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People think of the American military as a huge technological juggernaut.
The new Gerald R. Ford class aircraft carriers have two nuclear reactors, an electromagnetic aircraft launch system, and can carry up to 90 high-tech aircraft on board. An M1 Main Battle Tank weighs 70 tons and can reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour courtesy of a 1500 horsepower turbine engine – and can hit targets at speed using built-in ballistic computers. The brand new F-35 fighter runs on some 24 million lines of software code and executes commands as pulses of light sent down fiber optic cables. The helmet alone for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter costs half a million dollars.
But the truth is that the American military isn’t about the equipment. It’s about the people.
American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, guardians, and Coast Guardsmen come from all walks of life. They represent some of the most diverse ranks of any military in the world and are a mirror image of the country they are recruited from.
That makes them just as human, just as fallible, just as subject to bad luck, bad decisions, and difficult circumstances as any of us.
All this means that the average military base is just as much in need of social services as any civilian town. And if you’re interested in a career in social work, a stint in the military will help you get your career launched – either during your time in service or later on in your post-service life.
Explore Your Military Training and Degree Options
Service Members Need the Same Human Services and Social Work Support as Civilians
There are approximately 2.3 million military personnel on both active duty and in the reserves. More than a third identify as a racial minority; 16 percent are female. Although most are below 25 years of age, almost a quarter of officers are over the age of 41. They are drawn from every corner of the country, and some are not even American citizens yet. More than half are married, and more than 30 percent have children.
That represents a richer and more diverse community than just about any city or town in America. It comes with all the same challenges as any of those communities, with a few special ones:
So, there are individuals and families in the military who need food stamps, who need housing assistance, who had chemical dependency problems, who struggle with suicidal ideation. They need referrals to behavioral counselors, mental health workers, and sometimes just someone to talk to.
Those are all common functions for social workers in the civilian world, too. You can learn the skills you need in the military and use the educational benefits that come with your service to get the degree you need for a career.
Importantly, there are a broad range of settings that social workers can go into. By entering these spaces, social workers can provide a range of services. Examples of these environments include schools, county and human service organizations, nonprofits, nursing homes, government positions, private practice, and online services.
Military Jobs That Prepare You for a Social Work Career
You might not immediately think of soldiers and social workers in the same category. But in some ways, you might say that social work is basically the responsibility of every single officer and most non-commissioned officers in the service.
Once you take on a command, you also take on the responsibility for the health and welfare of all the individuals in that command. That involves a lot of day-to-day work that can end up looking a lot like what any social worker performs:
It’s the same kind of flexible troubleshooting and problem-solving process that any social worker uses on the job.
You need the same skills to do it all, too:
Any kind of leadership role in any service will have some informal social services experience that comes along with it.
But there are also jobs in the military that are dedicated to traditional social work.
In the Military, All Social Workers Are Officers
For starters, there are actually dedicated social workers in the Army, Navy, and Air force. These specialists are all commissioned officers.
All military officers are required to have a bachelor’s degree before becoming commissioned. On top of that, social work specialties require a master’s in social work (MSW) degree. So, you are looking at a minimum of six years of college before you even get started in these positions.
Since social work in the military is typically grouped in with medical services, Space Force and the Marine Corps do not have any specific roles—they rely on the Air Force and Navy, respectively, for all health services. The Coast Guard relies on civilian social work specialists.
It’s possible to pursue the degrees through ROTC, the Reserve Officer Training Corps, to get the education you need. But most military social workers come in through Direct Entry commissioning programs, which send you to an abbreviated OCS (Officer Candidate School) course after you have already earned a degree and qualifications on your own dime.
A Handful of Enlisted Specialties Also Offer Preparation for a Career in Social Work
Enlisted military members don’t need to give up all hope of preparing for a social work career, however. As noted earlier, many NCOs get the practical grounding in counseling and working out problems for their teams regardless of military specialty. There are also a handful of enlisted MOS positions that have some social work angle, jobs like:
With this experience and taking advantage of other military and veteran educational benefits, you can carve out a path to social work after discharge, or through an enlisted commissioning program in your service that helps pay for college.
Accessing Military Education Benefits to Earn a Social Work Degree Before Entering the Service
If you plan to become an officer and a social worker in the military, you’ll need to get most of your education before you join the service.
