Social Work

Choosing a Social Work Specialization? The 16 Practice Areas to Consider—And Why.

Choosing a Social Work Specialization? The 16 Practice Areas to Consider—And Why.
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Nedda Gilbert June 17, 2019

Are you a future social worker looking for your calling? Start with NASW's list of the 16 most common social work specializations.

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Social workers improve the lives of a substantial subset of the world’s population. Wherever there is hardship, injustice, and/or suffering — which means pretty much everywhere — social workers help others help themselves.

In aggregate, the problems social workers address are far too vast for any one person (no matter how experienced or well-trained) to understand, much less remedy. That’s why social workers specialize in specific fields: to gain the expertise and develop the skills necessary to be effective for the populations they serve.

Some social work specializations focus on particular demographics, like:

Other social workers specialize in essential functions, like:

The beauty of a Master of Social Work (MSW) program is that, by the time most students complete their degree, they’ve figured out how they want to specialize, and why. But, as an MSW student, the process of coming to that decision can be difficult. Deciding which specialization to pursue is only the first step in the process; finding the best program for your specialization — the one that will help you develop the specific set of skills needed for your chosen career path — is easier said than done.

Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) and Master of Social Work programs both impart the evidence-based training and methodologies that will be needed in whichever specialization you decide to pursue. From there, the best resource in understanding what, exactly, those specializations encompass is found with the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) 16 distinct practice areas of social work.

In comparing the NASW’s 16 social work specializations, note the key difference between social workers and psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals who work with overlapping demographics and issues. Social workers use the “person in environment” approach, a holistic method wherein the physical, social, and mental health of their clients are all used for context to understand how clients engage with the world.

The 16 Types of Social Work Specializations, According to NASW

Administration and management

As the name suggests, administration and management social workers hold managerial and administrative roles in a variety of organizations, not just in social work enterprises. Social work managers and administrators utilize business and administration skills to empower employees and engage in decision-making. A differentiator for this group of leaders: they ensure the organization stays true to its values and mission.

Social workers in administration and management work in both public and private settings, servicing individual clients and groups including hospitals, community-based agencies, and healthcare facilities. Social workers with this specialization may hold high-level leadership positions at organizations like the United Way, the American Red Cross, and other national nonprofits and foundations. These high-skill, high-responsibility managers earn some of the best salaries in social work.

Common jobs for administration and management social workers

  • Director of social services
  • Executive director
  • Outpatient manager
  • President
  • Program director
  • Program supervisor
  • Social services manager
  • Vice president

“I Want to Be A Social Worker!”

There are a couple of significant practical considerations:

- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification

Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:

- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. (source)

A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. (source)

- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees

University and Program Name Learn More

Advocacy and community organization

If you’re ready to change the world and right society’s wrongs, eager to enter the fray as an advocate, and not especially interested in one-on-one client work, advocacy and community organization social work may be the practice area for you. Also known as “mezzo practice” because it deals with more with small-to-midsize groups (e.g. schools, organizations, neighborhoods) than with individuals, advocacy and community organization focuses on galvanizing groups for a common cause in the name of social justice. These social workers may also be involved in fundraising and grant writing; they often work for private foundations, nonprofits, and grassroots initiatives.

Common jobs for advocacy and community organization social work

  • Community organizer
  • Community outreach worker
  • Community support specialist
  • Fundraiser
  • Grant writer
  • Policy planning specialist
  • Program developer
  • Public health manager
  • Research analyst


According to the U. S. Census Bureau, by 2030, one in every five Americans will be age 65 or over and, by 2035, there will be more people aged 65 and older than people who are under the age of 18. Aging is an in-demand social work practice promising ample opportunity and a healthy job market.

Social workers serving this population work in acute care facilities; private and public hospitals; rehab centers; outpatient programs for specific populations like Alzheimer or dementia patients; nursing homes; age-restricted, independent and assisted-living facilities; home-care services; and memory-care centers. They provide clinical counseling and assessments for mental health and overall well-being in addition to improving the physical, social, and financial tasks of daily life—like eating well and receiving appropriate medical attention. They engage in long-term care planning and work with adult children to lessen the burden of care.

