Social Worker Fields of Practice

Social Work can be very rewarding. It’s important to find the right Social Worker fields of practice for you. In this article, we’ll cover these social worker fields of practice:

  • Aging / Gerontology
  • Child Welfare
  • Criminal Justice / Corrections
  • Drugs and Alcohol / Addictive Behaviors
  • Education / School Social Work
  • Family Services
  • Healthcare / Public Health
  • Military Support
  • Women

Aging / Gerontology

Social Worker Fields of in Practice Aging/ Gerontology Overview:

Experts in the field of gerontology consider how aging affects physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Their long-term holistic support provides aging populations with the resources and care they need to thrive.

Gerontology specialists learn about topics such as ethical care for the elderly, the transition to long-term care, and the onset of Alzheimer’s and other diseases.  They work with individuals and their families to access resources available within the community, consider end-of-life options and care, and prepare for grief and loss.

Specialists must be attentive to broad-scale issues such as elder abuse and cultural effects on the aging process, and they are also versed in more specific topics such as the loss of physical capabilities and independence, noticing early signs of dementia and other mental disorders, and ways to maintain an active lifestyle. While addressing these subjects with aging individuals is important, gerontological social workers also play a vital role in educating the families of these individuals to ensure a positive, nurturing, and safe environment.

Typical Roles and Responsibilities:

Social workers who specialize in gerontology often help to handle the practical aspects of the aging process, such as financial planning for long-term care, selection of care providers and facilities, coordinating the preparation of documents such as advance directives, and ensuring proper prevention and treatment of physical and mental health issues. They may enter the field as case managers, and responsibilities can increase as social workers gain experience in the field.

Gerontological Social Workers Often Find Employment in:

  • Government agencies
  • Hospitals
  • Long-term care facilities
  • Senior centers
  • Community centers
  • Hospices

Average Salary:

Salaries in the field of geriatric social work vary based on educational background and prior experience, with a range of approximately $33,000-$55,000 annually. On average, social workers who specialize in aging earn $41,000 each year.Social Worker Fields of Practice Gerontology

Education & Experience Requirements:

Geriatric social workers can enter the field with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work. There may be courses available in social work degree programs that allow students to study theories and issues specific to aging populations.

In addition, some states or employers may require additional coursework or training before a social worker can specialize in gerontology.  Social workers can enter this field with relatively low professional experience, though salaries and career opportunities increase with greater experience.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers credentialing in gerontology for graduates of accredited bachelor’s or master’s level social work degree programs who meet certain qualifications for a post-graduate experience.

This type of credential may be required for some gerontological social work positions.

Explore accredited online master of social work programs, which provide the educational foundation needed for a credential from the NASW.

Child Welfare

Social Worker Fields of Practice in Child Welfare Overview:

Specialists in the field of child welfare aim to provide protection for children on a holistic level, addressing physical, emotional, and environmental concerns. They work with children who come from situations of abuse, neglect, or other negative treatment.

Social work in the realm of child welfare often centers on intervention for children. The social worker enters the situation when the child is under duress, providing a safe and compassionate advocate who will provide consistent support as the child’s circumstances and plan for future care are considered.  Experts in the field have developed the ability to approach a situation with an unbiased perspective, to take a variety of important factors into account, and to choose the best course of action through careful evaluation and planning.

Typical Roles and Responsibilities:

Child welfare social work often focuses on case management and supervision. Case managers handle many aspects of the child protection services process, including:

  • home visits to evaluate children’s living situation
  • assessments of caregivers
  • overall evaluation of children’s environment
  • placement in protective custody, foster care, or an adoptive family

Many roles in the child welfare field are found in government agencies. States’ titles for these agencies vary but may be known as the Department of Children and Families or Child Protective Services.   In addition, private organizations and charities focusing on child welfare may offer positions to case managers and social workers.

It is important to note that this is a high-stress field, where social workers and case managers need to be prepared to handle challenging situations. While difficulties do arise, child welfare work can also be very rewarding, as specialists often make a tremendous difference in the futures of children.

Average Salary:Social Worker Fields of Practice Child Welfare

Salaries in the field of child welfare vary a great deal based on the employee’s role. Case managers earn an average of $35,000/year, while licensed social workers and those in supervisory roles often earn more.  Since many roles in this field are in government agencies, child welfare specialists may be able to access government insurance and ancillary benefits.

