What is Social Work: Shining a Spotlight on the Profession


In my first week of social work classes, my foundations professor asked the class what is social work?  Classmates tossed out a few ideas. The professor then explained that there was no good definition of social work because it is such a broad field. She explained that if we were to compare jobs held by those with social work degrees that we would find great variation in the job descriptions and day-to-day tasks. She also told us that not having a good concise definition of social work can sometime be an obstacle, and that’s the problem.

Even social workers have different ideas about what social work looks like and the types of jobs social workers should be doing. So it should come as no surprise that the general public, and even our employers, have very little understanding about what a social work education entails. This is particularly harmful to the careers of community practice social workers who are not looking to work in mental health.

As Professionals We Need to Help Shine a Spotlight on Social Work 

“What is social work”? “What do social workers do”? “So you work for child protective services”? “You’re like a psychologist, right”? Among non-social-workers the idea is that we are either therapist in private practice or  schools, or that we are doing case management in child protective services. So if your intent is to do anything besides therapy or case management it’s difficult to get your foot in the door. I cannot count the number of odd looks I have gotten over the years when I reveal to colleagues and non-social-workers that I have no plans to get the LCSW and that I do not do therapy.

I want to make it clear that the lack of understanding about social work isn’t just a macro practice problem; it is also a problem for micro social workers, especially for those on the frontlines at social welfare agencies. They are overworked and underpaid. I have heard some say that their supervisors (who are often not social workers) take the attitude that anyone can get a social work degree. Many higher ups at these agencies still see social workers as being little more than incredible well trained volunteers. I am here to offer a solution to this problem. Each of us can help shine a spotlight on social work and thereby educate the public about what we are capable of. The solution really isn’t that complicated.

Here it is: We need to be visible.

We need to take the conversation outside of social work and start interacting with non-social-workers. We need to insert ourselves into discussions that are taking place on the national stage. Here are a few tips about how to start doing that.

The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword 

Write. Start a blog, contribute a guest post to an existing blog, write an op-ed for your local newspaper, and/or pitch a story to a magazine. Share your expertise by writing about what you know. Use your credentials in the by line. Make sure your author bio clearly states that you are a social worker.

I Can Help You With That 

You’re an educated professional. You have been working in the field for a few years. You know stuff. You know who needs input from people who know stuff? Journalist, and social media makes it easy to help you connect. Use Twitter to follow reporters from your local paper or TV news program. Reach out to them and let them know about your credentials and that you would be more than happy to give feedback or share info on stories they are working on related to your scope of practice. If you’re interested in doing this you may want to sign up for Help a Reporter Out (HERO). It is an online service that helps journalist connect with sources on various topics. You can sign up for it here .


Participate in non-social-work discussion forms and associations. Let’s say you are a community practice social worker interested in social welfare policy. It would be a great idea for you to join and participate in LinkedIn groups for public policy professionals. I’m an advocacy consultant. I recently joined a networking group for nonprofit consultants; the vast majority of the participants are not social workers. Sharing my social work perspective helps them to get a clearer picture about what social workers are trained to do outside of mental health counseling.

Final Thoughts 

Social Work month is around the corner. Every March we celebrate the work social workers do and why it matters. My concern is that we do not get the word out to non-social-workers. Most of our discussions around social work takes place in social work forums with other social workers. In essence, we spend too much time preaching to the choir, but we can easily change that today.

Published by

Rachel L. West

Rachel L. West is the Founder of the Political Social Worker, a blog dedicated to macro social work and politics. She holds a BA in History from SUNY Stony Brook and an MSW from Adelphi University. She is a community outreach and engagement specialist. Rachel resides in New York State, and she is available as a consultant and coach. You can find out more about Rachel at The Political Social Worker at (politicalsocialworker.org).

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