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The Social Work Profession

When people think about social workers, they may think about case managers at a county department of social services, especially in child welfare. Often, those positions are held by individuals who have bachelor’s degrees in social work.

At the graduate level, career paths can be very different. The common thread is an emphasis on behavioral, emotional, and mental health. The Master of Social Work degree is a requirement for several specialized licenses.

For example, many graduate students pursue the MSW degree to open their own private practices as marriage and family therapists. Some MSW graduates work with special populations. For example, they may become substance use and addiction counselors, assist survivors of domestic and interpersonal violence, or work with veterans and military families who have experienced trauma.

Growing areas of social work include services for LGBTQ+ populations, seniors, families of adults with developmental disabilities, and other groups with unique needs. Schools, hospitals, and assisted living communities employ social workers to help students, patients, and clients navigate life challenges such as housing, transportation, and health care.

Many of these career paths can be described as direct practice, with the social worker providing services directly to an individual or a family. UNC School of Social Work also prepares students for career paths in macro practice, also known as “community, management, and policy” practice.

Social workers in macro practice may serve in leadership roles within nonprofit organizations, develop policies and programs for government agencies, become innovators in social entrepreneurship, or advocate on behalf of groups and communities.

Education is also a career path within social work. Experienced social workers with MSW degrees may become clinical professors, bringing firsthand knowledge into the classroom. With a Ph.D. degree, a social work professional may pursue an appointment as a tenure-track professor.

NASW Code of Ethics

The National Association of Social Workers has established the Code of Ethics to guide professional conduct by social workers. The preamble of the Code of Ethics opens with this statement: “The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.”

The Code of Ethics provides these ethical principles, rooted in the profession’s core values:

  • Social workers’ primary goal is to help people in need and to address social problems.
  • Social workers challenge social injustice.
  • Social workers respect the inherent dignity and worth of the person.
  • Social workers recognize the central importance of human relationships.
  • Social workers behave in a trustworthy manner.
  • Social workers practice within their areas of competence and develop and enhance their professional expertise.

Faculty at UNC School of Social Work model the Code of Ethics for their students through their language and their actions.