Social workers do an incredible job of supporting vulnerable communities and individuals through challenging times. Being a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) equips you further with counseling and psychotherapy skills to help you offer well-rounded support to patients, clients, and communities.
Most social work jobs require a license or a master’s degree. If you consider acquiring a license as a clinical social worker or considering a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree in social work, this article provides you with crucial information for becoming an LCSW.
Who Is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)?
An LCSW is a more qualified social worker who has been licensed by the state to offer a wide range of mental health services to the community. They are trained and licensed to offer psychotherapy to their clients/patients.
Duties and responsibilities of an LCSW
Some common roles and responsibilities of an LCSW include:
- Supervise other social workers at the place of work
- Offer mental health and overall health consultations for schools and businesses
- Serve as professional witnesses during trials
- Offers grief and bereavement counseling to affected parties in the community
- Diagnose and treat mental disorders
- Link patients and clients with mental health and overall wellbeing resources
- Offer therapy to individuals and groups
- Coach patients on how to manage challenging health conditions
- Update and compile community health resources
- Oversee circulation and distribution of health care resources and information in the community and to patients/clients
Steps for Becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker
The process and requirements for becoming a licensed clinical social worker vary in different states, particularly regarding the required field hours. However, the overall licensure steps are the same across the U.S as follows:
1. Acquire a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work
The first step in pursuing a career as an LCSW is to complete a bachelor’s degree in social work practice, or other related fields from a Council of Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited institution.
A bachelor’s degree provides you with the fundamental knowledge and skills for social work. Other non-social work bachelor’s degrees that can allow you to pursue a career as an LCSW include sociology, human development, and psychology.
Typically, a bachelor’s degree in social work comprises 120 credit hours and takes four years to complete. It also incorporates an internship that gives students first-hand experience in social work by working in local hospitals, schools, nonprofit organizations, and social service agencies.
2. Complete a Master’s Degree in Social Work or a Relevant Master’s Degree
Obtaining a master’s degree in social work is a necessary step for becoming an LCSW. It is a key prerequisite for getting licensed. If you have a bachelor’s degree in social work, you are eligible for the advanced standing masters in social work pathway. This program allows you to complete your MSW in one year.
While some institutions offer the option for online learning, others require on-campus attendance, yet others have a hybrid option that combines online and on-campus studying.
On the other hand, if your bachelor’s degree is not in social work, you cannot be eligible for advanced standing. The complete master’s in social work program takes two to four years, and you are required to complete a minimum of 900 hours of supervised field instruction.
3. Meet the LCSW Licensing and Examination Requirements
Clinical social work licensing is regulated at the state level, and each state has its own requirements. However, general licensing requirements include:
- Completing the stipulated hours of post-master’s fieldwork under the supervision of a licensed clinical social worker
- Completing the clinical level examination of the Association of Social Work Board (ASWB exam) with a passing score
4. Submit Your Application for the LCSW State License
As part of the application process, you will be required to submit several documents. While the entire application process is done online in some states, in others, you are required to submit the documents via postal services or to the physical office. These documents include:
- Official transcripts for your masters or doctorate in social work
- Employment verification forms that indicate completion of the recommended post-graduation social work field hours.
- Supervision verification form filled and signed by the licensed clinical social worker you worked under
- Evidence of successful completion of clinical level examination
- Completed application form
- Payment of application fee
5. Renew Your License Timely
Once you have acquired your clinical social work license, you will be required to renew it periodically according to the timeline stipulated in your state. Most states require that you renew your license every two years.
Different states also have stipulations for continuing education depending on your area of specialization. There is a renewal fee that varies from state to state. You are required to adhere to the social work code of ethics for you to retain your license.
Please note that, while most states allow you to transfer your social work license exam score from one state to another, they do no award licenses based on the license held from another state. Social workers must reapply for a license in the other state and submit all the required documents.
There might be additional LCSW licensure requirements in the state you are moving to, such as additional clinical hours, letters of reference, or letter of endorsement from the previous licensing board, among others.
Career Opportunities for Licensed Clinical Social Workers
LCSWs can work in a wide range of settings to provide psychological, social, behavioral, emotional, and health care. They can work in health facilities, schools, rehabilitation centers, child adoption agencies, government agencies, homeless shelters, children’s welfare centers, detention centers, nonprofit organizations, civil and advocacy organizations, government agencies, or even probate practice.
