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Individuals working in the fields of social work and human services work toward improving people's lives by helping those in need. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were more than 680,000 social workers employed in the United States in 2016 with the highest number of people specializing in helping children and families or working in schools.
If you are drawn to show compassion and empathy for people in stressful situations and have the patience needed to see people through such times, a career in social work may be for you. Whether your desire is for entry-level or advanced positions in this field, you can earn a degree in social work and human services online. Online degree programs are particularly useful for those who are already employed or have family commitments enabling them to schedule their classes and study at a time that is convenient.
Human services vs. social work
Social work and human service graduates are typically responsible for the care and well-being of elderly citizens and children, providing support and assistance to both individuals and communities. They help people in need to cope with their issues though advocacy, crisis response or by connecting individuals to the resources they need.
For example, a human services worker running a homeless shelter may notice that an individual at the shelter is depressed and refer them to a counseling facility.
A social worker, on the other hand, works directly with individuals in need, assessing their situation and developing a plan for their recovery and implementing it.
What do social workers and human service professionals do?
Social workers and human service professionals can work in a wide variety of settings from correctional facilities, hospitals, hospice care, counseling facilities and shelters to schools and nonprofit organizations. The duties they carry out can vary greatly depending on the kind of work they do and their job roles.
The typical duties of a human service professional may include:
- Working with community members and other stakeholders to identify necessary programs and services
- Developing and managing outreach activities to raise awareness of the different programs available to the community
- Directing and carrying out fundraising activities
- Overseeing or carrying out administrative tasks for different programs
Depending on their job role and the organization they work for, social workers may be engaged in:
- Identifying and assessing people and communities in need of help
- Helping clients deal with challenges they face by providing support through counseling or other resources like child care, food stamps or other program referrals
- Responding to crisis situations like child or domestic abuse
- Maintaining records and case files and following up with clients to ensure their well being
Social and human service assistants aid social workers and human service professionals in carrying out their duties. Typically they may be involved in:
- Researching services like Medicaid or food stamps to help their clients
- Determining the type of aid their clients require and referring their cases to the appropriate case workers or programs
- Helping clients with their paperwork to apply for benefits and services
- Working with their superiors, other professionals and clients to develop appropriate treatment plans
Occupations and Career Outlook
The BLS does not collect employment and wage data specifically on human service workers, but it does provide data for several occupations within the social services field. The table below lists the occupations related to this field along with job openings, average salary, total employment and job outlook for 2016 to 2026, using data from the BLS.
Projected Job Growth
(2016 - 26)
|Healthcare Social Workers||167,730||$56,810||18.5%|
|Community Health Workers||54,760||$42,340||18.1%|
|Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers||112,040||$47,830||17.9%|
|Social and Human Service Assistants||384,080||$35,460||16.4%|
|Social and Community Service Managers||141,830||$70,530||15.7%|
|Child, Family, and School Social Workers||306,370||$48,430||13.3%|
Choose a degree that can help you meet your career goals
Entry-level positions in the social work and human services field can be obtained with a high school diploma. However, many employers prefer to hire candidates with some college experience. According to the BLS, a certificate or an associate degree in human services is becoming a more common entry-level requirement. A bachelor's in social work (BSW) is the minimum requirement for entry-level administrative positions.
Below you'll find the degree levels associated with online programs in social work and human services, along with their typical duration, prerequisites, and the coursework you may find.
Online Certificate Programs in Social Work and Human Services
What can I expect to learn in an online certificate program?
Certificate programs are designed to give you basic skills to work in the social services field, along with an overview of topics like sociology and psychology.
Typical duration: Up to one year of part-time study
General prerequisites: High school diploma or GED
Typical coursework: At the certificate level, students may learn how to deal with various social problems like substance abuse or domestic violence. They can also expect to gain an understanding of the various social and community service programs available to those in need. Other topics may include:
- Case management in human services
- Theories of personality
- Prevention and crisis intervention
- Interpersonal communications and helping relationships
- Applied skills for human services
You may also be required to complete a social-work-based internship or practicum to complete your program.
