This guide covers what clinical social work is, admissions, coursework and graduation requirements for Master of Social Work (MSW) programs with a specialization in clinical practice, examples of job tasks and settings, career outlook and salary estimates for clinical social workers.
Clinical social work is the specialty that most envision when thinking about social work as a career: working directly with individuals, families and groups to address specific concerns. Are you interested in learning more about how to gain skills and experience in direct practice with vulnerable and oppressed populations?
IN THIS GUIDE
- Clinical social work?
- Degree programs
- Admissions requirements
- Degree requirements
- online clinical programs
- Licensing requirments
What is clinical social work?
Clinical social work involves direct interactions with clients in a 1:1 or group setting. This personalized approach to client work provides intensive counseling and guidance while helping clients address some of their most difficult challenges.
While those with bachelors’ level education and training can work directly with clients, it is under the supervision of a master of social work (MSW)-trained clinician.
Clinical social work can be done as part of one’s job duties in a nonprofit organization, or, after completing the requirements to become licensed as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), individuals can open up their own private practice to provide counseling and therapeutic interventions to clients, families and groups.
Clinical social work is a field that is extremely diverse.
Depending on your interests and experience, you could find yourself:
- training foster parents and preparing them to take abused or neglected children into their homes
- helping patients with a life-threatening medical condition learn about their disease and adapt to their new normal
- counseling a group of adults whose spouses have recently died
- supporting those with addictions as they strive to stay sober
- or working with inmates to develop a plan for living once they are released and continuing to work with them and provide support in order to reduce the likelihood of them returning to a life of crime
Clinical social work degree programs
Many master of social work (MSW) programs offer degrees with a concentration in clinical or direct practice, as most people are drawn to the field of social work to work directly with clients and solve social problems. There are numerous direct practice MSW programs, offered in-person, online and even hybrid programs that mix both online and in-person learning.
Traditional MSW programs consist of two years of classes. Each year also has required fieldwork, where students gain hands-on experience in local community organizations.
The MSW program is a combination of core courses and electives that provide specialized education and training for the student’s primary area of interest.
First-year courses are considered foundational, as they lay the foundation for the education in the following year and beyond. Advanced courses are taken in the second year and build upon foundational classes in addition to honing in on specific areas of social work practice.
Core classes include:
- human development and behavior
- generalist social work practice methods
- social justice
- social policy
- social work theory
- research methods
Students who have already earned their bachelor of social work (BSW) degree can apply to advanced standing MSW programs. As BSW programs cover the foundational level content that is offered in the first year of MSW programs, advanced standing students jump directly into the second year content and can complete their degree in approximately one year rather than two.
Clinical MSW admissions requirements
Anyone interested in social work can apply to an MSW program, since the first year covers the basics that one would need to know to begin their practice.
This makes the field accessible to almost anyone, which is a good thing as will be discussed later – there is a shortage of social workers, so finding work that you enjoy and that really makes a difference should not be difficult.
Most admission requirements for MSW programs are pretty standard. For those who have recently earned (within about the past 5 years) a BSW degree, advanced standing status is a possibility. The admissions requirements other than the BSW degree are identical, regardless of if one is applying to a traditional (two-year) or advanced standing program. Typical admission requirements for Clinical MSW programs include:
- An average grade point average (GPA) of 3.0 on a 4.0 scale from an accredited college or university. If the applicant has earned a BSW, a final grade of B or better in all social work classes taken is often required.
- Letters of recommendation – former professors and employers are the best to provide insight into your ability to excel in a graduate level program, your work ethic, and suitability for professional practice.
- Relevant work experience. Many programs prefer that students have at least two years of relevant work experience. Some programs consider undergraduate practicum settings as part of this requirement.
- A personal statement and at least one essay are required so the admissions committee can assess competency in writing at a graduate school level.
- A number of programs require a background check because students will work closely with at-risk and vulnerable populations.
- Fewer schools require Graduate Record Review (GRE) test scores now. This used to be fairly mandatory, but this requirement has lessened in recent years.
Clinical MSW degree requirements
Typical degree requirements for MSW programs include successful completion of all coursework, often with a B average (3.0 out of 4.0 grade point average), and successful completion of all fieldwork hours.
In addition to the general core classes mentioned previously, students take specialization classes related to their areas of interest. Clinical social work students learn both the interviewing and communication skills and therapeutic techniques that are used daily by social work practitioners. Examples of clinical social work classes include:
- Therapeutic Techniques: Teaches students about various therapeutic interventions and for what instances the intervention is best indicated. Therapies covered can include Motivational Interviewing, Play Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
- Psychopathology: Students learn about the major mental disorders, their diagnostic classifications, criteria and historical treatment
- Pharmacology for Social Workers: Provides an introduction to common pharmaceutical drugs that clients with mental health diagnoses may be prescribed by a physician, to learn their side effects, how they work on the brain and common drug interactions.
- Evaluation and Treatment of Mental Disorders: Covers evidence-based psychosocial assessments, diagnostic tests and treatment planning for clients
- Death and Dying: Prepares students to work with clients who are dying or those who are grieving loss due to death.
- Trauma-Informed Care: Social work theory, practice, and intervention with child and adult survivors of various types of abuse.
