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Remember that the happiest people are not those getting more, but those giving.
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
Careers in Social Services--An Introduction
Social service organizations provide a myriad of services to individuals in need. If you are interested in working directly with people, helping individuals improve their lives and find solutions to their problems, social service work may be ideal for you. People choose a career in social services because of their passion for helping others and their desire to make a difference in someone's life. This work can be extremely challenging and satisfying for those who enjoy seeing the positive results of their direct action.
The Structure and Mission of Social Services
The broad mission of social service organizations (also known as human service organizations) is to help individuals and families with a range of emotional, social, physical and economic problems. Social service positions can be found in public agencies, not-for-profit organizations and private companies. Some examples of issues that social service organizations address are alcohol and substance abuse treatment, child abuse prevention, domestic violence programs, AIDS treatment and prevention, issues of hunger and homelessness. There are many types of jobs within the social services field including social worker, clergy member, youth counselor, child care worker, program coordinator, fundraiser, hotline operator, volunteer coordinator or program manager.
It is also helpful to understand that there is significant overlap between the field of social services and other fields, including education, health care, and international development.
The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others
~ Mahatma Gandhi
Career Options--Social Services
There are many positions within the field of social services, all with the shared goal of helping others find safety, health and success in their lives. Many people interested in entering this field want to do counseling of some sort, which usually means getting a graduate degree in counseling, social work or psychology.
Most people who become social workers, counselors and psychologists specialize. Social workers may focus on working with children, marriage and family issues, school or substance abuse. For example, a medical social worker provides individuals and families with the psychosocial support needed to cope with chronic, acute, or terminal illnesses, such as Alzheimer's disease, cancer, or AIDS. A social worker specializing in substance abuse would assess and treat individuals with substance abuse problems, including abuse of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs. Such services might include individual and group therapy, outreach, crisis intervention, and training in skills of everyday living.
Counselors might specialize in educational, vocational or school counseling, employment or career counseling, rehabilitation counseling or marriage and family therapy. For example, a school counselor would help students with educational, vocational, emotional and social development. They may also provide individual, group counseling and crisis intervention. A rehabilitation counselor helps people with physical, mental, emotional or social disabilities adapt to the world of work. They usually work as part of a rehabilitation team with physicians, nurses, psychiatrists and physical and occupational therapists.
Examples of specialties in psychology are clinical, social, experimental, and forensic. Clinical psychologists diagnose or evaluate mental and emotional disorders of individuals and conduct programs of treatment to modify the behavior of their patients. Forensic psychologists evaluate individuals involved in legal and court matters such as criminal defense, juvenile court cases, and personal injury cases.
Entry-level jobs in social services may include casework, helping others obtain services, monitoring and keeping records, organizing or leading group activities, assisting clients in mastering everyday living skills and modeling healthy behaviors for residents or clients. Examples of entry-level job are counselor aide, child protection worker, group home coordinator, or residential youth counselor.
The differences between counselors, social workers and psychologists can be confusing. Often the distinction comes less in the actual job duties and more in the differences in training and philosophy among each of these professions. For example, although counselors, social workers, and psychologists may all do one-to-one counseling, they may have different treatment approaches and understandings of psychological or emotional problems. Psychiatrists differ in that they are medical doctors and can prescribe drugs, usually psychotropic medications (drugs that effect the mind, emotions, or behavior). These sites outline the differences between the psychology and psychiatry.
For more general information on job descriptions within the field of social services, go to Human Services career site.
Recommended Education, Training, and Skills
Educational and work experience requirements vary for the many different types of human service jobs. Most employers will hire entry-level human service workers with relevant college courses plus volunteer or internship experience in the field. Some organizations require experience with the clientele they serve, experience that can be gained through volunteer activities. On the other hand, employers recognize that the skills that you gain from working with one “population” are probably applicable to the next.
While a bachelor's degree is usually the minimum requirement, a master's degree in social work or a related field has become the standard for many social service positions. Senior positions often require graduate training. A master's degree is required for clinical work, i.e. diagnosing mental and emotional disorders and implementing treatment to modify behavior. Psychologists must have a doctorate degree and psychiatrists need a medical degree.
Jobs within the field of social services tend to be hands-on and require excellent communication skills. Skills in listening, teaching and counseling are valuable, along with conflict negotiation skills. Qualities such as compassion and resilience, the ability to set boundaries, the ability to juggle and prioritize and a sense of humor will help you to be successful in this work. You also need to be able to inspire respect, trust and confidence.