Possible electives: Social class and inequality; sociology of mental health; domestic violence; asylums, and mental illness
What can I do after earning a certificate?
A certificate in social work and human services can qualify you for entry-level roles in the social services industry. Some examples of job titles are:
- Family support worker
- Home-based assistant
- Human services program specialist
- Social work associate
Online Associate Degrees in Social Work and Human Services
What can I expect to learn in an online associate degree program?
At the associate level, students may learn the fundamental skills necessary to provide basic services that help to improve the overall quality of life of individuals in need. Schools may offer the degree as an associate in human services management, where instruction can focus on the roles and logistics of human services organizations and workers.
Typical duration: Up to two years of full-time study
General prerequisites: High school diploma or GED
Typical coursework: A standard curriculum emphasizes essential support concepts like psychology and counseling practices, including how to best utilize community resources. Some courses may touch upon global agendas, providing students a wider view of social circumstances that may impact their clients. Common coursework can include:
- Introduction to health and human services organizations
- Introduction to counseling and case management strategies
- General psychology
- Introduction to social work
- Social issues in diversity
Possible electives: Marriage and the family; social problems
What can I do after earning an associate degree?
After earning an associate degree, you may find a job as an assistant working with support providers. Occupations you may be able to apply for include:
- Case worker
- Community coordinator
- Social services assistant
- Human service worker
- Community and social services specialist
Online Bachelor's Degrees in Social Work and Human Services
What can I expect to learn in an online bachelor's degree program?
Typically, an online social work program teaches students skills in relationship building, advocacy, and group interactions. Students also learn how to guide clients in battling mental, physical and emotional ailments. Human services programs focus more on helping run organizations and community programs.
Typical duration: Up to four years of full-time study
General prerequisites: High school diploma or GED
Typical coursework: Typical coursework is designed to help students to carefully listen and respond to various client needs and formulate effective life plans to battle their mental, physical, and emotional distress. Coursework immerses students in the techniques needed to devise and administer solutions to a multitude of problems faced by clients. Curricula may include:
- Human behavior and the social environment
- Research methods
- Social work practice
- Social welfare policy and services
- Law and ethics in human services
- Case management
- Social welfare in the United States: current programs
You may also have to complete an internship as a part of your degree requirements.
What can I do after earning a bachelor's degree?
A bachelor's degree in social work (BSW) prepares students for entry-level administrative roles in the social services system and can prepare them to hold direct service positions. Potential occupations are:
- Adult day care worker
- Child, family, and school social worker
- Mental health assistant
- Program coordinator
- Workshop director
- Juvenile court liaison
Online Master's Degrees in Social Work and Human Services
What can I expect to learn in an online master's degree program?
Individuals interested in earning a master's degree can choose from two main tracks:
- Master of Social Work (MSW)
- Master's degree in human services which can be:
- Master of Arts in Human Services
- Master of Science in Human Services
Coursework in MSW programs helps prepare students for careers in clinics or private practices, while the human services degree programs equip students for careers based on community service and broad social issues.
Typical duration: Two to four years of study depending on the program and your previous education
General prerequisites: Bachelor's degree in any field, although traditional MSW programs require students to hold a BSW
Typical coursework: Students learn to carry out evidence-based assessments and make informed, decisions. It also includes topics that can help you develop the leadership and management skills you need for higher-level job roles in social services industry. Courses may include:
- Sustainable funding
- Human services administration
- Community engagement
- Interviewing and case management in human and social services
- Social policy, welfare, and change
- Psychopathology and diagnosis for social work practice
You may also have to complete a certain number of field work hours, an internship or a master's thesis.
Possible electives: Crisis, trauma, and disaster response; psychopharmacology and biopsychosocial considerations; human sexuality; criminal behavior
What can I do after earning a master's degree?
A master's degree in human services or a master's in social work (MSW) can qualify individuals to run and coordinate care facilities and social service agencies or to counsel individuals, groups and families in direct clinical work.
