Becoming a Social Worker

Bachelor's Degree

According to the Council on Social Work Education, baccalaureate social work education programs prepare graduates for generalist professional practice. The foundation curriculum content for all social work education programs includes: (1) dealing with culturally diverse clientele; (2) populations-at-risk and social and economic justice; (3) human behavior and the social environment; (4) social welfare policy and services; (5) social work practice; (6) social research methods; and (7) field education. Accredited Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) programs require a minimum of 400 hours of supervised field experiences

Master's Degrees

The Master of Social Work (MSW) programs prepare graduates for advanced professional practice in an area of concentration. Graduates have the theoretical and practice expertise needed for providing direct services to individuals, families, groups and communities and/or for working in administrative and policy making positions. An MSW degree is typically required in health settings and in clinical work. Supervisory, administrative, and staff training positions usually also require an advanced degree.

The MSW is the most common master's level degree. Some schools offer such degrees as Master of Arts and Master of Social Sciences. All programs accredited by the CSWE must meet the same criteria.

Students who already have their bachelor's level degree in social work (BSW) typically enter graduate programs in social work with advanced standing. Students who have not taken undergraduate courses in social work generally take two years to complete their master’s degree.

Doctoral Level Degrees

Doctoral degrees in social work include the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and the Doctor of Social Work (DSW). These degrees are designed for experienced social workers who want to further their careers, in research, teaching, and/or administration. Students are required to complete dissertations, which are typically based on in-depth research projects. Graduates are expected to contribute to the scientific knowledge base and to share this knowledge through teaching and writing.

Because social work doctorates are academic, not practice, degrees, they are not regulated by the CSWA. Consequently, the nearly 70 social work doctoral programs in North America vary widely in their specific missions, goals, and curriculum.

Advice for Preparing for a Career in Social Work

People who are interested in applying to social work school can prepare themselves in a number of ways. Spero Manson, Pembina Chippewa, PhD, says: “I think we Native people operate very much on a mentoring and modeling approach to personal career decisions. There’s nothing to replace learning a lesson that someone else– maybe an Elder–will be able to share with you. Most of them are very open and approachable. They are eager to see young Native people pursue these paths. Search out these people and speak with them about their experiences. Share your interest. Seek their guidance. After that get a little exposure that will give you a sense of what the possibilities are.”

Most educators recommend that students do volunteer or paid part-time social service work in such settings as hospitals, nursing homes, or social agencies.
Priscilla Day, Leech Lake Bank of Ojibwe, MSW, EdD, says that this kind of work helps students “have an idea of what they’re getting into so they can see if this is really what they want to do.” She also says that volunteer work strengthens applications to social work school. Day further notes that most Indian students have an advantage because they hold values that are congruent with the philosophical basis of social work, namely, a high valuing of family and community and a holistic, systemic approach to the world.

Dan Edwards, Yurok, DSW, gives the following advice to American Indian students who are looking for a good program: “Find out if the school has a reputation for being open to various ethnic groups, particularly American Indians. Find out if there are Indian students and faculty members and whether there is an Indian or Ethnic Center on campus and whether there is an Indian community in the area of the school. See if there are resources for helping students get through the program. Also, see whether it’s possible to have some of your clinical education in Indian communities.”

This is an exciting time for Native people to enter careers in the human services.
Eddie Brown, Pascua Yaqui/Tohono O'odham, DSW, feels that there are a number of reforms underway that will make it more possible to “move people from a dependent state to sustainable, healthy communities”.

For descriptions of a few programs that recruit/support American Indian and Alaska Native students, see
Parts of the article above were originally published in the Summer 2000 issue of Winds of Change. (The cover artist is Helen Hardin, Santa Clara Pueblo.)