How to Become a Licensed Social Worker

If you visit any hospital, school, mental health facility, or nonprofit or human service agency in your community, you’re likely to find that social work plays an integral role in the services provided. Even behind the scenes, social workers fight to protect and improve the lives of vulnerable populations, including children and older adults. Social workers address mental and emotional health issues such as abuse, addiction and poverty.

Are you interested in pursuing a career in social work? If so, you’ll need to become licensed to practice social work. Two common types of licensed social workers are licensed master social workers (LMSWs) and licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs). While each of these have similar responsibilities, an LMSW is someone who has earned a master’s in social work and can pursue roles such as a caseworker, while an LCSW can pursue higher positions and engage in unsupervised clinical practices such as psychotherapy.

If you’re passionate about helping others and believe you have what it takes, this guide has information about common steps for how to become a licensed social worker.

How to Become a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

These are common steps to become a licensed master social worker, it is important to research your state’s requirements.

1. Earn Your Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree is often required for anyone pursuing a career in social work.

A bachelor’s in social work (BSW) is a common first step toward a social work career. Graduates with this degree may work in entry-level social work administration positions. A BSW may prepare students for direct-service positions as case workers or mental health assistants. BSW programs are valuable in teaching students about diverse populations, human behavior and the basics of working in social work. These programs require students to complete undergraduate-level internships.

Some students may choose to get a bachelor’s degree in a related field. Most master’s programs will accept students with a liberal arts background; however, a bachelor’s degree in a related field such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, public health, education or women’s studies will provide a good foundation.

2. Earn a Master’s Degree in Social Work

A career in social work almost always requires a master’s degree or higher. Though there are some entry-level and support positions available to those without a master’s, the options are very limited. A master’s in social work (MSW) is required to become a licensed master social worker (LMSW) in most states.

There are a variety of MSW programs available. These programs generally require a bachelor’s degree with a liberal arts foundation or a BSW. Students with a BSW can often apply to an advanced standing program, which may require fewer credit hours and internship hours, accelerating the process.

Another option for those considering social work is an online MSW degree. Many schools offer both on-campus and online MSW programs. There are well-respected programs with high-quality resources available in an online format. This could provide a level of greater flexibility for students with busy schedules.

3. Complete Social Work Internship Hours

An essential component of any MSW program is an internship. In order to get experience, students must work directly with the public. These internship experiences provide essential training with real-world social work. Most master’s programs in social work require students to do around 900 hours of field work before graduation. Both online and in-campus programs require in-person fieldwork. Social work internships can occur in a number of different settings. These include schools, hospitals, community service agencies, correctional facilities and therapy practices.

In addition to educational internships, supervised clinical work after graduation is generally required to become a licensed master social worker (LMSW). Some states may require upward of 3,000 postgraduate supervised hours. Check with your state’s social work licensing board for more detailed information.

4. Pass the Required Licensing Exams

A major component in becoming an LMSW is passing a formal licensing exam. However, before you begin the test application process, you need to check with your local licensing board regarding laws, regulations and fees.

The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) administers licensing exams that are accepted in every state and in the Canadian provinces of Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba. For exam registration, content outline, scoring and security information, visit the ASWB website.

5. Apply for Social Work Licensure in Your State

Social workers are required to have a license to practice in a clinical setting. A license allows social workers to practice as a licensed social worker or licensed clinical social worker, depending upon the state.

When pursuing social work licensure, graduates have multiple options. Graduates with an MSW can pursue a clinical license, which generally requires two years of supervised experience after completing a master’s in social work program. The LCSW designation is often required to work directly with clientele without supervision.

Alternatively a licensed master of social work (LMSW) does not require post-graduation experience. With this type of licensing, social workers can not provide direct psychotherapy independently. They may work with a LCSW or as a macro social worker. In this role an LMSW may engage in community organizing, political advocacy and more large-scale work.

Requirements for different roles and social work licensure vary substantially by state. It is important to research the requirements in your state.

6. Continued Learning and License Renewal

Lifelong learning is essential to social work. It helps you stay current with regulations and is required to renew your license. License renewal is typically required every two years. To renew your license, you’ll likely need to take formal continuing education (CE) courses in social work, though CE requirements vary by state.

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How to Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

These are common steps to become a licensed clinical social worker, it is important to research your state’s requirements.

1. Earn a Master’s Degree in Social Work

You can either complete a traditional MSW program (for non-BSW students) or an advanced standing MSW program to fulfill the licensed social worker education requirements. Many states also accept or encourage a doctorate in social work (DSW). Either way, confirm your program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. This accreditation ensures the program follows standards and competencies necessary for post-graduation work and clinical licensure in your state.

