How to Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Licensed clinical social workers complete certain educational requirements before earning their titles. Learn how to become an LCSW in our step-by-step guide.
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Updated on September 6, 2023
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  • Licensed Clinical Social Workers hold at least a master's degree in social work.
  • You don't need a BSW to become an LCSW. You can also earn a bachelor's in psychology, public health, or another topic that overlaps with social work.
  • These professionals follow their state's licensing requirements to practice.
  • LCSWs work in diverse fields, serving different populations or focusing on certain issues.

Social workers help people overcome challenges and advocate for a more just world. They work in every facet of society, filling many different social work jobs. Some social workers pass special requirements to hold the title of licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

LCSWs stand out from other types of social workers because they:

  • Have a License to Practice: They've completed thousands of hours of supervised fieldwork and passed an exam.
  • Provide Clinical Services: Clinical social work focuses on assessing, diagnosing, and treating mental and behavioral health conditions.

Future LCSWs follow similar steps to those aspiring to become social workers. However, they need extra hours of supervision and experience in clinical settings. This guide covers what you need to know about becoming an LCSW and describes some fields you can enter with this credential.

Steps to Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Step 1: Get Familiar With Your State Requirements

States govern the licensing requirements for LCSWs and other social workers. Do your research to answer questions about your state's process. Find out:

  • How long it takes to become an LCSW in your state.
  • If you need an interim license while working to become an LCSW.
  • If you need a special license to work in private practice — if that is your goal.

Knowing what to expect can help you plan your education and career steps.

Step 2: Complete a Bachelor's Degree

Aspiring LCSWs may choose to complete a bachelor's in social work (BSW) program. This program has some advantages. Students in BSW programs gain firsthand experience in a practicum or internship. Also, some BSW grads can accelerate their master's studies.

In 2019-2020, the annual tuition and fees for a bachelor's degree program was $9,400 at four-year public schools and $36,700 at private nonprofit schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Step 3: Choose a Master's Degree Program

LCSWs need a master's of social work (MSW) degree to practice. When you're selecting an MSW program, keep these factors in mind:

  • Accreditation: LCSWs must earn an MSW from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.
  • Program Length: MSW programs take about two years to complete. BSW grads may finish in about a year. Part-time programs may last up to three years.
  • Cost: According to NCES, graduate tuition and fees averaged $19,790 in 2019-2020.

Step 4: Complete Supervised Practice

After you've earned your MSW, you need to gain experience under the supervision of an LCSW before applying for your license. States enforce specific rules for how many hours you must work. Most require 1,000-3,000 hours over 2-6 years. Many states also require future LCSWs to log a certain number of one-on-one hours with their supervisor and clients.

After completing the required supervised hours, you must apply to your state licensing board. Then, you can register to take the LCSW exam.

Step 5: Pass the Licensing Exam

The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) administers the LCSW licensing exam at testing centers nationwide. Registration costs $260. The computerized exam may take hours to complete, and you get your results right away.

In most cases, your state licensing board will contact you after you pass. Other state licensing boards require you to get in touch.

Step 6: In Some Cases, Complete a Doctorate in Social Work

You don't need a doctorate in social work (DSW) to become an LCSW. However, some LCSWs pursue this degree if they want to conduct research, develop public policy, or teach in addition to maintaining their clinical roles. DSW programs typically last 4-6 years.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker Salary and Job Outlook

Social work salaries vary widely and may depend on your industry or experience. Payscale reports that the average LCSW earned $59,770 per year in February 2022. However, that figure varies with experience.

Look at how the average LCSW salary changes with experience:

Years of Experience Average LCSW Salary
1-4 $53,760
5-9 $60,290
10-19 $65,410

Credit: Payscale, February 2022

The world needs social workers — especially in clinical settings — to support the population as more people seek mental health treatment. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects employment for social workers to grow 12% from 2020-2030.

What Is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker?

LCSWs provide people with social and emotional support while connecting them to resources in their communities. They work in:

  • Hospitals
  • Schools
  • Nonprofits
  • Government Agencies
  • Private Practices

They may help specific groups of people, such as children or veterans. They may also focus on certain issues, like substance misuse or anxiety.

