Those already in the social work field, either as social workers themselves or as other professionals at social work clinics, might be considering becoming a licensed clinical social worker. This position carries additional responsibilities and benefits, along with an average higher salary compared to a regular social worker.
Yet becoming a licensed clinical social worker is a complicated process. Let’s take a look at exactly what it takes to become an LCSW and what you can expect after earning your certification.
What is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW)?
A licensed clinical social worker is a type of social worker who directly interacts with clients in order to improve their mental and emotional health. LCSWs can concentrate further within this field to become specialized therapists and counselors. Others may focus more on research or policymaking in an administrative capacity. Thus, LCSWs have a lot of career choices at their disposal.
LCSWs are distinguishable from regular social workers in that they are licensed to provide real medical care (albeit psychological or emotional rather than physical) for their patients and clients.
What do LCSWs do?
Here’s a quick breakdown of what an LCSW might do depending on their job specialization and experience:
- manage social programs, like child or family welfare in communities hit hard by poverty or social inequity
- provide emotional and mental health counseling to individuals or groups
- provide counseling to couples or families to facilitate healthy relationships
- consult with physicians and other medical professionals to help their clients
- perform research tasks within social work clinical settings such as carrying out surveys
The potential responsibilities of an LCSW are varied, indeed. But most LCSWs become some kind of counselor or direct therapist to their clients.
Mental health counselors or marriage counselors are two of the most common options for these professionals.
Who uses licensed clinical social workers?
As you can imagine, people with these types of skills are incredibly valuable to society. Although our culture normally places an inordinate amount of focus and prestige on STEM careers and their accomplishments, our relationships are arguably what make life worth living in the first place. LCSWs are invaluable for helping people have better relationships and overcome mental or emotional trauma from their past.
With the help of an LCSW, a couple can have a stronger marriage than before and avoid divorce, a family can get along much better, and a community can come together and become healthier for everyone with the right initiatives. Furthermore, LCSWs help in a research capacity by taking surveys and performing other research activities in regard to social work endeavors and initiatives. Basically, they can progress the entire field of social work by figuring out what works and what doesn’t.
Here are a few ways that LCSW can concretely impact society:
- reduce the juvenile crime rate
- decrease domestic violence rates
- increase student graduation rates
- decrease single-parenthood rates
- increase efficiency of social service agencies
- increase the emotional well-being of their clients, and especially those who have suffered prior trauma
- provide long-term impacts on communities via public policy initiatives
What makes an LCSW different?
An LCSW is licensed in the state of their residence to provide clinical social work services to many of their patients. This allows them to diagnose and treat mental disorders or help patients cope with emotional life-changing events. For instance, any social worker can provide guidance to someone struggling with the onset of cancer. But only an LCSW can provide clinical advice in an official capacity. Basically, LCSWs can treat patients while regular social workers cannot.
LCSWs also differ from master’s in social work, or MSWs. An MSW has a master’s degree in the field, and this degree is required to be an LCSW. An LCSW is, in this sense, one step up from a general MSW. However, MSWs can become more research-oriented social workers rather than practical professionals, negating the need for a license in the first place. It all depends on what the individual wants to be and how they want their career to proceed.
LCSWs are not the same as psychologists, however. Psychologists require dedicated degrees and many years of training and specialization in order to gain the skills needed to practice their craft.
What are the concentrations you can have for your degree?
MSW concentrations are almost as varied as the potential careers you can pursue after graduation. Social work concentrations include but are not limited to:
- child and family development
- development in old age
- marriage counseling
- trauma therapy
- psychosocial factors on communities
What about doctoral degrees?
Doctoral degrees in social work are not necessary to become a licensed clinical social worker. Doctoral degrees are usually more attuned to the research or policymaking side of things instead of emphasizing the practical application of social work theories for client health.