2. Complete Additional Coursework

After you earn your master’s degree, you must complete additional coursework if you want to become a licensed clinical social worker. Required courses may discuss law or professional ethics. Though required coursework varies by state, several organizations, including the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), can be resources for completing additional coursework.

3. Complete Additional Hours of Supervised Clinical Experience

How to become a licensed social worker requires completing hours of post-MSW supervised clinical work. Completing these hours provides you with valuable clinical experience related to assessment, treatment, advocacy, research and psychotherapy counseling. You’ll learn how to guide in-person therapy sessions for individuals and groups. The number of supervised clinical hours (and other specifics) vary per state.

4. Pass the Required Licensing Exams

Each state has an independent licensing board that is responsible for regulating clinical social work within its borders and determines the licensure requirements. It’s essential that you check with your state board to ensure you have completed all prerequisites before registering for your social work licensing exam, which is done through the ASWB.

The ASWB currently requires a $230 fee for the master’s exam and a $260 fee for the advanced generalist or clinical exam. Note that these fees are independent from any fees required by your state licensing board.

5. Apply for LCSW Licensing in Your State

If you’re wondering how to become a social worker, you must learn the requirements outlined by your state licensing board. Though licensure application requirements vary, most states require that you meet clinical experience expectations, complete social worker education requirements, pass the ASWB exam, complete additional coursework and submit an application fee. State-specific social work licensing requirements are addressed in the next section.

6. Continued Learning and Clinical Licensure Renewal

The number of CE units required to renew an LCSW license varies by state, as does the number of units permitted from online sources. In addition to continued education units, states generally require a license renewal fee. Check your state board to confirm continued education and license renewal requirements.

State-Specific Licensing Requirements

California

The Board of Behavioral Sciences governs social work licensure in the state of California. How to become a licensed clinical social worker in California requires the following:

  • Earn an MSW and complete additional coursework.
  • Register as an associate clinical social worker (ACSW).
  • Submit a fingerprint scan.
  • Pass a criminal background check.
  • Pass the California Law & Ethics exam.
  • Perform 3,000 supervised hours of social work over 104 weeks (at minimum).
  • Apply for and pass the ASWB’s clinical exam.

Florida

Prospective Florida social workers must become licensed through the Florida Board of Clinical Social Work, Marriage & Family Therapy, and Mental Health Counseling. To become a licensed clinical social worker in Florida, some requirements include:

  • Complete an MSW program approved by CSWE.
  • Complete social worker education requirements of 24 semester hours or 32 quarter hours in human behavior, practice methods and at least one course in psychopathology.
  • Gain supervised clinical experience as part of your master’s program.
  • Complete two years of post-MSW supervised experience consisting of at least 1,500 hours providing psychotherapy face to face, an hour of supervision every two weeks and a minimum of 100 supervised hours in 100 weeks or less.
  • Complete an eight-hour Florida laws and rules course, a three-hour HIV/AIDS course and a two-hour domestic violence course.
  • Take and pass the ASWB clinical exam.
  • Submit fingerprints and pass a background check.

New York

To become a licensed clinical social worker in New York, you must complete the steps outlined by the New York Office of the Professions. Requirements include:

  • Earn an MSW.
  • Be practicing as an LMSW (in most cases).
  • Complete at least 12 semester hours of clinical coursework.
  • Apply for and pass the ASWB clinical examination.
  • Complete a minimum of three years of “supervised experience in diagnosis, psychotherapy and assessment-based treatment planning acceptable to the Department.”

North Carolina

The North Carolina Social Work Certification and Licensure Board governs social work licensure in the state of North Carolina. To become a licensed clinical social worker, you must meet these requirements:

  • Earn an MSW, DSW or a PhD in social work.
  • Apply for and pass the ASWB clinical exam.
  • Perform at least 3,000 hours of supervised clinical practice, post-MSW.
  • Complete a minimum of 100 hours of supervision from an LCSW, with an additional two years of clinical social work practice post-LCSW.

Texas

The Texas State Board of Social Worker Examiners governs social work licensure in the state. If you’re wondering how to become a licensed social worker in Texas, refer to the board’s guidelines, some of which include:

  • Earn an MSW or DSW.
  • Pass a criminal background check.
  • Complete 24 months of full-time clinical social work practice.
  • Apply for and pass a jurisprudence exam.
  • Submit an application for the upgrade of your LMSW licensure.
  • Take and pass the ASWB clinical exam.

Virginia

How do you become a social worker in Virginia? Refer to the Virginia Department of Health Professions website. Some of the licensure requirements include:

  • Earn an MSW.
  • Apply for supervision approval.
  • Complete 3,000 hours of clinical social work.
  • Submit an application for LCSW licensure.
  • Take and pass the ASWB Clinical exam.

