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Social Work Subject Guide

Are you a caring, sharing person that’s eager to take your personality into a career where you can really make a difference? Then why not consider a career in social work?



What Is Social Work?

what is social work
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Social work is all about helping people. There’s a vast amount of different roles and types of people who’ll need your help, many of whom will be in vulnerable positions. They can be old, young, individuals, couples, families, from any background, they could have medical difficulties or just need a few things done for them now and again to help them live independently.

Dr Liz Fern, MA Social Work Programme Leader at Liverpool Hope University sums it up perfectly when she says, "Social Work is ideal for those who want to make a real difference to people’s lives and who feel passionate and committed to social justice.

"Social workers are there to protect and act as advocates for others when they are at their most vulnerable, with the aim of helping improve outcomes in their lives. While policy is a big part, people are at the heart of Social Work. It is about working closely with people and meeting them where they are. Social Work can cover a range of areas, from children and family, mental health, the elderly, youth work, international social work and community engagement."

Basically, if you want a job where you’re genuinely going to make a difference to someone’s life, both in the long and short term, social work is definitely for you.


What Qualifications Do I Need?

what qualifications do i need
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For a postgraduate course, you should ideally already have a social work degree, (or something similar).

In fact if you’ve got a 2:1 or above in your undergraduate degree, or have lots of work experience in social work, you can also apply to be fast tracked into an intense training programme. This full time course will teach you everything you need to know to become a social worker in 14 months.

It also helps if you already have some form of work experience in social work so you’ll have learnt on the job as well as in the classroom. Looking for work experience? Why not volunteer at a support organisation, work for help lines or help out at a youth centre?

Don’t have a social work undergraduate degree? Don’t worry. If you’re qualified in another subject some universities will still allow you to do a social work postgrad qualification, but you’ll be expected to do a short postgraduate course first (allowing you to catch up from what you might have missed as an undergraduate), before heading into the masters. These masters will then last two years (allowing you to catch up from what you might have missed as an undergraduate).  Although be prepared as some universities will expect you to be ready for practical side of the course pretty soon into your masters.

Lucy from the Social Worker Blog says, "If you are thinking about becoming a social worker it’s very important that you are aware that this course and role requires you to have a DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) check completed prior to starting the course. This looks into whether you have any criminal records and whether there could be any concerns if you work with vulnerable people.

"It is also a requirement that you register with the HCPC (health and care professions council) and meet their standards and guidelines during your training and throughout your practice as a social worker."


What Skills Should I Have?

what skills do i need
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Dr Liz Fern says that to be a social worker, "You’ll need to be a people person, and be willing to collaborate with others, which is a major part of the job."

In terms of personal skills, it’s also good if you are:

  • A good communicator
  • Able to solve problems
  • Able to work both alone and in a team
  • Calm and patient under pressure
  • Able to reflect on your work
  • Can make notes effectively and quickly
  • Able to manage heavy workloads from different sources.

You also need to be able to deal with the emotional side that the role brings. You’ll be working with people who need your help to change their life and sometimes that can be tough, so you need to not only be able to deal with that, but also figure out how you can help effectively.

It’s a tough job but if you have these skills and qualifications you’ll be fine.


Qualification Options

degree options
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If you want to be a social worker you aren’t limited to one particular environment or type of person to help, there are a range of work environments to work in and people to meet and help. From general offices to the NHS, the public and private sector as well as people’s actual homes, there are plenty of places you can go and help.  But no matter what you study, you’ll be expected to adhere to the British Association of Social Works (BASW) ethics and code.

Dr Fern says, "Liverpool Hope’s Social Work programme is run in partnership with Liverpool Personal Services Society (PSS), a large Liverpool-based voluntary sector organisation. As a Social Worker, you will find yourself working with individuals, agencies, NHS and across disciplines to ensure the welfare of the people you will be supporting. The best social work courses have a strong element of collaboration to prepare you for this." 

There are a number of different courses available to you and you need to choose the one which best suits you. Here are just a few of them...

NOTE:  If you’re looking for a qualification that will make you a qualified social worker, make sure you check the course details before you apply, as not all of them will give you that status.


Social Work 

If you don’t want to study a specialism, then you can do a general postgraduate qualification in social work at levels including MA, PHD and PGDip. This will encompass bits of everything rather than focusing on individual types of social work. Depending on where you study, you’ll be learning both the academic and practical knowledge you need to be a social worker.

Dr Fern explains, "MA Social Work courses involve a lot of time spent on placement to observe and participate in social work first hand. They will also include seminars and lectures, essay writing and group work, and a dissertation at the end of your course. Some written work will be based around your placement. For example, you will be asked to submit written reflections on your experience or detailing what you have learned. Placements can help you to specialise in a certain area, or you can use them to try and widen your skills and experience base. 