Below is a look at the most common jobs for licensed clinical social workers.
Hospital Licensed Clinical Social Workers
They work in hospital and medical facility settings to help patients navigate the social, emotional, psychological, and financial stress associated with their medical conditions. This category of social workers works in collaboration with doctors, nurses, and the patient’s caregivers to offer palliative care. A licensed social worker also provides the patients discharge and post-discharge care.
Average salary: $55,455
Military Licensed Clinical Social Workers
Military social workers work with military personnel, military retirees, veterans, and military families to provide tools, strategies, and techniques for them to prevent, manage, or cope with mental health issues associated with their nature of work. They also offer veterans and retirees counseling to help them transition into civilian life. Military social workers can work at a military base, hospitals, agencies, or in private practices.
Average salary: $63,918
Federal Licensed Clinical Social Workers
This category of LCSWs work within the federal government and federal departments such as the Department of Defense, Department of Justice, Health and Human Services, and Social Security Administration. Their duties include providing therapy and counseling, managing cases, developing policies, and providing administrative support.
Average salary: $67,263
Geriatric Licensed Clinical Social Workers
They particularly work with the elderly to help them with their social, medical, emotional, financial, and overall wellbeing. They typically work in nursing homes, hospices, hospitals, community centers, mental health clinics, or do home visits.
Average salary: $71,076
Marriage and Couples Licensed Clinical Social Workers
They offer support to couples in the face of dilemmas or crises. Their role involves offering couples counseling to navigate marital challenges, assist in adoption, and offer counseling during a divorce.
Average salary: $54,150
Family Licensed Clinical Social Workers
They offer families therapy in a challenging situation such as psychical violence, financial stress, trauma, unemployment, loss, homelessness, and substance abuse.
Average salary: $40,064
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Licensed Clinical Social Worker
They work with addicts and their families to help them navigate the stress associated with addiction.
Average salary: $47,830
School Licensed Clinical Social Worker
A school social work job means working in school settings in collaboration with teachers and parents to help students to thrive socially, emotionally, psychologically, and academically. They mostly work with students who exhibit emotional, social, psychological, and behavioral issues.
Average salary: $48,287
Child Welfare Licensed Social Worker
They advocate for children’s rights and protect children against abuse and neglect. Child welfare licensed social workers to work in a wide range of settings, including adoption and foster care agencies, schools, family agencies, and government agencies.
Average salary: $46,755
Mental Health Licensed Clinical Social Workers
While all LCSWs are trained to offers psychotherapy and counseling whenever necessary, mental health LCSWs specialize in mental health patients. Beyond offering diagnosis, treatment, and management strategies to patients, they also help them with action-oriented solutions to their problems, such as finding housing, employment, and supporting them in their day-to-day living.
Average salary: $46,874
Private Practice for Licensed Clinical Social Workers
While many LCSWs choose to go into employment, many others opt to go into private practice. Private practice can be challenging to start initially as it requires financial investments and business and management skills.
However, most private practicing social workers say that it is rewarding as they are eventually able to earn more through direct client payments and insurance payments. In addition, with a private practice, you can set up their own working hours.
Also, some licensed social workers split their time between private practice and part-time employment while others work on a contractual or per-project basis.
How to Advance Your Career as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Below are tips and steps to help you advance your career as an LCSW:
- Pursue further social work education. Becoming an LCSW is one of the highest achievements in a social work career. However, you can still advance your career further by pursuing a doctorate in social work. A Ph.D. in social work opens up opportunities to join academia as a professor or do research to find solutions to real-life social work problems. You may also parlay your experience and skills into consulting.
- Specialize. Specialization is another way to advance your career as an LCSW and also increase your earnings. You can take certification courses in the areas of school social work, geriatric social work, grief counseling, and medical social work, among others. These certification courses are much shorter and increase your credibility. Some states require you to take some of these certification courses to retain your licensure.
- Continue to advance your non-technical skills, such as emotional skills, interpersonal skills, organizational skills, and problem-solving skills. Social work can take a toll on your emotional health. Therefore, you must incorporate practices and strategies to remain emotionally grounded, such as self-care and seeing a counselor.
