If so, a degree in social work may be right for you. But as you research graduate programs, you may want to learn more about the professional requirements for becoming a licensed social worker, and what’s involved in earning a degree.

Like medicine and law, the social work profession is regulated. Most employers require that Master of Social Work (MSW) graduates be licensed to practice. To be eligible for licensure, students need to have met the graduation requirements of an accredited graduate program.

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the accrediting agency providing oversight of all social work programs. To ensure a national standard of knowledge and skills, they mandate a curriculum of 10 core competencies of social work practice and behaviors. Every accredited CSWE school mandates this foundational course of study, which is covered both in the classroom and in the fieldwork experience.

Although publications like US News and World Report rank MSW programs (the MSW rankings rely on sparse criteria and are of limited use), it’s important to note this universality of study. This means that a high quality education can be found at any accredited school, regardless of its spot in the rankings.

These “competencies” designate areas of social work practice that define the profession, and delineate practice objectives. You will note that these competencies relate to topics such as ethics as well as mission. For example, the third competency is that social workers have a duty to advance human rights and socio-economic justice. If you are motivated to make a difference in the world, you have found the right profession.

In addition to ensuring standards of practice across all accredited CSWE schools, these core competencies help social workers better understand their role, and have a greater impact. Finally, these standards legitimize social work as a data-driven and knowledge based profession.

The CSWE Core Competencies are listed below:

  1. Identify as a professional social worker and conduct oneself accordingly.
  2. Apply social work ethical principles to guide professional practice.
  3. Apply critical thinking to inform and communicate professional judgement.
  4. Engage diversity and difference in practice.
  5. Advance human rights and socio-economic justice.
  6. Engage in research informed practice, and practice-informed research.
  7. Apply knowledge of human behavior and the social environment.
  8. Engage in policy practice to advance social and economic well-being, and to deliver effective social work service.
  9. Respond to contexts that shape practice.
  10. Engage, assess, intervene, and educate with individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities.

Though all accredited institutions follow the core competencies, each social work school has its own interpretation. You will need to do your homework and research the individual programs to which you are applying.

Many people enter the social work profession wanting to help others. But the notion of helping is vague and undefined. And there are many “helping” related professions, such as nursing and teaching. What differentiates social workers from other helping professionals? What differentiates social worker from psychologists?

These social worker competencies draw a circle around the profession. These ten principles say, this is what social work entails.

This list is incredibly important to social work study and practice. Having a mandated focus structures the idea of “help” for social workers. It allows social workers to go out in the community and have the significant, targeted impact they trained for.

Nedda Gilbert

Ms. Gilbert is a certified social worker and 30 year educational consultant with an interest in helping college-bound and graduate school students manage the process and stress of admissions effectively. She is one of the senior founding managers of the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company, and the author of The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and another book, Business School Essays that Made a Difference (Random House). She is a guest contributor to Forbes Magazine on college and college life. Ms. Gilbert is also certified as a collaborative family law professional in New Jersey. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MS from Columbia University.