Basically, a doctoral degree in social work focuses on things that wouldn’t be useful in a clinical social work setting. However, having this degree certainly won’t hurt your chances at getting licensure if you also have an MSW, though most students are forced to choose between one or the other
Don’t try to get a doctoral degree in this field hoping to improve your chances at licensure or employment.
Why do you need a license to become an LCSW?
The LCSW license is a professional certificate demonstrating the training in clinical hours and academic knowledge to provide real advice and medically sound help to patients that need immediate assistance.
It’s a lot like a doctor’s license or other types of licenses required by other medical professionals. It’s one thing to learn about social work in the various emotional traumas that LCSWs can help treat. It’s another thing entirely to gather enough experience to apply that knowledge correctly and safely.
An LCSW must acquire plenty of competencies before they can get their license, however.
What does it take to become a licensed clinical social worker?
Let’s break down the steps you need to take to become a licensed clinical social worker one by one.
First and foremost, anyone who wants to become an LCSW must first obtain a master’s degree in social work.
The requirements for these degrees vary from school to school, although they have many general requirements and common. Specifically, a master’s in social work requires:
- a bachelor’s degree, usually in a related field like psychology, social worker, or communication
- a high GPA
- test scores from the GRE and potentially other scores from further graduate-level exams
- letters of recommendation from former faculty or immediate superiors at your place of employment
- some graduate-level master’s in social work programs also require that you have some work experience in a social work context before being accepted
This ensures that only those who truly want to become LCSWs will have the opportunity to do so. These graduate programs are typically very rigorous and competitive, so you need to have a great portfolio to provide yourself with the best chance of acceptance.
MSW programs come in either online or on-campus formats, with a small number being a hybrid format that takes place both on-campus and online. Online programs usually have a higher number of coursework only classes, but they will still require you to take and complete clinical hours at a local social work organization or facility. You’ll be able to choose which facility you attend for these hours.
On-campus programs usually have predetermined social work organizations or clinics at which you can complete the required number of hours. Some MSW programs will require you to complete a thesis while others will have a capstone project instead; it all depends on the school in question.
After being accepted into a master’s program, you’ll then need to complete the program in its entirety and earn excellent grades throughout. While your grades don’t necessarily matter for graduation alone (you just have to pass), they can affect your likelihood of being hired by a social work organization or clinic.
Even after earning your graduate degree, you’ll also need to complete additional coursework based on requirements from your state. LCSW state requirements are very different from one another, although you should expect extra coursework no matter what; the only difference is what classes and how many hours. The majority of these classes are clinical hours, meaning they take place in a clinical context rather than a traditional classroom setting.
You can complete these additional hours at the same school from which you earn your master’s degree or you can take them from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).
After all of that, you’ll still need to complete several additional hours of supervised clinical experience that handles specific social work subjects. The possible clinical hours you’ll face include:
- clinical psychosocial diagnosis
- treatment of various psychosocial problems
- face-to-face individual or group counseling or psychotherapy
- client-centered advocacy
- social work research
All told, the hours can add up to several dozen in total depending on the state requirements. This means it’ll be a lot easier to complete these hours if you already have a job at a social work clinic or other organization. But if you completed a master’s in social work already, chances are good that you can find a place of employment or at least secure some volunteer hours through your connections at school or your faculty members.
Next, you’ll need to pass the required licensing exams based on your state of residence. Thus, you should check to see the licensing exams required by your state without beginning to take anything.
The licensing exam will check you for knowledge based on your coursework from school, which will cover topics ranging from aging and long-term care to spousal and partner abuse to child abuse assessment. You may also be required to take additional single classes that cover material on the exam if you’ve moved from another state recently.
If you’re lucky, your graduate program will both incorporate all of the classes required by your state exams and give you an opportunity to take the exams either during school or immediately after graduation. Otherwise, you’ll have to take care of the exams yourself on your own time.
