Social Work Career Overview

Understanding Social Work: What You Should Know

Social work is a broad field which endeavors to help both the individual and society as a whole. While social work takes many forms, it is always centered on understanding and helping our fellow humans. Social work is binary in nature. The two branches which comprise the field include one centered on treating individuals with interventions and therapies, and another which is a macro-level analysis centered on expanding social work knowledge, or to advise on policy at the societal level.


Social work that is centered on the individual or family can take the form of direct one-on-one treatment, group therapy, couples counseling, or family counseling sessions. At this level, social work focuses on helping individuals, couples or families to recognize cognitive behavioral issues through assessment and psychological inventories. Using these tools, social workers can help individuals and families recognize and address the issues causing problematic behaviors. There are many forms this can take; there are marriage and family therapists, addiction counselors, and licensed clinical social workers, to name a few. While each worker may be addressing very diverse behavioral issues, all of them are helping individuals recognize underlying causes of problematic behaviors, and using strength-based approaches to help correct these behaviors.

Social work that is done at the macro level can include social work research, or interventions for communities such as public health or other policy level consultation done with governments, corporations or community stakeholders. Social work research is often done in a clinical setting so that sociological studies can be undertaken in a controlled environment. Research can also take the form of surveys that are done on behalf of corporations, think tanks, governments, political parties or universities. This research is then peer-reviewed and can then contribute to real-world practices at the individual or community level.

Social Work Practice vs Social Work Organizations

While social work itself can be divided into two branches, so too can the practice of social work be divided. Some have social work careers within organizations and others practice independently. The majority of social workers across all job titles work within an organization, whether it is a public agency such as in government, or for a private employer. Public sphere social work is usually involved with treatments and interventions for the individual. This can take the form of counseling-based social work, or the administration of government safety net programs wherein a social worker helps to determine which aid programs or publicly funded health interventions are appropriate for an individual client. Additionally, social workers will work at a policy level with community stakeholders, corporate boards or legislators to create large-scale public policy within a given community. Some social workers will end up in publicly funded clinical research through organizations such as universities to help advance the field of social work knowledge. The public sphere of social work is very diverse and comprehensive.

By contrast, the private practice social worker is one who usually acts in a counseling-only capacity, or more rarely as a private practice advisor to policy makers. The most common form of private practice is that of the licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and other therapeutic social workers. For the licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), the focus is on developing their own private practice and techniques to assist clients in cognitive behavioral therapies and other interventions that have been shown to be effective. For many LCSWs, what attracts them to private practice is the idea of being their own boss and running their practice as they see fit. From setting your own schedule to having your own system of case file maintenance, there are many reasons why a private practice might be appealing to you.

Social Work Codes of Ethics

Social work is a profession where you often are dealing with very vulnerable clients and often have access to extremely personal and intimate information. When working with clients, you will always be expected to follow the latest HIPAA laws regarding client confidentiality. In addition to legal requirements, the field of social work has a stringent set of ethics that are required if you wish to practice in a licensed capacity. Further, many organizations require the strict adherence to social work ethics and guidelines as provided by the state social work licensure boards and other regulatory bodies. While these vary from state to state and organization to organization, professional integrity demands that social works follow these guidelines in order to protect clients health and safety. An example of ethics is the injunction against any sort of romantic entanglements with clients. Another example of common ethics guidelines is ensuring there is no financial or legal conflict of interest when a social worker has a client on their caseload. This is especially relevant in cases where a social worker is involved in court related social work such as evaluating clients who are referred to them by the courts. While many of the various codes of ethics for social workers are different in one state compared to another, most are common sense guidelines on ethical behavior with a client. The National Association of Social Worker’s (NASW) developed the following ethics guidelines which are considered a best practice minimum standard for social workers nationwide. They are based on a set of ethics that are predicated on specific social work values. Be sure you are aware of any additions your state or organization might have. You can find the NASW Social Work Code of Ethics by here.

Social Work Theory

Social work theory is an ever evolving field of knowledge that brings together the entire scope of the social work field into a cohesive framework of best practices developed in various social work research studies. This research is performed in clinical settings by licensed clinical social workers and other licensed social work professionals. At the core of social work theory is the exploration and attempt to understand human behavior, what motivates it, and how to change human behavior that is seen as problematic. This is achieved using the scientific method to develop evidence based practices to understand human behavior and how to change it when necessary. While often focused on the individual, social work theory can also be expanded to aid in understanding why large-scale behaviors are occurring in society as well as developing theories on how to educate and inform the public to change these behaviors.

