Social Welfare & Justice

How to become a licensed clinical social worker

a social worker woman talking to a teenager boy

Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) provide essential mental health services to individuals, couples, groups, and entire communities. Their work is rooted in social justice, advocating for the well-being of their clients and helping them overcome their struggles.

These practitioners make up the largest group of mental health providers in the country. According to the American Board of Clinical Social Work, there are more than 250,000 practitioners currently serving millions of clients across the United States.

If you’re curious about how to become a licensed clinical social worker, you can use the information below to help guide you on your path to advanced practice.

What is a clinical social worker?

An LCSW is a licensed mental health professional who has obtained a Master of Social Work degree. Clinical social workers have extensive knowledge of psychotherapy, social development, cultural competency, interpersonal relationships, family and group dynamics, addiction, trauma, and more. They also must adhere to a strict code of ethics and commit to lifelong learning to ensure they provide the highest standard of care.

According to the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB): “The social work profession affects public health, safety, and welfare. It is regulated in the same way that medicine and nursing are — by state and provincial regulatory authorities.”

In other words, social workers must be highly trained in order to keep the public safe.

What does an LCSW do?

Clinical social workers are trained to diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders. They work with groups, families, couples, and individuals of all ages.

It’s common for LCSWs to utilize a holistic and collaborative approach when it comes to working with clients. They provide individualized care that is informed by the assortment of factors (social, environmental, economic, cultural) that may impact a person’s well-being.

These advanced practice social workers provide in-person therapy, while often offering their services in virtual settings, as needed. They can also fulfill the role of liaison by connecting clients with other resources and healthcare professionals.

How to become an LCSW in 6 steps

Pursuing a career as an LCSW requires a commitment to continued education and a responsibility to provide ethical and compassionate care. Practically speaking, aspiring clinical social workers should follow these steps:

1. Earn a bachelor’s degree

Your first step on the LCSW journey is to earn a bachelor’s degree. While a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work (BSW) will prepare you most effectively for the path ahead, a closely related undergraduate program will also suffice.

If you’re just starting out and you aren’t fully committed to the prospect of a career in social work, consider these “8 Signs a social work career is your calling” for some fresh perspective and food for thought.

2. Gain work experience

After completing a bachelor’s degree program, it’s time to gain relevant experience in the field. Most master’s programs will list hands-on work experience as a requirement for acceptance.

This can be achieved through:

  • Internships
  • Volunteer work
  • Entry-level positions in social services agencies or community organizations

    For a more in-depth look into BSW career options, read “What can you do with a bachelor's in social work?”

    3. Earn a Master of Social Work (MSW)

    Once you’ve acquired some relevant work experience, you’ll be ready to pursue a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. It’s important to seek out an MSW program that has been accredited by the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE). This will help ensure the education you receive meets all industry standards.

    4. Complete supervised clinical hours

    In addition to earning an MSW, aspiring LCSWs must complete at least 3,000 supervised direct client contact hours to become eligible for licensure. This hands-on experience is crucial in preparing you for advanced social work practice, as it gives you the chance to apply what you’ve learned and work one-on-one with clients.

    5. Obtain social work licensure in your state

    With an MSW in hand and your clinical hours fulfilled, the only thing standing between you and advanced practice social work is taking the licensure exam in your state, such as the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) Clinical Level exam.

    Once you’ve passed, you can apply to the state board for LCSW licensure. You'll need to provide documentation of your education, supervised clinical hours, test results, and anything else required by your state.

    LCSWs are required to renew their licensure periodically. Taking continuing education courses is important to ensure you’re practicing with the current information.

    6. Launch your advanced practice social work career

    According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, overall employment of social workers is projected to grow 9 percent from 2021 to 2031, which is faster than the average for all occupations nationwide. Projections indicate there will be 74,700 openings for social workers every year for the next decade.

    If you’re looking into where to apply for LCSW jobs, it’s helpful to understand that clinical social workers are employed in many settings. Consider the following:

  • Child and family services
  • Clinics, hospitals, and hospice
  • Elder care, nursing homes, and home health care facilities
  • Public and private schools
  • Criminal justice, legal service, and military organizations
  • Local, state, and federal agencies
  • Mental health and substance abuse treatment programs
  • Nonprofit, human rights, and advocacy organizations

    Put your compassion to work as an LCSW

    Whether you aspire to make a tangible impact in the lives of others or strive for meaningful personal and professional growth, becoming a licensed clinical social worker can be a rewarding and impactful path to consider.

    You can learn how to become an LCSW and change lives for the better with UMass Global’s CSWE-accredited online programs.

    Get all the information you need and more at UMass Global’s Social Work Resource Hub.

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