Types of Social Worker Career Paths

Social Worker Career Paths
social work careers

While many people think of clinical social workers as the only type of social workers, in reality there are many different types of social work careers. All types of social work careers have their own unique training and responsibilities, though they are all striving to help those who can’t meet their basic needs on their own due to various obstacles.


What Are the 3 Levels of Social Work?

The three types of social work are macro, mezzo, and micro. While many people think of clinical social workers as the only type of social workers, in reality there are many different types of social work careers. All types of social work careers have their own unique education and responsibilities, though they are all striving to help those who are unable meet their basic needs on their own due to various obstacles. Here’s what you need to know as you consider a social worker career path.

Social Work career types can be organized into 3 main broad categories. The three top types of social work include:

  1. Macro (large systems)
  2. Mezzo (institutions and smaller groups)
  3. Micro (clinical, usually individual or family)

While each of these have different roles and responsibilities, they share the common goal of helping people cope with problems in their everyday life (such as mental health, substance abuse issues, or a lack of resources) (BLS). In order to become a social worker, some entry-level positions only require a bachelor’s degree. The most common social worker operates at the micro level and is also referred to as a clinical social worker.

In order to become a clinical social worker, you must earn a master of social work and have two years of experience in a supervised clinical setting after you earn your degree (BLS).

What is Macro Social Work?

Macro social work careers strive to help people and clients at a large scale, such as through advocating public policy change to support at-risk populations. Therefore, these social workers usually address issues experienced by mezzo or clinical social workers to help them perform their jobs better and to help their clients.

Through these types of systematic changes and support, macro social workers strive to help empower those to overcome the challenges and obstacles they face. By performing, organizing, and analyzing research and studies, these types of social workers try to understand and alleviate problems on a large, systematic scale.

Macro Social Work Examples

Some examples of macro social work include:

  • Researching social issues
  • Developing and managin social work programs
  • Advocating for the needs of specific populations
  • Lobbying to change a health care law
  • Organizing a state-wide activist group
  • Large-scale social policy change

Macro Social Work Jobs

Some of the macros social work careers available to those interested in macro social work include:

  • Community organizer
  • Public official
  • Researcher
  • Immigration policy advocate

Social and Community Service Mangers

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were a total of 174,200 Social and Community Service Mangers in 2020.

What is Mezzo Social Work?

Mezzo social work falls between micro and macro social work and involves working with smaller groups or institutions. As opposed to working with individual clients, these types of social workers look to engage in institutional or cultural change.

However, because of the unique challenges that face mezzo social workers, usually they have experience with both macro and micro level work. This experience, plus education and licensure, allows important skills to develop, such as interpersonal relations and community involvement.

Mezzo Social Work Examples

Some of the examples of mezzo social work include:

  • Providing group therapy or counseling to support groups
  • Organizing community groups
  • Evaluating an organization’s goals, structures, and operations
  • Strengthen relationships within a team, business, or community group
  • Facilitate group discussions or processes to improve decision making

Mezzo Social Work Jobs

Mezzo social work includes working with certain groups, institutions, and organizations, such as:

  • Small and medium-sized businesses
  • Schools
  • Local charities or non-profits
  • Community service organizations

Did You Know?

Only about one third of all professional social workers are employed by the federal, state, and local governments combined.

What is Micro Social Work?

As the most common type of social work, and the one most often thought of when people say “social worker”, micro social work involves working directly with individuals, families, groups, and communities.

Also referred to as clinical social work, micro social workers are the largest group of mental health providers in the U.S. Therefore, these social workers are on the front line and are often involved in one-on-one counseling services for individuals in need.

Micro Social Work Examples

Some examples of clinical social work include:

  • Diagnosing and treating mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders
  • Providing group, family, or couples therapy
  • Collaborating with clients and health care professionals on treatment
  • Creating and implementing treatment plans
  • Helping individuals find appropriate housing

Micro social work may also include military social work, which includes working with military service members and their families to cope with the challenges accompanying military life and reentering civilian life.

