Career series: How do I become a social worker?



An ordinary day as a social worker could see you take on tasks as extraordinary as counselling homeless youth, working with families in times of crisis, or running support groups for people dealing with long-term illnesses. While the field is extremely diverse, all social workers seem to have a few characteristics in common: they care deeply about the people around them and want to devote their careers to improving the lives of others.

To get some insight into the challenges and rewards inherent in a career in social work, we looked at the jobs currently on offer, investigated the required qualifications, and spoke to a former social worker who has seen it all.

Who Should Go Into Social Work?

Alicia Leonardi, a Colorado resident who previously held social worker roles in four organisations, says hers is a “fun and flexible” field. “You need thick skin and a soft heart,” Leonardi explains, adding that it helps if you can accept a lot of paperwork and have a high tolerance for meetings.

“Though you may find yourself emotionally exhausted and not see change on the scale you hoped for, never doubt that you are making a difference,” Leonardi urges. “[Social work] is a great job if you have a strong support system to deal with the vicarious trauma of those you work with, don’t mind a modest salary, and like to expect the unexpected.”

What kinds of jobs are out there?

As you begin to research jobs in social work, it should quickly become clear that the field is vast, covering everything from gerontology to immigration and child welfare. Leonardi’s previous experience – as a Case Manager and Direct Care Counsellor for homeless youth, a Conflict Group Facilitator for aggressive middle school girls, and a domestic violence shelter worker – touches on just a few of the areas where you can find work.

Leonardi uses the words “heartbreaking” and “immense challenge” to describe some of these roles, conceding that there were positive and negative aspects to each of them. “Getting to be on the front lines of conflict between clients was thrilling because of the raw emotion and passion,” she says of her work with homeless youth, “but exhausting at the same time because sometimes they take their anger out on you.” She adds that this particular role required a flexible schedule and did involve some overnight shifts.

Discussing her work with middle school girls, Leonardi says she enjoyed being in a position to influence in the girls’ lives and hear their stories, but cautions that there were certain drawbacks to the job. “I didn’t like disciplining these young ladies,” she explains. “It took a while to figure out that I had to be more strict and more strong than I was initially comfortable with.”

So how much can you expect to earn if you take on a role like this? Unfortunately there isn’t one standard answer, with salaries raging widely depending on your precise role and employer. One recent Australian job listing for a part-time social worker at a women’s and children’s hospital started at AUD$73,000 per year, with a similar amount offered for a full-time role with a state department of mental health. In the US, you could aim to land a role as a social worker with the Department of Veterans Affairs for up to US$100,000 per year, or you could work for closer to US$42,000 at a smaller, more specialist organisation.

What qualifications are required?

Leonardi says she landed her roles as Case Manager and Conflict Group Facilitator due to her Bachelor of Social Work, while her job as a shelter worker required a 20 hour training course and period of volunteering. Her experience is typical of the social work jobs market, which has some room for volunteers but favours graduates.

Judging by recent job listings for social workers, the majority of employers are looking for people with a degree in social work, and some organisations will also be wanting you to bring prior experience to your position. The good news is that plenty of universities around the world offer degrees in social work, covering real-world experience as well as more academic perspectives on the field.

Australia’s Griffith University, for example, offers a Bachelor of Social Work qualification that covers areas such as cognitive psychology and Indigenous issues alongside regular field placements. Meanwhile, at the University of Edinburgh, you can study social work as an undergraduate or post-graduate student and sink your teeth into the history and theory of social work as well as its more practical realties.

The Australian Association of Social Workers sums the challenges and rewards of social work well when it describes the profession as “committed to the pursuit of social justice, the enhancement of the quality of life and the development of the full potential of each individual, group and community in society.” These are certainly ambitious goals, but in striving to achieve them, social workers do make a difference in the lives of the people they work with.