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A Day in the Life of a Social Worker

Social workers spend their days helping people with complicated psychological, health, social, or financial problems. They assist families in need and people who are the victims of abuse. They provide counseling, advice, and direction for people who would otherwise have no way of bettering their situations. While seeing people who are confused, scared, and beset by problems all day long may sound disheartening, social workers told us that they were uplifted by their job and that they truly felt they were doing work of value. “People need your help and if you’re part of the human race, you give it to them,” said one, adding, “The only strange thing is that you get paid to do it.” Social workers, around half of whom work for local and federal governments, have to be familiar with all assistance programs and services available for those in need. This requires continuing education to keep abreast of programs, their funding, and their efficacy. “The quickest way to lose your client’s trust is to send them to an agency that tells them they’re not eligible,” said one by way of explaining that the trust of one’s client is difficult to earn and easily lost. Social workers have to be prepared for disappointments from their clients as well. Over 30 percent of urban families assigned a social worker miss one of their first three appointments. Still, most professionals invest themselves heavily in the fates of their clients, and a number of our respondents called this involvement emotionally draining. While this contributes to the reasonably high attrition rate for first-year workers (15 percent), respondents noted that it was valuable in that it kept them aware of the significance of what they do. More and more, social workers are being asked to find an area of focused responsibility, such as criminal justice issues, gerontological services, or medical issues. This can leave the social worker a bit dissatisfied, as often a client will have a number of concurrent problems, and they have a very prescribed range of duties they can perform. For people with a natural instinct to help others, this is tantamount to “telling a millionaire he can only give away twenty dollars at a time.” Private professionals are under no such restrictions, and record generally higher levels of satisfaction.

Paying Your Dues

Social workers face significant educational requirements. Most initial positions, which are primarily clerical, require only a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work (B.S.W.) or a related field, such as psychology or sociology. For positions which involve psychological recommendations or assessments, or for positions with more responsibility, a Master’s in Social Work (M.S.W.) is required. Over 300 colleges offer B.S.W.s and over 100 offer M.S.W.s and are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. Those who wish to advance to policy or director positions are asked to complete a Ph.D. in social work. Nearly all programs require extensive field work and client contact. Traditional coursework includes social welfare policies, political science, human behavior, research methodology, and abnormal psychology. All states have strict licensing requirements for social workers, and additional professional certifications are available from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). Private practitioners are encouraged to earn professional certifications, as it helps in collecting reimbursement for services from insurance providers.

Present and Future

Poor houses used to be basically jails for people who couldn’t support themselves, and destitute parentless children used to live in state-run orphanages much like the one featured in Oliver Twist. In the twentieth century, reformers like Samuel Barnett and Jane Adams began to establish public programs to encourage self-sufficiency and education. Now there are a wide variety of programs to help people in need, though of course there could be more, and social workers are needed at each one of them. Social workers face a bright future as current demand, particularly in rural regions, exceeds supply. New opportunities for social workers in all regions are expected to develop faster than the national average for creation of new jobs. Professionals with greater education and more specialized experience will have an advantage in the industry. The only uncertainty in the profession is proposed federal cuts to existing social programs which would not have an immediate impact upon jobs, but could dim long-term prospects for both social workers and their clients.

Quality of Life


New social workers either love what they do or are too drained by its emotional intensity. Many leave after one or two years, frustrated at their inability to help their clients and exhausted by anxiety over their clients’ prospects. Those who make it through these early years tend to remain in the profession. Specialization begins for those at public agencies. Hours are long, but salaries are reasonable. Satisfaction varies widely.


Five years into the profession many social workers have chosen the area of specialization that they will remain in until they assume positions of managerial responsibility. Case loads can be overwhelming, as the average five-year is in charge of over two hundred client cases at any given time. Many are involved in continuing education and spend considerable free time reading publications about their area of specialty or attending conferences. Private practitioners begin to make significant incomes and work to develop strong community reputations. Hours increase.


Many social workers earn managerial or senior case-officer status, which unfortunately removes them from the day-to-day counseling which drew them to the profession in the first place. A number turn down opportunities for advancement for this very reason. Those who do accept become caseload managers and assign people to cases, exercising large discretionary powers of assessment and approval for clients’ unusual needs. Satisfaction is high and hours remain stable.