Fieldwork, also called practicum or field education, is where students gain real-world experience in community settings under the supervision of a trained practitioner. Students complete between 400 and 1,000 hours of fieldwork, depending on if they are a traditional student or an advanced standing student. Examples of clinical social work field placements include:
- Psychiatric hospital
- Suicide hotline / nonprofit organization
- Juvenile corrections facilities
- Outpatient mental health clinic
- Drug/Alcohol rehabilitation facility
- Domestic violence agency
- Child welfare agency
- Homeless shelter
- Private counseling clinic
Online clinical social work programs
As previously mentioned, a number of MSW programs offer clinical social work degrees online. Online programs mirror in-person programs in order to meet the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accreditation requirements. This is especially important for clinical social work students, as will be discussed shortly.
Online students complete fieldwork in their local community or region. Students work with the field education coordinator almost as soon as being accepted to the program in order to allow time for the coordinator to reach out to potential agencies in the students’ area to ensure the tasks required by the student while at the agency and the supervision to be provided will be appropriate to build social work skills.
One item to note is that some online clinical social work programs, due to their accreditation and state requirements for fieldwork, only accept online students that live within the same state as the school of social work. A few will accept students that reside in neighboring states if regional agreements are in place. Some have no student residency stipulations. Students interested in online clinical social work programs must carefully review the admissions and fieldwork stipulations for each program they are considering to ensure all requirements are met.
Licensing for clinical social work
Many clinical social work students dream of becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). This license allows practitioners to work independently, earn more, and are even eligible to open their own private practice. This guide will provide an overview of the steps to licensing, which begins after a clinical MSW is completed.
The most important consideration for those desiring licensure in the future is to graduate from an MSW program that is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).
The CSWE is the only organization in North America that evaluates schools of social work in the US along with their degree programs to ensure strict criteria is met. Accreditation demonstrates that the school provides high quality education that meets standards to educate and prepare competent social work practitioners.
Each state licensing board requires LCSW applicants to have graduated from accredited programs because that confirms the applicant has had the quality education and training to safely and effectively work directly with clients. If a school is not accredited, state licensing boards cannot determine if the education received there meets the necessary standards to help those in need without causing harm.
Graduates from unaccredited programs are not eligible to apply for licensure, making applying only to accredited programs a critical first step for those wanting to become licensed down the road.
After graduating from an accredited clinical MSW program, the next steps to becoming licensed include:
- Completing clinical supervision from a LCSW: An experienced practitioner provides supervision and guidance to those newer to the field. Supervision includes regular meetings to practice therapeutic techniques, gain feedback on interactions with clients, and build professional practice skills. The supervision requirements vary from state to state (find full state licensing requirements), but it averages a few thousand hours of supervision before applicants are eligible to take the licensing exam.
- Completing any additional required courses not taken in the MSW program: Most clinical MSW programs include all of the classes a student needs to apply for licensure, but some states may have additional requirements.
- Successfully passing the state board examination: Each state requires applicants to successfully complete an examination lasting a number of hours that covers critical components of social work practice including professional ethics and values, human development, behavior and diversity, assessment, diagnosis and treatment planning, and psychotherapy, clinical interventions and case management. After passing the exam, licensing paperwork can be completed and practice as an LCSW can begin.
What does a clinical social worker do?
As previously discussed, clinical social workers work in any number of organizations and social service agencies. Career opportunities abound in whatever area of interest the social worker has and what population the social worker is most interested in working with. Examples include:
- Work with prisoners getting close to release to develop a plan for healthy, crime-free life after release
- Counseling domestic violence victims as they heal from their trauma
- Visiting schools to teach students, teachers and administrators about the effects of bullying and suicide prevention
- Opening a private therapy office to work with a variety of clients on specific issues, such as depression, anxiety and improving communication techniques
- Assisting refugee families in settling into their new community and getting resources set up to meet their individual needs
Career outlook for clinical social workers
The career outlook for clinical social workers is very strong. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the field is projected to grow 12 percent between 2020 and 2030, which is much faster than the average for all occupations.
Many more social workers will be needed to not only replace retiring social workers, but to serve the aging population, increased numbers of individuals seeking drug and alcohol treatment, immigrant populations and others struggling with other social concerns.
The BLS states the median salary for social workers is $50,390. Salaries can vary depending on the work setting, with healthcare social workers and those in private practice earning more. The top ten percent of social workers earn more than $82,840 each year.
Clinical social work is an excellent fit for those wanting to work with and help the most vulnerable, oppressed and struggling individuals in our society.
Direct social work practice can be the method by which a client begins to make positive life altering decisions and actions. The work is rewarding and fulfilling and can also be financially lucrative as well. There will always be a need for clinical social workers in our society, so if you are interested in helping those in need, consider a clinical MSW program to prepare you to work in this field.
Expert Advice – for clinical MSW
Find the latest interviews with subject matter experts and people working at the forefront of their field and get advice on Clinical MSW directly from some of the world’s leading authorities. Learn more about all the different pathways and opportunities available in social work today.
- What do you think are the most important qualities or qualifications needed to be successful as a clinical social worker?
- What are some of the reasons people become a clinical social worker?
- What should students expect when choosing a clinical social work internship or field placement?
- What are employers generally looking for when hiring entry-level clinical social worker?
- Do you find that people that train as a clinical social worker stay in the field, or are they finding other, relevant work opportunities?