ROTC offers two, three, and four year scholarships to qualified high school and college students. During your college years, you attend other training through special military classwork and summer assignments to prepare you to become an officer. This training is far more rigorous than is required for Direct Entry officers, however. It’s also aimed more toward traditional military leadership roles, so a lot of it may be wasted on future social workers.
It’s most common to use those benefits toward a bachelor’s degree and to become commissioned immediately after graduation. But it’s possible in some branches to request a delay to attend graduate school instead, which you will need to do to qualify as a licensed clinical social worker—the only kind employed in the service.
Student Loan Repayment Can Help Cover Your Graduate School Costs
Each branch that employs social workers also offers a program to help repay your student loans if you have outstanding debt from college when you join. For the Army and Navy, that’s the Student Loan Repayment Program, offering up to $65,000 in payments. For the Air Force, it’s the Health Professions Loan Repayment Program, offering up to $40,000.
These aren’t automatic benefits. You need to negotiate them as a part of your agreement when you join up. And they are technically treated as income, so you will pay tax on them even though the military will be paying down your loan debt.
Using Your Military Benefits to Seek Social Work Qualifications After Enlistment
If you intend to enlist and then seek social work degrees while, or after your service, you can rely on the full range of typical military educational benefit programs:
Military Tuition Assistance – Available to all service members, pays up to $4,000 per year with a $250 per credit limit toward any degree you pursue on your own time
GI Bill® – Available to veterans and some active duty service members, the GI Bill® offers a full 36 months of in-state tuition together with housing and supply stipends
Yellow Ribbon – The Yellow Ribbon program adds on to the GI Bill® with additional funds offered by schools to match hefty private college or out-of-state tuition rates
Each service also offers enlisted commissioning programs, which gives you another shot at joining ROTC even after enlisting. Although tough to get into and requiring an additional service commitment, they can pay for a bachelor’s degree.
While those are all general benefits that you can put toward any degree, the Army offers one intriguing option devoted exclusively to turning enlisted troops into social workers.
The Army Master of Social Work program is an enlisted commissioning program for social workers. You need to have a bachelor’s degree in a social service field before applying, which you can earn before or during your enlistment. If accepted, AMEDD, the Army Medical Department, will put you through a fast-paced 14-month MSW at a private university partner and then commission you as an officer in the Medical Service Corps.
Credentialing Opportunities On-line (COOL) Offers Key Social Work Credentials Free of Charge
COOL is a DoD program available to all armed forces members. In part, it’s a massive database that ties every MOS in the service to all kinds of different private sector licenses and certifications that may be related. You can look up either credentials or your own MOS and see what related certifications are available.
But it’s also a benefit program, one that offers up to $4,000 toward any classes or tests needed to earn those certifications.
For social workers, that can include major professional requirements like the Advanced Generalist Social Work Licensing Examination.
Your chain of command will have to approve your COOL benefits, but it’s a great way to start building your credentials before you even get out of the service.
Social Work Jobs Are In-Demand in Both the Public and Private Sector
Social workers are employed by both governments and private organizations. You can even find social work positions hired by your old boss, the Department of Defense! In other cases, social workers help patients in hospitals and long-term care facilities. They might work for a non-profit dedicated to keeping urban kids busy after school, or for a religious charity fighting homelessness.
If you can think of a way to help people out, there is probably a social work job focused on it.
Unfortunately, the helping-people-out business is booming. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, social worker jobs are projected to grow at a rate of 12 percent between 2020 and 2030, faster than average.
Degree Requirements for Micro and Macro Level Social Work Roles
The world of social work is actually split in two.
Micro-Level Clinical Social Workers
Clinical social workers almost always have a Master of Social Work (MSW) and practice advanced one-to-one, group, and family treatment that includes diagnostic and therapeutic skills. They have specialized training in diagnosis and various clinical therapies.
Macro-Level Social Workers
Macro social workers can get into the field with only a bachelor’s degree, but it’s recommended that those interested in macro-level social work pursue a graduate degree in the field. These positions typically involve policy and management, which often requires a higher level of training.
Clinical social workers are licensed at the state level. There are also many specialized credentials and qualifications that employers look for.
There’s even a certification from the National Association of Social Workers in Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families – (MVF-SW/MVF-ASW).