- Pursue management positions. The bigger scope of responsibilities associated with management positions will help you grow both individually and professionally. It will help you to hone your leadership, organization, and human resource skills. For instance, you can take up a position as a social policy advocate, a community service manager, or a social programs administrator, among others.
- Grow your professional network. As with any other career, growing professional networks within your industry is paramount for continued career growth. Attend industry events and workshops regularly. Find a mentor where possible, and join social workers associations. Also, stay updated on the trends in your industry. Read social work newsletters, magazines, and publications.
Salary Expectation and Job Outlook for Licensed Clinical Social Workers
The average annual salary of LCSW in the United States is $58,737, with salaries typically ranging between $38,000 for entry-level LCSWs and $85,000 for late-career LCSWs. The salary ranges vary depending on a number of factors, including experience, position, additional certifications, level of education, performance, specialty area, and employer.
Overall, the demand for LCSW is expected to grow by 16% by 2026, with the highest growth being in medical healthcare, mental health, and substance abuse social work specialties.
Top Master’s Programs in Social Work
The following are 10 of the best master’s programs in social work in the U.S
University of Michigan – Ann Arbor
The University of Michigan offers a wide range of specialization options in the Master of Social Work program, including community organizing, direct patient care, political advocacy, geriatrics, and families. The master’s degree program offers students over 500 opportunities for internship placements. Notably, the University of Michigan offers MSW students over 300 opportunities for scholarships.
University of California – Berkeley (UCB)
The UCB master’s in social welfare is particularly reputable for its easy accessibility and relatively low tuition, especially for in-state students. Students can opt for full-time or part-time study arrangements, which can be completed within two years.
The MSW degree offers three areas of specialization, including strengthening children, youth, and families, advancing health and wellbeing across the adult lifespan, and strengthening organizations and communities. As part of the program, students are required to complete two years of field practice.
University of Washington – Seattle
The MSW program at the University of Washington Seattle offers students an option to study full-time within two years or part-time within three years. The program offers two main specialization options: Multigenerational practice with children, families, elders, and integrative health – mental health advanced practice.
Although admission to this program is quite competitive, it accepts students from diverse backgrounds. The minimum academic requirement is a 3.0GPA. However, students with a lower GPA are encouraged to apply as long as they attach an accompanying letter explaining what affected their grades.
University of Texas – Austin
The University of Texas, Austin offers a Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW) program that provides students with core knowledge about social work. It has two concentration options: Clinical social work and Administration and Policy Practice. The institution offers students numerous opportunities for internship placements either at local or international agencies.
California State University – Bakersfield (CSUB)
CSUB offers a 60 credit Masters in Social Work program with concentration options such as gerontology, child and family services, and mental health. As part of the program, students are required to complete 960hours of practicum. MSW students can choose between part-time and full-time study options with a 2-3 years completion period.
The University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign
The University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign offers an easily accessible and flexible Masters of Social Work program that incorporates at least 64 credits and 900 practicum hours. Students with a bachelor’s in social work are eligible for an advanced standing path, which takes 12-24 months as they do not need to repeat the core social work courses.
The MSW program offers three concentration options: clinical, leadership, and social change. The program’s model requires that students complete all their course work before being placed for an internship. Students pursuing leadership and social change concentration can choose between hybrid and full-online study methods.
Indiana University Bloomington
The Indiana University-Bloomington offers a 60-credit MSW program with three concentration options: community practice, clinical, and social policy analysis. The two-year program starts in summer, and it incorporates a practicum. Some classes are conducted online asynchronously.
University of Connecticut
The University of Connecticut offers a 2-4 years MSW program with a community organization concentration option. The course requires 18 credits with an option for advanced standing.
University of Pennsylvania
The University of Pennsylvania offers an MSW in social policy and practice, which prepares students for leadership roles. Research and policy courses are a core part of this MSW program. If you are keen to pursue social work at a global level, then the University of Pennsylvania is a great option. However, admissions are highly competitive.
Ohio State University
The Ohio State University-Main Campus offers an MSW program with an option for advanced standing for students who graduated with a Bachelor’s in Social Work in the last five years. Students can take part-time or full-online study options. Students have various concentration options to choose from as well as a dual degree option.
