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  • “Online Programs”
  • “Business Degrees”
  • “Brandman Resources”
  • “Social Work”

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Social Justice

How to become a social worker in California: A guide for aspiring practitioners

Become a Social Worker in California

If you’re considering social work, you’ve likely already determined that you have what it takes. You’re empathetic, organized and a good communicator. But how exactly do you turn those skills into a career in the Golden State?

Perhaps you’ve heard that California has a rigorous licensing process for social workers. While it may seem frustrating at first — education, tests and applications — all those requirements are designed to prepare you for the work ahead. The rigor is what qualifies you to provide first-rate support to those who need it.

But before jumping in, you need to understand how to become a social worker in California. Depending on where you are in your educational journey, the path toward a practitioner title could vary. Start familiarizing yourself with the process right now.

5 steps to obtaining your California social work license 

While not every position requires you to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), obtaining this credential may significantly increases your job opportunities. We’ll cover all the necessary education, exams, and practical experience you need to get there.

1. Earn your bachelor’s degree

First things first, you will need to complete your undergraduate education. If you don’t already have a bachelor’s degree, it’s a good idea to major in social work. This education helps provide you with a solid foundation in the principals of communication, community impact and social structure.

With a bachelor’s degree in social work, you can qualify for unlicensed positions. A few examples are case managers, child welfare social workers and residential counselors. But if you want to provide psychotherapy and other clinical interventions, you’ll need to obtain a master’s degree.

If you already have a bachelor’s degree in another subject, you can still pursue a Master of Social Work (MSW). In fact, social work is a great option for career changers as you can utilize a variety of skills and benefit from diverse experiences.

2. Obtain your MSW

In a master’s program, you will explore a variety of topics and have the chance to focus on those that interest you most. In some cases, if you apply with a regionally accredited bachelor’s degree in social work, you can even accelerate your time to graduation by entering through an advanced standing program. At University of Massachusetts Global, for example, you may waive up to 30 foundational credits and complete the program in as little as a year.

To meet licensure requirements, you'll cover several foundational concepts during your graduate studies. They include:

  • Human sexuality
  • Spouse/partner abuse
  • Child abuse assessment/reporting
  • Aging and long-term care
  • Chemical dependency and alcoholism
  • California law and ethics

In addition to attending regular classes, you’ll also gain hands-on experience by participating in a practicum based on your area of interest. This allows you to practice what you’ve learned in the classroom under the supervision of a seasoned social work professional. For example, you might work with a counseling center to provide after-school coaching for at-risk youth.

No matter the practicum you complete, you’ll spend a good deal of time applying what you learn in the classroom through real-life internship experiences. Advanced standing students can expect to complete at least 600 hours in the field, while students in a traditional track will need closer to 1,000 hours.

3. Gain experience as an associate social worker (ASW)

If you want to become an LCSW, you must first apply to become an ASW through the Board of Behavioral Services. This is a temporary title that will allow you to work as a clinical social worker under the supervision of a licensed professional. The state of California requires at least 3,000 hours of supervised experience over the course of two years in a variety of areas, including:

  • Clinical psychosocial diagnosis
  • Assessment
  • Treatment
  • Individual or group psychotherapy
  • Client-centered advocacy
  • Consultation

Those two years will help you thoroughly prepare for filling a needed role. California is eager to gain more qualified social workers. According to a recent study, there is a substantial shortage of behavioral health workers — including LCSWs — partially due to a large group of soon-to-retire social workers.

As a result, the former governor signed a bill that expedites the initial licensure process. In the past, it took several weeks to get the necessary ASW registration number you need to start working. Now, you can typically earn post-graduate experience through a paying employer before receiving that number.

4. Take your exams and apply for licensure

After completing the necessary supervised hours as an ASW, you will need to pass two exams. The first is the California law and ethics exam. If you are applying from out of state, you will first need to take a course on this material. You’ll also be responsible for passing the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) licensing exam. It will contain 170 multiple choice questions, 150 of which count toward your score, in four major categories:

  • Human development, diversity and behavior in the environment
  • Assessment and intervention planning
  • Intervention processes and techniques for use across systems
  • Professional relationships, values and ethics

To help you get a sense of what you’ll need to know, take a look at a sample question provided by the examination board. After passing both exams, your background check, and paying your fees, you can apply for your license. Once you’re attain the LCSW designation, you are ready to launch your career as a social worker.

5. Decide where you want to work 

As an LCSW, you have a lot of employment options. In addition to working in private practice or supervising other aspiring social workers, you could work at a local, state or federal agency. Hospitals and mental health or substance abuse treatment centers are also common places for LCSWs to work.

Master’s-qualified social workers are in high demand. We used real-time job analysis software to examine more than 10,000 social work job postings from the last year — 64 percent of those listings required a master’s degree.*

One step at a time

Now that you know how to become a social worker in California, you can see that these compassionate professionals have a strong educational foundation that allows them to make a difference in the lives of people and communities.

To become a social worker yourself, it’s important to make sure you have the educational qualifications you need. If you haven’t yet completed your undergraduate education, check out the University of Massachusetts Global BA in Social Work program page. If you’re ready to take the next step, visit the Master of Social Work program page.


* (analysis of 10,634 social work job postings, January 1, 2019 – December 31, 2019)

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