Education & Experience Requirements:

Beginning-level case managers may enter the field with a bachelor’s degree in a human service field, such as psychology or social work.

However, higher-paying and supervisory roles in child welfare organizations may be offered primarily to licensed graduates of bachelor or master of social work programs.

Most social work degrees offer some coursework specific to addressing the needs of children though particular states may require additional classes or credentials.  (Learn more about state social work licensure requirements here.)

In addition, experience from an internship or volunteering – perhaps as a guardian ad litem or another similar role – can help child welfare specialists to enter the field with experiential knowledge.

Criminal Justice / Corrections

Social Worker Fields of Practice in Criminal Justice / Corrections Overview:

Social workers in the criminal justice field work with individuals to find solutions that will help them succeed and reintegrate in their communities. They consider factors such as mental health, substance abuse treatment, and food and living provisions to ensure that inmates have the tools and resources they need before they rejoin the general population.

In addition, criminal justice social workers (also called forensic social workers) may assist family members affected by the correctional system. They may, for example, help to arrange supplemental benefits for a family whose provider has been incarcerated, or assist with foster care placement when the court system has deemed caregivers unfit to remain at home.  Furthermore, specialists might provide therapy, advocacy, and court representation to those who are affected by the criminal justice system in a variety of ways.  Overall, criminal justice social work spans a variety of roles and duties, giving experts in the field a diverse career outlook.

Typical Roles and Responsibilities:

Criminal justice social workers may hold positions in:

  • Intervention
  • Rehabilitation
  • Probation and parole
  • Court representation and advocacy
  • Case management

While responsibilities vary by role, it is important for social workers in the correctional field to embrace justice and a high standard of ethics. They must treat their clients fairly and without bias, regardless of criminal status.  Forensic social workers in any role seek to foster positive change in the lives of inmates as well as their families and communities.

Average Salary for Social Workers in Criminal Justice:

Salaries for forensic social workers are among the highest in the social work field. According to the 2010 findings of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the median salary for a social worker in the field is $56,300.

Education & Experience Requirements:

While specialists can enter the correctional field with a variety of undergraduate and graduate degrees, an MSW and social work licensure can increase career and salary opportunities. Coursework focusing on mental health, therapy, and addictive behaviors – all emphasized in accredited MSW programs – can benefit those who are preparing for a career in criminal justice.

Drugs and Alcohol / Addictive Behaviors

Social Worker Fields of Practice in Drugs and Alcohol Overview:

Social workers in many fields work with clients whose lives are affected by addictive behaviors. Expertise in this realm can support the responsibilities of social workers in fields such as mental health, corrections, and homelessness.  More specifically, social workers may specialize in the treatment of addictions in residential programs or therapy settings.

Specialists often work with dual-diagnosed patients who are undergoing treatment for mental health issues as well as addictions. Social workers often provide therapy that equips their clients to overcome addictive thoughts and behaviors.  They also facilitate transitions into the community for recovering addicts by connecting them with resources for housing and employment, and they may conduct support groups to further assist addicts on the path to recovery.

Typical Roles and Responsibilities:

Substance abuse social workers are responsible for addressing the mental and emotional ramifications of addiction. They may work in facilities such as:

  • Mental health clinics
  • Psychiatric hospitals
  • Residential recovery clinics
  • Community centers

Average Salary:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that substance abuse social workers earn a median annual wage of $47,190. Psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals offer higher mean salaries – around $53,000 per year – and have the highest concentration of jobs in the field.  Salaries vary based on location, role, and level of licensure.

Education & Experience Requirements:

Nearly all positions in the field call for clinical social work licensure at the master’s degree level. Some states or positions may require additional certifications or courses.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers a credential for MSW holders with post-graduate experience in the field of substance abuse.  The first step toward licensure or additional certifications is always a master’s degree in social work that is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) – find a program that meets your educational and professional goals here. 

Education / School Social WorkSocial Worker Fields of Practice School Social Work

Social Worker Fields of Practice in Education / School Social Work Overview:

School social workers aim to make the lasting change not only in children’s academic experiences, but in their mental, emotional, and environmental circumstances as well. Experts in this field may assist with crisis management and counseling, disciplinary intervention, policy development, and advocacy for children and adolescents.

In addition to working with educators and administrators, school social workers interact directly with families, in order to assess students’ home environments. Based on their findings, they can connect the student and family with community resources, advocate to bring about a more positive educational atmosphere, and empower the student to succeed despite adverse circumstances.

