Social Justice

Where do social workers work? Settings that might surprise you

Where do social workers work


If asked to think about social work, many of us would likely conjure some of the same images. You might envision a licensed professional who extends compassionate service to children struggling with issues at home, to families dealing with difficult medical diagnoses or to individuals battling mental health issues.

Most social workers specialize in child, family and school social work, health care social work, and mental health and substance abuse social work. But if you’re beginning to think this important humanities career path could be the right fit for you, it’s worth looking into some of the other types of social work you could explore. There are some positions and environments you might not expect.

Where do social workers work, exactly? It depends on their role. Join us as we examine four less-common specializations in this field to get a more holistic picture of where social workers work. You may discover a potential fit for your own personal career goals.

Where do social workers work? 4 specializations with varying settings

You’ll soon see that the environment social workers find themselves in varies based on their specialization. Even within a particular focus, settings can differ. Maybe one of these options will help you write your social work success story.

1. Military social work

While all social workers will likely serve military service members in some capacity, you may consider a career specifically as a military social worker if you have a particular interest in giving back to this population and their families.

Within military social work, professionals can serve in a number of different ways. Some military social workers assist off-duty service members or veterans in a civilian-based support center, such as a private practice or a government-run organization.

Other social workers may take more of an interest in working with active-duty or reserve-duty personnel. They most commonly find themselves in medical or mental health departments on military bases. Professionals in this realm may even enlist in the military themselves and travel alongside a specific unit, even during overseas deployment.

Regardless of the particular setting and type of military social work you pursue, you can expect to work with clients experiencing a range of similar struggles. Some individuals experience post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse issues or difficulty reintegrating into civilian life after deployment.

2. International social work

While most social workers across specializations practice close to home, international social work presents some exciting opportunities for professionals who don’t feel tied to one geographical area. International social workers may find work across the globe to address social injustices, violations of civil liberties or human rights and more.

The goal of international social work is no different than that of domestic social work positions: to improve the quality of life for individuals and communities. The types of issues professionals in this realm may encounter, however, could differ based on cultural differences. The reality of those facing poverty in a developing country, for example, will differ greatly from those living in poverty in more developed Western nations.

The most successful international social workers are those with ample exposure to other cultures. This is why many who pursue this branch of social work will start in volunteer positions. It allows them to gain the experience that competitive international social work jobs require.

Considering becoming a social worker?

Explore more about the field and its different career paths.

3. Criminal justice social work

As with most branches of social work, criminal justice social work encompasses multiple career opportunities. Social workers in this area work in a number of different settings, including courthouses, domestic violence support centers and correctional facilities.

In a courthouse environment, social workers do what they can to serve vulnerable populations involved in the criminal justice system. They collaborate with a team of legal professionals on legal investigative work, advocacy and legal counseling or guidance.

Crisis and victim support centers rely heavily on criminal justice social workers to provide support and resources to victims of violence, neglect and other hardships. They help to provide crisis intervention services, counseling, legal guidance and even program development.

Social workers who work in correctional facilities focus their services on supporting incarcerated individuals throughout each phase of their sentence. Criminal justice social workers in correctional facilities help with intake coordination, psychiatric evaluations and ongoing psychiatric care. They also help prepare inmates to transition back into society upon release.

4. Hospice and palliative care social work

While it’s typically assumed that patients in hospice and palliative care settings are there due to their advanced age, patients across the age spectrum may seek services if they are suffering from debilitating conditions or terminal diagnoses.

Hospice and palliative care social workers help patients and their families navigate the often difficult process of end-of-life planning. They help these individuals better understand treatment plans and advocate for their needs. Hospice and palliative care social workers can also assist patients in dealing with the mental, emotional and financial stressors of struggling with a physical illness.

Patients who require hospice care may develop additional hardships as a result of their circumstances. They may experience depression, anxiety, anger, social isolation and family conflict. In addition to helping patients work through such struggles, hospice social workers are well-versed in the available resources and can help connect their clients to other support services as needed.

Hospice and palliative care social workers primarily carry out their duties in hospice centers or hospitals. They may also conduct home visits to help patients and their families establish effective care within their daily environments.

Could a fulfilling career in social work be for you?

Where do social workers work? You can see there are many settings. As you explore the various specializations and work environments available, you may be increasingly drawn toward this compassionate career path. If so, it could be time to begin researching the various educational opportunities that could make your budding dream a reality.

Looking for some guidance? Visit University of Massachusetts Global’s Bachelor of Arts in Social Work page to learn more about how a baccalaureate degree can qualify you for success in the field. If you’ve already earned a bachelor’s degree—even if it’s in a different field—a graduate track may be a better fit. Head over to the Master of Social Work page to learn more.


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