How to Become a Social Work Teacher


Social work, like teaching, is often described as a helping profession. While it is normally an active career that involves assisting clients while out in the field, there is a steady necessity for specialists who are able to put their knowledge to good use within a classroom setting by training the next generation of social workers. Professors who teach social work courses may assume a position at a two-year college with a master’s degree, but more often than not, postsecondary schools prefer to hire an educator who has a doctorate degree and experience in the field.

What type of courses do social work professors teach?

Social workers interact with individuals, families, and entire communities. First and foremost, social workers help clients tackle social problems and barriers, ranging from abuse and addiction, to mental illness and poverty. While they do provide counseling, social workers also play a critical role in connecting clients to services. For example, they might help a client get their name on a waiting list for subsidized housing, or enroll in a free English-language course.

Not surprisingly, social workers are also frequently engaged in lobbying and advising local/regional governments on social policy issues. For this reason, social work teachers need to understand the theory and practice of social work; they need to understand social issues on a conceptual level, as well as appreciate the practical implications of social policies and theories.

According to their area of expertise and training, social work professors are generally hired to teach the following types of classes for the field:

  • foundation curriculum courses (both introductory and advanced) that involve learning about human behavior, and studying social work practice and social work policy
  • advanced research courses allow social work majors to explore research techniques related to child welfare, evaluations, cross-cultural approaches, community practices and completing a master’s thesis, as determined by a student’s concentration and specialization
  • advanced human behavior courses often cover topics related to unique specializations, such as international social welfare, intimate partner violence, or multicultural perspectives
  • clinical methods courses that touch upon topics such as individual therapies, family therapy, addictive behavior patterns, and treating children; professors also guide students as they complete an advanced clinical field practicum
  • management and community organization courses equips students aspiring to work in the field with knowledge and experience related to the principles of social and economic justice, program management, and community economic development

Social work professors may also offer special topics related to their qualifications, which often vary from semester to semester. Oftentimes, college students will take these types of courses to satisfy elective credit requirements.

How can I become a college social work professor?

Some two-year colleges offer associate degrees in the social services, which prepare students to hold jobs as mental health aides, outreach workers serving individual neighborhoods, social casework assistants, group home supervisors, and in other similar positions. The majority of social work professors hold a Ph.D. in social work, but depending on the type of college in which they wish to teach at, some professors are hired with a master’s degree in social work and experience in the field.shutterstock_193821503

Depending on college requirements, professors holding a master’s degree are sometimes expected to have obtained a D.S.W. or Ph.D. in social work (or in a closely related field) in order for reappointment after a specified number of years.

With few exceptions, relevant work experience in the social work field is also required to qualify for a college teaching position. The primary focus of a college social work professor is teaching and supervising social service or social work students in training. Colleges also prefer to hire job candidates with a certain number of years of post-masters professional experience in the field.

College professors may also be expected to:

  • Assist in curriculum and program development
  • Provide service to the school and engage in community activities
  • Be a member of a professional social work organization

What is required for becoming a university social work professor?

A social work professor at the university level may supervise a few students who are learning advanced social work concepts, or teach introductory courses to those with an interest in pursuing a career in the field. Faculty who teach in social work faculties are responsible for carrying out research on topics in social work, such as poverty, child welfare or domestic violence; teaching and supervising students at the undergraduate and graduate levels; and participating in the governance of their program and university.

Large social work faculties typically teach students pursuing one of three types of degrees: Bachelor of Social Work (BSW); Master of Social Work (MSW); and Doctorate of Social Work (PhD). They may belong to a department devoted to social work or social services; serve joint departments, such as Psychology and Social Work; or teach courses at a separate school devoted to the field, like the USC School of Social Work, which U.S. News & World Report identified as one of the top-ranked, accredited graduate social work programs in the United States.

Doctorate-level degrees are a must to qualify for a teaching position at a university. Social work professors must hold a PhD in social work; or a master’s degree in social work with a PhD in a related discipline (such as education, sociology or mental health counseling). Job candidates are also generally expected to meet the following qualifications:

  • Experience working as a social worker. This typically means that a qualified professor has completed graduate-level coursework in social work, passed one or more field exams, and has written and defended a PhD dissertation on a topic related to social work.
  • A track record of publication in the field, or demonstrate strong potential to establish one. For this reason, social work professors typically publish in journals such as the Journal of Social Work and Social Work Research. They may also write books on topics related to the field of social work, or create course materials.
  • Attend and regularly present at conferences, such as the annual meeting of the National Association of Social Workers.
  • Serve as an advisor or guide for students pursuing an independent study in social work.

What is the job outlook for social work professors?

Overall, the job growth rate for postsecondary teachers, including those who teach social work courses, is faster than average. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), colleges and universities expect to see 13 percent growth from 2014 to 2024. The BLS anticipates that the social workers occupation alone will experience a 12 percent growth rate during this same time period, which means the need to hire qualified teachers to educate the next generation of social workers will remain steady.

Social work professors within the university setting often compete to obtain full-time, tenure-track positions that provide a higher level of job security over opportunities to become adjunct professors and assistant professors. Those who engage in the following tend to increase their chances of earning a permanent position with a college or university:

  • Many jobs in academia center on the quality of published work, and the number of pieces that appear in peer-reviewed scholarly journals. Prolific authors and co-authors are the type of faculty members that colleges and universities prefer to have on staff.
  • Attending and presenting research findings at conferences demonstrates a professor who is active within the field, and strives to add value to the social work profession.
  • Professors who network not only within their academic community but also outside of it, exhibit desired qualities of a tenured employee. This may include attending department functions, mentoring alumni, and leading discussions at on-campus workshops.

As an increasing number of students are turning to distance-learning options and online classrooms to obtain an education, professors with online course design/development and teaching experience are also in high demand. The majority of social work professors are employed at colleges, universities and professional schools. In 2014, there were 9,490 faculty members that worked at the college/university level as opposed to the 1,490 professors employed at junior colleges for that same year.

What is the compensation for social work professors?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, professors who taught social work courses (including those who combined teaching and research as part of their occupation) earned a median salary of $62,440 in 2014. The overall salaries of social work professors are determined by a handful of factors. A professor’s educational credentials, years of experience, and place of employment (such as university positions versus one at a community college) all play a role.

For example, in 2014, social work professors earned the following annual mean salaries, according to the type of employer they worked for:

  • Colleges, universities and professional schools – $68,480
  • Junior colleges – $61,250

Geographic location is another factor that affects the average salaries of professors. For postsecondary social work teachers, the BLS identified the following states (with annual mean salaries) as paying the highest amount for this occupation: California ($85,470), North Dakota ($78,840), Michigan ($77,690), Washington ($77,680), and Utah ($76,990). 

In conclusion, the social work profession is diverse and provides many opportunities for educators to teach students with the goal of pursuing a career that aims to improve the quality of life for children, adults, communities and other clients, such as the military and married couples. In order to teach social work courses, teachers must earn at least a master’s degree (with doctorate degrees preferred), gain relevant experience, and stay active in the field.

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