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In social work circles, there is a popular joke: A mugger accosts a social worker with a gun, shouting, “Your money or your life!” The social worker shrugs carelessly, “I’m sorry, I’m a social worker. I have no money and no life.”

Social work is a hard career, and jokes like these – dark and dry – are common for keeping workers’ spirits up.

Social workers are often portrayed as overworked, underfunded and on the verge of collapse, and unfortunately, this isn’t far from the truth. Social work is in desperate need of more support, from states and future career hunters.

However, not many prospective social workers understand the field well enough to do good. Here’s a guide to working in social work and why most job hunters should consider these careers today:

Social Work Defined

While most people have heard the term “social work,” few can with certainty (let alone accurately) explain a social worker’s responsibility.

To be brief, social work is assisting people in need; the International Federation of Social Workers, explains social work as a profession that “promotes social change and development, social cohesion and the empowerment and liberation of people,” but most social workers find both definitions laughably vague.

More precisely, social workers work within their scope to provide struggling individuals and families with the support and resources they need to survive – and, with luck and determination, eventually thrive.

Social workers have limited power, but they can provide counselling, education and access to public or private services to their clients.

Different Types of Social Workers

Social workers are not equipped with the skills, experience or resources to assist with every type of problem. Therefore, most social workers have a speciality and are assigned clients who have problems that fall within their specialization’s realm.

Some of the most common types of social worker include:

  • Child and family, social workers focus on providing families with the resources to care for children or the elderly. They are best known for making decisions regarding foster care, but they can also assist parents looking to adopt.
  • Medical and public health social workers work with seriously ill patients and their families to better understand their disease and ensure adequate treatment. Often, they help patients navigate the labyrinthine health care system and make informed decisions about care.
  • Substance abuse and mental health social workers provide support for those struggling with substance abuse, mental health or both. Frequently, they assist sufferers in finding aid, which may be therapy or rehabilitative programs, but they can also participate in preventative or outreach programs.

Social Work, Career Details

Social work is a unique career field, and as such, it has rather specialized training and education requirements.

All social workers must have a Bachelor of Social Work degree to qualify for entry-level positions, though some psychology, sociology and education majors can sneak into social work with the proper prior job experience. To advance in social work, professionals must participate in advanced education.

Fortunately, an online MSW program provides the same education and credentials as a traditional program, and it allows social workers to maintain their current employment and client caseload.

Social worker earnings depend largely on the social worker’s tenure and their location.

Different states support social work differently; in Connecticut, the average social worker can earn upwards of $66,400 in salary, but in Mississippi, social workers hardly earn more than $34,400. Unfortunately, states with lower compensation for social work also tend to have high rates of poverty, substance abuse and medical distress – in effect, they need social work the most.

Yet, when social workers are poorly paid, their programs are often ill-equipped to truly address underlying issues within families and communities.

What Makes Social Work Worthwhile

Social work is undeniably a difficult career, which is what turns most would-be social workers toward more rewarding professions, like nursing or psychology.

Indeed, social workers face challenges at every turn: The state is usually reluctant to provide critical resources, like funding, and clients are typically disinclined to cooperate with officials who are so closely tied to the state.

Yet, when social workers find success – which does happen – all the hardship is worthwhile. Nothing in nursing or psychology is as rewarding as reuniting a family or seeing an addict reach one year sober.

It is a widespread disinterest in social work that perpetuates the difficulty of the career, but the more job-seekers who invest in social work – the more social workers fighting for good – the easier and more enjoyable the career will be.


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