  • Hospitals
  • Schools
  • Substance abuse treatment centers
  • Private practive
  • Home shelters

Did You Know?

According to the BLS, the expected job growth for social workers for the years 2020 to 2030 is 12%, well above the average for all jobs.

Micro Social Work Jobs

Clinical social workers usually work in a variety of settings, which include:

The five most common types of clinical social workers are:

  1. Child and family social workers
  2. School social workers
  3. Health social workers
  4. Mental health and substance abuse social workers (BLS)

Clinical social workers can have a variety of other positions, so check with your school or job listings for other opportunities in careers in social work.

Different Social Work Careers and Their Paths

social work careers; clinical vs macro

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Social Work and Community Violence

Some social workers work closely with people facing violence in their homes or otherwise within the community. Community violence, either as the direct victim or witnessing of that violence, may cause psychosocial and emotional effects on individuals. Children and teens exposed to this type of violent or hostile behavior often suffer from aggression or depression, as well as other mental health disorders.

Social workers typically work to help children and teens facing this type of adverse exposure. They look for warning signs of trauma, such as sleep problems, poor school performance, avoidance, and irritability. In some cases, children are reluctant to speak to their parents about these concerns if the violence occurs within the home. Social workers typically work closely to provide strategies for overcoming these situations. That may involve developing creative ways to address situations with the goal to create long term positive outcomes.

Social Work and Domestic Violence

Social workers often provide support in instances of domestic violence, or violent behavior that occurs within the home. Domestic violence may include control over finances, forcing isolation, physical harm, and name calling. Physical and mental abuse are common. Social workers aid individuals in dealing with the trauma that stems from these types of situations. This may include working through cultural limitations, psychological mistreatment, sexual violence, and socio economic conditions.

Those experiencing domestic violence may suffer from depression, anxiety, aggression, poor school behavior, and may struggle with relationships with others. In children, difficulty learning resulting in academic and behavior issues may occur.

Social workers may work to advocate for those who need support while also providing assistance to victims and families to rebuild after this type of abuse. They may work to create connections and provide support on an individual basis. The role of social worker in domestic violence is often dependent on the situation.

How to Become a Licensed Social Worker?

In order to become a licensed social worker you need to earn a master of social work, or MSW. However, if you earned a bachelor’s degree in a subject other than social work, but still want to help the less fortunate overcome their challenges, have no fear!

Many MSW programs allow students from any major to enter the field, though courses in psychology, sociology, economics, and political science are recommended (BLS).

Other requirements to become a licensed social worker include:

  • Minimum of two years of supervised clinical experience after graduation
  • Pass clinical exam
  • Accrue state-specified number of hours working directly with clients

Keep in mind that specific licensure requirements vary from state to state. For instance, many states have on-going or continuing education credits and on-going supervision requirements.

Licensed Master Social Worker

For most states, earning your MSW is enough to qualify for the Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW). Social workers with this licensure are dedicated to enriching the lives of their clients by helping them overcome obstacles and investigating the root causes of their emotions and negative behavior.

Some of the ways those with a LMSW can help are:

  • Careers in case management for child protection or government agencies evaluating eligibility for public assistance
  • May work on policy reform or social advocacy jobs
  • Help clients change harmful behaviors
  • Empower clients to create new choices to become happier and reach their full potential

While the LMSW licensure is an important step for social workers, many find that advancing their careers requires continuation to LCSW.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

While many social workers begin their careers with a LMSW license and move onto a LCSW, it’s important to remember that one is not necessarily better than the other. However, those who are Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW) are the only types of social workers allowed to provide, without supervision:

Those with a LCSW may be able to:

  • Have direct service positions such as schools, hospitals, drug rehab centers, inpatient psychiatric facilities, outpatient mental health clinics, emergency and crisis evaluators, private practices
  • Offer professional supervision to newer clinicians in the field, which may lead to professional advancement

LCSW Requirements

  • Psychotherapy
  • Assessment-based planning
  • Diagnosis

Keep in mind that earning a LCSW usually has many more requirements than a LMSW. One of these requirements includes a minimum of 2,000 client contacts over a continuous three to six-year period. Usually, this also includes at least 100 hours of individual or group clinical supervision during that time. Every state has their own requirements, which is why it’s important to check out the specific qualification requirements in your state.

