Ask the average person on the street what a social worker does, and you’ll hear about tireless, selfless professionals who work in health care, human services, or criminal justice settings – those who help others find and access the resources they need to cope and thrive.

That portrait isn’t wrong, exactly, but it only tells a small part of the story.

To create a more complete picture, we spoke with three Capella University social work faculty members—Dianna Cooper-Bolinskey, DHSC, LICSW; Jamie Sundvall, PhD, LICSW; and Zulema Suarez PhD, LMSW. Their varied experience, interests, and accomplishments reveal a dynamic field where career options are bigger and more diverse than you might expect.

Pathways into Social Work

Social workers find their way into the field in many different ways.

Cooper-Bolinskey, for example, started her career in the business world as an accountant and office manager before returning to school in her 30s to earn her Master of Social Work degree.

Sundvall initially considered a career in psychology. “I had never thought about social work initially because the stereotype didn’t fit what I wanted to do,” she says. But as she learned more about the field, she discovered that social work had some powerful advantages. “I realized I could license in most states as a bachelor’s-level social worker and get a decent job. I could support myself through my master’s program.”

For Suárez, the path to social work was a personal one. As a teen, she saw an analyst who helped her navigate the challenges of those tumultuous years. “He was a social worker,” she explains. So she entered the field as well, thinking she’d become an analyst, too. “When I went to school, though, I took policy and research, and I liked that even better,” she recalls.

Variety in Practice and Workplace Settings

If there’s one thing that Capella faculty illustrate clearly, it’s the remarkable variety within social work. Cooper-Bolinskey, for example, has practiced in a state department of child services, a major medical center, public schools, higher education, the Veterans Administration, and her own private practice. Sundvall has worked in trauma settings, with the military, and in private practice. Suárez has practiced in social service agencies focused on the Hispanic and Muslim communities, and provided mental health counseling in the South Bronx during the late 1970s. “I call it the ‘trenches,’” she says. “That was extremely challenging.”

Her experience in the “trenches” opened Suarez’s eyes to options in social work: teaching, writing, and research. She learned that the issues her clients dealt with were often shaped by public policy. Through research and writing, she found that she could have a bigger influence on her field and beyond. With teaching, she explains, “I can make an impact. If I teach one student, and they go on and serve others, it’s paying it forward. I have a farther reach.” 

And even that barely scratches the surface of what’s possible in social work. Other potential settings include community planning agencies, human rights commissions, private consultant work, non-profit administration, corrections, probation and parole careers, adoption agencies, specialized medical settings like oncology, hospice, HIV, neonatal, and kidney dialysis centers. 

Other social workers contribute their expertise in the criminal justice system, in corporate or public wellness programs, employee assistance programs, and public health initiatives.

Social workers can also have a major impact in politics and public policy, according to Suárez.  “Social workers helped Roosevelt engineer the New Deal—look up Harry Hopkins,” she suggests. Hopkins was a social worker, one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s closest advisors, and a primary architect of the New Deal.  

Career Options for Social Workers  

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, overall employment of social workers is projected to grow 16% from 2016 – 2026 – much faster than average. Clearly, there are a staggering number of career options for social workers—thanks to some unique aspects of the field.

A licensed social worker can provide a wide range of services: from clinical work including mental health counseling and therapy to non-clinical services like case management, advocacy, public policy, and more. Suárez puts this in personal terms: “I have a lot of broad interests. As I’ve changed, just within my career and my own development, I’ve been able to stay in the field and do different things.”

Social work is a very well-established profession. “Social work is much older than a lot of the other clinical fields,” Sundvall explains. “Some of the accrediting bodies are significantly bigger. There’s a great deal of credibility and support rooted in the profession.”

With multiple settings, types of practice, and career options, there are pathways in social work for almost anyone who’s interested in a career focused on helping and empowering others.

Learn more about Capella’s online social work degrees, including the CSWE-accredited Master of Social Work program.

Growth will vary by specialization. Multiple factors, including prior experience, age, geography, and degree field, affect career outcomes, and Capella does not guarantee a job, promotion, salary increase, or other career growth.