How to Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker

How to become a licensed clinical social worker

A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) can help assess, diagnose and treat different types of mental health issues, including emotional and behavioral challenges. There are a range of LCSW requirements for how to become a licensed clinical social worker, which may vary by state and the type of work you do. The path you choose for how to become an LCSW depends on your education and the type of clinical setting you wish to work in. 

What Is an LCSW?

You may be wondering what is an LCSW, especially since there are different types of social work and settings where they practice. In general, LCSWs are specialists who are trained to support people dealing with social, mental health and emotional issues. An LCSW may assess and diagnose individuals to help determine the best treatment path. They provide treatment and support based on the needs of the patient. 

Licensed clinical social workers may work with individuals or groups, including providing family therapy. LCSWs work in many different settings, including private practice, community organizations such as hospitals and with government agencies. Having a license to practice is one factor that differentiates an LCSW from other types of social workers. 

LCSW Requirements

Licensed clinical social worker requirements may vary, but all states require a license to practice. Many states require even nonclinical social workers to be licensed or certified. The conditions of licensure vary by state, but typically include having a master’s degree in social work or a similar field such as psychology or sociology. 

Additionally, LCSW requirements most often include some type of supervised clinical experience in which you’ll work in a clinical setting to gain real-world experience. For example, LCSW requirements in New York mean social workers must have at least three years of supervised clinical experience before seeking licensure.

Since LCSW requirements vary by location, you may want to visit the Association of Social Work Boards for detailed information about your state’s regulatory requirements and process.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker Education

Licensed clinical social worker education requirements vary based on the licensing regulations in your state. In some, you may need a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field along with a period of supervised training. In other states, a master’s degree in social work or a related field may be required to be eligible for clinical training and licensure.

Even in states where a bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement, some employers may insist on a higher degree. Be sure to check for official information on becoming an LCSW in your area before pursuing any degree program.  

5 Steps to Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker 

If you’ve looked into how to become an LCSW, you may have discovered it’s a multistep process. While the steps for how to become a licensed clinical social worker can vary depending on the state, they essentially come down to the following: 

  • Complete your bachelor’s and master’s degree in social work or a related field as allowed by your state’s requirements.
  • Complete all LCSW requirements as outlined by your state, which may include a period of hands-on work and supervised practice. 
  • Apply for your license through the appropriate agency.
  • Take and pass the licensing exam.

While licensed clinical social worker requirements for education and training may be similar in every state, there are differences. Be sure to check with your state’s oversight agency to determine the specific requirements. 

Step 1 – Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree 

Licensed clinical social worker education requirements generally include advanced degrees. LCSW requirements often start with having a bachelor’s degree in social work or in a related field such as psychology or sociology. In some cases, a bachelor’s degree may make you eligible for some entry-level administrative work, social work or similar mental health and wellness roles. 

Step 2 – Complete a Master’s Degree

A master’s degree is typically part of licensed clinical social worker education requirements. Check with your state to learn about the minimum requirements, but remember that organizations may have different standards. For example, the minimum social worker education requirements to work in some government agencies may be a master’s degree. This may be the case even if state law allows you to take the exam with a bachelor’s degree. For this reason, it may be beneficial to obtain your master’s in social work.

Step 3 – Complete an LCSW Licensing Examination

Passing a licensing exam is required to become a clinical social worker in all states. LCSW certification and licensure may also be required for nonclinical social workers. To be eligible for the social work license exam, apply with your state’s licensing board. The board verifies you’re eligible to take the exam by making sure you’ve met all education and training requirements. If eligible, you have to pay a fee and take the exam. The ASWB has information on each state’s licensure boards

Step 4 – Social Work License Requirements by State

You may need to meet different social work license requirements by state before applying for your license. It is a good idea to keep these in mind as you work on fulfilling your education and training requirements. For example, LCSW requirements in New York include obtaining a master’s degree in social work and completing training in identifying and reporting child abuse.

One way you might do this is to check with your state’s regulatory board to make sure you’re on track. The ASWB provides links to each state’s regulatory information, along with a tool that allows you to look up and compare license requirements.

Step 5 – Work as an LCSW

After you’ve met all licensed clinical social worker requirements and passed the state exam, you are eligible to work as an LCSW. You may then be qualified for a range of jobs from starting a private practice to working with government agencies, private companies and medical providers. You’ll want to identify opportunities that match your degree level.

What Does a Licensed Clinical Social Worker Do?

Exactly what does a licensed clinical social worker do? The answer varies based on what path you decide to take in the field. In general, an LCSW helps people in an individual or group setting to identify and cope with mental health, emotional and behavioral issues.

So what does an LCSW do? Some of your responsibilities as an LCSW may include:

  • Perform clinical assessments of patients.
  • Create, implement treatment plans and assess progress.
  • Consult with other professionals in the care and treatment of patients.
  • Maintain detailed records as required by law.
  • Respond to crisis situations.
  • Provide psychotherapy services.

If you would like to help communities or underserved populations more broadly, you may consider a more general social work career. Learn how to become a general social worker instead.

LCSW Salary

As an LCSW you have the opportunity to help people through their most difficult times. A licensed clinical social worker’s salary may vary based on several factors, but the median social worker salary was higher than the median salary of all other occupations in May 2020 ($51,760 per year versus $41,950), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). What’s the highest LCSW salary one might hope to earn? The top 10 percent of social workers earned $85,820 annually, the BLS reported.

As with any career, your ability to earn a higher salary comes down to a variety of factors, including your education, experience and the type of organization for which you work. It is clear, however, that there is potential in the field to earn an above-average salary while helping people as an LCSW.

LCSW Job Outlook

The LCSW job outlook is strong, according to the BLS. Job outlook includes unemployment rates along with projected growth for job opportunities within the field. 

Overall employment of social workers is projected to grow 12 percent from 2020 to 2030, according to the BLS. Job outlook varies by specialization, with projections for mental health and substance abuse social workers to grow 15 percent during this period. Both low unemployment and high growth mean that the LCSW job outlook is strong and expected to continue to grow. 

How to Become a Licensed Social Worker FAQs

If you’re interested in learning how to become a licensed clinical social worker, you probably have questions about the process. For instance, exactly what are the LCSW requirements and how long does it take to get your license? We answer these and other common questions about what it takes to launch a career as a licensed clinical social worker.

How long does it take to become an LCSW?

Exactly how long does it take to become an LCSW? Training requirements may vary among states. For example, in New York, you must complete 2,000 hours of post-degree, supervised training to be eligible to take your licensure exam, according to 

What is the difference between LMSWs and LCSWs?

A licensed master social worker (LMSW) and a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) are two career options you can pursue after earning a Master of Social Work. The main difference between LMSWs and LCSWs is the application of your degree. An LMSW is more for people looking for a career in case management within an organization. An LCSW license includes direct clinical training with individuals often in a clinic setting. 

Whether or not you choose to continue on after earning your MSW degree and become an LCSW, there are many opportunities for social workers to make a positive difference in people’s lives.