Importance of MSW

70% of healthcare social workers (O*Net) and 77% of mental health and substance abuse social workers have a master of social work degree (O*Net).

What Is a Master’s Degree Program in Social Work?

A master in social work (MSW) is a graduate level program that prepares students to work as a social work leader. This may include preparing them to address regional or national concerns, and sometimes global issues. The curriculum may differ from one program to the next, but often allows for improving competencies in mental health, child and youth services, and substance abuse. Students often study topics related to providing services, administrative practices, policy reform, community change, and advocacy.

Some LCSW programs allow students to build a professional skillset that allows them to be identified as a social worker. They may also learn legal and ethical standards as it relates to the field, use evidence based research to meet the needs of their clients, and apply theories such as those on human growth and development to the work they do.

List of 10 Master of Social Work Degree Programs

As each of the types of social work have different responsibilities, there are a variety of master of social work, or MSW programs, that emphasize different aspects of the field. Most common are clinical social work masters degrees because it is a requirement to become a clinical social worker. However, many programs allow you to choose a concentration, which may include the option of macro or mezzo social work.

Macro social work degrees deal more with larger scale policies and best practices issues that affect entire communities. On the other hand, mezzo social work options at the intermediate scale at the neighborhood or institution level. Check out some of the sponsored MSW programs available below to learn more about the school, the specific program, and follow any of the links to contact the school directly.

1. Boston University

With more than 33,000 undergraduate and graduate students and nearly 10,000 faculty and staff members, Boston University offers 17 colleges and schools and 250 fields of study. The school offers a variety of MSW options, including a:

  • Master of Social Work – Macro

This degree emphasizes service and action to advance core values such as social and economic justice and respect for diversity. In addition, the Macro MSW program combines coursework, field education, and supplementary programs to teach theory and skills in community organizing and planning.

2. Rutgers University

As the State University of New Jersey, Rutgers University is a leading national research institution and the state’s preeminent public higher learning institution. Founded in 1766, the school is the eighth oldest higher education institution in the United States.

With one of the most ethnically and racially diverse student populations in the nation, the Rutgers School of Social Work attracts students who are concerned for individuals, respect diversity, and promote social justice.

The school offers a Master of Social Work with two concentrations:

  1. Clinical Social Work
  2. Management and Policy

3. University of Pittsburgh

Founded in 1787, the University of Pittsburgh is also one of the oldest higher education institutions in the United States. Plus, some of the alumni has been responsible for defeating polio, unlocking the secrets of DNA, and leading the world in organ transplantation.

The University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work offers a Master of Social Work (MSW) that was ranked #10 by U.S. News and World Report in 2016. This program has the unique advantage of being able to draw on the dynamic setting and variety of field education agencies in the area.

4. Sacred Heart University

At Sacred Heart University, they know that the true worth of your experience won’t come in the facts and figures you learn. Instead, they believe that the inquiry and the passionate pursuit of knowledge are the greatest gifts they can teach.

The MSW programs at Sacred Heart strive to deepen your level of assistance to vulnerable populations and prepare you to take leadership roles in the field, which is why they offer two concentrations:

  • Master of Social Work – Clinical Practice
  • Master of Social Work – Community Practice

However, in order to expand your work in social service and responsibility with advanced, comprehensive knowledge, each program integrates components of both concentrations.

5. The Catholic University of America

The Catholic University of America was specifically founded by the Catholic bishops of the United States to be the national university of the Catholic Church of America. In order to solve the problems of contemporary life and enrich the culture around us, the school finds new and exciting ways to apply the inexhaustible resources of the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Seeking to prepare advanced practitioners who act as agents of change, the Master of Social Work (MSW) at CUA is rooted in traditional values and theory, but also teaches current demands of the changing environment.

