Social work, the study of social welfare systems with the intention to better people’s lives, is a dynamic major that can open the door to a variety of careers. Industries ranging from government and education to healthcare and psychological services all hire social workers to play an integral role in their daily work and larger mission.
The unifying thread among the diverse roles that social work majors can play in the world is their desire to interact with people and help to improve people’s lives. Social workers often assist the most vulnerable members of society – whether children, the elderly, people in poverty, or veterans – by providing them with knowledge, resources, and support to better their lives. For this reason, a social work degree can prepare students for careers that are both emotionally challenging and incredibly fulfilling; social workers can leave their job at night knowing they have done something to make the world a better place.
Everyone encounters difficult circumstances at some point in their life. Social workers help people to overcome those difficult circumstances and emerge from challenges such as unemployment, addiction, disability, abuse, mental illness, trauma, and poverty with a sense of hope and a concrete plan for moving forward.
In this article, we’ll walk through some of the most common and most interesting potential career paths for social work majors, with a focus on what makes the job unique and what salary an entry-level employee can expect. As this list will show, the opportunities for students with a social work degree are nearly limitless, and they continue to grow.
Before we dive into the list, here’s one caveat: many social work-related jobs require a Master’s degree in Social Work. So, students who are serious about pursuing a career connected to social work may want to think about eventually going to graduate school. Salaries are generally higher for jobs that require a graduate degree in Social Work.
Child and Family Social Worker
Median salary: $47,390
Child and family social workers offer support, education, and resources to children as well as their parents and guardians. A social worker in this domain may work with families that have experienced trauma, families in serious health issues, and families in which abuse has taken place. Social workers help parents and guardians locate the support and resources needed to keep children living in the home. Sometimes, however, it is in the children’s best interest to be moved to a different home. In such a case, the social worker assists with the placement process.
Social workers in this field also work closely with children who have experienced personal traumas, loss (such as the loss of a parent or sibling), or abuse by someone outside of their family. Child and Family Social Workers can be based in a variety of settings; some work in schools, others work for government organizations, and still others work for adoption agencies, foster care services, or other social support systems. Their focus is on ensuring children are well cared for and have their basic physical and emotional needs met.
Substance Abuse & Recovery Treatment Counselor
Median salary: $42,170
Substance abuse & recovery treatment counselors are trained to support, educate, and coach people through the long road to sobriety and addiction recovery. Social workers who specialize in substance abuse and recovery counseling can provide recovering substance abusers with professional tools, support systems, and strategies to overcome addiction.
Social workers in this field usually work with a team of professionals, including medical doctors and psychologists/psychiatrists, in order to best coordinate the patient’s care. A social worker gets to know a patient through one-on-one conversations about their life and history of substance abuse, and then together the social worker and patient devise a treatment plan suited to the patient’s unique needs.
Such a plan can include anything from additional counseling to in-patient treatment. Because a patient’s needs can change over time, a social worker usually maintains sustained contact with patients and revises their treatment plans as needed.
Substance abuse & recovery treatment counselors work in a range of different settings, including hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, community health centers, recovery treatment centers, and mental health clinics.
Healthcare Social Worker
Average salary: $56,750
Patients battling chronic disease, acute medical crises, and/or terminal illness need more than medication and medical treatment; they also need the support, education, resources, and emotional resilience healthcare social workers can provide. These types of social workers help clients with chronic, acute, and/or terminal diseases access proper treatment, utilize all the healthcare funding options at their disposal, and resolve any serious issues that arise in the course of treatment. Healthcare social workers are advocates for their clients’ well-being, treatment, and physical and emotional needs.
Healthcare social workers play a key role in supporting patients and families who may be blindsided by a diagnosis and do not know what to do next. In such cases, healthcare social workers can point patients and families in the direction of community health programs as well as social services such as public housing, public legal aid, education, job readiness and opportunities, and financial assistance.
At times of serious illness or disease, patients and their families are often especially vulnerable. Healthcare social workers provide a reassuring sense of knowledge, calm, support, and consistency, seeing the patient and their family through the full course of treatment.
Prison Social Worker
Average salary: $59,000
Prison social workers, also called correctional social workers, are rigorously trained mental health professionals who work within the criminal justice system to minimize rates of recidivism. By helping inmates address underlying psycho-social issues, develop coping mechanisms, and access social support systems outside of prison, social workers help inmates reintegrate into society to better themselves and the community.
However, these kinds of social workers do not always work in typical prison or correctional facility environments; they can also branch out into areas such as abuse crisis centers, police departments, juvenile detention centers, local, state, and federal court systems, and other settings that are correctional in nature.
Prison social workers focus primarily on rehabilitation; their goal is to help people optimize their mental health, work through difficult emotional experiences, teach life skills, and prepare inmates for meaningful lives beyond bars. Coupled with clinical, social worker-to-patient work, prison social workers must also complete extensive administrative records, detailed files, and coordination with other professionals.
