Transitioning From Social Work To A New Career

If you're a social worker considering a different career, our guide outlines alternative career options and tips to help you make a smooth transition

Updated May 28, 2024

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Are you ready to discover your college program?

Are you considering alternative careers for social workers? Are you burned out or just interested in a new direction? While a career change can seem daunting, this guide offers other available pathways. Discover transferable skills, along with any additional education, training, and credentials you may need for other roles.

Alternative careers for social workers can play to your strengths and start you on the path to new and different experiences. Have you wondered about employment in guidance counseling, career counseling, education, or business? Explore this page for ideas and tips for making the transition.

Popular Online MSW Programs

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Transferable Skills for Social Workers

Social workers possess many soft and hard skills. This section outlines several transferable skills that these professionals can use in their new careers.

Soft Skills

Hard Skills

Alternative Careers for Social Workers

There are many alternative careers for social workers to pursue. Their knowledge and skills can allow them to transition to roles in guidance and career counseling, business, education, healthcare, and more. The following occupations in this list include some of the most common careers that social workers transition to, based on data from the U.S. Current Population Survey.

Education, Guidance, or Career Counselor

Education, guidance, and career counselors help students and job-seekers develop academic and career plans. Similar to social work, these counseling fields require exceptional listening skills to fully comprehend the needs of their clients. These professions have become increasingly popular for social workers, with 18% transitioning into these fields from 2021-2023.

School and career counselors need master's degrees in counseling, psychology, or other related fields, and graduate-level social work programs likely qualify. Public school counselors must hold credentials issued by their state boards, and some schools may look for candidates with classroom teaching experience or licensure. Career counselors may need licenses in some states.

  • Median Annual Salary (May 2023): $61,710
  • Projected Employment Growth (2022-2032): +5%

Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

These counselors help clients with addiction recovery, behavioral modification, and mental health stabilization. Like social workers, they manage caseloads and refer clients for other services. Social workers and substance misuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors share common skill sets, including active listening and compassion, to understand and empathize with clients.

These counseling professionals are also in demand, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting an 18% employment growth rate from 2022-2032. A social work degree should provide the necessary background to enter these counseling fields. A master's is required to become a licensed professional counselor, along with post-master's supervised clinical experience and a passing score on the national licensing exam.

  • Median Annual Salary (May 2023): $53,710
  • Projected Employment Growth (2022-2032): +18%

Marriage and Family Therapist

Three percent of social workers who changed careers during 2021-2023 became marriage and family therapists (MFTs). An occupation with projected strong employment growth, MFTs work with families and couples experiencing cognitive, behavioral, and addictive disorders, formulating treatment plans and providing referrals to specialists and community resources.

An MFT needs a master's degree in a mental health field and a state MFT license. A master's and background in social work may offer sufficient preparation for a marriage and family therapy career, but the transition will likely require additional supervised experience. Social workers bring applicable experience to MFT work, including interpersonal and organizational skills.

  • Median Annual Salary (May 2023): $58,510
  • Projected Employment Growth (2022-2032): +15%

Registered Nurse

Registered nurses (RNs) provide patient care, support for patients' families, and health education. They consult and collaborate with physicians and other healthcare professionals. Social workers bring skills like emotional stability, critical thinking, and problem-solving into careers as RNs. Registered nursing ranks among the top 10 career changes for social workers from 2022-2032, and RNs enjoy high earning potential.

An RN needs specific training through a diploma, certificate, or undergraduate degree program. Social work degrees likely provide transfer credits toward an associate or bachelor's degree in nursing. The transition to RN work also requires a passing score on the National Council Licensure Examination and state licensure.

  • Median Annual Salary (May 2023): $86,070
  • Projected Employment Growth (2022-2032): +6%

Clergy or Religious Worker

One of the more seamless career transitions for social workers is clergy or religious work. Nearly 12% of social workers who changed careers moved into these roles. Social workers share many of the same job duties and responsibilities with clergy, including counseling clients, conducting home visits, referring clients to social services, and responding to crisis situations. Clergy and religious workers include ministers, pastors, and rectors, who offer spiritual guidance individually and through worship.

Clergy hold bachelor's or master's degrees and receive training on the job. States typically do not regulate clergy, but state laws may require ministers to be ordained to perform specific duties, such as weddings.