Common job for social workers specializing in aging

Alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs

Helping individuals recover from substance use disorders is the mainstay of this critical practice area, which employs the disease-based model in planning and implementing interventions. Substance abuse social workers provide counseling and group therapy to people struggling with substance abuse disorders, as well as to their families. Into recovery, social workers help others navigate community resources and secure housing and employment.

Common jobs for social workers specializing in alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs

  • Substance abuse specialist
  • Licensed mental health social worker
  • Substance abuse social worker

Child welfare

Child and youth social workers protect our most vulnerable population, helping families find and develop the resources and tools necessary to raise children in safe and loving environments. When children are abused or neglected, social workers intervene, sometimes placing them in foster homes if safety cannot be ensured at home. Social workers in the child welfare system ensure access to adequate food, housing, schooling, and medical care.

Common jobs in child welfare social work

  • Adolescent specialist
  • Case manager
  • Case worker
  • Child advocate
  • Children’s service specialist
  • Children’s service worker
  • Child welfare social workers
  • Family advocacy representative
  • Family intervention specialist
  • Forensic case monitor
  • Foster care specialist
  • Foster care therapist
  • Licensed clinical social worker
  • Victim advocate
  • Youth and family specialist

Developmental disabilities

The Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 2000 defines a developmental disability as a severe, chronic disability that:

  • Is attributable to a mental or physical impairment or combination of mental and physical impairments
  • Manifests before age 22
  • Is likely to continue indefinitely
  • Results in substantial functional limitations in three or more areas of major life activity

The law provides the basis for developmental disabilities social work, dictating the conditions that must be met and the accommodations that must be provided to this protected population. Developmental disability social workers are, above all, advocates. They help parents of children with developmental disabilities understand their rights, protections, and the aid that’s available to their families.

Common jobs for developmental disability social work

  • Disability social worker
  • Licensed clinical social worker
  • School social worker


A broad category of social work that provides direct services to individuals, families, and groups in various hospital and medical settings, healthcare is a practice area for many social workers.

In hospital settings, healthcare social workers collaborate with medical teams to treat patients, provide psycho-social assessments and support, and work with family members. Discharge planning, which requires a unique skill set, typically falls to such social workers.

Healthcare social workers may work in specialized units like hospice and palliative care, neonatal care, transplant, or the emergency room, or they may practice as generalists. They can also find employment opportunities in academic, administrative, or policy-driven areas of healthcare (research, program development, and policy).

Common jobs for healthcare social workers

  • Clinical social worker
  • Counselor
  • HIV mental health coordinator or counselor
  • Medical social worker
  • Outpatient health specialist
  • Patient advocate
  • Patient navigator
  • Pediatric social worker
  • Policy analyst
  • Psychiatric social worker
  • Researcher

International social work

International social work is a growing, high-need area, from immigration to refugee camps, hospitals, orphanages, schools and international health and community organizations. International social workers help refugees assimilate to new communities, and foster self-sufficiency. As identified by The Council for Social Work Education, the primary goal of international social work is “individual empowerment, group empowerment, conflict resolution, institution-building, community-building, nation-building, region-building, and world-building.”

Common jobs for international social workers

  • Community outreach social worker
  • Community social worker
  • Equality and social justice social worker
  • Immigration social worker
  • International social worker
  • Mental health social worker

Justice and corrections

Justice and correctional social work — also known as criminal justice social work — is an exciting area for those interested in law enforcement but not in practicing law or policing communities. Social workers in this area play a vital role in the corrections and legal system, advocating for those accused of crimes, supporting the incarcerated, and supporting family members impacted by imprisonment. These social workers may also work as victims’ advocates in cases of sexual assault, rape, and domestic violence.

Social workers working in justice and corrections are employed in the public defender’s office; federal, state and city parole agencies; probation; legal aid; the court system, including drug court and mental health court; state and federal correctional facilities; city and county jails; sexual assault and rape crisis centers; women shelters; police departments; and nonprofits serving low-income sex-offenders.