A master's degree is the minimum requirement to work as a clinical social worker. Social work graduates may qualify for positions in schools and healthcare facilities. Graduates of a master's degree in human services may qualify for positions in the criminal justice system and correctional treatment facilities. Potential occupations are:
- Mental health social worker
- Clinical social worker
- Child or family social worker
- Policy analyst
- Human services administrator (coordinator, director, program lead)
- Foster care counselor
- Medical and health services manager
- Emergency management manager
Online Doctoral Degrees in Social Work and Human Services
What can I expect to learn in an online doctoral degree program?
At the doctoral level, students can pursue either:
- Doctor of Social Work (DSW) — the coursework focuses on training students for roles in clinical settings, leading facilities or organizations that specialize in social work
- Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Human Services — typically prepares graduates for careers in research or public policy creation
Both degrees culminate in a dissertation, a paper based on original research, study and analysis of a problem in social services.
Typical duration: Four to seven years of study depending on the program and individual abilities
General prerequisites: Master's degree; some DSW or PhD programs may require you to have an MSW
Typical coursework: Students may learn about the history and development of clinical practice and its possible implications for future social policies. Subjects may include methodologies of proper research and data analysis, using information systems and technologies to better study, understand, and improve social care in communities. Curricula may include courses like:
- Advanced social work theory and practice
- Contemporary issues, social change, and social policy
- Management and leadership development in human and social services
- Grant writing
- Advanced program evaluation
You may be able to choose from a variety of specializations.
Doctoral candidates, along with their department chair, choose a panel of faculty members who review the information and conclusions formed through the research. The student must successfully defend the dissertation to the panel as well.
Depending on the school, online students may be required to complete clinical hours or community-based research at a local facility. Some schools allow students to use their current place of employment to fulfill this requirement. There may also be residency requirements for online programs. Some of these are in-person; others may be completed online.
What can I do after earning a doctoral degree?
Graduates may be qualified to help design services and programs, or manage individuals in settings such as nonprofit organizations, government agencies and senior centers. By applying the theoretical concepts of human services as well as the research and analytical skills learned through their doctoral program, graduates can implement change in the lives of individuals, and the system of human services as a whole, streamlining organizations and services to make them more effective. Potential occupations are:
- Policy analyst
- Educator/professor/faculty member
- Supervisor in the social work field
- Program director
Specializations at bachelor's and graduate levels
You can choose specializations for your bachelor's or master's degree which may include:
- Advanced clinical practice
- Mental health and wellness
- Disaster and crisis intervention
- Child and family services
Accreditation is an important criterion when it comes to choosing a school or a program. Schools undergo this voluntary process to demonstrate that the education they impart meets the high standards of quality that employers seek. Attending an accredited school or program is often a prerequisite for obtaining financial aid, student loans or even professional licenses. Educational authorities use accreditation as a tool to combat degree mills in order to ensure you get a high-quality education.
The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the sole accrediting body for social work education. As of June 2018, there were 521 bachelor's degree programs and 261 master's degree programs in social work holding CSWE accreditation.
Certifications and Licensures
Licenses and professional certifications in social work and human services serve to demonstrate a professional commitment to social work along with in-depth knowledge, proven work experience, leadership capacity and competence in the field. They need to be renewed periodically.
All states require clinical social workers to hold licenses, while most states require nonclinical social workers to either be licensed or hold certifications. The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) develops and maintains four categories of social work licensure examinations:
- Licensed Bachelor of Social Work
- Licensed Master of Social Work
- Licensed Bachelor of Social Work-Advanced Generalist
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Licensure requirements vary by state and you should check with your state boards to find out which examinations are appropriate for you.
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers the NASW Professional Social Work Credential and the NASW Advanced Practice Specialty Credential to qualified social workers. Other certifications may include:
- Board Certified Diplomate in Clinical Social Work(BCD)
- Case Manager Certification(CCM)
- Certified Community Action Professional
- Certified Peer Specialist(CPS)
- Certified Advanced Social Work Case Manager