What is an LCSW?
A Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) is a master’s level mental health professional who has at least two years of post-graduation clinical experience in the field of mental health. Clinical Social Work is a specialty practice within the realm of social work in which professionals specialize in the assessment, evaluation, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders or disturbances within a professional setting. Social workers in a clinical setting are required to be licensed to be able to provide the aforementioned services to individuals in their care.
LCSWs are different from other licensed social workers as they possess the qualifications and knowledge to be able to provide clinically focused therapeutic services and interventions. LCSWs typically work in hospitals, in-patient and out-patient settings, schools, rehabilitation centers, private practices, and community mental health settings. LCSWs integrate a number of disciplines in their clinical practice including psychology, psychiatry, and various disciplines within the social sciences.
LCSW Degree Programs
Obtaining licensure as an LCSW requires the minimum education of a Master’s degree in Social Work. Usually, those applying for a graduate degree in social work have a bachelor’s degree in either social work or a related field like psychology or sociology. For students entering the graduate program having graduated with a Bacleors in Social Work (BSW) they may qualify for an advanced standing status that could shorten the duration of the graduate degree. Although this is not a requirement by most graduate programs, you may be required to complete prerequisite courses that align with graduate coursework. Alongside completing the requirements of a graduate program in social work, students are required to complete a supervised internship aimed at acquiring clinical knowledge and skills prior to graduating.
Masters of Social Work programs consist of rigorous coursework and training requirements that prepare students for licensure upon graduation. Students are encouraged to gain experience in a variety of professional settings to enable an informed decision of what career path they may choose to pursue.
How to Choose the Right Social Work Program
LCSW programs require applicants to have a minimum of a bachelor’s level degree in social work or a related field. For those interested in pursuing a graduate degree in social work, one must first have a basic idea of what one would want to pursue as a career. Based on career interests, you would then have a clearer picture of what educational interests align with your program of choice.
Whether you choose a career path that requires licensure or not, it is recommended to choose a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), as it is a requirement for licensure upon graduation. Choosing an accredited program provides assurance that the graduate program you attend is adhering to the standards and guidelines required by the state’s licensing boards. This includes requirements for coursework, training, and supplemental qualifications.
The CSWE is an accrediting body that is governed by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). This is the national governing body of all institutional, accreditation, and licensing standards and procedures within the field of social work. You can access a directory of CSWE-accredited programs via this link.
The right fit may depend on your career and educational interests including areas of specialization, or the availability to engage in academic research which will prepare you for further education at a doctoral level, especially for those wanting to pursue a career in academia and administration. It is recommended to look into what mentorship resources are available to students, and if your overall interests align with the mission of the program. Another major consideration is the availability of training opportunities if you wish to pursue licensure as an LCSW. For clinical licensure, it is imperative to have access to an internship site that enables the right training and resources that would help set you on the path to licensure as a clinician.
What are the educational requirements to complete an LCSW program?
Upon obtaining your bachelor’s degree and admittance to a graduate program in social work, you would be required by your state to have completed and proven competence in core curriculum coursework. Provided below are the general competencies tested across and required by most graduate programs to maintain accreditation status.
- Competency 1: Demonstrate ethical and professional behavior- Social workers are expected to understand and practice within the ethical standards, obligations, limitations, and guidelines of their state board. They are also required to have knowledge of relevant laws and codes of ethics pertaining to professional behaviors, communications, and supervision.
- Competency 2: Advance human rights and social, racial, and environmental justice- Have the competence and understanding of fundamental human rights along with knowledge about systemic injustices while aiming to reduce inequalities and oppressive structural barriers in their practice at an individual, family, group, organizational, or community level.
- Competency 3: Engage in anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion in practice- Have a comprehensive understanding of human development socially and the impacts of social dynamics and injustices. Social workers are to demonstrate cultural competence, self-awareness, and the ability to manage and help clients overcome injustices of society.
- Competency 4: Engage in practice-informed research and research-informed practice- Competency in conducting, accessing, critiquing, and synthesizing current literature to inform evidence-based practices, policy, and programs. Social workers also use research to advance the mission of the field, which is to reduce the prevalence of social injustices and oppression.
- Competency 5: Engage in policy practice- Knowledge in identifying social policy at varying levels of the legislature that affect human rights and wellbeing, service delivery, and access to social services. Actively engaging in influencing policy formation, analysis, implementation, and evaluation within the setting of their practice.
- Competency 6: Engage with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities- Competence in the interactive process with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities. Have competence in analyzing and understanding human behavior, and interprofessional conceptual frameworks to engage with clients and constituents. The use of therapeutically and culturally appropriate interpersonal skills to engage in social work practices with clients.