In addition, at Liverpool Hope, we have been able to offer our students optional extra trips to the Palestinian West Bank and to Greece to work with refugees. We have a dedicated Placement Coordinator who takes responsibility for choosing and developing placements.

To do an MA in Social Work, you normally need a First Class or Upper Second Class Honours Degree, and a GCSE Grade C or above in Mathematics and English (or equivalent).

However, experience is what can make an applicant really stand out. Social Work is about connecting with people from all walks of life, and reaching out to them where they are. The tutors want to see that you are passionate about making a difference to society, so the more experience you have, the better. As you will be working with vulnerable people, you will also be asked to apply for an Enhanced Disclosure from the Disclosure and Barring Service. You will also be asked to come along to an interview and a health check."


Mental Health

mental health
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When it comes to qualifications to help you become a mental health officer, you may need to do some research before you apply, as some courses will only accept already qualified social workers or certain undergraduate degrees.

Offering a range of modules and particular courses, mental health postgraduate courses would teach you how to give the best treatment and support to people with mental health issues, as well as understanding how their health impacts them. You’ll also learn how to support other social work professionals including carers and practitioners in order to make sure they can provide the right services.

You can choose to specialise in certain aspects of mental health too if you want, including child and adolescent, mental health law, forensic mental health and clinical psychology.

Like most social work qualifications, you can expect to learn both in a classroom and on a work placement, and will regularly work with other care professionals from a range of areas, including other roles in the social work sector.


Children and Family

children and family
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If you know that you’d like to help children and families in particular, it’s worth considering taking this course. Often available as MAs, Diplomas and Certificates, there are several qualifications you can achieve with this particular area.

Helping you become more specialist in your field, you’ll be able to develop your practical skills as well as enhancing your current knowledge, your analysing and decision making abilities, intervention skills as well as generally helping you be a more leading senior role with your cases.

As well as learning about child protection, you could also learn about how to work in a range of environments and situations, including fostering, adoption, helping disabled children and dealing with critical cases.

You can also take courses which specialise in certain aspects of this area, including Childhood Studies, International Children Protection and Child Mental Health.

Before applying for this role, it’s worth bearing in mind that most universities will expect you to already have a social work qualification before letting you onto this course, as it’s intended to help you specialise in the sector rather than teaching you everything from scratch.


Youth and Community Work

youth work
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The environments and situations of young people are always changing, so this qualification is aimed at making sure you’re as informed as possible so you can help young people in their communities, as well as being able to adapt and change to any developments along the way.

Although it depends on the university, some courses will combine practical learning (where you’ll actually help a young person in a real case) with academic theory, so you could be learning both in the classroom and in a working environment. 

Helping give young people a voice, you could be learning about to help young people into work (either employment or as an entrepreneur), help them make social changes, change their lives after committing a crime and generally supporting them.


Social Policy and Research

social policy
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If you’d rather go into the more research, analytical or academic side of social work, or want to get involved in helping form future policies in government or other public organisations, then getting a qualification in Social Policy or Social Research is for you.

This qualification is all about teaching you research methods including analysis, data collection and how to present it, as well as how you can apply this in social policy and within your career.

Often available as an MA OR PGDip, your form of assessment will depend on which type of qualification you pick. Choose an MA and it’s likely you’ll have a series of modules and the standard dissertation to do. Choose a diploma and it’s likely that you’ll have assessed courses instead. These details will vary depending on what university you go to, so it’s always worth checking this before you apply to make sure it suits you.

And that’s just some of the social work related qualifications you can do! Check them all out here.

It’s worth knowing that in order to become a social worker, you not only need these qualifications but be registered as a social worker too. You can only register if you have a degree or masters, so make sure you hit the books if you want to have this career.

It’s also worth knowing that some universities will also offer these qualifications on a part-time basis, so don’t be put off studying it if you can’t do it full time.


What Will I Learn?

what will i learn
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Lucy says, "When you are training to become a social worker there are many interesting subjects that you will study. An example of this is Law, social policy, social work theory, human growth and development and many more. Everything that you learn will be from the Department of Health guidelines and there is a number of ways that you are graded e.g. presentations, exams or assignments.

"What you learn will then be used in your day to day practice as you enhance your skills, which helps to shape the social worker that you will become."


Why Study Social Work?

why study social work
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Just think about it, your qualifications won’t only help you, but everyone that you work with, how many people can say that about their time at university?

Dr Fern says, "Social work is a worthwhile, fulfilling profession – it can perhaps be viewed as an ‘ethical career’ that involves working with a wide range of people to stand alongside them as they address a range of problems. It is challenging, but you will be well supported i n your career as it develops."


Funding Options

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So how can you pay for these courses?

Well there are a number of scholarships and bursaries you can apply for, so it’s worth seeing if the university you’re planning on going to also offer scholarships for their students.

The NHS can also help with your funding as they give out bursaries for social work students.  Click here to find out more information on that.


What Could Your Future Hold?

