How to Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Jessica White

Written by Jessica White

Community Mental Health Worker & Case Manager

Updated & Fact Checked: 1/12/2023

A licensed clinical social worker is a professional in the social services field with additional training that allows them to perform mental health services. An LCSW has the capability to assess for, diagnose, and treat mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and many others. They also may fulfill the role of a general social worker as well, as they are familiar with advocating for clients and giving them resources. Social workers may work for government agencies, or they may work for their own practice. They may also work in hospitals, nursing homes, residential facilities, prisons, nonprofits, or other organizations. Because of the education that a LCSW has received, they have the capability of becoming a supervisor if they so choose at many of these organizations. Licensed clinical social workers are very important in many communities for helping people better their lives and helping them navigate complex social systems.

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What Does an LCSW Do?

A licensed clinical social worker fulfills a variety of functions depending on where they work and what kind of organization they work for. Typically social workers identify clients in the community that are in need of help and conduct research to find out what they need to help better their lives. Issues that they may address mean food cases of child abuse, homelessness, or mental health emergencies. Often, social workers are involved in crises. They spend time following up with clients to ensure that situations have improved.

Social workers are more likely than other mental health professionals to get involved in the community. They may work to develop social programs or policies.

Clinical social workers not only provide therapy, but also refer clients out to other services that they feel could be helpful to their situation. These other services might be food banks, support groups, or even doctors or other health care workers. They will work with these other providers to ensure that the client is getting what they need, and may play an advocate role.

Licensed clinical social workers also have the opportunity to open a private practice. This means that they have the opportunity to set their own hours, although they do need to accommodate their client’s schedule a lot of the time. In this role, they spend time billing their therapy hours, working with insurance agencies, writing client notes, and spending face-to-face time with clients. They may also conduct research, or spend time completing continuing education courses, which is a requirement of all licensed social workers to renew their license every few years.

Why Are LCSWs Important?

Licensed clinical social workers are important because they are trained to assist the most underserved populations. They are also qualified to help people struggling with severe mental illness. The services that they provide mean that entire communities can be improved. The education that they receive involves digging down to the root of social inequality and thinking of viable solutions in the real world. The combination of this knowledge along with the mental health training helps address trauma experienced by an entire community.

Besides that, LCSWs can be a help in crisis moments that individuals experience. Many LCSWs work in crisis centers where someone may walk in experiencing suicidal ideation. The LCSW can help the client deescalate, come up with a safety plan, and link them to resources. They can also help families or individuals find resources to better their situation such as in cases of homelessness, poverty, or other issues.

Many social workers feel called to the work that they do. While the job may be difficult at some points because it is emotional due to the struggles that people face, many social workers feel that the job is also very rewarding.

Steps to Become a LCSW

Although the process to become an LCSW may vary slightly between states, the same general process applies. The process to fulfill the requirements for licensure are reviewed below.

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree. To become an LCSW, you must earn a master’s degree.
    However, if you are starting your education without a college degree, this first step will
    involve you enrolling in courses that will teach you important information. This will set
    you up for success in your graduate degree program. You will probably want to earn your
    bachelor’s degree in a field that is relevant to your future master’s degree, such as social
    work, sociology, or psychology. Note: if you plan to earn a clinical licensure, a bachelor’s
    in social work isn’t necessarily required. That program can be more competitive, and
    other degrees can be more than adequate to prepare you for the MSW program.
    However, the benefit of earning a BSW is that you may be able to earn your master’s
    degree in only one year as opposed to two or three years.
  2. Apply for and enroll in a CSWE-accredited master’s degree program. The CSWE is
    the Council on Social Work Education, and they ensure that universities offering social
    work programs have met certain standards of education. Receiving your education in an
    accredited university also means that you will be guaranteed to receive education that
    adequately prepares you for your licensing exam later on after you have met all the other
    requirements for licensure. To enroll in an accredited master’s degree social work
    program, you will need to fulfill their application requirements, which typically require
    submitting a personal essay, references, the transcript from your bachelor’s degree, and
    other information, depending on the university. The MSW program takes about 2-4 years
    to complete, depending on if you are attending full-time or part-time. If needed there are
    many online master’s degree programs available that offer a higher level of flexibility for
    anyone who needs a little more flexibility.
  3. Complete the supervised field experience requirements. By now, you will have
    graduated with your master’s degree. The next step is for you to complete a certain
    number of internship hours working with a licensed clinician. In this step, you will get
    real-world experience working with clients, and be able to receive feedback from your
    more experienced supervisor. This is a valuable part of the process. In this step
    however, you will have to apply to become an associate clinical social worker. This
    means that you are temporarily licensed to perform clinical social work, but have not
    received an official license, as you are interning. Look at your individual state
    requirements for more information on how to do this. Typically, the social work board for
    your state will have the application and steps on their website. Additionally, the number
    of hours needed to complete the internship requirements vary by state.
  4. Take the ASWB licensing exam. By the time you’ve reached the step, you will want to
    ensure that you have met all the requirements in your state. Then, you can apply to take
    the exam. Licensure for clinical social workers is regulated by each individual state and
    they use their own boards to determine the requirements for candidates. The exam will
    be the ASWB Licensing Exam (clinical category). To take the exam, you will need to
    schedule it and confirm that you will take the clinical category of the licensing exam.
  5. Apply to Become an LCSW. As previously mentioned, the licensing requirements vary
    by state
    . It is important to become familiar with them so that when you take the exam
    and apply for LCSW licensure, you will be approved and can begin your practice.