Washington

Washington state’s Department of Health handles social worker licensure. How to become a social worker in Washington requires you to:

  • Earn an MSW or DSW.
  • Perform at least 4,000 hours of postgraduate, supervised clinical social work (1,000 must be direct client experience and 130 must be under direct supervision).
  • Complete 36 hours of continuing education, six of which must cover law and ethics.
  • Complete four hours of HIV/AIDS training.
  • Take and pass the ASWB clinical exam.

What Does a Social Worker Do?

Social workers provide essential services to individuals, families and communities. Social workers generally serve at-risk, underprivileged and disadvantaged populations. These can include working in mental health care focusing on victims of abuse, those experiencing substance abuse disorders, older adults and people who are incarcerated to name a few.

Social workers provide support to individuals through therapy, counseling and guidance. Different social work roles require different skills and specializations. Social workers also help people who are struggling with any number of issues navigate these experiences and find the care and support they need.

What’s the Difference Between LMSW and LCSW?

Although they perform some of the same tasks, the scope of an LMSW practice is different from an LCSW. For example, an LCSW can practice psychotherapy and work in many direct-service clinical roles without supervision, including those in inpatient psychiatric centers and outpatient mental health facilities.

Different Careers in Social Work

A social worker can work in clinical settings in private practice, corporate roles, schools, health care and other positions. Different organizations have different needs of social workers. The problems addressed in a school versus those in a corporate HR department will be very different. Understanding these differences and getting specialized education to match the individual needs of these organizations. Social workers in schools are more likely to interact with families and children, while in health care they may deal primarily with older patients.

Alternatively, social workers may work in non-clinical roles. These can include macro social work and administration roles. Macro social work focuses on developing community programs and improving social support systems. This is essential work to ensure that social work is available and effective for those who need it.

Social workers have many options when choosing their specialization. Understanding the differences between these specialties is important when starting a career in social work.

Social Work Career Outlook and Salary

Currently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that the projected job outlook for social workers includes 11% growth from 2018–2028, which is much faster than the average of all other occupations. Although social worker salaries depend on educational level, licensure, certifications and experience, the median annual salary for social workers in 2019 was $50,470.

BLS salary data also shows that the lowest 10% of social workers earned less than $31,790, while the highest 10% earned more than $82,540. Salary ranges vary according to many factors, such as position, location, workplace and specialization. Earning an MSW or higher allows for licensure and an increased salary. Here are a few positions and their median annual salaries in 2019:

  • Social workers, all other: $61,230
  • Health care social workers: $56,750
  • Child, family, and school social workers: $47,390
  • Mental health and substance abuse social workers: $46,650

FAQs

How long does it take to become a social worker?

Depending on your education path, it can take six to 10 years to become a social worker. To break it down, you should expect to spend around four years completing your bachelor’s degree and two completing your master’s degree. In addition, if you want to gain licensure as a clinical social worker, this often requires two to three years of supervised experience.

How much do social workers make?

The 2019 median pay of social workers was $50,470 per year or $24.26 per hour, according to the BLS. Wages vary based on the industry in which social workers practice. The 2019 median annual salaries of social workers in some of the top industries include:

  • Local government: $55,500
  • Ambulatory health: $51,290
  • State government: $49,100
  • Individual and family services: $43,030

How much do social workers make in California?

In 2019, the average salary for social workers in California was $71,020, or $34.14 per hour, the BLS reports. This excludes health care; mental health; and child, family and school social workers. California has the highest level of employment of social workers. In addition, three California areas were noted by the BLS as top-paying metropolitan areas for social workers. The top-paying California metro areas and their 2019 annual mean wages for social workers are:

  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: $97,680
  • Napa, CA: $82,160
  • San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA: $80,980

Why become a social worker?

There are several reasons to become a social worker:

  • Connect with your community.
  • Make a difference in someone’s life.
  • Advocate on behalf of vulnerable populations.
  • Fight for social justice.
  • Pursue a meaningful health care career.
  • Help individuals overcome addictions.
  • Improve social support networks and resources.
  • Lead counseling sessions for individuals and groups.

What are the qualities of a good social worker?

Some of the qualities of a good social worker include:

  • Empathetic: You should have compassion and understanding for the difficulties your clients face.
  • Objective: You need to analyze things objectively, to prevent becoming an enabler to your clients.
  • Patient: Patience will help you deal with complex case issues.
  • Reliable: You must be reliable so your clients can count on you for advice and support.
  • Courageous: You need to have the courage to face potentially dangerous situations and stand up for your clients when they can’t.

Can you be a social worker with a sociology degree?

Yes, you can. Many students working toward their MSW have a different undergraduate degree in fields such as psychology, sociology, political science or early childhood development. You can gain entry-level social work positions with a sociology degree, but a MSW will be necessary if you want to expand your career options down the road.

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Last updated: June 2020