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How to Plan for a Career in Social Work or Counseling

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By Anna Sommer
Career Exploration Specialist

If you’re reading this article, you might be someone who is naturally good at or interested in counseling others. Perhaps you are adept at helping people navigate the many mental and emotional challenges that come with life or from traumatic experiences.

Pursuing a career in social work or counseling is an admirable goal. But it’s also a very specific goal that requires intentional planning and research.

I work with students every week who indicate an interest in this type of career. After forming an understanding of each student’s interests and background, we work together to develop a plan for a career in social work or counseling. In most cases, that plan includes research, specific action items and a “work backward” approach.

Working backward helps you to identify your overall career goal and then outline a plan that will help you reach it. In this case, working backward includes the following steps:

  • Researching all your career options, including the work required for each type of role
  • Identifying the license requirements for your state
  • Understanding the education requirements that will best support you in your goal

Working in this way will help you find a bachelor’s program aligned with each step of the path that eventually leads to your career goal.  

Identifying Your Career Path

Before outlining your career path, you’ll need to define your exact goal. The field of social work and counseling encompasses various different roles, and while there are many similarities between these types of jobs, there are also many differences. Therefore, defining your exact career path is a critical step in your planning.

Each of the following steps will depend on the specific career you intend to pursue. Here are a few jobs to consider, but be sure to research all your options:

  • Social worker
  • Clinical mental health counselor
  • Clinical psychologist
  • K-12 school counselor
  • K-12 school psychologist

As you can see, these positions span different industries, including education and healthcare. Some are also common jobs in multiple industries. For example, social workers are in hospitals, schools, hospice facilities, Veterans Administration (VA) centers, child protection agencies and correctional facilities.

These roles will potentially work with different populations, utilize various skills and abilities, and require different qualifications. Ensure you research each type of career in detail.

Also, be sure to look for information on types of jobs, job outlook, salary, typical job responsibilities, the work environment and the type of people you will serve. Use this information to determine if a specific role aligns with your personality and values. You should also determine if you will enjoy the work that will be required of you and how your career will impact your own well-being, family life, or other obligations.

Researching Future Careers in Social Work and Counseling

There are several websites that can help you with job-related research:

I also recommend looking up job postings on job boards like Indeed, Glassdoor or USAJOBS to gain a further understanding of what the role requires and what education and training you will need to become a qualified candidate.

Another great way to research different roles is to conduct informational interviews by phone or Zoom with people who hold the type of job you want. These types of interviews help you connect with people in the field and learn about different aspects of the role.

Identify the License Requirements for Your State

In most states and for most positions that involve working directly with people in a counseling capacity, you will need a specific type of license. The license will depend on the specific role you are pursuing and the state where you plan to work. Some roles in social work require the designation of Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). Others do not.

For instance, working as a family and marriage therapist requires a different license than working as a school counselor. Therefore, it is critical to understand what type of license you will need within your state.

The requirements vary from state to state, so take the time to investigate the licensing standards thoroughly. These resources will help you research different careers and understand their license requirements in more detail:

Also, be sure to check your state’s Department of Education website for roles in K-12 schools.

Identify Applicable Graduate Programs

Because each role has a different set of responsibilities, requirements and licensing, applicable graduate programs will differ. Therefore, the next step in planning a career as a social worker or counselor is to research graduate program options.

All graduate programs vary slightly because each one is tailored to the role for which it prepares you. But there are some similarities between programs.

For example, most programs include coursework and clinicals or an internship. This way, you receive both theoretical knowledge and hands-on training. You’ll need to consider schools and programs in your community as well as how you will manage a clinical schedule or internship along with other work or life obligations.

Some programs offer a more general focus, while others let students select a more specific area of focus. For example, some clinical mental health programs have a general mental health counseling focus. Others offer areas of specialization, such as trauma counseling or military trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) counseling.

The graduate programs at our university are research-oriented and will not lead to licensure or careers focused in counseling or social work. Therefore, this step in your research needs to include graduate programs at another university.

Be Thorough When Researching Graduate Programs

When you’re researching programs, review each program for its specific areas of focus, coursework, admissions requirements and all other requirements to determine which program is the best fit for you. In looking at the admissions requirements, some common ones are:

  • Undergraduate degree in a related field, with a 3.0 GPA or higher
  • A good score in a Graduate Records Examination (GRE) test
  • English language proficiency or a good score from a Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or a TOEFL iBT test
  • 500 to 2,000 volunteer hours in a community service capacity or a capacity related to your area of intended focus within the master’s program
  • 18 undergraduate credits in basic coursework in psychology, statistics, research methods and a lab course

Lastly, be sure to review the accreditation for each program, including specialty accreditation, which is often a requirement for working in these fields. Review Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) for information for counseling and psychology. For social work, visit the Council on Social Work Education page.

Undergraduate Programs

After completing your research and determining the role you want to pursue, the license requirements for your state, and the available graduate program options, identify the best undergraduate program and course options to help you reach your goal. At the university, there are several undergraduate programs aligned for the initial stages of these career paths. Some common degree programs that our students pursue are:

  • B.A. in psychology: In this program, you’ll examine the inner workings of the human mind and human behavior. Topics such as developmental psychology, organizational psychology, the psychology of disaster or addiction, and abnormal psychology are covered. 
  • B.A. in sociology: This degree focuses on how humans behave and interact, including different aspects of human dynamics like global communities, race and diversity, stereotypes, social institutions, and social problems. There are also different concentrations, such as community action, education, health, public policy and social justice.
  • B.A. in human development and family studies: This program examines human interaction and how humans are impacted by their environments. It covers areas such as lifespan development, family life, family communications and parenting.
  • B.A. in public health: For this degree, you’ll learn about the many facets of the public health industry to include community health education, human health and wellness, nutrition, and human health services and systems.

If you need help understanding our undergraduate program options, want more information about a specific program, or would like assistance in selecting the specific courses that will be beneficial for graduate coursework down the road, you can work with an Academic Advisor during this part of the process. Be sure to do your research up front so you and your Academic Advisor can utilize that information to help you make informed decisions regarding your undergraduate program.

Speak to a Career Coach for Help

Navigating any career goal can be intense. If you find yourself wanting to pursue a career in social work or counseling and need help determining a specific career path, please schedule an appointment with one of our industry-aligned Career Coaches. We are here to help you create a career plan that fits your unique needs and goals, as well as cheer you on as you accomplish each step along the way.

Anna Sommer began her career at the university in 2007. She has worked in the Academic Advising Department and Student Services Department, and now currently works as a Career Exploration Specialist in the Career Services Department. She thrives when working with students and alumni on career planning, researching industry trends, and developing career exploration resources. Anna holds a B.A. in English from Minnesota State University Moorhead, an M.S. in Adult Education from Kansas State University and an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University.

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