The following exams are required to become an LCSW:
- A national clinical exam from the Association of Social Work Boards
- A law and ethics exam, the contents of which vary from state to state
If you pass the licensing test, congratulations! You’re now an official LCSW. However, your work is not yet done. In fact, it never ends! You have to renew your license within a registration period for your state of residence. This involves taking extra classes called continuing education units or CEUs. Basically, you have to take some courses I bring you up-to-date on modern social work theory and practice every so often to make sure your license remains in effect.
Licensure expiration depends on your state.
Each state has its own licensing requirements and a licensing process.
What about moving between states?
The majority of states have similar licensure requirements. But in the case where there are differences, you’ll need to complete any additional coursework or licensure requirements before taking a fresh set of LCSW exams in order to recover your license once again.
So, in total, there’s a lot you need to do to become an LCSW. You need:
- A bachelor’s degree in a related field
- Good grades
- A master’s degree in social work
- Clinical hours in social work settings
- Specific classes for state requirements
- To pass state licensure tests
- To renew state licensure tests every so often so they don’t expire
From start to finish, expect to spend 7-9 years acquiring the skills and certifications needed to become an LCSW, if undergraduate and graduate degree work is included.
Career and salary outlook for licensed clinical social workers
The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides us with valuable information regarding the salary outlooks for LCSWs and the many occupations they may be able to hold.
Let’s begin with a general social worker. Entry-level LCSWs usually don’t make much more money than regular social workers who only have a bachelor’s degree. But they do earn higher salaries as they gain experience, clients, or specialize in different fields.
The average salary for a regular LCSW is around $49,470 per year. However, particularly successful social workers can earn potentially up to $81,400 depending on their experience level and their place of employment.
Regular social workers also have a lot to celebrate in terms of job opportunities. This position is set to grow by about 11 percent over the next 10 years, resulting in a new 81,200 jobs throughout all industries. In other words, LCSWs shouldn’t have to fight one another over a few open positions at various clinics or facilities.
Social and community service managers
Because they have a master’s degree, LCSWs may also become social and community service managers. In these roles, they can become the leaders of social work organizations or clinics and can direct new social work programs or initiatives for local communities. This is a great career if the social worker in question wants to have a big impact on the wider community instead of individual clients.
Social and community service managers can expect an average salary of around $65,320 per year, with an upper range closer to $111,150 per year. Additionally, these administrators are set to experience a 13 percent job growth rate over the next 10 years, resulting in about another 21,900 administrators in all sectors. Clearly, there’s going to be a big need for these leaders in the coming decades.
Marriage and family therapists
But that’s not all. Many LCSWs become marriage and family therapists, who are social workers that specialize in conflict resolution with these types of relationships. They can practice either privately in their own offices, in the homes of their clients or in mental health centers. They enjoy an average salary of around $50,090 per year, with an upper limit closer to $82,240 per year. As you can see, there’s a lot of salary variation with this career, likely because the exact earnings depend on how many clients the therapist has and their experience level.
Furthermore, marriage and family therapists will see a massive job growth rate of a whopping 22 percent over the next 10 years. This will result in another 12,300 therapists being needed to fill projected positions. So it’s another great field in terms of job opportunities if you are already interested in this specialization.
School and career counselors
LCSWs can also become school and career counselors. Note that this may require you to take different licensure exams and earn other licenses in addition to your LCSW license depending on the state requirements. School and career counselors working colleges and career centers or in private practices to provide practical advice or therapy to those needing help in these areas.
They can expect an average salary of around $56,310 per year, with an upper limit of $94,690 per. These positions are also expected to grow by 8 percent over the next decade, which will turn into 27,200 new jobs in schools and career centers across the country.
One last potential career for LCSWs is that of rehabilitation counselor. Like with school and career counselors, you may need additional licenses or have to take additional coursework to become this type of professional, but it is an offshoot of clinical social work. Rehabilitation counselors help individuals recover from past trauma, be it mental, emotional or physical, and live independently.
The average wage for rehabilitation counselors isn’t very high at around $35,630. But you can potentially earn up to $63,820 as you collect experience and clientele. Furthermore, this professional position is expected to grow by 10 percent over 10 years, resulting in 11,800 new jobs overall.