6. Widener University

Widener University believes that academic excellence, career preparation, and civic engagement are the foundation of success, which is why those values are incorporated into more than 60-degree options university-wide.

As one of the social work career paths you can pursue, the Master of Social Work (MSW) program at Widener is a trauma-focused degree.

This MSW teaches how trauma is oftentimes a preceding cause of mental-health challenges and incorporates trauma as a central theme in all coursework.

7. Winthrop University

Through an educational experience that blends liberal arts, professional programs, and global awareness, Winthrop University is committed to be among the very best institutions of their kind in the nation.

The Department of Social Work at Winthrop offers a Master of Social Work (MSW) which incorporates the use of advanced social work theories and methodologies for assessment and intervention across systems.

8. Simmons College

For more than a century, Simmons College has offered a pioneering liberal arts education in the heart of Boston. Simmons encompasses the benefits of a small university in one of the nation’s best college towns.

With a progressive, hands-on curriculum that integrates education and practice with social justice values, multicultural perspectives, and a strong emphasis on field education, the Master of Social Work program at Simmons provides a rigorous clinical social work education.

9. Our Lady of the Lake University

Founded in 1895 by the Congregation of Divine Providence as a coeducational comprehensive institution, Our Lady of the Lake University prepares graduates to transform their communities, families, and professions. For 75 years, Our Lady of the Lake has taught social work that prepares students to change the lives of children and families in need.

With the goal of preparing professionally trained social workers for specialized intervention, the Master of Social Work (MSW) fosters commitment to culturally competent practice with diverse populations.

10. University of Washington

As one of the world’s preeminent universities, the University of Washington has a profound impact on individuals, the region, and the world. By offering an unshakable optimism and a strong belief in possibility, UW possesses a strong conviction that together we can create a world of good.

The nationally ranked MSW and Social Work Program at UW prepares students for leadership and direct path positions. The school offers a variety of learning options to accommodate the personal and professional interests of students and their work-life demands.

  • Some of the nation’s most affordable tuition rates, from a private, nonprofit, NEASC accredited university
  • Qualified students with 2.5 GPA and up may receive up to $20K in grants & scholarships
  • Multiple term start dates throughout the year. 24/7 online classroom access

What Kind of Jobs May You Get with an MSW?

Those who earn an MSW may qualify for a range of positions in various levels of the industry. This could include working in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, government agencies, and rehabilitation centers. Some of the potential positions may include:

  • Child, family, and school social worker
  • Medical social worker
  • Health services manager
  • Community or social services manager
  • Mental health social worker
  • Substance abuse counselor

International Social Work Jobs

International social workers help individuals, families, groups, neighborhoods, and communities around the world overcome the challenges they face, such as poverty, substance abuse, or even after a natural disaster. Social workers are committed to making a difference in the lives of people within communities. Therefore, international social workers diligently strive to ease suffering and better the lives of people in need around the world.

How Much Does a Social Worker Make?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates healthcare social workers earned a median of $60,840 in 2021. However, there are various types of social work jobs, and each area may earn a different amount. Values also differ based on location. Some examples include:

  • Home health care services providers earned an annual mean wage of $67,150.
  • Those working as social workers in general medical and hospitals earned an annual mean wage of $71,440.
  • Those working in outpatient care centers earned an annual mean wage of $65,090.
  • Some work in scientific research and development services, earning an annual mean wage of $93,030.

The salary for social worker positions differs based on various factors including the level of education and experience.

Find the Perfect MSW Program for You!

Are you looking for ways to help those in need? One of the best ways to do that is to earn a graduate degree in social work or master of social work.

Check out any of the sponsored listings on this page to learn more about the curriculum, available concentrations, and how to apply. Or, click on the button below to get matched to the perfect program for you.