  • Median Annual Salary (May 2023): $58,920

High School Teacher

Social workers bring numerous skills to the teaching profession, including communication, patience, and resourcefulness, along with an educational background in the social sciences. State licensing boards require each public high school teacher to have at least a bachelor's degree, with some requiring a master's after earning teaching certification and finding employment. Private schools typically require a bachelor's degree with a major in a subject area, but these schools do not require licensure.

Licensure or certification criteria for high school teachers vary by state but usually include student teaching and exams.

  • Median Annual Salary (May 2023): $65,220
  • Projected Employment Growth (2022-2032): +1%

Human Resources Specialist

Human resources specialists recruit applicants and place new hires into positions. Other potential duties include handling compensation and benefits, employee relations, and staff training. Skills that transfer well from social work to human resources include judgment and decision-making, interviewing, organization, and time management.

These professionals usually hold bachelor's degrees in business, communications, and human resources, but employers more typically emphasize work experience than undergraduate majors. Social workers interested in this occupation can earn professional certification, which is not required but can help with career transitions.

  • Median Annual Salary (May 2023): $67,650
  • Projected Employment Growth (2022-2032): +6%

Diversity and Inclusion Specialist

Social workers' backgrounds helping diverse populations can lead to careers as diversity and inclusion specialists. These professionals work with human resources departments and focus on organizational strategies and programs to ensure diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Skills gained in social work, including compassion, communication, problem-solving, and advocacy, can help career-changers. A diversity and inclusion specialist typically needs a bachelor's degree in a human resources field, but employers may consider work experience more important than formal education. An optional inclusive workplace culture specialty credential can also help with the occupational shift.

  • Median Annual Salary (May 2023): $64,340
  • Projected Employment Growth (2022-2032): +6%

Social and Community Service Manager

Social and community service managers coordinate human services programs and direct staff who provide services to the public. These managers identify needed services, secure funding, and analyze program effectiveness. Organizations may focus on specific populations, such as veterans, individuals experiencing homelessness, or people with substance use, food insecurity, and mental health needs.

Most employers in this field require a bachelor's degree, but some may prefer candidates with master's degrees. Work experience can occur in social work and counseling. Shifting into a social and community service manager role should not require additional education or training for social workers.

  • Median Annual Salary (May 2023): $77,030
  • Projected Employment Growth (2022-2032): +9%

Tips for Transitioning from Social Work to a New Career

This section offers tips to help you transition from social work to an alternative career, including goal setting, making contacts, and gaining experience.

  • Set Clear Goals

    When deciding which career to pursue, list the things you enjoyed about social work and those you didn't. For example, if you like working with young people, you might be drawn to education and guidance counseling or high school teaching.
  • Update Resumes and Cover Letters

    Tailoring your resume and cover letters to prospective roles can aid your job search and help pinpoint your strengths. Likewise, rewriting your resume and cover letters can reveal gaps in your education or work experience.
  • Network With Professionals and Seek Mentorship

    As a social worker, you may already know professionals in nursing, social and community service, and counseling. If you're interested in positions in fields like business and nursing, try accessing resources like LinkedIn, professional organizations, and industry conferences. Once you create connections, you can ask for informational interviews and mentorship.
  • Pursue Further Education, Training, and/or Certification

    Roles in nursing, human resources, and counseling require a certificate or an additional degree. Your social work academic credits should transfer toward your new credentials. Paid training may also be available for positions in the clergy or religious work and high school teaching professions.
  • Consider an Internship or Volunteer Position

    You can approach employers about internships and volunteer opportunities for training in a new field. While they may not be paid, you can gain work experience to include on your resume and explore new employment options.
  • Stay Positive and Flexible

    A positive and flexible attitude can help you discover your next career path and open doors to possibilities you may not have previously considered.

Frequently Asked Questions About Transitioning to Social Work

What are some alternate careers for social workers that don't require going back to school?

You will likely not have to return to school for careers in clergy or religious work, diversity and inclusion, private school counseling and teaching, social and community service management, and substance misuse and behavioral counseling.

If you're experiencing burnout, seek alternative careers for social workers that take you in a new direction. These may include business-focused occupations like diversity and inclusion or human resources.

You can return to school while continuing to work as a social worker. Many offer part-time, evening, weekend, and online learning opportunities to fit into your schedule.

Credits earned in your social work degree program may transfer toward a degree in a new field, particularly in guidance or career counseling, therapy, or social services. Many nursing programs offer bridge programs for non-nursing bachelor's degree-holders that shorten the time in school. A master's degree in social work can also provide entry into several alternative careers.

Page last reviewed on May 16, 2024

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