The social work profession is a diverse and rewarding field, offering practitioners multiple venues for effecting positive change within their communities. Social workers are trained to be attuned to the needs of specific groups or individuals, and devote their careers to developing the resources necessary to best serve their communities; improving the circumstances of those facing challenging situations; and advocating for social justice.
A Master of Social Work (MSW) degree provides prospective social workers with the knowledge and skills necessary to fulfill a number of roles, and work in a variety of settings – including the career areas listed below:
Medical social workers are employed in a variety of capacities in the health services sector, including positions within hospitals, clinics, public health centers, home health agencies, and hospice programs. Frequently functioning as patient advocates, medical social workers serve as a link between the patient and the health care provider, typically helping to ensure that patient needs are being met. Medical social workers may facilitate paperwork and decision-making processes, may help individual patients to understand their diagnosis, treatment and follow-up care plans, or may assist patients and family members in coping with the psychological effects of medical diagnoses or illnesses.
Outside of those who work directly with patients, social workers in the medical field often serve as case managers, public health policy analysts, and community outreach program administrators.
Gerontological social workers focus on the needs of adults 65 years of age and older, often helping to connect elderly individuals and their caregivers with appropriate services. Working in settings such as nursing homes, home health care agencies, hospice programs and senior centers, gerontological social workers aim to improve the quality of life for older adults, whether by helping them to live independently, arranging for future care, or organizing recreational programs.
As it has been predicted that one in six Americans will be over the age of 65 by the year 2020, gerontological social work is expected to be an area of increasing demand.
Mental Health/Clinical Social Work
Clinical social workers are licensed practitioners who have received specific training in the areas of mental health intervention, assessment, diagnosis and treatment. The largest group of mental health providers in the United States, clinical social workers provide counseling and therapy services for a wide range of psychological conditions – from emotional distress to severe mental illness. Clinical social workers are needed in variety of settings, including hospitals, mental health treatment centers, schools, social service agencies, and many also establish private practices.
Substance Abuse and Addiction
Substance abuse and addiction are pervasive issues in the United States, presenting an ever-present need for outpatient and residential rehabilitation facilities. Social workers who have received training in substance abuse and addition counseling often work in these settings, as well as in hospitals, social service agencies and prisons, helping individuals to cope with – and hopefully overcome – their substance abuse issues. Typically, social workers participate in interventions, provide addiction therapy and family counseling, and help clients to access community resources. Social workers within this specialization may also address substance abuse from a holistic perspective, contributing to policymaking and community program development.
Child welfare is one of the more emotionally demanding areas of social work, where practitioners serve as advocates for children in crisis. In coordination with child protective services, child welfare social workers aim to ensure the health and safety of children within the community, often investigating claims of abuse and neglect. Child welfare social workers may be responsible for removing children from dangerous situations, overseeing foster care placements, or connecting parents with rehabilitative services. Though many child welfare social workers are employed directly by child protective services, they may also work within other private or public child welfare organizations, such as adoption agencies.
School Social Work
School social workers help to eliminate the obstacles to learning, helping school personnel to ensure that students’ physical, psychological and cognitive needs are being met. School social workers are employed within school environments, administrative offices and early intervention programs, and are often responsible for offering student counseling; facilitating parent-teacher communication; providing crisis management services; and assisting with special education placements. In middle or secondary schools, social workers may also help develop the curriculum for sexual education or health classes, and administer intervention programs – such as truancy prevention.
Public Welfare/Community Development
Social workers are involved with the public welfare system on multiple levels, including administration, management, and direct service providers. Social workers employed within this field provide support services for some of the more vulnerable members of society, including the poor, the sick, the elderly, and those with physical or developmental disabilities. Responsibilities may include policy analysis, planning and designing public welfare programs, or helping individuals to navigate the public welfare system.
Social workers who specialize in community development may choose to work within the public welfare system, or may seek out other venues for helping to improve services for vulnerable populations – such as academic research, participating in advocacy groups and grassroots organizations, or running for public office.
International Social Work
International social workers take their desire to help their community to a global level, becoming actively involved in humanitarian aid efforts. Working either at home or abroad, international social workers provide direct services to help address such issues as disaster relief, refugee aid, health crises, and international adoptions. They may also be involved in administering ongoing service-delivery programs, such as the Red Cross or UNICEF.
While most social workers will interact with military personnel or veterans at some point in their career, military social workers possess greater knowledge of the issues facing military personnel and their families, and have received specialized training in the strategies best-suited for addressing such issues. Military social workers typically help service members to cope with the mental health issues related to deployment – providing psychological therapy, crisis intervention, and family counseling services – and guide military personnel toward appropriate veteran’s services or community resources. While many social workers in this field choose to serve in the Armed Forces, others may work in veteran’s service organizations or in private practice.
The University of South Carolina offers its Master of Social program with a concentration in Health and Mental Health at the Lowcountry Graduate Center. Other concentrations are available on its main campus in Columbia.
For more information about the University of South Carolina MSW program, and other programs offered at the Lowcountry Graduate Center, please visit our Programs page.