- Competency 7: Assess individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities- Competency in assessing individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities through interprofessional conceptual frameworks, and working towards solutions through a collaboratively devised plan. The knowledge and application of human behavior and development, along with advocation for the clients’ self-determination.
- Competency 8: Intervene with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities- Competency in critically assessing and evaluating individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities through evidence-informed interventions aimed at meeting client goals. Incorporation of culturally appropriate methods to negotiate, mediate and advocate for clients.
- Competency 9: Evaluate practice with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities- Competency in evaluating outcomes of treatment, policy, practice, and effectiveness of service delivery. The use of qualitative and quantitative methods for evaluating outcomes, while working towards the improvement of the effectiveness of practice for clients.
Upon completion of a graduate degree in social work, you would then begin the licensure process. In most states, the route to licensure as an LCSW is a two-part process. Initial licensure soon after graduation would be as a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW). For this initial and probationary licensure, you would have to provide proof of educational requirements of a graduate degree conferred from a CSWE-accredited program, and the completion of the national board licensing examination by the ASWB.
During the probationary licensure period, you would have to complete 3000 hours of supervised clinical experience over a period of 24-48 months with a minimum of 100 hours of supervision with a council-approved supervisor. You would also have to complete a clinical examination administered by the ASWB to prove clinical competency to obtain licensure as an LCSW.
Upon being licensed as an LCSW, you would be able to practice independently without the requirement of a supervisor. LCSWs are able to focus on clinical interventions from a therapeutic standpoint vs the macro level of intervention that LMSWs affect change through.
Should I pursue an online LCSW program?
Over the last three years, the availability and accessibility of online programs have enabled distance education for students to attend specialty graduate programs from across the nation. Choosing which graduate program is the right fit in and of itself is an important decision, and choosing between a program that is online versus in-person would be dependent on several factors.
As mentioned previously, a graduate degree in social work is a specialty degree due to the ability to obtain professional licensure upon graduation. Since this licensure deals with the human services field, it is important to first consider your personal and career interests and how they align with your chosen program. Most programs, online and in-person require a field placement for onsite training experience. This is an opportunity to explore which area of social work you would want to be involved with and which modality (online or in-person, best provides you with the accessibility to experience opportunities).
A major deciding factor in returning to graduate school is managing the financial aspect. Paying for graduate school and sustaining your lifestyle could prove challenging, especially for students in later stages of life and obligations tied to dependants. You have the availability of selecting between programs that are full-time or part-time, in online, in-person, and hybrid modalities. For example, the MSW program at Louisiana State University is an accredited fully online program that is specifically designed for working professionals. The advantages of an online program include being able to maintain your existing job, and not having to take on the financial burden of relocation and commuting.
Another factor to consider is your learning style and time commitment toward graduate study. If you are a self-paced and independent learner, an online program would be a great fit for your educational needs. Again, having the option of being enrolled part-time serves as an advantage to take things at a pace that works for you.
The ultimate decision of the right fit would be based on a combination of the availability for you to pursue personal and professional goals, along with the impact graduate school would have in terms of a lifestyle change. Professional education is an investment, but one must plan ahead in pursuing fruitful results of this investment.
LCSW salaries and outlook
LCSWs are a growing occupation with a bright outlook for the field, projected to grow by 11% in the next decade. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), LCSWs earn between $31,010 and $97,300, with an average wage of $49,130 annually, depending on experience and qualifications.
Since social work is a vast field with many areas of specialty and involvement, individuals pursuing a career in this field are innately expected to have a level of flexibility and adaptability to changing environments. Work styles are a way of predicting positive career outcomes including, concern for others where one is sensitive to others’ needs and feelings, integrity towards the job while upholding the ethical standards of the field, self-control in stressful situations, and good emotional regulation during distressing situations, and a high window of stress tolerance where one is welcoming of criticism and able to maintain composure and problem solve in stressful situations.
Some work values common to LCSWs include an ability to form and maintain relationships with coworkers and clients, where one has the ability to work collaboratively to be of social service. Achievement and the need to work towards career goals and professional obligations, along with a value for independence where workers are able to make independent decisions pertaining to clients, along with knowing when to work collaboratively towards the client’s advantage.
The field of social work could be stressful and demanding in the duties and obligations required of the job, however, this field provides a number of advantages that are unmatched by other occupations. Advantages include variability in work, whether it is available to work environments, job duties, and pace. There are also options for a variety of areas of focus from administrative processes to clinical therapeutic interventions. Though the process of becoming an LCSW is relatively long and demanding, the investment is valuable, and the outcomes of having the opportunity to enact real change in society whether it is at a micro or macro level is fulfilling and meaningful.
Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB)
Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) examination registration
Bureau of Labor Statistics
Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
Directory of CSWE-Accredited programs
Educational and training competencies by CSWE
Louisiana State University