Across the country, millions of people are currently dealing with profound challenges in their everyday lives: poverty, disease, homelessness, food insecurity, addiction and more. While many rely on family, friends and other community members during difficult times, not everyone has adequate support for navigating the challenges they face. In many of these situations, social workers step in to bridge the gap.
If you are looking for a way to make a tangible difference in others’ lives while growing in a challenging and rewarding professional career, social work could be the right fit for you. In Troy University’s social work degree programs, you can reach beyond the stereotypes and build a foundation in social work that will equip you to meet the needs of your community in a variety of roles and settings.
What Is Social Work?
Social work is a diverse and rewarding field that offers a wide range of dynamic opportunities for helping people cope with challenging situations — from homelessness and substance abuse to familial challenges and health crises. While day-to-day responsibilities can vary widely depending on specialty and individual work environments, social workers typically serve as advocates for their clients, helping them to navigate and acquire the resources and support they need to thrive.
Given the wide-ranging ways that social work can impact both communities and individuals, answering the question, “What Is social work?” is not always so straightforward. “I find social work hard to define because we do so much,” says Jalonta Jackson-Glasco, M.S.W., Program Director of the Master of Social Work at TROY. “Ultimately, we are there to bridge the gap — to offer support, be a listening ear, or provide a voice when there is no one else to come alongside our clients. I do not think there is any other profession out there where you can say, ‘Hey, we are here for you.’”
What Does a Social Worker Do?
Many people assume that social workers only help those suffering under the worst of circumstances — like poverty and homelessness — and that’s usually reflected in portrayals of social workers in pop culture. The reality is that these professionals are available to help people of all ages, from all backgrounds, who are living with and navigating through a variety of circumstances. From battling an addiction to adopting a child to coping with a serious illness, the challenges addressed by social workers are experienced by people in all walks of life.
“I think it is so important to note that we are everywhere and we help everyone,” Jackson-Glasco says. “We are here to assist anyone who needs it.”
That open-door policy includes people who society might consider taboo or otherwise turn away — such as those in the criminal justice system. Whatever the situation, social workers help clients connect to needed resources, navigate legal and other systems, and have a voice in a situation where they may otherwise be overlooked and unheard.
“Again, that’s the uniqueness of our profession,” Jackson-Glasco says. “We are there for those who do not have support or do not even know where to turn to.”
Where Do Social Workers Work?
Because social work is an incredibly diverse field, social work jobs are found in a variety of locations and industries. Common environments include schools of all levels, mental health and other clinics, hospitals, child welfare and human service agencies, and community development organizations. Some social workers also work in private practices.
Within these environments, you will often find roles such as child, family, or school social worker, where career professionals dedicate themselves to working with a specific clientele. However, the group of professionals who fall into the social work category is diverse and covers various specialties.
Tamra J. Carter, who graduated with her master’s in social work from Troy University in July 2020, says the diversity of the field was a real eye-opener for her. “I didn’t know that the field was as broad as it is. I didn’t know how many amazing opportunities there were. It made me realize how much of a perfect fit it was for me. I love people, and I love helping them.”
While most social work positions are full-time, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social work professionals may not always have regular hours that fall into a traditional 9 to 5 schedule. As social workers are often tasked with addressing emergency situations, they can sometimes be called on to work evenings, weekends or even holidays. Your working hours will depend on the specific role and employer. Since there is such diversity in the field, if the structure of a strict schedule is important to you, you will likely find a position that is suited to that need.
How to Become a Social Worker
When it comes to determining what is social work’s typical career path, there is no single answer — there are numerous ways to enter the field, depending on your specialization. But if you are interested in becoming a social worker, you will typically need to fulfill both academic and licensing requirements to qualify for the majority of positions.
While there are some roles that you can fill without higher education, earning a degree can drastically increase your options. For most entry-level social work jobs, the first thing you need to do is earn a bachelor’s degree in social work. In an undergraduate-level program, you will develop your foundation in social work, studying broad but important topics such as the history of the field and general social work principles. In TROY’s bachelor’s of social work degree program, for example, you will cover topics that include evaluation best practices, intervention strategies, diversity engagement, and professional ethics.
Already have a bachelor’s degree in another subject? Not a problem. Social work careers do not necessarily have to begin with an undergraduate social work degree.
“If you earned a bachelor’s degree, but it is not in social work, that’s fine; you can acquire the academic credentials you need by enrolling in a graduate program,” Jackson-Glasco says. “In a two-year graduate social work program, the first year of the curriculum will be very similar to what someone would learn in a bachelor’s of social work program.”
According to Jackson-Glasco, the first year of a master’s program will generally center on basic social work principles and foundational practices — for example, learning how to communicate and work with clients, mastering basic social work theories and simply gaining a better understanding of how people operate.
The second half of a master’s program typically focuses on the clinical assessment and management social work skills you need to take on more advanced roles and work in the clinical setting.