As you can see, LCSWs don’t make into the six figures very often, but most of their positions are in respectable salaries that allow for a comfortable quality of life. Perhaps even more importantly, licensed clinical social workers are projected to be increasingly necessary over the next 10 years.
The livelihoods and emotional well-being of people across the country are more and more being placed in jeopardy, necessitating smart social work for a better society all around. In other words, LCSWs have a boon that few other job markets can claim with such certainty: job security!
Where can you work as an LCSW?
All told, it’ll take you around three years to earn your degree after a bachelor’s and complete any other license requirements to become an LCSW. So many graduates wonder how long they’ll have to wait before they can find employment.
Most LCSWs can find positions in healthcare settings throughout all 50 states. These include settings like hospitals, outpatient clinics, psychiatric centers, residential rehab centers, and halfway houses. However, most LCSW graduates will benefit from relying on their alumni network or talking to their formal faculty in order to get the proverbial foot in the door and begin their careers in earnest.
Ultimately, becoming a licensed clinical social worker is a personal decision only you can make. But this career can be extremely rewarding and provides tangible benefits to society both on the small-scale and at large, even if those benefits are often overshadowed by new gadgets or politics.
The road to becoming an LCSW is long and the license itself carries many requirements before you can count yourself among these hard-working professionals. Still, with determination and the right attitude, you can become an LCSW yourself and make the most out of what the career has to offer. Good luck!
Expert advice for aspiring LCSWs
- What is the most important distinction between an LCSW and an MSW?
- What do you think are the most important fundamental skills to become a successful LCSW?
- How does obtaining an LCSW change your career options?
What is the most important distinction between an LCSW and an MSW?
An LCSW can practice independently without the supervision of another LCSW and is capable of billing insurance agencies for mental health service reimbursement. LCSW’s are expected to have more rigorous training in clinical mental health service delivery.
How is LCSW training changing?
I can’t say that I know for sure how this is changing because every social worker has the same standards for what they need to meet to sit for the LCSW exam (3,000 work hours and 100 hours of supervision under another LCSW). Each person takes their own unique educational route to meet those requirements.
What do you think are the most important fundamental skills to become a successful LCSW?
Reflective capabilities and a willingness to continue on a path of lifelong learning. Our systems and social dynamics are always in flux, as such we social workers are charged with constantly adapting our understandings of the person-in-environment perspective to expand our lens on the world. That requires ongoing education and training in issues of group oppression and evidence based practices.
What does the future outlook for LCSWs look like?
Telehealth services are the future of our work, undoubtedly. We need to learn all we can about the technological changes being offered by various platforms and ethic issues inherent in this changing environment of service delivery.
How does obtaining an LCSW change your career options?
It expands your possibilities ten-fold by opening up new job opportunities and growing your marketable skill set. A well trained LCSW can conduct long term psychotherapy with severely impaired clients and have a major impact on their overall functioning and life satisfaction. LCSW’s work with some of the most troubled and oppressed communities in our country, and we have the opportunity to make a difference in the margins of society, the places nobody else is willing to work. An LCSW also creates the opportunity for you to become your own employer and entrepreneur, not beholden to bosses, systems, or management of any kind other than yourself.
What is the most important distinction between an LCSW and an MSW?
An important distinction between an LCSW and an MSW includes career opportunities. By being credentialed as an LCSW, the social worker has attained an important status in the mental health field. While an MSW has completed classroom and field competencies, an LCSW has proven mastery of the profession through career experiences and licensure.
How is LCSW training changing?
The licensure examination has become more challenging over time. Maintaining an understanding of current diagnostic criteria and current theories related to mental health is critical for success when completing the examination.
What do you think are the most important fundamental skills to become a successful LCSW?
The most important fundamental skills to become a successful LCSW include informed diagnostic proficiencies, and the ability to therapeutically engage systems of all sizes.