School social work can also entail assessment, family liaising, and transition facilitation for learners with special needs. Social workers join special education teachers to provide a nurturing, supportive environment for learners with unique challenges to ensure that their educational experience is valuable and positive.

Typical Roles and Responsibilities:

According to the School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA), school social workers provide services to students, families, educators, administrators, communities, and the school district. In many respects, a school social worker is a provider of tools and resources to benefit students’ interactions with these various entities.

Resources may include:

  • Anger management and coping skills for students
  • Information for teachers on cultural, economic, or social factors affecting students’ performance
  • Guidance toward community assistance programs for families
  • Development of school- or district-wide discipline policies

Average Salary:

School social workers earn an average salary of $47,738 annually. Bilingualism is a valued skill that can boost the salary for school social workers.  Experience and credentialing can also increase pay in these positions.

Education & Experience Requirements:

School social work typically requires a master’s degree in a human service field, such as a master’s in social work (MSW) degree. In addition, many states require social work licensure, as well as specific coursework or credentialing in the school social work field.  The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) also offers a credential in school social work for graduates of accredited MSW programs.  Certification and licensure requirements vary from state to state; check out a map with the licensure requirements for your state here.

Family Services

Social Worker Fields of Practice in Family Services Overview:

Social workers specializing in family services help to improve living situations, strengthen relationships, and build bridges to community resources that can facilitate long-term positive change. They address not only the needs of children whose living situations are stressful but the needs of the family as a whole.

Some experts in the field employ a system called family preservation services, where the emphasis is placed on keeping families intact rather than moving children out of the home and into the foster care system.

Crisis intervention, family therapy, and coordination of benefits are just a few of the services that family social workers provide. While this field can be challenging and stressful, specialists can enjoy the knowledge that they are making a positive impact on family environments, relationships, and overall well-being.

Typical Roles and Responsibilities:

Many responsibilities of a family service social worker are similar to those of a child welfare specialist. Tasks might include:

  • Conducting in-home assessments and providing intervention when needed
  • Helping families to access benefits and aid programs
  • Providing family counseling and education regarding healthy communication and coping skills
  • Assisting families to integrate in their communities

Family social work careers are often found in government agencies and may include case management or clinical social work positions. In addition, specialists may find positions in community clinics or mental health agencies.

Average Salary:

The average salary for family social workers is around $46,000. School systems and local governments are among the highest-paying industries for specialists in the field, with average wages reaching more than $60,000 per year.

Education & Experience Requirements:

Clinical social work licensure is a valuable asset for those seeking employment in the family services field. Graduates of accredited bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in social work can seek licensure – a master’s in social work is preferred in many settings.  Individual states may require particular courses or certifications for family services positions; find information on your state’s requirements.

Healthcare / Public Health

Social Worker Fields of Practice Health Care Social WorkSocial Worker Fields of Practice in Healthcare / Public Health Overview:

Social workers in healthcare roles work to ensure that all citizens have access to quality healthcare. On an individual level, social workers may assist clients to find medical providers, travel to and from appointments, arrange insurance coverage and payment for their care, and follow up on recovery.  In the public health field, specialists are focused on targeting particular health issues in the community, providing programs and staff to prevent and find solutions to these issues.

Public health social workers have the opportunity to bring about positive change on a broad scale, attacking the root cause of health issues through a variety of methods. Social workers in the healthcare industry work toward the same positive change, but with individuals whose treatment and future outlook may be significantly impacted by the presence and care of a social worker.

Typical Roles and Responsibilities:

Healthcare social workers handle many aspects of patient care, including:

  • Finding appropriate healthcare providers and specialists
  • Scheduling appointments and transportation
  • Submitting insurance documentation or figuring out payment options
  • Ensuring that patients are recovering well

In public health, social workers are responsible for:

  • Assessing community health concerns and finding areas for improvement
  • Networking with various specialists and professionals in the community
  • Developing prevention, education, and treatment programs
  • Overseeing progress toward improvement and greater community health

While healthcare social workers are often employed privately, by hospitals and other health agencies, public health social workers may work with local or state governments. Together, these types of social workers are unified in their goal of improving health outcomes for all individuals within the community.

Average Salary:

Jobs in hospitals are among the most prevalent and highly paid for healthcare social workers. The average annual wage is nearly $60,000 in these settings.  Public health social workers on average earn around $44,000 per year.

