Post-Master’s Career Progression of Social Workers

A Developmental Perspective


  • Dawn Apgar Seton Hall University, NJ
  • Katherine Dolan



professional development, supervision, licensure, career development


Social work is one of the fastest growing professions in the nation with an expected job growth of 9% by the end of the decade and more than 62,888 Masters of Social Work (MSW) students in the United States in 2021 (BLS, 2022; CSWE, 2023). The receipt of a graduate social work degree represents an important milestone, often accompanied by entry into professional practice. While much is written about formal social work education, scholarly literature has far fewer articles about the work life of social workers after graduation. This article presents social work career progression from a developmental perspective, an approach that has historically been used to examine the life course of clients. Typical tasks or “milestones” in early, middle, and later stages of clinical or direct practice careers are discussed. Adapting life course theory to examine the professional evolution of social workers is beneficial as it helps illuminate the typical stressors facing practitioners after completing their formal education. Understanding potential career opportunities and issues may help those entering social work to better socialize into the profession and transition from one stage to the next by anticipating what lies ahead. Using a developmental perspective to professionalization is also appropriate as, like in the life course, opportunities for growth should be ongoing and lifelong. Early, middle, and later career opportunities and challenges are identified within the three pillars of social work – regulation, education, and practice. Policy reforms to enhance social work licensure portability, life-long learning in the form of continuing education, and self-care practices will assist social workers to thrive in all career stages.


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