Some people called to social work are dismayed by the prospect of fighting day in and day out to help just a handful of people. That's okay, because clinical social work isn't for everyone. Working directly with struggling individuals and families is hard and, frankly, doesn't pay particularly well.
There is, however, another side of social work that exists at the macro—or big-picture—level, and that's where you'll find social work administrators. They are some of the higher-paid professionals in the social work sphere, and even though they seldom deal directly with people in need, they have the unique ability to help lots of them.
Social work administrators literally make clinical social work possible. Without these behind-the-scenes social workers—yes, they're still social workers—there wouldn't be anyone identifying needs among populations, designing and redesigning social work programs, writing grants and making budgets go further, or advocating for those in need. This is the kind of career that ticks a lot of boxes for big-hearted people who also have big professional goals.
In this guide to how to become a social work administrator, we'll cover:
There are different levels of social work. Micro- and mezzo-level social work are concerned with individuals and small groups. Macro-level social work is focused on entire populations and the systems that govern the lives of those populations.
Macro-level social workers—a group that includes social work administrators—work with systems to drive positive change to make the lives of many people better. Think of it as the difference between connecting someone with financial assistance or job assistance (micro social work) and designing and advocating for policies that will improve the economic status of a specific group or even an entire city (macro social work).
Macro-level social workers can usually be found in leadership positions in government agencies, nonprofit organizations, or corporations. They spend their time:
When you become a social work administrator, you'll be responsible for steering the direction of your organization and representing the needs of the populations you serve in broader policy discussions. That sounds relatively simple, but the reality is far more complicated. That's because social work administrators work in a wide variety of settings. Where you work will play a hand in determining what you do every day. A social work administrator at a human rights group has very different responsibilities than one working at a think tank.
In this role, you might work at a:
In all of those venues and others where you find social work administrators, these professionals tend to take a forward-looking approach to helping people. As Felice D. Perlmutter, MSW, PhD, puts it in an interview with Social Work Today, the "clinically oriented practitioner is generally more focused on the current circumstance, the here-and-now, and is neutral with clients. By contrast, the administrator is more future-oriented, more proactive, a decision-maker, concerned about the total system as opposed to the particular client."
To that end, social work administrators:
Of course, social work administrators don't work in a vacuum. They work on and lead interdisciplinary teams, collaborating closely with clinical social workers, program managers, doctors, lawyers, caseworkers, community members, and in some cases, legislators and policymakers.
Having a big heart isn't all you need to become a social work administrator. The skills that will make you an effective social work manager or administrator overlap to some degree with the skills clinicians need (like empathy and active listening). Still, some unique skills are must-haves for social workers in administrative roles. For instance, social work administrators have to be able to:
One more skill you'll need when you become a social work administrator is the ability to compartmentalize. In a clinical role, you try to move heaven and earth to get clients what they need. As an administrator, there will be times when you will have to make tough calls that prioritize the financial stability of a program over helping the most people. Those calls can be heartbreaking. You can't let that heartbreak consume you.
To become a social work administrator, you'll need at least a Master of Social Work (MSW). To qualify for acceptance into an MSW program, you need to earn a bachelor's degree. Here's the good news: most MSW programs do not require applicants to have a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) from a school accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. Many students enter MSW programs with undergraduate degrees in psychology or sociology, and even with degrees in business or management.
That said, if you want to go all-in on social work, the following schools host affordable BSW programs:
You can also earn your BSW online. Some of these programs require multiple on-campus sessions, so do your research before enrolling. Some, like the The University of Tennessee - Knoxville, are only open to in-state students.
The following schools offer an online BSW:
The curriculum in most BSW programs won't do much to prepare you for a career as a social work administrator, though it will give you a firm footing in social work as a discipline. Coursework in these programs covers such topics as:
BSW students have opportunities (and may be required) to do fieldwork, often in settings related to their career aspirations. If you decide not to earn a BSW, you can make yourself a more attractive applicant when applying to Master of Social Work programs by volunteering at a nonprofit or social services organization.
All accredited MSW programs can prepare you for a career in social work, but a lot of programs focus primarily on clinical social work. It's a good idea to look for Master of Social Work programs with a specialized macro focus. Many universities offer MSW tracks specific to social work management and administration, such as:
There are strong macro-level social work master's degree programs at:
In an MSW program with a macro concentration, you will study advanced social work concepts along with topics like:
On-campus master's degree programs in social work typically take two years to complete, but you can find some accelerated MSW programs along with fast-track advanced standing MSW programs. The latter are open only to students who have graduated from accredited BSW programs, whose undergraduate degrees allow them to skip portions of the MSW curriculum they have previously covered.
You may be able to get a job in social work administration with an MSW, but you may also encounter openings that require candidates to have a doctoral degree (either a Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) degree or a PhD in social work). If you want to pursue a doctorate and think you might want to go back to clinical social work in the future, a DSW is the better choice. If you plan to stay in social work administration for the entirety of your career, you can choose either program. In both, you'll study topics like advanced policy analysis, administration, research, and program development.
Every state requires clinical social workers to have an MSW, but the rules vary from state to state for non-clinical social workers. In some states, a social work administrator has to have the same licenses and certifications as a clinical social worker. Other states have separate licensing requirements and licenses for all non-clinical social workers. Non-clinical social workers with master's degrees generally need to pass the generalist exam given by the Association of Social Work Board (ASWB) to get the Licensed Master Social Worker-Advanced Generalist (LMSW-AG) credential. They may also need to complete an additional period of supervised work before becoming eligible for full licensing.
To find out what licenses and certifications macro-level social workers are required to have in your state, contact the state regulatory board. You should also look into voluntary certifications related to social work management. The Network for Social Management is a professional organization that offers certification programs designed to assess the competencies of social workers at the macro level.
The stereotype of the overworked and underpaid social worker is all too real in many clinical disciplines, but there's money to be made in social work administration. When you become a social work administrator, you'll be compensated much more generously than others in this field. According to Salary.com, the average social work administrator salary falls somewhere between $80,713 and $102,357.
How much you will actually make in this role depends on what state you work in, how much experience you have, and what type of setting you work in. Chances are you will be paid more if you work in a residential mental health facility or private addiction treatment center in Los Angeles than you would in government-run family services organization in Edgewater, Florida.
That depends on what you love about social work. Becoming a social work administrator isn't a one-way ticket to social work success. You'll have a lot more responsibility in an administrative role, and because there will be so much riding on your choices, the work can be more stressful than lower-paid clinical practice. Your decisions will affect not only the clinicians and social service providers in your organization, but also the people they serve.
Also, the unfortunate reality is that you may struggle to find work. More organizations and agencies that would once have had a social worker at the helm are choosing MBAs and lawyers to steer the ship.
So, if you're in this field because you love watching people thrive, you might want to stick with micro-level social work, where you can see the impact you're having relatively quickly. However, if you want to shape what social work looks like over the long-term and you're willing to wait months or even years to see the results of your efforts, social work administrator might be the perfect job for you.
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