Education & Experience Requirements:

A bachelor’s or master’s in social work (as well as social work licensure) is an important qualifier for a career as a medical social worker. Public health professionals may possess several different kinds of degrees – a master of public health or master of social work degree, for example – depending on their intended area of expertise.

An MSW with an emphasis on macro practice (social work at the community level) is an excellent choice for a social worker in the public health field.  Boston University offers a macro concentration, and many other CSWE-accredited programs provide macro coursework options as well.


Social Worker Fields of Practice in Homelessness Overview:

Specialists who aim to combat homelessness recognize that there are many reasons people end up without access to consistent shelter. These can include psychiatric and physical disabilities, job loss, domestic violence, chemical dependency, and economic crisis.  Social workers in the field aim to address these root causes, with the goal of not only finding homes for those who need them but to prevent future occurrences of homelessness throughout the community.

Many experts choose to tackle these challenges at the policy level, ensuring that local and state governments, as well as community agencies, have the procedures and funding in place to provide for the needs of the homeless population. They may also seek grants and other opportunities that allow particular groups, such as veterans or families, to move into long-term housing.  On an individual basis, specialists may work with homeless men, women, and children to provide therapy, substance abuse treatment, and job search support.  In short, a social worker with an interest in ending homelessness has many opportunities, in a variety of venues, to strategically address the issue.

Typical Roles and Responsibilities:

Those working with homeless populations may have many responsibilities, including:

Case management – working with individuals to

  • locate therapy and/or medical treatment
  • find short- and long-term housing
  • assist with job applications and interviewing
  • access specialized resources, such as veterans’ benefits or protective services for domestic violence victims

Therapy – licensed masters level social workers may have opportunities to provide group or individual therapy, especially when addressing substance abuse

Policy and funding advocacy – seeking government-level change to ensure access to necessary funds and fair treatment

Positions in the field may take many forms; social workers may be employed by private agencies, non-profit advocacy groups, or local / state government.

Average Salary:

Since positions and responsibilities vary, salary opportunities do as well. Case managers and social workers just entering the field may earn around $35,000 annually, while non-profit managers, shelter directors, and other leaders average between $55,000 and $60,000 each year.

Education & Experience Requirements:

Case managers working with homeless individuals may enter the workforce with a bachelor’s degree in a human service related field. Those who wish to provide therapy or work in a management position often need a master’s degree in social work, as well as social work licensure, in addition to a related experience.  MSW programs that are accredited by the CSWE will provide internship opportunities that build a foundation for social workers in the field; click here to learn more about accredited programs that are available in a convenient, fully online format.

Mental Health

Social Worker Fields of Practice in Mental Health Overview:

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) states the majority of mental health professionals are social workers. They assess the physical, environmental, emotional, and psychological factors affecting mental health and provide holistic treatment in an array of settings.

Mental health social workers address a variety of issues and challenges, spanning several areas in the social work field.  For example, they may work in clinical therapy settings, employee assistance programs, trauma response venues, or substance abuse treatment.

Mental health social workers handle several steps needed to support individuals dealing with mental illness. They assess patients’ situations and needs and then work with patients to develop plans of care.  Care plans may include a recommendation for therapy, as well as the arrangement of services or resources (when needed) such as job placement, welfare benefits, or legal representation.  With approximately one in five adults in the U.S. experiencing mental illness in a given year, it is clear that experts in the mental health field are crucial to supporting the well-being of the individuals in their communities.

Typical Roles and Responsibilities:

Roles in the mental health field can be found in many settings. Mental health social workers may work in:

  • Medical, psychiatric, or clinical mental health hospitals and clinics
  • Substance abuse rehabilitation centers
  • Correctional facilities
  • Community or government agencies

While specific duties will vary by setting, many mental health experts will handle tasks such as:

  • Assessment of clients’ environmental situations and physical/psychological needs
  • Development of treatment plans
  • Referrals to other mental health professionals, if needed
  • Facilitation of support services

Average Salary:

Mental health social workers earn an average annual wage of around $47,000. Psychiatric hospitals provide the greatest number of jobs in the field, and salaries in those facilities average more than $53,000 per year.

