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Interview with a ...
Social worker

| November 2015

BLS Fast Facts:

Healthcare social workers

  • May 2014 employment: 145,920
  • 2012–22 projected growth: 27 percent (faster than average)
  • May 2014 median annual wage: $51,930 (higher than the $35,540 median wage for all workers)
  • Education typically required at entry level: Master’s degree
  • May 2014 top-employing industries: General medical and surgical hospitals, home healthcare services, individual and family services, nursing care facilities, outpatient care facilities.

Note: Employment, wage, and industry data exclude self-employed workers.

Elizabeth Kelly
Washington, D.C.

What do you do?

I’m a case manager and medical social worker in the brain-injury unit of a hospital. I help patients who’ve been in traumatic situations cope physically and emotionally. And I link them with available resources in the community.

Each day starts with a team conference, with physicians, therapists, and case managers coming together to discuss patient progress and issues. During the rest of my day, I assess the needs of new patients, give updates to insurance companies, plan patient discharges, and act as a liaison between patients and families and their medical team.

Outside of my day job, I lead a weekly grief-and-loss support group for children ages 8 through 12. I develop art and play therapy activities to help decrease the isolation that some children feel after a loss. The group also helps young people develop coping skills and gives them a safe place to learn to talk about death. 

Once or twice a month, I also work as a grief counselor at the medical examiner’s office. I give emotional support to people who come to identify a deceased person, and I advise them of community resources where they can get assistance in the future.

How did you get this job?

I have a bachelor’s degree in political science and international studies and a Master of Social Work degree. For my master’s degree, I did fieldwork at the hospital and at the loss and healing center. After graduation, I continued working for both. 

What was your first job out of college?

I worked as an office manager at a government relations company. I spent most of my time there doing administrative things, like answering phones, making coffee, and fixing the copy machine. I eventually recognized that the political world was not a good fit for me. It was too competitive and polarizing for someone like me, who believes in compromise.

I was always fascinated by psychology and personal growth and wanted to be in more of a helping profession. I realized that studying social work was the right option for me because it was a direct route to helping people.

Did anything else help prepare you for your job?

Prior to getting my social work degree, I worked in development and fundraising. As a fundraiser, I had to be organized and efficient and have good time management skills. When asking people for money, which can be a sensitive subject, I had to rely heavily on my communication and networking skills. These abilities are definitely helpful in social work.

Any surprises about your career along the way?

When I first began my career in social work, I thought I would work mostly with adults. After I started working at the loss and healing center, I discovered that I really enjoy working with children, teenagers, and young adults.

I’m currently taking classes to learn more about play therapy, a form of counseling that uses play to help children cope with stress. For example, puppets or games can be used to help kids talk about difficult subjects in a way that feels less personal. We also use different art techniques, like drawing or collage, to help children express and deal with their feelings.

What do you like best about your job?

I cherish the opportunity to help clients feel less alone. By educating them and normalizing their experiences, I get to witness moments in personal growth. There is nothing better than seeing someone not just survive, but thrive. And I have lots of chances to keep learning and to be creative. I’m always inspired because I’m constantly in awe of our human potential.

What are the hardest parts of your job?

The hardest part of my job is being aware of my own limits. People are influenced by a variety of factors, some which can be significant barriers to their own progress. It’s important that I know how these things impact the people I’m helping. Then we can work together to figure out how to create positive change within their existing environment.

What do you hope to do next?

I’d like to continue my work with the support group for kids. But I’m also planning on starting a private counseling and therapy practice. My ultimate goal is to work part time at a community counseling agency and part time in private practice. I’m looking forward to setting my own schedule and running my own business. I plan to start taking on a few clients in private practice through referrals from other clinicians and by marketing my specialties, and then grow from there. 

What’s your best advice for someone who wants to do what you do?

Completing a graduate program really calls for a commitment of time and money, so do some research before applying. Talk to people who have jobs in the type of social work field you’re interested in, and ask them about their educational background and work experience. Most people are happy to give an informational interview or answer a few questions. Volunteering is also a great way to get a taste of different types of social work.

Also, have patience. There may be several levels of licensure required, depending on what state you live in. You may have to work up to the job you want by getting a certain number of work hours and professional supervision.

Sara Royster is an economist formerly employed in the Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections, BLS.

Suggested citation:

Sara Royster, "Social worker," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, November 2015.

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