Challenges and Benefits--Social Services
Working in social services can be an ideal career for those who are interested in helping others and making a difference in people's lives. Some believe that human service workers impact people more than any other profession. The skills you will develop are very marketable and are needed in every region of the country. There is a good deal of opportunity for advancement.
Another benefit reported by those working in this field is the level of camaraderie that often exists within these organizations. It can be inspiring and invigorating to see what people can accomplish when they gather for the sole purpose of helping others live better lives.
While this work can be highly satisfying, it can also be emotionally draining and full of frustrations. One of the reported difficulties of providing services within some bureaucratic systems is the amount of paperwork often required. For people who enter this field because of their desire to help people, this can be a significant challenge. In addition, this work can be frustrating because change often happens in a slow, sometimes almost undetectable way, and seeing the benefits of your work may take a long time.
For people who are committed to helping others, accepting the fact that there is always more to do than could ever be done, can be difficult. One of the greatest challenges for people who see themselves as “helpers” is to balance giving with knowing when you have done enough. Preventing burn-out by setting personal boundaries is critical to longevity and success in the social service field.
Employers of Social Services Jobs
Jobs at social service organizations can be found in most communities across the country.
Although social service work is sometimes done by government agencies and companies in the private sector, the major employers are not-for-profit organizations, such as American Red Cross, Visiting Nurses Association, Boys and Girls Clubs of America and United Way . Most social service organizations are locally based. Examples of local Amherst groups include Amherst Survival Center, Grace House, Tapestry Health Center, and the Literacy Project. Some organizations have a local focus, although they may be part of a larger national organization, such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters.
Government jobs can be found on the federal, state and local levels. Federal agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services may hire employees for social service activities on the state and local level.
Examples of the types of settings you might work in as a social service worker include residential care facilities, homeless shelters, food banks, substance abuse programs, correctional facilities, organizations dedicated to children and families, poverty and employment services, mental health agencies and domestic violence shelters.
Employment in the field of social services is projected to grow faster than average. Competition for jobs is expected in cities, but opportunities should be good in more rural areas. Job prospects may be best for those with a background in gerontology and substance abuse treatment. The reason for that is there is a rapidly growing elderly population and substance abusers are increasingly being placed intro treatment programs instead of being sentenced to prison. Overall, employment of social services workers will grow as people, in general, become more comfortable seeking professional help for a variety of health, personal and family problems.
As with many career fields, the salaries vary greatly depending on the type of position and organization in which you work. In 2002, the median annual earnings for social workers was $33,000 with the lowest 10 percent earning less than $21,000 and the highest 10 percent earning more than $54,000. To find out more about salaries in the field of social services, go to the following sites:
If you want happiness for a lifetime – help the next generation
Internship and Volunteer Opportunities--Social Services
Volunteer and internship opportunities abound within the field of social services. Because many of these hiring organizations are not-for-profits, they are usually more than willing to have you volunteer or intern. As with all career investigations, volunteering or doing an internship is a great way to test your interest in this field.
National Human Services Assembly listing of jobs and internships
Washington , D.C. internships in human services and social policy
Idealist: click on “Internships” and find what you are looking for anywhere in the world
Social Service Job Site can search for internships all over the country
For a college student or recent graduate, the Americorps program offers a great opportunity to receive a stipend for a one-year social service position; often referred to as the domestic Peace Corp
Peace Corps volunteers work around the globe in the following areas: education, youth outreach, community development, health and HIV/AIDS, agriculture and environment, business development, and information technology. Within these areas, the specific duties and responsibilities of each volunteer can vary widely.
Life's most urgent question is: What are you doing for others?
~Martin Luther King, Jr.
Job Opportunities--Social Services
Links to many job openings and resources by state. This is a good place to start looking for a social service or social work job, whether in mental health, substance abuse, children and youth, medical social work, criminal justice, domestic violence, counseling, community organizing and outreach, EAP, mentoring, homelessness or a variety of other human service areas.
The Department of Health and Human Service is the United States government's principal agency for protecting the health of all Americans and providing essential human services, especially for those who are least able to help themselves. This site provides links to all DHHS agencies and programs, with information on the latest policies, research, and other news.
HS Careers offers information on human services, social services, not-for-profit jobs, conferences, and career trends.
Information and resources for those new in the field of social work
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) is the organization for professional social workers
American Counseling Association (ACA)
The American Psychological Association (APA)
Listing of various professional associations in the field of mental health