Dr Fern praises social work as a profession and says, "Social work itself is a large and growing sector which provides a wide variety of career opportunities. About half of Social Workers are involved in some way with supporting children, families and young people.

However, if you prefer to work mainly with adults there are many specialist areas in which to develop your skills and your career, such as working with people using mental health services or enabling people with a learning disability to live independent lives. For more information see the British Association of Social Workers website.

In terms of potential salary,  Lucy adds, "As a qualified Social Worker you will earn from £22,000 per year and this could rise to £40,000. As you become more experienced and take on more responsibility this increases.

"It’s important to note that many different local authorities pay social worker different amounts, this can be due to a few things such as whether there is a shortage of social workers at the time, whether they are in special measures or locality wise (London pay more due to cost of living). Make sure you research into this before accepting a role and be aware of recent inspections. It’s also worth looking into other benefits that they offer including pension, annual leave, sick pay and so on. Some local authorities can also offer a relocation package if you are considering a move.

"If you are interested in career progression there are a number of options available to you, including experienced practitioner, senior practitioner, practice educator, assistant manager, independent reviewing manager, team manager, service manager, head of service and director.”


Case Study

Alison Goudie is in the second year of a part time Social Work MA at Liverpool Hope University.

case study


Why Did You Choose Social Work?

I initially chose this course as I wanted to become a social worker. I studied my undergraduate degree here at Liverpool Hope University, and soon became very familiar with the ethos of the Social Work, Care and Justice Department. Discovering this and knowing I had a similar mind-set as the department, to me was a no brainer.


What Does the Course Involve?

The course is very up to date and current, and all modules allow us to link theory to practice. You’re also given a historical perspective to base your knowledge upon and to show the true roots of social work.

We have learnt vital aspects of the law and had guest lecturers too. These include a prestigious judge, active social workers, child protection workers and many more. Aspects of understanding, and challenging critical thinking are run through each module, developing your interpersonal skills and shaping you for practice.

My first placement lasted 70 days. This was in a non- statutory setting, although I had lots of opportunity to gain experience within the statutory sector through connections within my placement. Placements are a vital experience, where you learn many skills that cannot be taught within a university setting, and they really give you a taster of what real practice is like.

What Part of the Course Do You Enjoy the Most?

I really enjoy the entire course as it’s so diverse, yet relevant. I enjoy learning and gaining new perspectives on social work practice. There are additional extracurricular activities that are not classroom based too.

If I had to choose a particular module, I would say I thoroughly enjoyed the law module. This was really inspiring to me and put in place many answers in relation to statutory practice.


How is Your Work/ Life Balance at MA Level?

This hasn’t been easy, as I am a single mum, and often have to juggle childcare arrangements around in order to accommodate. But, it is doable and has been doable. Our lectures have all been in family friendly hours (with the odd exception) and all in all it’s not unmanageable. If anything, it teaches you vital time management skills and workload balance, getting you ready for practice.


What’s Been the Highlight Of the Course?

The highlight for me has really been able to make a difference, and to actually put social work theory into practice.

Recently a group of other students and me got together, with the help of lecturers and our course leader, and organised a ‘Convoy to Calais’, which was fully backed by the university and Vice Chancellor. Collectively, we organised a fundraising event, charity run, collection of food, water, clothing, toiletries, camping equipment and other essential items to ship over to Calais and Samos, to distribute between the refugee camps situated over there. The response was absolutely breath taking.  We filled one huge container, several vehicles and collected over £1000 in cash donations. The charity night was particularly memorable as we had so much fun and raised so much money.

This for me was a huge highlight of the course as we were actually able to make a difference. Not only did we put words into action, we demonstrated the true ethos of international and national social work. We joined together in true team work style demonstrating anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory practice in real terms, signifying just how strong our social work ethic is here at Liverpool Hope University.  Fellow students from our group and lecturers personally went over to Calais and witnessed the devastation of the camps and attended a solidarity march with the refugees, which was on its own an unbeatable experience.

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Has the Course Prepared You For Your Future Career?   

This course has really broadened my knowledge base and developed my existing skills further. This course is genuinely the best thing I have ever done.

I have always had the skills and thought processes that differed from many of my friends and never knew why or what I could do with them. Until I had the epiphany moment, that moment when everything fell into place and I realised what my calling was. A career in social work is just that, a calling. I truly believe that it chooses you. It did for me, and I am so glad it did, as I really cannot wait to get out there in practice, into the real world (which isn’t that far away now).

I truly feel my time upon this course has shaped me into a better version of myself, in the ability to help others on a bigger and higher level. It has given me the right tools to take out into practice and help make a difference.  Having had lots of invaluable knowledge and expertise given to me right throughout the course has made a massive difference, not only to my work ethic and personal skills and knowledge base, but also to my passion to make a difference.  My advice to anybody considering a career in social work is to go for it. This course really is life changing!


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