degree is often a stepping stone to graduate work, and while graduate programs in social work each have individual requirements for admission, it’s worth noting that most do not require students to hold an undergraduate degree specifically in social work. Instead, the majority look for students who have completed a variety of liberal arts courses focused on social, behavioral and biological sciences; some may also require applicants to complete a statistics course if they haven’t already. The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) isn’t a common requirement in the field, but students may need to meet a minimum GPA to be considered for top programs.

Social Work Scholarships