Best MSW Career Paths for Veterans

Updated: November 28, 2020
In this Article

    The unique challenges faced by military members, veterans, and their families drive demand for military social workers (MSW), a reality that leads to outstanding veteran employment opportunities. As such, in this article, we’ll address the best MSW career paths for veterans.

    Specifically, we’ll discuss the following:

    • MSW Overview
    • MSW Education Pipeline
    • MSW Career Path #1: Active Duty or Embedded
    • MSW Career Path #2: Civilian Employed by the Military
    • MSW Career Path #3: Veteran Supporting
    • Final Thoughts

    MSW Overview

    As stated above, military members, veterans, and their families frequently deal with a unique set of mental health and social problems related to their service. To meet the demand created by these unique problems, the social work field includes the MSW specialty.

    These professionals work with active troops, veterans, and their families to identify and manage various military-related social, psychological, emotional, and family issues that result from service. In this capacity, MSWs provide both counseling and direct support to these communities.

    And, while not an exhaustive list, here are some of the major roles MSWs play:

    • Individual counseling
    • Family counseling
    • Assistance navigating military and veteran resources and services
    • MSW-related education and instruction
    • MSW-specific program development for military and veteran communities

    Bottom line, if you’re a veteran interested in supporting the mental and emotional health of the military and veteran communities, the MSW profession offers an outstanding – and much needed – opportunity to continue your service.

    MSW Education Pipeline

    Okay, so how do veterans actually become MSWs? Great question, and here’s the pipeline:

    • Step 1 – Complete a bachelor’s degree in social work.
    • Step 2 – Complete a masters degree in social work.

    NOTE: While veterans can practice as MSWs with only a bachelor’s degree, they can only provide generalist services. Completing a masters degree is a licensing requirement to actually diagnose and treat the mental health conditions faced in the military community. However, regardless of which educational route you decide to pursue, ensure that your social work academic program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and includes a military focus. 

    • Step 3 – Complete an internship (or internships) in a military environment in order to complete fieldwork requirement hours.
    • Step 4 – Apply with your state social work licensing agency to become licensed as a social worker.
    • Step 5 (optional but highly recommended) – Apply for a National Association of Social Worker (NASW) military-specific credential.

    This final credential from the NASW, while not required, will make veterans far more competitive as they apply for MSW jobs, which is why we highly recommend it as part of the MSW education pipeline.

    Once you’ve completed the above steps to become an MSW, veterans need to decide what MSW career path to pursue. In the next sections, we’ll cover three different options.


    MSW Career Path #1: Active Duty or Embedded

    The first MSW career path will actually be fairly familiar to veterans, as it entails working either as an active duty MSW or a civilian one embedded in an active unit. Veterans may not have realized it at the time, but they likely crossed paths with multiple MSWs – especially pre- and post-deployment – during their time in the service.

    Each branch of the US military provides mental and emotional health services to its troops. And, MSWs play a critical part in these services. As such, MSWs can be found in the various medical and mental health military units located on every base.

    The MSWs in these on-base units have a narrower, mission-centric focus. More precisely, their primary responsibility is to provide targeted mental health counseling and emotional support to help troops perform as well as possible in their military jobs. Put in military parlance, these MSWs want to do everything they can to keep troops in the fight while remaining mentally healthy.

    To accomplish this mission, the military recruits both active duty MSWs (that is, they serve in uniform) and civilian ones who actually embed with military units. These professionals can either work at an on-base medical center supporting a variety of units, or they can embed and deploy with a single unit.


    MSW Career Path #2: Civilian Employed by the Military

    While the above path exists, many veterans want to continue serving in some capacity without actually being in the military.  For these individuals, working as a civilian MSW employed by the military can be a great option.

    Once again, veterans may not have realized it at the time, but they likely interacted with multiple MSWs working in this capacity during their time in the service. If you ever called Military OneSource’s 24/7 hotline for counseling, personal health, education, or financial literacy support, there’s a good chance you spoke with one of the organization’s MSWs.

    Additionally, each military branch has its own civilian-run support agencies staffed with MSWs.  While the missions of each of the following organizations differ slightly to meet the unique needs of its respective service, they all broadly exist to meet the mental health, educational, financial, and general life needs of service members and their families:

    • Navy: Fleet and Family Support Centers (FFSC)
    • Marine Corps: Marine Corps Community Services (MCCS)
    • Air Force: Airman and Family Readiness Centers (AFRC)
    • Army: Army Community Service Centers (ACSC)

    All of these organizations – and Military OneSource, as mentioned – provide a wide variety of MSW careers for veterans.  And, if you’d like to continue working directly with active troops and their families – but no longer want to wear the uniform – you can work as an MSW for any of these organizations.

    MSW Career Path #3: Veteran Supporting

    Whereas the first two options entailed work with active troops and their families, the final MSW career path we’ll discuss involves working directly with veterans.

    Unfortunately, many veterans struggle to successfully reintegrate into society following their military service – for a variety of reasons. MSWs help these veterans with the mental, emotional, and family challenges acting as obstacles to successful reintegration.

    From a job perspective, this career path most often means working with the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA employs thousands of MSWs across the country, and the NASW actually recognizes it as the largest employer of social workers in the United States.  As such, veterans have plenty of job opportunities working as MSWs in this capacity – at VA hospitals, community clinics, and veteran centers.

    In terms of roles and responsibilities, these MSWs generally fall into one of two categories:

    • Primary medical care: These MSWs work at in- or out-patient medical departments at VA hospitals and community clinics and provide direct health and counseling support for veterans.
    • Homeless programs: These MSWs work in the same environments as the above ones, but they focus specifically on providing homeless veterans support, resources, and referrals to VA and community-based homeless programs.

    And, while military service is certainly not a prerequisite to working with veterans as an MSW, many veterans feel far more comfortable opening up to fellow veterans over civilian MSWs, increasing the demand for veterans to fill these roles.

    Final Thoughts

    Military members, veterans, and their families clearly face a unique set of challenges, and MSWs frequently act as the first responders to address these challenges. For veterans looking for rewarding and in-demand careers after their military service, working as an MSW in any of the above career paths is a great choice.

    About The AuthorMaurice “Chipp” Naylon spent nine years as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps. He is currently a licensed CPA specializing in real estate development and accounting.

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