Military social workers are always clinically qualified, which is why they require master’s degrees.
Your Salary as a Social Worker Can Give You Access to a Middle Class Lifestyle
No one goes into social work expecting to get rich… other than the wealth you build in goodwill and personal satisfaction you get just from doing your job every day.
But social workers do make a living wage and often have great benefits due to their work at government agencies and healthcare organizations. According to BLS, the median salary for all social workers in 2021 came out to $50,390.
Of course, that includes both BSW and MSW-qualified workers. If you do go the route all the way to getting your master’s and becoming an LCSW, you are more likely to fall into the upper band of social work salaries. Also, for 2021, that came out to more than $83,840 for the top ten percent.
Your field of practice also has some influence on your income. The medians for several categories of social worker in 2021 were:
Additionally, the VA currently employees 18,000 social workers, who serve clients across age ranges and backgrounds.
The Right Social Work Degree Level for Your Career Goals
No matter which social work destination you are bound for, you will first need to earn a bachelor’s degree. The field you choose to major in at the bachelor’s level isn’t critical, however. Many social workers earn their undergraduate degrees in areas such as:
But a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) is the gold standard in the field. Typical courses include:
These are all subjects that are critical to social services jobs. Importantly, macro social work often requires MSW-level schooling because it deals directly with policy and management.
You’re free in most of these degree programs to focus on particular areas in social services through a healthy offering of electives in those subjects.
On top of those, like other bachelor’s programs, you’ll have other required coursework in general studies areas such as:
Naturally, you will get very different kinds of specialized instruction in any of those other fields. But all will lead to a solid foundation for the training offered in an MSW program.
MSW Curriculum Gives You Exactly the Tools You Need to Serve and Counsel
Ultimately, to become a licensed clinical social worker, you’ll need to earn a Master of Social Work degree, or MSW. That’s the standard in every state for becoming a licensed clinical social Worker or the local equivalent. And the requirements almost always specify a degree that has been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education’s (CSWE) Commission on Accreditation.
MSW degrees are typically two years in length. At most schools, this is split between a foundation year and a specialization year.
The first year is the foundation. You will get coursework in core concepts like:
With the essentials under your belt, you will go on in year two to drill down on the specific area of social work you want to practice in. In some schools, this consists of coursework in advanced generalist practice, building practical skills onto the basic knowledge you already absorbed.
But in many cases, you’ll take advantage of specialty concentrations offered by the school. This might include:
Social work master’s programs also put a lot of value in hands-on learning and engaging you in real-world social work before you graduate. Your program will offer practicum or internship courses to get in some supervised practice in your specialty area.
If you are earning your degree before going into service, then you can put the practical experience requirement to good use through programs like SWIP, the Army Social Work Internship Program.
In many civilian spaces, social workers are much more likely to be women (80.5 percent versus 65.8 percent), black (15 percent versus 4.6 percent), and Latino (12.4 percent versus 10.1 percent). In addition, 20 percent of social workers are LGBTQ and the percentage of LGBTQ psychologists is estimated to be 16.1. Importantly, the career path prides itself on being inclusive and accepting of professionals from all backgrounds.
Finding Military Friendly Colleges to Fuel Your Passion for Social Work
Only 311 social work master’s programs in the country that meet that strict standard. And you’ll want to find one that belongs to a military-supportive college.
Whether you are approaching your schooling before joining, while you are in the service, or after discharge, a military-supportive college will have the programs and systems you need to help you through it.
Of course, at the most basic level, that includes accepting all GI Bill® and other benefit programs. Better yet are schools that fully participate in the Yellow Ribbon program, kicking money in to cover any costs over and above what the GI Bill® itself will pay.
Going to Graduate School for Your MSW Requires Support Beyond the GI Bill®
With both a bachelor’s and a master’s program in your future for a clinical social work career, you’ll have to stretch your educational benefits to the limits. If you have the maximum level of GI Bill® eligibility under the Post-9/11 program, you get 36 months of benefits. That works out to four years—but you will need at least six to become an LCSW!
This makes military-supportive schools even more important. The right college will also offer things like:
Coming from a military background, you already know that you have the grit and determination to make it through all the schooling to become a social worker. And you have also come out of the service with some other important qualities that will give you a leg up in the job.