Types of Licensed Clinical Social Worker Careers

Knowing what social work area interests you can help you choose a school, select classes, and look for jobs. Below are just some of the types of LCSW specialties.

LCSW Jobs in the Military

Some LCSWs primarily work with military service members, families, and veterans. These LCSWs may counsel people preparing to deploy or actively serving. They provide emotional support and treatment for everyday challenges and experiences unique to military life. These types of LCSW jobs may require on-the-job training. The Navy Officer Development School offers a five-week training program.

Other LCSW focus on veterans' issues. The Department of Veterans Affairs is the country's largest employer of master's-level social workers. LCSWs work with veterans to:

  • Support the transition to civilian life.
  • Navigate benefits and resources.
  • Assess and provide clinical treatment for PTSD through the VA's PTSD consultation program.

LCSW Jobs in Child Welfare

The child welfare system encompasses government departments, private agencies, and community-based organizations. LCSWs work in all of these settings as child welfare social workers. Above all, these professionals protect children's safety and strengthen families.

Child welfare LCSWs may:

  • Help children in foster care acclimate to new environments.
  • Connect foster parents to resources.
  • Intervene when children need to be removed from dangerous situations.
  • Help families create safe home environments so they can reunite with their children.

Other LCSWs in child welfare might work in research. They evaluate intervention programs and develop policies to improve the system at large.

LCSW Jobs in Healthcare

Healthcare LCSWs serve as advocates for patients. They provide emotional support and connect patients' families to services, such as specialists, support groups, or financial resources. LCSWs also work to expand equal access to healthcare resources.

These professionals may prepare for their roles with specialized coursework in their bachelor's or master's programs. In healthcare-specific courses, LCSWs may explore the complexities of the healthcare system and the unique needs of people who have been historically excluded from or oppressed by the system.

LCSW Jobs in Private Practice

Private or independent practitioners may work out of their own office or as consultants. They maintain their own work schedules and may hold more control over their income. These LCSWs need a private independent practice (PIP) certification in some states.

Private practice LCSWs specialize in family therapy, working with individuals, groups, or couples. They generally support people navigating life's challenges, such as relationship problems and mental health conditions. Some specialize, for instance, in family separation, coping with loss, or mood disorders.

Consulting LCSWs may help organizations update their policies to better support their workforce. For example, they might help a human resources department select a mental health benefits provider for employees.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker

What is a licensed clinical social worker?

LCSWs are social workers who meet the qualifications to provide clinical services, such as talk therapy and mental health diagnosis. Those requirements include earning a master's degree, passing an exam, and completing thousands of hours of fieldwork.

How do you become a licensed clinical social worker?

To become an LCSW, you must:

  • Earn a bachelor's degree.
  • Finish an MSW program.
  • Complete your state's experience requirement — usually 1,000-3,000 hours.
  • Pass the ASWB licensing exam.

Is a licensed clinical social worker a therapist?

Some licensed social workers are therapists. As therapists, LCSWs may focus on resolving issues in a client's social support network, relationships, and surroundings.

What is the difference between licensed clinical social workers and therapists?

"Therapist" is a job title. "LCSW" is a credential that signifies the type of education and training you've completed. Not all LCSWs are therapists. Some become child welfare case managers, school counselors, or other professions.

Also, not all therapists are LCSWs. Some therapists have other credentials, such as licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) or licensed professional counselor (LPC).

Resources for Licensed Clinical Social Workers

Professional organizations exist to support social work students and LCSWs at any stage in their careers. You can browse resources or find your local chapter of the associations listed below.

  • Association of Social Work Boards: Social workers can schedule their licensing exam and access test prep resources through the ASWB's website. The association also approves continuing education courses LCSWs must complete to keep their licenses up to date.
  • Clinical Social Work Association: The CSWA advocates for issues that impact clinical social work services. For example, it pushes for legislation that makes healthcare more affordable, informs the public about psychotherapy, and expands access to addiction treatment.
  • National Association of Social Workers: NASW offers networking opportunities, news, informational webinars, and resources to social workers and social work students. Browse LCSW career opportunities on NASW Joblink.

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