Clinical vs. Direct Practice Social Work: What’s the Difference?

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By Marisa Upson

Reviewed by Melissa Russiano, LCSW, LISW

Published on August 20, 2021

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A career in social work provides the opportunity to make a significant difference in people's lives. Depending on their speciality and degree level, social workers may pursue careers as caseworkers, counselors, and social service managers, providing support and assistance to people in need.

Social workers also experience high demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 13% job growth for social workers between 2019 and 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations (4%). These professionals may work as clinical or direct practice social workers, positions that vary in duties and licensure requirements.

What's the Difference Between Clinical Social Work and Direct Practice Social Work?

Direct practice social work involves helping clients through life's challenges by assessing their needs and directing them to available resources. For example, these social workers may work as case managers ensuring children's safety or helping clients suffering from addictions find substance abuse services and support groups. While state requirements vary, most positions in direct practice social work require a bachelor's degree.

Clinical social work involves diagnosing and treating individuals, groups, and families experiencing mental, behavioral, and emotional issues. Like counselors, these professionals provide therapy and address the root cause of problems like child or spousal abuse and addiction while also assisting with social services. Clinical social work positions require a master's degree as well as the highest level of licensure required by state law.

Clinical Social Work Pros and Cons

Pros

Counseling: A licensed clinical social worker can provide psychotherapeutic services. Career Advancement: A master's degree expands social work career opportunities. Salary Potential: A clinical social worker may benefit from higher earning potential.

Cons

Master's Degree: A clinical social worker requires a master's and at least two years of supervised clinical experience post graduation. Licensure: States require a clinical social worker to obtain a license and complete continuing education. Cost: Because of the educational requirements, pursuing a career in clinical social work costs more than direct practice.

Direct Practice Social Work Pros and Cons

Pros

Bachelor's Degrees: Many direct practice social work positions require only a bachelor's degree. Team Work: These social workers often collaborate with different agencies when finding community services for their clients. Program Development: Direct practice social workers may address gaps in community services.

Cons

Limited Services: Direct practice social workers cannot provide counseling services, including diagnosis and treatment. Career Advancement: A bachelor's in social work may only provide access to entry-level positions. Specialization: A bachelor's does not offer the same specialization gained in a social work master's program.

What Degree Do I Need to Work in Clinical Social Work?

Clinical social work requires a master's degree in social work from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and state licensure. While each state's requirements vary, most include a master's degree, 3,000-4,000 hours of supervised clinical work experience obtained over two years, and passing scores on state and clinical exams.

Once licensed, these professionals work in clinical settings, including mental health treatment facilities, substance abuse rehabilitation centers, hospitals, and social service agencies. With a master's degree or doctorate in social work, they may also set up private practices, work in the criminal justice system, and support service members and their families in the military.

What Degree Do I Need to Work in Direct Practice Social Work?

Direct practice social work requires at minimum a bachelor's degree in social work from a CSWE-accredited program, with some positions requiring a master's.

In certain states, these professionals must earn the licensed bachelor social worker credential and work under the supervision of a clinical social worker. Other states allow licensed social workers to apply for an independent practice designation after a certain amount of time spent under supervision.

Direct practice social workers may work in schools, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and healthcare services. These professionals typically work directly with clients as community health workers or case managers.

Salary Outlook for Clinical and Direct Practice Social Workers

Because of licensure requirements and their ability to offer psychotherapeutic services, clinical social workers may earn more than their peers in direct practice social work. Earnings vary based on the position and experience level.

Both professions experience high demand, with some variations based on the industry. For example, between 2019 and 2029, the BLS projects 12% job growth for child, family, and school social workers and 17% employment growth for health and substance abuse social workers. Clinical social workers experience particularly high demand because of increased healthcare spending and their ability to offer treatment services.

Average Annual Salary for Social Work Careers
Job Title Entry Level
(0-12 Months)
Early Career
(1-4 Years)
Mid Career
(5-9 Years)
Experienced (10-19 Years)
Social Worker (MSW) $44,320 $47,640 $49,940 $54,760
Clinical Social Worker $47,990 $51,120 $55,950 $64,570
Social Services, Case Manager $36,160 $38,540 $41,070 $41,530
Social Services Director $44,860 $50,260 $56,590 $60,190
Social Worker, Hospice $44,940 $51,130 $56,500 $56,450
Licensed Clinical Social Worker $48,780 $53,210 $60,030 $64,820

Source: PayScale, June 2021

Which Social Work Degree Is Right for You?

Students considering a career in social work should determine what kind of environment they would like to work in and what type of support they want to offer individuals, groups, and communities.

For example, is there a particular segment of the population you want to support? Would you rather provide clinical diagnosis and counseling treatments or connect clients with resources like housing assistance and job training?

As a licensed clinical social worker, you may start your own practice or work in hospitals or mental health and rehabilitation clinics. Direct practice social workers may pursue careers as case managers for families, veterans, and others in need of support. These professionals typically work in nonprofit or government-sponsored social service agencies.

Additional considerations include the time and money you want to invest in your education.

Frequently Asked Questions About Clinical and Direct Practice Social Work

true What is clinical practice in social work?

Clinical practice social work focuses on assessing, diagnosing, and treating individuals or groups facing behavioral, mental, and emotional disorders. These professionals provide one-on-one treatment and may also supervise social workers in community service organizations. They may work in hospitals, private practice, recovery programs, or mental health organizations.

true What do nonclinical social workers do?

Nonclinical social workers may work at a macro level, evaluating programs to improve community services. They may also work directly with clients, assessing their needs and determining what community services may help them.

true What does a direct practice social worker do?

Direct practice social workers assess clients' needs and then direct them to appropriate community resources like childcare, food and housing assistance, and healthcare. These professionals tend to work in nonprofit and government community organizations and may specialize in working with specific groups, such as veterans, geriatrics, or children and families.

true What is the highest paid social worker?

According to PayScale data from July 2021, licensed clinical social workers earn an average annual salary of $59,330.The BLS reports that healthcare social workers made an average annual wage of $60,470 in 2020. With some experience, social workers may also advance to social and community service managers who earned a median annual salary of $69,600 in 2020.

true Should I get a master's in social work?

It depends on your career goals. A master's in social work provides graduates with increased earning potential and enables them to pursue licensure as clinical social workers. In addition, some schools offer programs that allow students to complete their bachelor's and master's in social work in five years.

true What's the Difference Between an MBA and an MPA?

Both an MBA and a MPA prepare graduates for administrative roles. However, an MPA focuses on public affairs, while an MBA covers business management.

Reviewed by:

Melissa Russiano is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice that has organically developed into a specialty working with helping professionals. Melissa has a proven track record helping professionals avoid burnout in a unique way that holds clinicians accountable through laughter, tears, blunt (yet very supportive) feedback and quirky analogies that are grounded in solid theoretical research. Melissa practices solely in a virtual setting in the states of California, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. In addition, Melissa is a professor imparting her experiences and knowledge in the field to future social workers in a graduate program through Simmons University online.

Learn about scholarships and financial aid available for social work students. The field of social work offers plenty of opportunities to help different groups of people. The variety of available allow professionals to specialize in an area or population that interests...

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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