All of the classes Carter took at TROY gave her a strong foundation for her job as a social worker at Selma Health and Rehab. “The program prepared me for my career because I am now able to assess individuals properly. I have the ability to go the extra mile to help my residents when something about them seems out of the norm. I am more knowledgeable of the elderly population than I was before I entered the program,” she adds.
Because a master’s program does offer advanced training, you may want to consider earning a graduate degree even if you already have or are studying for an undergraduate social work degree. Depending on your career goals, it may even be a requirement. Some social work positions, particularly those in the clinical setting, will require a master’s of social work degree. If you already hold a bachelor’s degree, you may be able to enroll in an accelerated program that will enable you to earn your master’s in a shorter period of time.
While your academic credentials are critical in the social work field, there are also licensing requirements to consider. It is important to note that laws regarding the use of the title “social worker” can vary from state to state.
“In the state of Alabama, for example, it is written into the legislation that no one can call themselves a social worker or practice social work, even if they have a degree in social work unless they are licensed,” Jackson-Glasco says. “That is why it is so important that you do your research on the individual state’s requirements before you try to launch your career. You need to make sure you have a plan for meeting all the requirements so that your state will recognize you as a social worker.”
Succeeding as a Social Worker
If you are considering a social work career, it’s a good time to enter the field. According to the BLS, social work jobs are expected to grow by 13% through 2029 — much faster than average than for other occupations — and add 90,700 new positions to the market. While salaries vary according to experience, level of education and specific employer, the BLS reports that the median annual salary for a social worker was $50,470 as of 2019.
To excel in a career in social work, Jackson-Glasco recommends cultivating the following traits:
Communication: As a social worker, your ability to communicate well — with your clients, coworkers and other professionals — is critical. In emotional or otherwise challenging situations, clearly explaining resources, strategies and other recommendations to those you work with can make a significant difference in their success.
Carter was able to hone her communications skills at TROY, as well as cultivate active listening skills. “I use those when I am helping my residents with their problems.”
Communication plays a big role when she works with her clients. “I pay close attention to the minor details of a resident (i.e., change in behavior/mood, medications, or their diagnoses). I have built a rapport with the residents in my facility, so whenever they need something done, they don’t hesitate to reach out.”
Written communication skills are also fundamental to the profession.
“The truth of the matter is we do a lot of report writing,” Jackson-Glasco says. “So the ability to communicate both verbally and through writing are both important.”
Empathy: Because social workers are frequently called on to navigate extremely sensitive situations, empathy is an important quality to develop. When working with clients, you will build more trust if the other person feels that you truly care.
“We were taught to be empathetic,” says Carter, “and I make sure I let the residents know that I not only have empathy for their situations, but I sympathize with them as well.”
Patience: One of the most rewarding components of a social work career is seeing your clients make progress in overcoming challenges. However, you will need a well-developed sense of patience as you navigate difficult processes together.
“Many of the people that we work with are at the lowest point of their lives. You cannot expect change overnight,” Jackson-Glasco says. “You need to have patience.”
Teamwork: While social work often involves one-on-one interactions with clients, teamwork is nonetheless a critical skill. Whether you work in a multi-department organization or on a small team of fellow professionals, you will often find yourself working closely with others in your day-to-day responsibilities.
Launching Your Social Work Career at Troy University
What is social work? It is a rewarding profession that offers daily opportunities to grow personally while helping others to improve their lives and surmount difficult challenges. In TROY’s undergraduate social work degree program, you can develop the skills and knowledge you need to build a diverse and rewarding career in the field. The program features a dynamic curriculum based on standards set by the Council on Social Work Education and emphasizes community projects and hands-on experience.
“I think what TROY does very, very well is to prepare students, not only to go anywhere in the world to practice social work, but to meet the specific needs that we see locally in this area,” Jackson-Glasco says. “That includes topics like how to effectively communicate and work with the individuals who live in rural communities and may not have access to medical doctors or who have experienced generations of poverty. It is critically important to learn to communicate well with groups who are not necessarily being heard, especially when navigating community-wide challenges, such as COVID-19.”
The program also adapts itself to the needs of many of today’s students who are often juggling jobs and family responsibilities along with their educational goals. Whether you need to balance courses with a busy work schedule, caretaker responsibilities, military service or other life commitments, TROY’s flexible degree options are well-suited to a wide variety of learners from all walks of life.
“When it comes to earning your social work degree, we offer a lot of options.” This includes military servicemen and servicewomen, veterans, and their families. “It is really important for students, especially those working, to realize that,” Jackson-Glasco says. “In both our undergraduate and master’s programs, we offer in-person classes at our four campuses, as well as online options. If you have a job and need flexibility, we can make that happen. We really have an option for everyone.”
As an Army veteran, Carter chose Troy because she wanted a small classroom setting and because TROY is military friendly. “I heard good things about the school and the program,” she says.
Carter’s advice for someone entering this career – patience. “Be flexible (because things don’t always go as planned), and don’t be too hard on yourself.”
To learn more about the social work bachelor’s degree program, please visit the page for the social work major on the TROY website.
Illustration created by Madelyn Flanagan. © Troy University 2021.