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