Social work foundations 

Social workers engender change. That is at the very core of what they do and how they work with individuals. In the social work profession, there are three levels of practice: micro, mezzo, and macro.

These three spheres are based on the Person-in-environment Theory (PIE Theory) which examines a person within their contexts such as their mental health, physical health, social role functioning, and their environment.

A closer look at each of these levels:


Micro social focuses on individualized interventions, often with the social worker working one-on-one with an individual. It represents traditional clinical work and is often used with vulnerable populations such as children, domestic violence victims, elderly, and those with mental illness.


Mezzo focuses on smaller populations or groups. This type of work takes into account things that can benefit entire systems, such as schools, social services agencies, or a specific neighborhood. There is usually a lot of overlap between micro and mezzo work.


Macro social work confronts system-level issues often in regional or federal government agencies, non-profits, and universities. Macro social work does not require a license because it does not focus on individual-level care.

The job outlook for social workers is expected to grow by 12% between 2020-2030. 
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Each type of social work is important and has the ability to impact change from an individual level to an entire system across many industries on both large and small scales. There are social workers who focus on children, families, elderly adults, incarcerated individuals, military personnel, or students.

Different types of designations

The Association of Social Work Board (ASWB) is one of the main governing bodies for people getting social work certifications. The ASWB is the only nonprofit for social work regulation. It is made up of regulatory boards in all 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, U.S. Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, and all 10 Canadian provinces.

Pocket Prep offers study prep for four social work certifications from the ASWB:

What’s the difference? 

The simplest way to think about the differences in these certifications is based on level of expertise and experience. It’s also important to note that not all states have the exact same requirements in terms of licensure and practice. While not everyone’s path will be the same, a common way to begin a career in social work is with a BSW.

Bachelor of Social Work

A BSW is an undergraduate degree in social work. This can be obtained through many four-year college programs or online social-work specific programs. This certification puts you in a place to do entry-level social work tasks as well as gain work experience in the field.

Master of Social Work

The MSW in social work is a master’s degree program. Master’s programs are typically two years and include 900 hours or more of supervised field work. Not everyone with an MSW gets their BSW first. Other relevant undergraduate degrees are psychology, political science, or economics.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker 

A LCSW must have a MSW, Doctor of Social Work (DSW) or Ph.D. in Social Work. They must also have two years of relevant clinical experience. The LCSW is more advanced than the BSW or MSW in terms of career level and social work expertise and requires specialized clinical knowledge.

Advanced Generalist

Similar to the LCSW, the Advanced Generalist requires a MSW, DSW or Ph.D. in Social Work, and two years of relevant clinical experience. Advanced Generalists do not necessarily work in clinical environments and are often working in more macro-level settings.

Exam Details

Depending on where you are in your social work career, you’ll need to check exam eligibility requirements and then register for the exam that fits your needs. Each ASWB exam consists of 170 exams with 150 of them scored. Candidates will have four hours to take the exam and it must be scheduled through Pearson VUE. The ASWB exams are pass/fail format.

The pass rates as reported by ASWB are as follows:


2020 pass rate

Bachelors 68.5
Masters 75.4%
Advanced Generalist 64.2%
Licensed Clinical 74.8%

Social work is an incredibly diverse field. It’s really up to the individual to decide where they want to focus. For example, you could get a Ph.D. in social work and become a professor at a university. An Advanced Generalist could become a social work policy analyst. Someone holding an MSW could become a hospice social worker. There are also corporate roles that would be perfect for someone with a social work background, such as change management or social responsibility.
Opportunities of focus

There are several commonalities among those in social work and that is compassion for people and a desire to create positive change. It is not often a glamorous job, but the work is incredibly rewarding and vital to the systems we live and work in.