Social Work is a branch of the professional helping fields. As an area of study, it is focused on the empowerment of individuals, groups, and communities; the promotion of human well-being; and social change toward equity, inclusiveness, and justice. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), Social Work is “an excellent career choice for those who care about human dignity and social justice.” Social Work is a hub field connecting many other diverse disciplines ranging from medicine to politics, and is a topic of inquiry tied to many forms of mental health care. Social Workers conduct many important mental health services including psychotherapy in a wide variety of sectors, often with special interest in vulnerable or oppressed populations, but also serving many others. Social Work is sometimes mistaken for having a narrow range of professional activities (e.g., handling child custody issues) when the reality is that Social Workers conduct many mental health related services. In fact, the Michigan Chapter of the NASW says that “clinical social workers are the largest group of professionally trained mental health providers in the United States, rendering the majority of counseling and psychotherapy services.” With many options for specialty careers and a strong local professional network, Social Work is a great field for helpers in Michigan.
Social Workers tend to be people who are passionate about serving the underserved, pursuing equity and inclusivity, and promoting social justice initiatives. Therefore they are likely open-minded compassionate people who care about enacting progressive positive change in their social surroundings. In clinical work, Social Workers tend to conceptualize their clients’ concerns in light of relevant psychosocial contexts (e.g., cultural, historical, political, and legal frameworks) to help make sense of the various difficulties faced, and to use that perspective in aiding clients’ empowerment and healing. So for instance, societal issues such as institutionalized and interpersonal racism, prejudice and bigotry with regard to gender and sexual identity, and other policy concerns are of interest to Social Workers and motivate them to work toward more just futures for their clients and surrounding communities. In-line with all this, in addition to direct clinical work, Social Workers are also frequently the sorts of people who are invested in local or state/nation-wide political movements. The overarching philosophy is one which takes account of the broader social perspective in seeking individual growth and betterment. As such, the daily work life of a Social Worker can range widely from psychotherapy to policy-writing and much more!
Social Workers are employed in a vast diversity of settings. They can be found in schools, hospitals, government agencies, outpatient private practices, community centers, rehabilitation units, veterans affairs offices, colleges/universities, counseling centers, and many more locations. As one might expect, a given Social Worker’s specialty interests and training will likely dictate the kinds of settings in which their work is enacted. Related, there are many different types of Social Work and the bottom of this page will provide a partial list with brief descriptions.
Degree: In order to become a Social Worker, the minimum degree level is a Master’s in Social Work (commonly abbreviated “MSW”). Typically, a Bachelor’s degree of some kind is required first (e.g., BSW, BA, BS) which takes between 3 and 5 years, followed by the MSW which takes most students another 1.5 to 3 years to complete. Note that there are some career paths available at the degree level of Bachelor’s of Social Work (BSW), but these will be far more limited with regard to scope of practice.
License: To practice in the state of Michigan, one must be licensed as a Social Worker through Michigan’s Licensing and Regulatory Affairs office (LARA).
Approval: Some Social Work specialties have extra steps required–for instance, in addition to one’s degree and license, working as a School Social Worker in Michigan requires approval from the Michigan Department of Education (MDE). Read more about those policies from the MDE.
Training: There are many MSW-granting Social Work training programs available in the state of Michigan, including SVSU, UofM, MSU, WMU, WSU, and GVSU among others. Note that you should carefully review their training philosophy and program descriptions before applying–some MSW programs are “macro” oriented (i.e., focused on policy and other community/cultural level interventions) whereas others are “micro” oriented (i.e., focused on clinical social work individual-level interventions), and lastly some have a “mixed” or “mezzo” model (i.e., providing a balance of training across intervention levels). Finally, note that one does not necessarily need to train in-state, and time spent in other locations can often help broaden one’s multicultural competence and humility.
Social Workers are motivated by the pressing need for social change and the reward in seeing others empowered! To know that one has made a positive impact upon the lives of individual clients, families, groups, or entire communities, is a powerful driver of the passion that underlies Social Workers’ everyday work efforts. If you are the sort of person who sees a social problem and says “we need to do something about this, it needs to change!” then you may find Social Work careers to be very fulfilling.
Relevant State-Level Organization
Michigan Chapter of the NASW
Relevant National Organization
National Association of Social Workers
***Read on below for several brief descriptions of the sub-topics and specialties within the broader field of Social Work. More comprehensive lists and descriptions can be found here and here.***
Clinical Social Work / Social Work of Mental Health
Treating clients (individuals, couples, families, or small groups) by conducting psychotherapy/counseling or clinical case management toward the betterment of mental health. Addresses mental disorders or other difficulties/adjustments in living. Learn more about the field here and here. Consider membership in the Clinical Social Work Association (CSWA). This is the largest sub-group of Social Workers.
Geriatric Social Work / Social Work of Aging
Enabling older adults to live independently with dignity by maximizing quality of life and participation in society as well as connecting them with relevant resources. Focuses on physical, psychological, social, and economic aspects of daily living. Learn more about the field here and here. Review additional training and credentialing info here. Consider membership with the Geriatric Social Workers of Southeast Michigan (GSWSM) organization.
Medical Social Work / Health Social Work
Assisting people with the personal and social factors related to health and wellness. Tasks may include direct care with patients in hospital or other medical settings, while others would be administrative within healthcare systems handling planning, policy, research, or other endeavors. Learn more about the field here and here. Consider membership in the Society for Social Work Leadership in Healthcare (SSWLH).
Child Welfare Social Work / Social Work of Children and Families
Supporting children and families in situations of crisis, abuse, illness, homelessness, and other serious concerns, advocating for children’s safety and stability. May deal with issues such as custody/guardianship, housing, court testimony, adoption, and other points of intervention for children and families. Learn more about the field here and here. Check out the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (AASWSW).
School Social Work
Serving children and adolescents in educational settings such that they can access and experience school as best as possible, enhancing the social and emotional growth of all students. Sometimes focused upon students with disabilities or other special education needs, but other times applied broadly to all students in a school system or district. Learn more about the field here and here. Check out the Michigan Association of School Social Workers (MASSW), the American Council for School Social Work (ACSSW), and the School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA ).
[Note that School Social Workers are not to be confused with School Psychologists. While both are often collaboratively involved in assessment and intervention with kids in school systems, School Social Workers tend to do more hands-on clinical care while School Psychologists tend to do more assessment and IEP development.]