Some examples of social work theory that have been accepted and brought into mainstream use are ideas such as:

  • Equity and inclusion
  • Microaggressions
  • Trauma informed care
  • Dual Diagnosis treatment
  • Cultural Competency

Social Work Policy

Social work policies are created by using social work theoretical frameworks and applying them to policy creation. This can take the form of a social worker brought in to help a corporation’s human resources department develop policies of equity and inclusion along with cultural competency as part of corporate efforts to modernize HR practices. This can also take the form of social workers advising policy makers in local governments on how to make policies that are socially conscious and equitable. Social workers also can help develop policies that maximize the effectiveness of public education efforts.

Social work is a vast and diverse field centered around helping us recognize our collective humanity and understanding the underpinnings of human behaviors. The ultimate goal of social work is to help create better conditions and facilitate understanding of our fellow human beings.

Types of Social Workers

Clinical Social Worker – This branch of social work involves the diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses. As such it’s an advanced practice field of social work that requires the highest level of education, at least a master’s degree in Social Work (MSW). Becoming licensed in this field means passing the Association of Social Work Boards’ (ASWB) most comprehensive national test, its Clinical Exam. Clinical social workers often engage in individual, group, and family therapy and commonly work in settings like community mental health agencies, primary care facilities, hospitals, and independently as private practitioners.

Medical Social Worker – This class of professional helps clients and their loved ones cope with medical illnesses. It’s hard enough to deal with a life-changing medical diagnosis physically, and though commonly overlooked, often even more so mentally. Clients can face new treatment regimens they’ve never experienced before, and helping them navigate these and sign up for services through governmental and private insurance programs is an important aspect of medical social work. As the name implies this category of social workers is typically employed at hospitals, clinics, and other medical treatment facilities like hospice and long term care centers.

Child Welfare Social Worker – Making sure children experience a loving, nurturing, and safe environment as they grow and develop is the number one goal of child welfare social workers. This involves working with families to discern strategies that work best for each child and family’s unique situation in the wider social and school contexts. In more serious cases these social workers play an important interventionist role as child advocates. These professionals often work with family mental health agencies and with state or local government agencies.

Forensic Social Worker – There’s an important application of social work to the criminal and civil legal systems. Forensic social work can involve contributing to mental health evaluations, and is vital any time a person’s mental well-being is a factor for legal issues like child custody, divorce, parental rights, and court-ordered treatment in the adult and juvenile criminal justice systems. This class of professional also plays an important consulting role when it comes to forming legislation.

Mental Health Social Worker – As the name implies this class of social worker specializes in mental health issues. Mental health is often the primary component of problems relating to substance abuse, family and relationship issues, unemployment, homelessness, and run-ins with law enforcement. These social workers specialize in recognizing and treating mental disorders, in addition to offering strategies for prevention that promote good mental health.

Psychiatric Social Worker – Psychiatrists are medical doctors who treat disorders of the brain, often caused by chemical imbalances. Psychiatric social workers are experts on how disorders of the brain manifest themselves in behavior and cause ripple effects between an individual and their wider social community. This is informed by the study of the physical properties of the brain and how these affect individual psychology. Therapy and counseling are some of the main tools psychiatric social workers rely on when evaluating clients and engaging in case management.

Child Social Worker – A primary population focus, professionals in this niche fill a very special role in providing social work services tailored specifically to children. Children face unique challenges in their social environment and this is coupled with the unique way that children perceive the world. Child social workers bridge both aspects to reach children directly and ensure their environments are maximized for positive growth and development outcomes. These professionals often work with family services agencies, in schools, and with state or local governments.

Hospice Social Worker – End-of-life care is difficult on many levels and hospice social workers help their clients navigate them all. Realizing one’s life is near an end has profound implications on mental health. Day-to-day activities can be stressful and physically painful. Emotional bonds with friends and family members become supercharged. Hospice care often involves a move into a new environment where the fulfillment of basic daily needs and routine activities is turned upside down. And this is all to say nothing of imposing physical limitations.

Geriatric Social Worker – Working with a primary population focus that’s one of the fastest-growing demographics in the nation means the demand for geriatric social workers is high. There’s a special set of challenges and knowledge that’s needed to apply social work principles and methods to elderly populations, who are some of the most vulnerable members of society. Geriatric social workers help their clients as they face a unique combination of challenges in areas like dementia, anxiety, economic stress and instability, and loneliness.

Child and Family Social Worker – A family relationship can be stronger than the sum of its parts, and social workers engaged in this field of service help to make this a reality. Family dynamics are complicated and involve intimate inter-personal relationships as well as dealing with stresses from school and work. This is made exponentially more complicated when marital problems, mental illnesses, and substance abuse disorders are thrown into the mix; issues that child and family social workers are adept at handling and networking resources for.

Hospital Social Worker – Navigating the healthcare system and simultaneously coping with the mental and emotional challenges posed by medical issues is a daunting challenge. Those in these types of situations aren’t alone thanks to the expertise of hospital social workers. These professionals help clients and their families via the application of social work to alleviate mental stresses arising from the in-patient and out-patient experience, and provide valuable education about medical conditions and treatment options.