Case Manager, Social Services
Average salary: $39,790
Case managers in social services are responsible for coordinating clients’ care. They collaborate with multiple agencies and institutions to get all patients the optimal care for them. Whereas a social services social worker typically provides extensive therapy to clients, case managers tend to deal primarily with the coordination of care and act as liaisons between the different professionals and agencies involved in a client’s care. That said, case managers do sometimes provide limited counseling to clients.
Case managers can find positions in diverse industries such as schools, hospitals, government agencies, NPOs, and more. Like social workers, their skills are key to the successful functioning of many different domains.
Patient Care Coordinator
Average salary: $39,690
A patient care coordinator, also called a care coordinator, is a health professional who facilitates a patient’s care in need of extra support, such as an elderly or disabled patient. A patient care coordinator’s duties include overseeing and coordinating patient treatment plans, helping patients understand their condition, setting patients up with different health care providers as needed, and monitoring patients’ progress through treatment.
In a typical day, a patient care coordinator might meet with patients and their family members to review the patient’s health status and treatment, spend time sharing information with patients about their condition and medicine guidelines, document patients’ progress, and collaborate with patients’ other health care providers.
Additionally, they may help patients make appointments with specialist medical professionals, assist patients’ care teams in determining the efficacy of treatment interventions, assist as needed with garnering funds for medical treatments, and complete regular training to ensure they stay at the cutting edge of the field.
Medical care for a patient in need of extra support can be complicated and time-consuming, so patient care coordinators play a vital role in educating, advocating for, supporting, and monitoring the health care plan for patients and on behalf of their families and loved ones. With America’s aging population, and given the prominence of chronic disease among the population, patient care coordinator jobs are likely to be in high demand now and into the future.
School Social Worker
Median salary: $47,390
School social workers specialize in assisting with concerns about mental health, behavior, academic performance, classroom management, and community-level issues in school settings. As trained mental health professionals, school social workers provide support, resources, and interventions for students in consultation with teachers, parents and guardians, and school administrators. The purpose of a school social worker is to ensure that the school is a safe, positive environment where children can learn and grow. School social workers play an especially important role in coordinating the collaboration between a student’s home, school, and wider community.
When working at a school, a social worker might be involved in anything from participating in educational planning meetings for individual students, writing a developmental history on a child with a disability, providing group, individual, and/or family counseling, intervening in a crisis involving a student, and assisting with a student’s ability to navigate emotions like anger.
Many school districts have social workers that rotate to different schools in the district rather than being based exclusively at one school. This can be an exciting opportunity for social workers to encounter an especially diverse range of students, families, teachers, and administrators.
School Guidance and Career Counselors
Median salary: $42,350
Closely related to school social workers are school guidance and career counselors, who also work directly with students to ensure every child’s optimal growth and development. Whereas school social workers tend to work primarily with at-risk students, such as those who have experienced trauma, have disabilities, live in poverty, or have tumultuous home environments, guidance and career counselors work with all students in the school.
School guidance and career counselors are responsible for developing counseling programs accessible to all students in individual and group settings. Sometimes these counselors help students build resilience or create a study plan for a challenging course. Other times, these counselors help students think through the different options for their future, college, military, career, and so on.
While school social workers spend a lot of time assessing students in need and creating customized support plans for students, such as IEPs (Individualized Education Plan), school guidance and career counselors spend their time conferencing with students, coaching them through the college admissions process, and helping them to identify and work with their strengths and areas in need of growth. School guidance and career counselors collaborate as necessary with other school personnel, including school social workers.
Human Resources Coordinator
Median salary: $58,560
Although a career as a human resources coordinator is not typically the first job that comes to mind for a student with a degree in Social Work, many of the skills and concepts students hone while studying Social Work transfer easily to HR.
As the name suggests, a human resources coordinator coordinates all central HR duties and programs, including concerns or issues employees raise related to the company, work environment, or general employment, as well as policies around salary and benefits, union and other labor negotiations, and employee relations.
HR coordinators work in close contact with other HR personnel, such as the HR director, hiring managers, and third-party recruiters. Although companies are not legally required to have an HR department, most medium and large companies do, so this is a field that tends to have solid employment prospects across a full range of industries.
HR personnel ensure that the work environment runs smoothly and that employees feel safe, supported, and confident in their work.
Public Policy Analyst
Median salary: $58,560
Some graduates with a degree in social work elect to pursue a role that is less about day-to-day interactions with people in need and more focused on evaluating and improving macro-level social services and strategies. For students interested in enacting change on a broader social scale, a career as a policy analyst could be a good fit and a meaningful vocation.
Non-profit organizations and government agencies hire public policy analysts/social workers to help bring about macro-level social change. Public policy analysts take stock of existing social systems, evaluate their efficacy, and, where appropriate, suggest ways to improve upon or overhaul those systems to make them function more smoothly and create a greater positive impact.
Public policy analysts might, for instance, work with a local government planning board to develop new public housing units or zoning laws to support economically disenfranchised city residents. They might also initiate and oversee large-scale public works projects that benefit both people in need and the community as a whole.
In some cases, public policy analysts may also play a hand in formulating new legislation designed to serve the public good, especially the needs of marginalized or at-risk groups. Finally, public policy analysts might conduct training programs for places like local community centers or conduct educational outreach efforts to communities in need.