How to start and grow a career in Social Work

April 2, 2018

How can someone start a career in social work and keep it growing?

Dr. Jamie Sundvall, Core Faculty in the Master of Social Work Program at Capella, shared her ideas and suggestions to get your career off the ground.

Start with a Bachelor’s degree

The basic foundation for a social work career is a bachelor’s degree. It’s a necessary stepping stone to the master’s degree (MSW). The bachelor’s does not need to be in social work – it can be in a related field such as public health, counseling, or education. But having the bachelor’s degree in social work will allow you to apply to a program like Capella with advanced standing.

If you’re planning to pursue a bachelor’s in social work, it’s a good idea to do your homework. “Requirements vary from state to state, but in many states, getting the BSW allows students to apply for a bachelor’s-level license to practice in the field while they pursue the MSW,” Sundvall says.

She also notes the importance of finding the right bachelor’s program. “Look for a program that’s not just regionally accredited—although that’s very important, too—but also CSWE-accredited. Graduating from a CSWE accredited bachelor’s program may help students gain eligibility for advanced standing in MSW programs, which can reduce the time and costs of the MSW program.”

Internship experience is important when applying for an MSW program, as well as developing experience in the field to potentially improve post-graduation employment opportunities. Internship opportunities can provide you hands-on experience developing a practice, using technology, preparing case documentation, and working with people from a diversity of settings. This type of experience gives you credibility and the insight necessary for a successful social work career in micro, mezzo, or macro level work.

No matter what type of bachelor’s degree you have, the important thing is developing your resume right away by finding relevant internships and volunteer work. “Get those internships, those entry-level positions, and do a lot of networking,” Sundvall says. “It’s very important to develop your resume so you have more than just a degree when you graduate.”

Moving to Master’s

There’s no one “right” way to get to pursue your master’s degree, says Sundvall. “We have students in the MSW program who came in immediately following graduation from a bachelor’s program, and others who have been out in the field for 20 years and are just now returning for the master’s.”

For those who want to pursue a master’s—which will allow them to move into higher-level therapeutic clinical practice, macro level practice, and management—there are other strategies to keep in mind.

“Something not many people know about is the value of a fellowship post-supervision,” says Sundvall. “There are organizations that offer fellowships under subject matter experts in areas like trauma or crisis management. Getting that specialized experience in a specific area can make an MSW graduate even more attractive to employers.”

There’s another area Sundvall feels is too often overlooked. “People sometimes leave the research angle for doctoral candidates,” she says. “But research experience at the MSW level is extremely important. It’s a unique type of experience and can really set a candidate apart.” She notes that managers who oversee budgets, data, and evidence-based research would be especially interested in finding candidates with this expertise.

Sundvall also recommends that MSW students don’t wait until they’ve earned their degree to build their resume. One good way to do that is through advocacy.

“Get involved in local organizations that work on issues for vulnerable populations,” she says. “Contact your local National Association of Social Workers (NASW) chapter and volunteer to do advocacy work with them. It shows a great deal of initiative, work ethic, and commitment to the values of the profession to pursue advocacy work, and it can really set a student apart. We don’t see it that often.”

Staying current

As with many fields, social work is a changing, evolving practice. Whether you stay with the BSW or move into an MSW, it’s critically important to keep your professional licenses current, join your local and national organizations and participate in them, and pursue additional education and certifications. Never pass up an opportunity to learn something new and to meet and network with others in your field.

Learn more about Capella’s social work programs.

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