Being in the military makes you accountable. You show up on time, you say what you mean, you get the job done, whatever the mission. These are great qualities for life in general, but when you are a social worker, with some of the most marginalized people in society counting on you, they are more than that. They are the essential elements to build trust.
Your country trusted you to take care of the most precious assets in the military: the people. With that behind you, you’ll absolutely have earned the right to be trusted with the welfare of the citizens.
Are there any social worker positions that focus on the experiences of veterans?
Yes, there are absolutely social service organizations devoted exclusively to supporting veterans, and these opportunities are what inspire many who have been in the military to choose the social work profession. Indeed, those who are veterans themselves can be a vital resource to others, offering a greater level of empathy and understanding than those who have not served in the military themselves. As a veteran yourself, you may understand why it can be easier for those in the military to open up to people who have been through similar circumstances. This does not mean that these branches of social work are the only ones veterans should pursue, but they could be areas where your personal experience will be a valuable part of what you bring to the table.
There are a wide range of services for veterans that social workers can provide. These include readjusting to civilian life when returning from service, managing mental and physical health after deployment, dealing with trauma, and addressing fundamental needs like housing and employment. They can also help veterans understand how to make the most of the government-provided benefits and services available to those who have served. Finally, social workers also work with the families of those in the military, providing emotional and practical support for those whose loved ones are deployed.
It is worth noting that the Department of Veterans Affairs (known as the V.A.) is the top employer of social workers in the nation. Other places that veterans who are social workers can veteran-focused nonprofits to military transition programs, there are numerous places where social workers can work directly with veterans and their families.
Will my status as a veteran help me find employment as a military social worker?
It certainly could. While most organizations would not as a hard and fast rule state that their positions are designed for veterans to hold, your experience in the military will immediately demonstrate your authority and understanding of the needs of those in similar positions to your own. In other words, if you are a veteran who is now seeking to become a social worker in a military or veteran-related capacity, you are encouraged to highlight this experience so that your prospective employers know that this is part of what you have to offer.
Can veterans pursue social work careers that are not focused on veterans or military personnel?
Absolutely. While many veterans gravitate to the social work field specifically to support others who share their background, this does not mean it is the only arena in which veterans who are social workers can be of service. The whole gamut of social work categories is available to veterans. Some may choose to work in areas that are not directly related to their own personal experiences. There also may be other areas of social work not related to veterans affairs that also connect back to your background, whether due to shared culture, personal experiences, or causes that are close to home. In other words, if you are a veteran who wishes to become a social worker, you should not feel under obligation to focus on veterans’ issues in your career if that is not your primary interest. Focus on whatever arena is most compelling to you and which will be able to sustain your attention and interest in the long term.
Can I become a social worker without an MSW degree?
No, all licensed social workers are required to hold a graduate level degree. While there may be some positions available in social work organizations for those who don’t hold an MSW, one will not be able to perform the clinical duties of a social worker until they are licensed. This is because social work is a highly skilled profession with serious responsibilities, involving working directly with clients during sensitive circumstances. Even if you are working with people in circumstances that are similar to your own, you will need a thorough orientation in best practices as well as the social, political, and even historic factors that are informing your clients’ experiences. The six years of education and training that are part of the LCSW educational track are therefore a necessity for all practicing social work clinicians.
Do I need to hold a Bachelor’s of Social Work (BSW) in order to pursue a Master’s in Social Work?
No, a BSW is not a requirement in order to apply for an MSW. Many aspiring social workers enter their master’s programs holding bachelor’s degrees in other subjects, some of which don’t overtly overlap with the subjects covered in an MSW program. Many social workers argue that a bachelor’s degree in subjects such as psychology, sociology, and government can also enrich one’s practice as a clinician. Others simply don’t attend their undergraduate programs with the knowledge that they will later decide to become social workers, meaning their bachelor’s education is not necessarily directly related to their career ambitions. That should not be a barrier to pursuing an MSW.
That said, if you know at the outset of your educational journey that you would like to become a social worker, a BSW will provide the most pertinent coursework for your education, and in some cases can help expedite the process of receiving your MSW, as you will be able to transfer some class credits to cover the foundational courses of your graduate program.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Social Workers reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed July 2022.