Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Social Worker in California

Written by Sam Medley


If you’re passionate about making California a better, more equitable place, you probably have some specific goals in mind. You might even know what city you want to work in, what population you want to help, or what kind of agency you want to work for. No matter what it takes to become that impassioned advocate, you’re ready.

But when you think about it, you’re not really sure what “what it takes” means. Where do you start? You’re not even sure what questions to ask. In this FAQ, we’ll give you quick but in-depth answers to questions that can help you forge your own path. Along the way, we’ll include links to other pages on that provide more detailed information about turning your passion for social justice into a rewarding career.

How do I become a social worker in California?

Legally speaking, you don’t need a specific amount of education or training to become a social worker in California. All you have to do is get hired by a social service agency. But despite these relatively relaxed laws (other states have much stricter regulations), agencies typically prefer candidates with education and experience. This is especially true for roles beyond the entry level.

If you want to become a well-trained, well-rounded, and attractive candidate for social work jobs in California, a three-step path can get you there:

1. Earn a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW)

As you earn a BSW, you’ll be introduced to basic social work skills like interviewing, counseling, and case management. However, not all future social workers earn a BSW. Some earn bachelor’s degrees in psychology, sociology, social justice, and other related disciplines.

2. Earn a Master’s in Social Work (MSW)

At the Master’s level, students learn advanced social work principles and skills. This often includes crisis intervention, leadership, policy development, and how to navigate complicated legal and ethical issues. MSW students can also specialize in a specific type of social work like child welfare or mental health and substance abuse. If you attend a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), you’ll also complete a minimum of 900 fieldwork hours.

3. Start looking for jobs

Armed with education and experience, you could be the perfect candidate for your dream job at the agency of your choice. From advocacy-focused nonprofits and government agencies to community-based service providers, California’s social service agencies need talented professionals of all kinds.

Depending on your goals, you may also want to pursue professional certifications or licenses. To learn more, check out our pages on state licensure requirements and becoming a social worker in California.

What can I do with a Master’s in Social Work?

Master’s degrees are the gold standard of the social work world. With one, you can hold any number of high-level frontline, administrative, or support positions.

Some of the roles you can take on with an MSW include:

Many professionals with an MSW work under the title of social worker. However, they often handle more complicated cases than their peers. For instance, entry-level social workers in school social work might connect parents to resources, but their more experienced colleagues can provide things like behavioral therapy and counseling.

According to the Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS), you can do two more exciting things with an MSW in California: become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and run your own practice. As an LCSW, you can provide life-saving mental health services. With your own practice, you can bring equity to entire communities that have fallen through the cracks.

How long does a Master’s in Social Work take?

Most MSW programs require students to complete about 60 credit hours of classes. For a full-time student, this is equivalent to two years or four semesters. If you already have a bachelor’s in social work, you can enroll in a 30-credit-hour Advanced Standing program and earn your degree in as little as one year. And with online MSW programs becoming more prevalent, earning your degree is more accessible than ever.

If going to school full-time doesn’t fit in your schedule, many programs also offer part-time options. Students enrolled in standard programs can take fewer classes per semester and earn their degrees in three to four years. Advanced Standing students can graduate in two years. Some programs even offer summer classes so you can take classes year-round, stay on schedule, and still have time to keep up with your own busy schedule.