Become a Hospital Social Worker: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Learn how to become a hospital social worker. Research the job description and the education and licensing requirements, and find out how to start a career as a hospital social worker.

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Do I Want to Be a Hospital Social Worker?

When families go through life-changing medical crises, hospital social workers step in to educate patients and their loved ones. They may also counsel patients and provide support in finding necessary resources for their care. Some healthcare social workers serve specialized populations, such as the elderly and hospice patients. Large caseloads caused by understaffing can make many social work positions stressful, and some of these professionals work weekends, evenings and holidays.

Job Requirements

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), hospital social workers are typically required to have at least a Master of Social Work. All states require healthcare social workers to be licensed, the BLS reported, and candidates must have a master's degree and at least 2 years or 3,000 hours of supervised work experience to qualify for the licensing exam. The following table details the main requirements to become a hospital social worker:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Master's degree is standard*
Degree Field Social work*
Licensure or Certification Licensure or certification required in all states; requirements vary*
Experience 1-5 years of experience in the field**
Key Skills Ability to relate to clients and form strong relationships, time management, organization, written and verbal communication*; knowledge of community resources, adept at assessing patient's psychosocial needs**
Computer Skills Knowledge of spreadsheet and database programs**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Monster.com job postings (July 2012).

Step 1: Complete a Bachelor's Degree Program

Prospective hospital social workers can begin their career path with a bachelor's degree in social work or in another discipline, such as psychology or sociology. Bachelor's degree programs in social work may focus on human behavior, socio-economic context, industry ethics, research methods, social welfare or other related areas. Graduates can gain experience for an entry-level social work position or prepare for a graduate degree program through field education or internship opportunities offered by many programs.

Success Tips:

  • Consider 5-year Bachelor of Social Work/Master of Social Work programs. For students who know that they want to become a hospital social worker after graduation, completing a dual degree program takes less time than it takes to finish both separately.
  • Work on communication and interpersonal skills. Hospital social workers often deal with clients from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, so it's important to be able to empathize and relate to the people they serve.
  • Pursue CPR certification as a tool to stand out among job candidates. Some employers prefer hospital social workers with cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification. This credential can be beneficial to hospital social workers since they interact with individuals in medical settings such as hospices and hospitals.

Step 2: Complete a Master's Degree Program

A Master of Social Work is required to become a clinical social worker. Accredited master's degree programs typically require supervised experience or an internship in the field as well as specialized theoretical studies in areas like healthcare social work. This combination of hands-on training and lecture coursework can help aspiring hospital social workers build the necessary skills to work in a field that requires a certain level of emotional maturity, good work ethics and solid interpersonal skills. Some programs offer areas of concentration such as healthcare, school, child and mental health social work.

Success Tip:

  • Consider learning a foreign language. Some hospital social workers serve predominantly immigrant populations and may find increased employment opportunities if they can speak fluently in a language other than English.

Step 3: Obtain Licensure

Depending on individual state and district regulations, a license may be required to practice certain types of social work and use the Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) title. Requirements vary by state, but two years of professional experience and supervised clinical practice are typically necessary before taking the LCSW exam.

Success Tip:

  • Think about getting certified. The National Association of Social Workers offers a Certified Social Worker in Health Care designation for individuals with a master's degree and that are licensed. Other eligibility requirements include a minimum of two years or 3,000 hours of supervised and paid post-master's social work experience. Certification demonstrates expertise in the field and may lead to more employment opportunities.
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