Becoming a licensed clinical social worker?

HomeSocial WorkClinical social work (LCSW)

What is clinical social work?

Clinical social work is a specialized area of social work that involves the assessment, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness. As such, a clinical social worker helps individuals deal with emotional, behavioral or social challenges that affect their quality of life. Such challenges include dysfunctional family relationships, unemployment, mental health issues, addictions, and the impact of illness, trauma or injury.

What does a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) do?

LCSWs are social workers who are licensed to diagnose and treat mental and behavioral disorders. This field of social work takes a holistic approach when working with clients and seeks to understand how the difficulties a client is having, impact on their family, financial and social lives. The steps involved include factors such as:

  • Determining the client’s emotional and psychological makeup
  • Making clinical assessments of the client’s mental health
  • Diagnosing mental illnesses
  • Evaluate societal and environmental aspects contributing to the client’s condition
  • Reviewing with the client what they see as their strengths and weaknesses
  • Helping the client change their perception of weaknesses and challenges
  • Helping the client develop modification programs to change problematic behavior or to help manage difficult circumstances

Another part of an LCSW’s responsibilities is collaborating with other medical professionals or services to help clients get the medication, services or other resources they need.

There is a wide variety of areas that LCSWs can, if they wish, choose to specialize. These include areas such as: working with mental health issues, public health, addiction, relationship counseling, children and family therapy, school social work. Some LCSWs may prefer to work solely on research, policy-making, or in an administrative position.

How do you become a licensed clinical social worker?

Licensed social work requires a graduate degree, field experience, and state licensing. Other social workers can practice with only a bachelor’s degree, but clinical social workers must have a master’s degree in social work – here you can find some of the best MSW programs. They also normally need 2 years of fieldwork to receive their state license.

Bachelor’s degree:

Holders of a bachelor’s degree in social work can work in the social service system or mental health treatment centers in entry-level and non-clinical positions.

Master’s degree:

A master’s degree permits you to work in a clinical setting and progress toward obtaining your license. You must also submit a research master’s thesis to graduate


For social workers with doctoral degrees, there are various opportunities to work as a professor or researcher. However, you will still have the same license a master’s level clinician holds, as this is the terminal degree.

What is the difference between a licensed clinical social worker and a psychologist?

Both LCSWs and clinical psychologists help patients who have mental, personal, and behavioral issues. Both are qualified to evaluate clients, diagnose mental illness, and treat patients with similar treatments that often include counseling and behavioral modification programs. An important difference is that clinical psychologists are permitted, in some states to prescribe medications for patients. LCSWs must always work with medical doctors or psychiatrists to enable patients to receive the medications they need. In addition, clinical psychologists can use psychological testing for diagnosing ailments, while LCSWs in most states are not allowed.

What certification training is required?

To become a licensed clinical social worker, you must have a master’s or doctoral degree, plus at least 2 years of post-graduate supervised clinical hours that include individual and group counseling. Each state’s stipulations differ, but the average amount of clinical hours required is approximately 3,000. You must also pass the Association of Social Work Boards national clinical exam. The clinical exam is focused on determining the candidate’s ability to deal with ethical issues, diagnoses, safety matters and best practices in clinical interventions.

Where do LCSW work?

Clinical social workers can work in a wide range of environments. LCSWs also tend to work irregular hours and may need to be on standby to call and travel to see clients. Some typical locations are:

  • child and family services agencies
  • community health centers
  • correctional facilities
  • court & forensic venues
  • eating disorder treatment programs
  • elder care facilities
  • home health care
  • hospice
  • hospital departments (various)
  • not-for-profit agencies and organizations
  • palliative and rehabilitative care
  • substance abuse and addictions clinics

Licensed clinical social workers also have the option of entering private practice.

What is the salary for a LCSW?

According to PayScale, a LCSW earns between $43,000 and $78,000 with an average annual salary of $58,509 depending on location and experience.

For more information about social workers and clinical social workers, visit:

American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work

Association for Community Organization and Social Administration

National Association of Social Workers

For more information about licensure requirements, visit:

Association of Social Work Boards

For a career video on mental health and substance abuse social workers, visit:

Mental health and substance abuse social workers

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