How to Get your LCSW License

After receiving your master’s degree, you must fulfill several other requirements to earn your clinical social work license. The first requirement is to complete your work experience internship hours. These hours are typically around 2,000 to 4,000 hours depending on the state. While completing these hours, you will also have to complete a certain number of supervision hours with a licensed supervisor. Supervision means that you meet with the supervisor face to face to discuss issues and experiences that you have come across while working with clients. Usually, the amount of time it takes to fulfill this requirement is about 2 years, although many states allow a window of 4 to 6 years to complete the hours.

Completing these hours along with your master’s degree is a part of preparing for the clinical exam. This is the next step in earning your license. After you take the clinical exam, you will be eligible to apply for licensure. Assuming that you passed the exam, the board in your state will be responsible for assigning you your clinical social work license. You will then be free to practice as a clinical social worker in your state. However, if you want to move, you may have to fulfill additional requirements to be a social worker in that state. Before moving, you will want to look at what they’re requirements are. However, one benefit of attending an accredited social work program is that it makes the process a little easier.

In the years after you have received your license, you will need to renew it. Depending on your state, you usually need to pay a renewal fee about every 2-3 years. Additionally, you also must complete a certain number of continuing education units (CEs) as a part of your license renewal. This requirement also depends on your state. This requirement ensures that you are up-to-date on important information in the field of social work and mental health. The courses can be interesting, but are important, too.

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LCSW Pay and Career Outlook

According to the bureau of Labor statistics, the median pay for social workers in 2021 was $50,390. It’s important to note that the salary for licensed clinical social workers may skew a bit higher, as the BLS includes all social workers in the average, including those without a license. Those careers may have a lower salary due to different educational expectations and a lack of licensure.

The job outlook over the next decade for social workers is 9%, which is faster than average for all occupations. About 64,000 jobs are expected to open up each year over the next 10 years. The job openings are expected to be due to retirements or individuals leaving the field.

Careers That Are Similar to LCSWs

Licensed clinical social workers provide many important services for their clients such as mental health services and case management to help them better their lives. However, there are other mental health practitioners that also provide these important services. Because of this, some people confuse the different types of therapists and counselors that are available. Below is a review of some of the most similar careers to a LCSW.

Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC): While an LPC and an LCSW both provide mental health services, and LPC is more focused on supporting a client with empowering themselves to work through their issues using very specific counseling techniques. Meanwhile, and LCSW is more likely to provide case management services alongside their mental health services. Additionally, an LCSW is more likely to be aware of social welfare policy. An LPC is more likely to focus on different types of counseling so that they are an expert in many different areas.

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT): A licensed marriage and family therapist focuses on helping families and couples deal with specific relationship issues. While they are extremely similar to a licensed clinical social worker, they learn more about the impacts of relationships on someone’s mental health. An LCSW, on the other hand, focuses more on systemic issues, and when they provide mental health care, it’s focused more on individual mental health diagnosis and issues, rather than family dynamics.

Psychologist: The main difference between a psychologist and an LCSW is that a psychologist is focused more on research and testing through the lens of providing information to improve the world of psychology. However they also use their information and knowledge to help individuals who are struggling with severe mental health diagnoses.

Resources for LCSW Candidates

National Association of Social Workers