Best Online Social Work Master Degree Programs
Seeing as most social workers who seek to pursue an LCSW degree will still working, an online program may be the best option if you are seeking flexibility and convenience. However, with so many masters in social work (MSW) programs online, it can be difficult to identify the legit ones. Below are some features to look out for in a legit online master’s in a social work program.
- Accreditation. Ascertain that the CSWE accredits the online program you are considering.
- Flexibility in the learning schedule and format. Most online programs offer a mix of synchronous and asynchronous classes. You will be required to be present for the live sessions while the recorded session offers you flexibility in your learning schedule. Some universities also require you to go to the physical campus once or twice in the course of your studying. It is a requirement to visit the university during orientation while for others on the graduation day.
- Availability of field placements. All MSW programs require you to complete a given number of hours in fieldwork. It can be challenging to find a placement. Therefore, it is important to go for an online program that offers long-distance students opportunities for field placements.
Here are some universities that offer the best accredited, fully-online MSW programs:
- Arizona State University
- Boise State University
- Boston University
- California State University – North Ridge
- Columbia University
- Florida State University
- Fordham University
- Indiana University
- Louisiana State University
- Loyola University
Below are detailed answers to some of the most common LCSW FAQs.
Is an LCSW a doctor?
No, an LCSW is not a doctor. Doctors go through different training than LCSWs. However, both professionals may occasionally work together to help a patient. While a doctor diagnoses and treats the patient, the LCSW offers the patient support to help them cope with the medical condition they are suffering from and its effects.
What is the difference between a Licensed Clinical social worker (LCSW) over a licensed social worker (LSW)?
The main difference between an LCSW and an LSW is that an LCSW can offer psychotherapy and other therapy treatment options while an LSW cannot. The LCSW tends to take up more managerial positions, while an LSW is rather hands-on. The Bureau of Labor Statistics 2018 report reveals that the highest paid social workers specialties were child, schools, and family.
What does retirement look like for someone with an LCSW degree?
Retirement looks different for different social workers. While some stop doing social work activities after retirement, others continue to work either in private practice or are employed by private agencies. The big issue of concern for most social workers is regarding retirement income.
Although most social workers remit a retirement fund during their working years, it is often not enough to live on after retiring. Retired social workers find themselves struggling to meet their basic needs.
What do the best LCSW degree programs have in common?
The best LCSW degree programs have the following characteristics:
Expert faculty members
The best LCSW programs are taught by faculty members who are actively involved in the industry. They are better equipped to deliver the course content and offer students tangible and practical insider knowledge about the industry.
Your preferred concentration options
Different universities offer different concentration options. The most suitable LCSW degree program for you is the one that offers your specialization course of choice.
Opportunities for field and internship placement
Typically, MSW programs require that you complete a given number of credits alongside a given number of internship hours. It can be challenging to find internship placements on your own, and universities with such opportunities make pursuing your LCSW degree much easier.
While most institutions offering MSW programs are accredited, it is important to verify their accreditation before enrolling. This is especially crucial for online courses to avoid challenges when applying for your clinical social work licensure.
What aspects of being an LCSW do people often find rewarding?
In a forum for social workers, retired and currently working social workers discuss some of the rewards of social work. The most commonly reported rewards of social work include:
- Being a voice for the voiceless
- Addressing social injustices
- Improving the quality of life of individuals and groups’
- Helpings individuals, families, and groups overcome challenging times or situations
However, despite the many opportunities to do meaningful and impactful work, most workers acknowledge that a social work job is not without challenges.
For instance, it can be emotionally and psychologically draining to come face to face with suffering individuals daily.
In addition, some policies make it difficult for social workers to do their work properly in some areas.
Acquiring your license for clinical social work is one of the highest achievements as a social worker. To become an LCSW, you must have a degree and a master’s degree in social work. Also, you will have to pass the ASWB exams and meet the required hours for fieldwork.
Different states have slightly differing requirements for clinical social work licensure. Therefore, it is important that you check your state’s requirements and then meet or exceed them.
While social work is impactful and highly gratifying, it can also cause emotional fatigue, and it is necessary to have strategies in place for your own wellbeing.