International Social Work: Everything You Need to Know

by Sojourner

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When someone looks for careers to work abroad, international social work is not the first thought. Many pursue international business or work in hospitality and tourism. Others have dreams to be a full-time travel blogger. And most assume that social workers solely work in foster care or become therapists. However, as a social worker who works globally, there is more than meets the eye. 

So what the heck is an international social worker? Usually, it’s followed up by, “I just thought y’all took peoples’ kids away?”

Um, no.

We do more than that, so I’m here to break it down. It is a field that even the most seasoned social workers do not fully understand. It is also one you can pursue if you want to live, travel, and work abroad too! Here is what you should know about international social work as a career for your global aspirations.

What is International Social Work?

Origins of the profession

International social work is also referred to as global social work. The field has origins in human rights and social justice, which are the foundation of its mission to eliminate global inequalities. Social workers in this arena bridge domestic and international injustices to find collective interventions. International social workers hope to enact social change to empower communities worldwide to address the issues they face.

Scope of international social work

Due to the global nature of the field, international social work consists of a variety of areas. This scope can include a multitude of topics. These areas can be gender equality, migration, global health, education, and water and sanitation. More areas include humanitarian aid, disaster relief, business, social entrepreneurship, child protection, etc. The field is guided by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs set benchmarks for organizational and societal issues to work toward eradicating.

Skills to be an international social worker

Just as the scope varies, so does the skill set. Do not be fooled – social workers have both hard and soft skills that make us ideal for international work. All these skills play a key role as we work in global communities. You will find that some international social workers work in policy and advocacy, while others work in monitoring and evaluation, communications, or community development. Each hard skill needs soft skills such as problem-solving, teamwork, flexibility/adaptability, interpersonal communication, and more.

Differentiating between scope and skills

Skills in international social work differ from the scope because they are more technical. For example, an international social worker who works in child protection may work in the communications department. They might manage an organization’s social media, write newsletters, and send out press releases. An international social worker working in gender-based violence may work in monitoring and evaluation. This means they may do survey development, qualitative and quantitative research, etc. Each role, scope, and skill finding its own lane in the collective vision. 

How to Pursue This Career and Get Started

Higher education requirements

To be classified as a social worker, you need at least a Bachelor’s in Social Work (BSW). I am not familiar with internationally-focused BSW programs because I received a Bachelor’s of Arts (BA) in Psychology, Spanish, and Women’s and Gender Studies in the United States. However, most social workers receive a Master’s in Social Work (MSW) as a terminal degree. To work in international organizations post-graduation, most require a Master’s or many years of experience with a Bachelor’s degree in a related field.

Tips on understanding MSW programs

MSW programs that specialize in international work are interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary in nature. My core classes were social work policies and practices. My concentration classes were in international development. Social entrepreneurship was my specialization, but I could have chosen research, policy, management, or others. 

When choosing an international social work program, be sure to look at the curriculum. Does it require an international internship? Is there funding for it? What kind of coursework does it focus on: international development, international education, international relations, or international affairs? They are similar but also slightly different foci. Do your due diligence to find the right program track for you.

Get international work experience

While everything on this blog post is important, this tip may be the most important. Getting international experience before enrolling in an internationally-focused MSW program is necessary. Though some people can travel for leisure in a country, living and working abroad is different. You may not have the same luxuries. It is pivotal to know your limits. You can get international experience through studying, working, or volunteering abroad. Other ways to get international experience – like Fulbright – are explained. Keep reading!

Work abroad with international fellowships and internships

Fellowships and internships abroad are some of the most common avenues for those interested in international social work. These are opportunities to get your feet wet in the international world. Look for year-long opportunities (at a minimum) to learn about international work. Many people do the Peace Corps, but that is not a requirement (I did AmeriCorps that worked well). Short-term opportunities such as fellowships and internships provide a set time for you to live and work abroad. From there, you can decide if international social work is the path you want. 

An important note on international work

Pro tip? Get international experience in the region of the world you want to work in. However, I found that when choosing the international practicum for my graduate program, this was key. My work experiences in Europe and AmeriCorps with girl’s education helped. This is also not a requirement, merely a suggestion. Just remember, the more experience and skills coming in, the more marketable you are going out. 

Learn one or more languages

Whether you pursue an international career or not, language learning is a necessity. In international social work, intercultural communication is a key skill to acquire. It is necessary to survive basic day-to-day activities and to work in a country. How can you communicate if you don’t know the language? How do you collaborate with a community and work alongside them if you can speak to each other? Language learning is necessary.

Therefore, you must learn at least one language outside of your native tongue. Yes, English is becoming the “global language” (which is problematic and a product of colonialism and neocolonialism). Yet, relying solely on English should not be the path you choose. That is why majoring in a language or studying abroad is how many people get into the field. Or by working abroad where you can live and learn a language.

International organizations that hire social workers

So what do you do when you meet all the requirements? Get your international social work career started. International organizations that hire social workers are out there. They include the United Nations, the International Rescue Committee, World Health Organization, and more. Your skills and scope determine which organizations you want to pursue. Do you want to work for a large, multilateral organization or a small grassroots organization? That choice is up to you. 

Even though it is a rare career path, international social work is a versatile career path. Not only can you work in the U.S. and abroad, but there are opportunities for career pivots and changes. The field is an essential work that tackles key issues in our society. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. I have many issues with some of the practices. Yet, I believe in what social work could do to fulfill its mission and vision. It may not be an easy journey, but international social work will change how you view and learn from the world. It’s worth it. 

Ready to kickstart your career abroad? Check out where to find international social work jobs here and international fellowships here!

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Sakinah Freeman October 13, 2022 - 6:16 am

I would love to connect with you

Sojourner October 22, 2022 - 9:30 am

Sure, what’s your question?

Donna April 6, 2023 - 4:31 am

As an international social worker what do you exactly do?

Sojourner April 6, 2023 - 6:29 am

Hi! I worked in girls’ education and research/communications. But in the post I reference other areas you can do based on your expertise.

Julia June 26, 2023 - 9:00 am

Hey! I studied Media and Communications (B.A) in Germany and would like to switch to International Social Work or Psychology in my masters. However, I don’t have the neccessary credits to get into one of these master programmes. Do you have any recommendations on how a person like me could get into international social work without having to pursue another bachelor?

Sojourner June 28, 2023 - 5:32 am

Hi! I would recommend getting an internship or fellowship experience in the area you want to work in within international social work.

Emma October 4, 2023 - 9:50 pm

Hi! This is such a helpful post. I hope I am not too late for you to see my comment! I am considering applying to an MSW program. I’ve worked for the IRC and currently for a similar smaller org in Boston. The past few years I have taught skills training courses, in English, and helped with some casework. I would really love to hear about what your day-to-day life is like as an international social worker. This is the part that I am having a hard time conceptualizing. I am wondering what a typical work week looks like, what you focus on, and what you like the most about it. I realize that is a lot to ask! Any advice you have to give I appreciate. Thank you!

Sojourner December 15, 2023 - 10:35 pm

Hi Emma! Thanks so much for reaching out. I work more in the remote social work field than international social work. I have more YouTube videos that go in-depth about what I do here that can answer a lot of your questions:


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