Private practice social workers are employed in a private office, rather than a government agency. A private practice social worker may have their own practice, or they may work for someone else who does.
Since working unsupervised in a private setting requires an advanced social work license, private practice social workers tend to have several years experience in the field. Also, almost all private practice social workers have a MSW or Ph.D. in social work.
A social worker in a private setting may counsel a patient using cognitive behavioral therapy, teach harm-reduction techniques and otherwise help a patient to manage difficult emotions and traumatic experiences.
How to become a private practice social worker
A private practice job usually requires experience and it’s not a position that’s typically available to new graduates. The following steps represent the career path typically taken in order to secure a private practice position.
- Earn a MSW from a CSWE-accredited university. The degree can be taken online or via a traditional, campus-based program. It’s important to only study at a CSWE certified university since this is a prerequisite for an advanced social work license in most states.
- Apply for an entry-level social work license. The procedure for acquiring this license will vary from state to state.
- Find a position that allows the social worker to gain supervised, clinical experience. Many social workers begin their career at a government agency
- Once a social worker has enough clinical experience, typically 3,000 hours, they can apply for an advanced social work license. Some states may require as much as 5,000 hours of supervised experience before a social worker can apply for an advanced license
- With the advanced license a social worker will be able to work unsupervised. At this point a social worker can begin looking for a position in a private practice
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What is a private practice social worker?
A private practice social worker is someone who either owns and manages their own practice, or works for someone else who does. A private practice typically only employs a handful of social workers, as opposed to a government agency which may employ dozens or even hundreds of social workers in a large city.
Social workers who run their own practice are responsible for all aspects of business management. That may include,
- Client billing
- Marketing and finding clients
- Purchasing malpractice insurance
- Opening an office and maintaining the space
- Confidential record keeping
While this is a lot of responsibility, the upside is that private practice social workers have a high degree of flexibility in how they do their work, much more flexibility than government employed social workers. In addition, if the business is successful a private practice social worker may be able to earn a higher income than they would at an agency.
A private practice social worker may work with the same type of clients as a government employed social worker, and administer the same type of therapies. The biggest difference is the work setting and the increased independence of a private practice social worker.
Private practice social worker requirements, skills, and experience
Although licensing requirements vary from state to state, a majority of private practice positions require the social worker to have a master’s degree. This is due to the fact that most advanced social work licenses, which permit unsupervised social work, can only be acquired by those with a master’s degree.
In addition to a master’s degree and an advanced social work license, a private practice position may require,
- Three or more years of clinical social work experience
- Mental health diagnostic experience
- Crisis intervention training
- Record keeping experience
- Red Cross first aid and/or CPR training
In general, a social worker at a private practice will be expected to have initiative and be self-motivated. In a private practice there is less supervision and more autonomy, which for many is one of the biggest perks of working in a private practice.
The autonomy also means a social worker will have more responsibility and will need to deal with many different situations personally, without a large support network.
What do private practice social workers do?
One of the most exciting aspects of being a private practice social worker is that there is not a set definition of what one must “do.” Private practice social workers have a lot of flexibility in how they administer therapy and what types of services they provide. Here are a few examples.
Private practice social workers may contract with an organization for social work surveys and research. Research studies involving statistical analysis may require the social worker to have a Ph.D.
With equine therapy a social worker uses a horse to teach a patient life skills and promote emotional growth. Although working with horses is unorthodox the results are actually quite promising. A private practice social worker has the opportunity to acquire the necessary licensure to integrate equine therapy into their practice.
Art therapy can be used to help a patient to express themselves in a way that they might find difficult to do vocally. Patients can draw, paint, dance, write or play music. Art therapy may not be appropriate for every client, but used judiciously many social workers find that their clients have good results.
As is evident, a private practice social worker has significantly more freedom and discretion in what type of therapies they administer and specialize in. Working in a private practice may be ideal for any social worker who would rather not have strict standards dictating what type of therapy they can use.
Private practice social worker job description
One of the key benefits of working as a private practice social worker is job flexibility. Social workers in a private practice setting have more freedom to set their own hours and take time off as needed. This is especially the case if the social worker is running her own private practice.
Some private practice social workers even choose to work on the weekends which can be beneficial for clients who work all week. The private practice social worker can then take Monday and Tuesday off.
A typical job description for a private practice social worker will ask for a candidate who can provide one or more of these skills,
- Individual counseling
- Case management
- Crisis stabilization
- Suicide risk assessment
- Treatment planning
- Leading group therapy
Certificates or special training required for private practice social workers
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, a majority of private practice social workers have either a masters or a Ph.D. This is necessary because most states will only grant advanced social work licenses, that allow the license holder to engage in unsupervised social work, to graduate degree holders.
Most social workers only start working in a private practice, or open their own private practice, after they’ve gained at least a few years of experience at a government agency or other public social work institution.
Different states will have different requirements that must be met in order to work in a private setting. A social worker should know what the local regulations are before they begin looking for a private practice job.
In a previous section we mentioned some of the unique therapies that social workers in a private setting may provide. Some of these specialized therapies may require a certification, typically earned by taking a class.
Outlook for private practice social workers
Whether it’s Detroit or Denver, Buffalo or Billings, the employment outlook for social workers is excellent. The BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) has projected a 13 percent job growth rate in the field of social work from 2019 to 2029.
That job growth indicates an increasing demand for social work services in the years to come. State agencies are going to struggle to handle it all which suggests that private practice social workers will need to step in to offer counseling and other services.
It’s a good time to be a social worker and even students who are just now entering university should expect to find plenty of employment opportunities upon graduation.
How much do private practice social workers make?
The BLS employment data has shown that the mean annual wage for “all other” social workers is $61,750. The bad news is that there’s no salary data from the BLS data for private practice social workers, as they get grouped together with other social work professions.
The good news is that SocialWorkers.org has released an incredibly comprehensive report which breaks down private practice social worker salaries based on region and accreditation level, among other factors. That report is available here.