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5 Social Work Specializations

August 5, 2018

Everyone experiences challenges in life, from relationship issues or unemployment to ongoing mental health concerns. While some individuals may be able to address these difficulties independently, others may be in situations that require support from professionals. Social workers play an essential role in aiding individuals as they navigate life’s challenges, connecting their clients with resources that can help them improve their quality of life while working toward reducing disparities.

To gain employment as a social worker — regardless of specialization — the minimum educational requirement is a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). A master’s degree, however, opens doors to additional employment opportunities as well as a higher salary. Aspiring professionals may choose from a variety of social work specializations, depending on their personal strengths and interests

What Are Some Common Social Work Specializations

Specializations in social work provide professionals with unique opportunities to address particular issues or to interact with individuals from certain populations. Each focus area allows social workers to exercise the skills cultivated in an advanced degree program or through experience.

1. Community Social Work               

Contrary to popular belief, a community is not restricted by borders or city lines. This means community social workers can work with individuals of all ages and from various socioeconomic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. They may travel abroad to work with populations or provide support in their local communities. Community social workers can work alongside existing nonprofit organizations, concerned citizens, advocacy groups, or government agencies. They may fight against a toxic landfill placement, apply for grants, take part in establishing a charter school, or create programs benefiting a local community. 

Community social workers can hold positions such as director, coordinator, or specialist. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) as of May 2023, social workers in community services have a median annual salary of $46,650. 

2. Child, Family, and School Social Work               

Child, family, and school social workers can be involved with child welfare social work, supporting children who have been abused, have serious mental or physical illnesses, are being targeted by bullies, are exhibiting behavioral problems, or are experiencing significant stress. Professionals working in this social work specialization assist parents in securing resources for their children, conduct training, serve on interdisciplinary teams, testify in court, address teenage pregnancy and school truancy, and provide therapy. 

Work settings for child, family, and school social workers include government agencies, schools, residential care facilities, social service agencies, and adoption agencies. In the school setting, they are responsible for maintaining satisfactory student academic functioning and maximizing family well-being. 

According to data from the BLS as of May 2023, the annual median salary for professionals in this role is $53,940. 

3. Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Work               

With a master’s in social work, professionals specializing in mental health and substance use can provide psychosocial assessments, diagnose clinical disorders, develop individualized goals and plans, supplement their work with outside resources, and conduct ongoing counseling. They can provide one-to-one or group therapy, including couples and family counseling. This specialization requires a commitment to work with clients over a long period of time, critical thinking skills, and the ability to form close relationships with clients while maintaining a professional distance. 

Social workers in this specialization can provide counseling for issues such as suicidal thoughts, incarceration, substance misuse, and running away, as well as other behavioral problems. They may obtain employment in nonprofit organizations as well as private practice settings. 

According to data from the BLS as of May 2023, the annual median salary for mental health and substance abuse social workers is $55,960. 

4. Social Work With Military Members and Veterans               

Social workers specializing in military and veterans affairs support active service members coping with recent trauma, as well as veterans and their families during their transition to civilian life. These professionals may find employment within the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, or other social service organizations, and can serve the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Department of Homeland Security. 

Military-focused social workers can provide counseling, crisis intervention, and debriefing after critical events. They may also conduct research on social issues within their field and create and implement disease prevention plans and health promotion programs. 

Social workers in this specialization may support clients dealing with substance misuse; post-traumatic stress disorder; or challenges related to securing employment, housing, or schooling. They may also help the families of deployed service members cope with the loss of a parent or spouse or resolve family issues. 

As of September 2023, Payscale reports that social workers employed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have a median salary of $71,500. 

5. Social Work Administration               

Social work administration involves working with budgets, designing and evaluating programs, writing and revising policies, and managing a community or department strategy. Social work administrators need to understand social policy, the delivery process of social services, human behavior, social problems, and business. They must also possess leadership and decision-making skills to effectively manage programs. 

Social work administrators have access to job opportunities across a variety of settings, such as family service agencies, social service agencies, employee assistance programs, healthcare organizations, public welfare agencies, and probation departments. 

According to Payscale data from May 2024, the annual median salary for professionals in this social work specialization is around $74,000. 

Complete Your Education to Pursue a Specialization 

Social workers can help their clients overcome many types of obstacles and can connect them with the resources to thrive. To succeed in this field, individuals need to have certain key skills, including knowledge of social services, communication skills, and basic counseling competencies. One of the best ways to form that portfolio of skills is by pursuing an advanced education.

At Tulane University, our flexible Online Master of Social Work (MSW) program is designed to fit into your life and offers a generalist curriculum with avenues to refine your specialization. Our MSW program is built on a rich foundation rooted in the resilience and creativity of the New Orleans community, which strongly informs the curriculum.

Learn more about the program and how it can lead you toward a career in the social work specialization of your choice.