Education & Experience Requirements:

There are a variety of educational pathways leading to a career in mental health, with roles in psychiatry, social work, and counseling calling for different degrees and licenses. More than half of all mental health specialists pursue a degree in social work.  While some roles require a BSW (bachelor’s in social work) degree, many call for an MSW (master’s in social work) with clinical licensure.  MSW programs accredited by the Counsel on Social Work Education provide a strong foundation in the field of mental health, preparing graduates for a robust career, helping individuals with mental illness to lead healthier lives.

Military Support

Social Worker Fields of Practice in Military Support Overview:

Military personnel and their families, after experiencing frequent periods of transition, the rigors of combat, and exposure to traumatic events, are often in need of support services. Social workers assist with many aspects of military and veteran personnel support.  They may aid retiring members of the military with the transition to civilian life, encourage children and families who struggle with the lack of consistency in their environments or address trauma-related issues such as loss, depression, or PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder).

Specialists who work in the realm of military support often diagnose related issues among personnel and veterans, such as substance abuse or mental illness. They also connect veterans with available resources and advocate for their care.  When counseling or therapy is called for, social workers may provide some treatment or may refer individuals to a specialized therapist.  A military social worker’s role spans many areas of support and treatment, providing holistic care for members of the armed forces, their families, and veterans.

Typical Roles and Responsibilities:

Many military social workers serve in the armed forces to provide services at military bases around the world. Others may work at Veterans Affairs (V.A.) facilities, community or local government agencies, or mental health and psychiatric clinics.  Their responsibilities could include:

  • Facilitating therapy for personnel and their families
  • Providing transitional support for children and families
  • Connecting veterans with community/government resources
  • Helping families and service members to cope with grief, trauma, and loss
  • Addressing related issues such as substance abuse or PTSD

Average Salary:

Salaries for military social workers vary widely, depending on the place of employment, education level, and role. Work with the armed forces offers a competitive salary and benefits package; psychiatric hospitals pay social workers an average of $53,000 annually.

Education & Experience Requirements:

As with salary, educational and experience requirements are unique to their relevant roles. Most roles call for clinical social work licensure, available to graduates of MSW programs accredited by the CSWE (Council on Social Work Education).  Those who wish to focus their study on the skills needed to work with military personnel should consider a curriculum that emphasizes trauma recovery.  Widener University offers this option in a fully online format.  Learn more about Widener and other online, accredited options for an MSW degree here.

WomenSocial Worker Fields of Practice Women Focus in Social Work

Social Worker Fields of Practice in Women Overview:

Women’s advocacy and social work intersect in many ways, from treatment for domestic violence to locating support for single mothers, to ensuring equality for women worldwide. Social workers may seek to combat human trafficking and slavery, intervening in victims’ lives with recovery programs and ongoing supports.

Specialists around the world often focus on equal rights for women. Advocacy may center on fair wage and job treatment, access to education, opportunities for affordable childcare and healthcare, and access to a safe, positive living environment.  Social work with women is often a component of work with children and families, as women’s issues could relate to a need to support a family while working.  Educational roles may also allow social workers to teach health and life skills to pregnant women and new mothers, giving women and their young children the resources they need to thrive.

Typical Roles and Responsibilities:

Roles in this field vary; some opportunities include:

  • Case management or other roles within community and government agencies
  • Advocacy and support via the criminal justice system, protecting women who are victims of domestic violence
  • Community education to prevent human trafficking
  • Management for anti-trafficking programs
  • Social work with women offers a unique opportunity to specialize at the clinical level (working with individuals and families) or on a macro (policy-focused) basis. Social workers may desire to interact in a hands-on environment or may seek roles that allow them to bring about change within communities and organizations through program implementation and work with government policies.

Average Salary:

Since roles in the field of women’s advocacy vary greatly, salary ranges are diverse. Government agencies employ family social workers with an average salary of around $60,000 annually, and other roles may bring an average yearly wage between $40,000 and $50,000.

Education & Experience Requirements:

While women’s advocates may enter the field with varied educational and experiential backgrounds, licensure in the social work field offers opportunity and a path to career growth.

Those who want to work directly with individuals and their families should seek an accredited clinical option; learn about several clinical master’s degrees in social work here.

Social Worker Fields of Practice: Get Salary and Other Info Per Field
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Social Worker Fields of Practice: Get Salary and Other Info Per Field
Social Work can be very rewarding. It's important to find the right Social Worker fields of practice for you. In this article, we'll cover these social worker fields of practice:
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