When you think of a social worker, you probably envision a compassionate professional, tirelessly assisting those in need through all kinds of hardship. And you wouldn’t be wrong to think that. It’s the need for that kind of selfless dedication that draws people just like you to social work careers.
But there’s a lot more to these careers than meets the eye — lesser-known aspects you may not have heard about. And, with an increased demand for social services, this is the perfect time to hear from professionals in the field. Get their take on what a social worker actually does, and what you need to know about assisting individuals through challenging times and connecting them with the resources they need.
Here’s the fine print you won’t find in the social worker job description — straight from the pros themselves.
8 things that might surprise you about the social worker job description
1. The earning potential can vary
“Making money and helping people are not mutually exclusive,” says Julie Fanning, LCSW (licensed clinical social Worker) and CCM (certified case manager) of Holding Hope Services. Yes, a career in social work will allow you to live out your dream of advocating for those who need it most. But it turns out your assumptions about social workers’ salaries may be not be entirely accurate.
“One very common misconception is that you can’t make money as a social worker,” says mental health therapist Mallory Grimste, LCSW. “You don’t have to be destitute just because you chose social work as your profession.”
The average social worker earned about $45,900 in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). But keep in mind that salaries in the field can range quite a bit depending on the specialization in which you work or the area in which you live—for example, the wages for social workers in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Washington D.C. typically run higher than those in other areas.
“Believe it or not, social workers can make up to six figures — it’s just a matter of landing the right gig, or starting your own,” says Nityda Coleman, LCSW and E-RYT (experienced registered yoga teacher) of Teen Therapy Austin.
2. Who you work for will affect what you’ll be doing
“Social work depends greatly on the population of clients you serve and the setting in which you work,” explains Social Worker Success founder Nate Crowell, LICSW (licensed independent certified social worker) and PIP (private independent practice).
Simply put, social work is not all the same. Being a social worker for child protection services will differ greatly from working with mental illness or addiction treatment. Your work will also differ based on your employer, their expectations and their protocol.
You’ll have the opportunity to serve different people in different ways. But the same underlying factor remains: The work that you do will have a profound impact on the individuals and communities you serve.
3. A lot of time is spent on documentation
“If you didn’t document it, it didn’t happen,” Fanning says. “As a social worker you will spend more time than you can imagine documenting your interventions.”
You may not be fully aware of the amount of administrative duties a social worker is responsible for. Because documentation is so critical to the effectiveness of a social worker’s job, one must practice optimal organization and be a clear communicator in order to succeed.
4. Creative problem solving plays a critical role in success
“Social work, in many ways, is an exercise in creative problem solving,” Cromwell says. “You have to have a certain je ne sais quoi to cut through a mountain of red tape and still make change happen on micro and macro levels with limited resources.”
Solutions won’t always come easy, but as a social worker, you’ll need to work with what you have to make a difference. In a career where you’ll want to go above and beyond for your clients, you’ll need to be solution-oriented and resourceful in order to effect change. Even the regulations of your employer could call for more creativity in problem solving.
“You will often work for agencies that make decisions that make no sense to you,” Fanning explains. “You will succeed by learning to navigate around and doing your job despite the agency protocols.”
5. You’ll be really, really busy
“You will always have more work than you do time,” Fanning says.
Between juggling cases, following up with clients, performing evaluations and documentation, you’ll have your hands full as a social worker. Savvy time management skills will be crucial in order for you to stay on top of your work.
6. You won’t last long without patience
In spite of your best efforts, you certainly won’t solve all your clients’ problems overnight. Change takes time, especially when you’re navigating through systems that tend to operate slowly. You’ll need a healthy dose of patience in order to support your clients and see your efforts through.
“With the hindsight of life experience, I’d wish for more patience,” Cromwell admits. “The patience necessary to see clients make changes in their lives, and the patience to see change happen in the bureaucratic systems in which most social workers serve.”
7. You’ll always be explaining to others what you really do
“Most people will not understand your job” Fanning explains. “They will think you take away kids, just sit and talk to people or give people welfare.”
Your duties will vary whether you’re working as a healthcare social worker, a child and family social worker, a school social worker or as a clinical social worker. But no matter the specialization, people will still have misconceptions about the field, and it will be up to you to set them straight.
8. Your clients will help you as much as you help them
“There will be times where you will feel out of your depth and overwhelmed by the expectations of your job,” Fanning warns. “However, you will also have moments when you see a life change. You will have moments that you really connect with someone and moments where you are humbled by the trust a client gives you.”
At the end of the day, all of the stress and setbacks simply cease to matter when you see the results of your work and the huge impact you have on individuals you’re serving. It’s that kind of satisfaction that makes it all worth it at the end of the day.
“I have learned immeasurably more from my clients than I believe I have given them,” Fanning adds.
Are you up for the challenge?
After hearing the expert insight about what it’s really like being a social worker, it’s clear that not everyone is cut out for the work. The social worker job description detailed above proves that the position has its challenges, but it also has its rewards.
If you think you have what it takes, it’s time to put your passion into action and take the first step toward a satisfying career in social work. Check out the Wheelock College social work degree page to learn more about how you can promote social justice for all.