Common jobs in justice and corrections social work

  • Adult probation counselor
  • Case manager
  • Corrections counselor/social worker
  • Criminal justice and probation social worker
  • Criminal justice social worker
  • Crisis/criminal justice therapist
  • Crisis worker
  • Forensic social worker
  • Juvenile probation counselor
  • Victims advocate

Mental health and clinical social work

When aspiring social workers think of earning their Master of Social Work degree, clinical social work is what usually comes to mind. The pathway to becoming a licensed mental health counselor and therapist, clinical social workers are one of the largest providers of mental health services in the United States, according to the NASW. Clinical social workers are often the only mental health clinicians providing service in underrepresented low-income areas (both rural and urban).

Common jobs in mental health and clinical social work

Occupational and Employee Assistance Program (EAP) social work

The Americans with Disabilities Act — which updated section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and reclassified mental health and substance abuse disorders as disabilities — provide corporate America with a structured remedy to accommodate employees covered by this statute. Under this regulation, an employee with a disability may not be terminated for their condition; in fact, the law entitles that employee to treatment and intervention. Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) assess covered employees, refer them to treatment resources, and monitor their care and return to the workplace.

EAP social work is deeply entrenched in corporate America. Social workers in this practice area help employees with a broad range of personal, family, and health problems. They may also be involved in supporting union members and providing counseling.

Common EAP jobs

  • EAP case manager
  • EAP consultant
  • EAP counselor
  • EAP licensed clinical social worker
  • EAP managerial consultant
  • EAP social worker therapist

Policy and planning

Not all social workers are cut out for direct service work. Many social workers are highly analytical and interested in public policy and planning and are best suited for think-tank work on social welfare initiatives. Social workers in this exciting area of work may also galvanize others in the profession to promote new thinking and policy.

Common social work jobs in policy and planning

  • Budget analyst
  • Director of government relations
  • Planning specialist
  • Public affairs specialist
  • Public health manager
  • Research analyst


As activists, social workers are natural born leaders. Whether the progression to politics is intentional or a natural consequence of becoming engaged in an important social and legislative issue, increasingly social workers seek public office and hold positions at the local level, and state and federal offices as well.

Common jobs for political social workers

  • Campaign manager
  • Elected official

Public welfare

Social workers in public welfare service the myriad organizations that provide services to many populations. Their roles in these settings can range from planning and administration to finance to training and managing staff. Many of these positions are found in city and state agencies where social workers must perform under limited resources and parameters.

Common jobs for public welfare social workers

  • Case manager
  • Caseworker
  • Human services worker
  • Licensed social worker
  • Social services worker


Social work is a highly professionalized, evidence- and research-based field. Research drives social work and ensures the legitimacy of its most important standards, measurements, tools, and practices. For those most comfortable in academic settings, a career in social work research can be a great choice.

Common research-based social work jobs

  • Research social worker
  • Research analyst

School social work

School social workers typically work as guidance counselors or therapeutic counselors in a school setting, serving as liaisons for students, teachers, and parents. They ensure that the emotional, developmental, and educational needs of students — including those who need accommodations for physical and learning disabilities — are met. Increasingly, school social workers in crisis management, facilitating responses to events such as school violence and shootings. They also play a key role in the development of compassionate and tolerant school cultures and the prevention of bullying.

Common jobs for school social workers

  • Education specialist
  • Guidance counselor
  • School counselor
  • School crisis counselor
  • School therapist

For current and aspiring social workers, NASW’s Specialty Practice Section (SPS) is a resource to help like-minded social workers build community and learn from each other (the NASW membership fee for BSW and MSW students is $57 per year). Post-grads of licensed social work programs are also eligible to pursue professional certifications that, even if not required by your future employer, confer high value to your overall employability.

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About the Author

Ms. Nedda Gilbert is a seasoned clinical social worker, author, and educational consultant with 25 years of experience helping college-bound and graduate students find their ideal schools. She is a prolific author, including The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and Essays that Made a Difference. Ms. Gilbert has been a guest writer for Forbes and a sought-after keynote speaker on college admissions. Previously, she played a crucial role at the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company and was Chairman of the Board of Graduate Philadelphia. Ms. Gilbert holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University and is a certified interdisciplinary collaborative family law professional in New Jersey.

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle. He has been managing editor of the website for over four years.

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