Social Work

Should You Switch Careers to Social Work?

Should You Switch Careers to Social Work?
A career change can transform your life for the better, particularly if you trade an unfulfilling job for one where you make a difference, such as social work. Image from Unsplash
Eddie Huffman profile
Eddie Huffman February 20, 2019

A career change to social work is possible no matter your age or background. If you're committed to pursuing social justice and delivering essential human services, a BSW or MSW can help.

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Changing careers takes courage. It’s hard to walk away from the security of a steady paycheck and a familiar routine, even if the familiar has become boring, unsatisfying, stifling, or overwhelming.

Self-doubt can also play a part: Do I have what it takes to make a big change? Will my skills translate to a different kind of work? Once you factor in the time and expense of going back to school, the prospect of leaving an established career becomes even more daunting.

That said, a career change can transform your life for the better, particularly if you trade an unfulfilling job for one where you make a difference, such as social work. Let’s look at six tips for people considering a career change, courtesy of National Public Radio podcast host Keisha “TK” Dutes and Cynthia Pong, a nationally recognized career coach:

  • Figure out what to change
  • Seek new experience
  • Draw on past experience
  • Look at your finances
  • Lean on supportive people
  • Strive for progress

Tip 1: Determine what you really need to change

“Try to be as specific as possible,” Pong says. “Is it the people you work with? Is it the schedule that you have to work? Is it your supervisor?”

In some cases, a comparatively simple change to a different department or schedule may be enough to correct the problem. But if you’re deeply unsatisfied with your current career and ready to embrace the challenges and rewards of social work, it’s time to start planning for a different future.

Mahtab Nikoo wakes up each morning excited about going to work since she began a second career. She’s a social worker in northern California helping children with developmental disabilities: “I have witnessed much progress in terms of the behavior goals of the children that I work with. … Witnessing the progress that these children continue to make adds joy to my life.”


“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

Tip 2: Seek out non-traditional ways to gain experience

After years of working for big corporations, Vera Frajtova had had enough. She sampled life on the nonprofit side of the fence by volunteering.

“Knowing that I wanted to develop my skills in external communications and PR, I applied for membership at MovingWorlds, an organization matching professionals who want to broaden their skills by volunteering, with associations, projects, and NGOs missing experts in various areas,” she says.

Eventually she found a job at Venture with Impact a nonprofit similar to MovingWorlds. There she helps others find their own rewarding volunteer opportunities combined with travel.

Taking classes online or in-person can also allow you to dip your toes in other types of work without making a major commitment. Your current job may even offer educational opportunities as a benefit. Check with your HR department.

Tip 3: Tout your experience and knowledge, even from unrelated fields

“If you’re a hairdresser, for example, you may already be used to establishing rapport with a person and have good listening skills,” Beth Greenwood wrote for The Nest. “These could be transferable skills for a career in social work.”

Experience in retail can prepare someone for dealing with challenging people. Experience as a financial advisor can prepare someone for helping people make important life choices. Think creatively about your own work and life experience and see how they might make you a better (and more employable) social worker.

Tip 4: Do the math.

People go into social work for various reasons, but getting rich isn’t one of them. Make sure you have a handle on your own financial situation and learn what you can expect to make in a different career. If possible, save money to help you earn a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree and ease the transition toward a significant life change.

The median pay for social workers in 2021 was $50,390 per year, or $24.23 an hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). There were 708,100 social workers in the United States in 2021, with an additional 64,000 expected to join the workforce from 2021 to 2031. That nine percent growth rate is faster than average. What social work lacks in lucrative salaries it makes up for in job opportunities.

Tip 5: Draw on your support networks

Friends and family may be one of your greatest assets, whether you need advice from a trusted confidant, encouragement to try something new, or help with child care while attending classes or a job interview.

Seek out new personal connections when you volunteer or take classes. Compare notes with people following similar paths.

Tip 6: Keep moving forward

Stagnation can be deadly, particularly if you’re dissatisfied with your current career. Dutes and Pong recommend discovering your ikigai, a Japanese word that means “a reason for being.” “It’s the intersection of what you love doing, what you’re good at doing, what you get paid to do, and what the world needs of you,” Dutes says.

Try to find work that meets most, if not all, of those criteria.

So, should you switch careers to social work?

Maybe you only need to tweak your current work situation, not abandon it. Perhaps you want or need more money than the relatively modest salary of a social worker. You may not have time or money to volunteer or earn a social work degree. You may be comfortable with a job that provides you with a good living, even if you aren’t changing the world. In that case, a career in social work probably isn’t for you.

On the other hand, let’s say you’ve determined that you need more than just a minor change in your career trajectory. You can handle a modification (and possible reduction) in salary. You’re prepared to learn new skills. You want to help others and fight for social justice. If all of that rings true, social work may be the path for you. It’s a rewarding career with plenty of job opportunities.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) explains the driving force of the vocation: “To enhance human well-being and help meet basic and complex needs of all people, with a particular focus on those who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. If you’re looking for a career with meaning, action, diversity, satisfaction, and a variety of options, consider social work.”

The BLS includes among the most important skills for social workers:

Career opportunities abound. Columbia University offers an online master’s degree in social work and notes the widespread impact of the profession: “Social workers bring their skills to a variety of settings, including hospitals, nonprofits, government offices, and the private sector, with each role making important contributions. While social workers are in fact the largest group of mental health services providers in the U.S.–outnumbering psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychiatric nurses combined–the skills earned in a Master of Science in Social Work (MSW) program can support anyone who wants to effect positive change via their job, whether that is through social worker careers or in other professional areas.”
The BLS breaks down the categories occupied by America’s nearly three-quarters of a million social workers.

  • Child, family, and school social workers: 349,800
  • Healthcare social workers: 179,500
  • Mental health and substance abuse social workers: 119,800
  • Social workers, all other: 59,000
    The BLS also lists the largest employers of social workers by percentage:
  • Individual and family services: 18 percent
  • Local government, excluding education and hospitals: 15 percent
  • Ambulatory healthcare services: 14 percent
  • State government, excluding education and hospitals: 14 percent
    Working for positive change may involve helping refugees making a life in a new country, helping someone with substance abuse issues, and helping people deal with trauma or housing discrimination based on race. Career options include:
  • Behavioral healthcare manager
  • Client care coordinator
  • Clinical case manager
  • Clinical forensic specialist
  • Clinical social worker
  • Company relationship associate
  • Corporate social responsibility manager
  • Data and evaluation analyst
  • Director of outreach and volunteerism
  • Forensic social worker
  • Medical social worker
  • Policy advocate
  • Policy analyst
  • Research analyst
  • School social worker
  • Therapist/psychotherapist
  • Vocational rehab counselor
    Social work could also be an intermediate career step. Columbia notes jobs outside the field where a social work background would prove helpful, including:
  • Attorney
  • Benefits specialist
  • Business intelligence analyst
  • Early childhood educator
  • Human resources director
  • Leadership development coordinator
  • Manager of student recruitment
  • Nurse practitioner
  • Union representative

A midstream change to a social work career will almost certainly require sacrifice and operating outside your comfort zone. For those willing to brave such changes, the rewards and opportunities can be considerable.

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About the Author

Eddie Huffman is the author of John Prine: In Spite of Himself and a forthcoming biography of Doc Watson. He has written for Rolling Stone, the New York Times, Utne Reader, All Music Guide, Goldmine, the Virgin Islands Source, and many other publications.

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.

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