The field of social work is dedicated to helping individuals, families, and communities meet their needs and cope with challenges and advocating for justice and compassion for vulnerable populations.

Social workers fulfill this mission in a variety of different capacities, including as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). In this advanced position, LCSWs provide direct care to clients in settings like hospitals, substance misuse recovery centers, government agencies, and private practice.

The ‘licensed’ part of LCSW refers to a state-issued license social workers must have in order to practice clinically as an LCSW. Exact licensure requirements vary by state, but generally speaking, to obtain an LCSW license, individuals must have a Master of Social Work (MSW) or similar degree from an accredited program, a minimum number of hours of supervised clinical experience, and pass a licensure exam.

This article includes a more in-depth exploration of what an LCSW is, how licensure works, and the different paths students can take to becoming an LCSW.

What Is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker?

Within the field of social work, jobs are divided into non-clinical and clinical positions. Non-clinical roles, which require a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree, focus on administrative and management responsibilities, including program operations, policy development, and advocacy. While non-clinical social workers work with clients, they don’t provide the same kind of direct care that clinical social workers do.

Clinical social workers work directly with clients, either in individual or group settings, providing treatment and interventions for various issues. Because of the advanced skills they need and the higher level of responsibility they assume, clinical social workers must have an MSW or related degree and a minimum number of supervised clinical experience hours. They must also obtain licensure from their state regulatory board to practice as an LCSW.

Each state sets its own requirements and procedures for clinical social worker licensure, including educational requirements. Students must obtain a license from each state in which they practice. Therefore, before selecting an MSW program, it’s important to confirm that the curriculum meets the requirements for licensure in the state in which you plan to practice. LCSWs must also take steps, such as completing continuing education courses, to maintain their professional license.

LCSWs work in a variety of settings, including private practices, medical and psychiatric hospitals, inpatient and outpatient treatment centers, child welfare services, aging agencies, correctional facilities, schools, and more.

How to Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker

You have a few different options for becoming an LCSW, depending on where you currently are in your educational journey. The key to becoming an LCSW is earning an MSW degree from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and offered by a regionally accredited school. States require students to have their degrees from accredited schools and programs to ensure they’re getting a high-quality education that meets industry standards.

Students should also always check with their state regulatory board to confirm education requirements for licensure before selecting an MSW program.

Option 1: Enroll in a “4+1” BSW-to-MSW program

If you are just starting out on your post-secondary education journey and don’t yet have a bachelor’s degree, the fastest way to become a licensed clinical worker is to enroll in a “4+1” BSW-to-MSW program. This type of program enables you to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in five years of study by entering your graduate program directly following the completion of your bachelor’s degree. Some programs may also let students start taking master’s-level courses while still an undergraduate. Once students complete their MSW and their required supervised clinical hours, they are able to apply for their social work license from the state in which they practice.

Option 2: Earn a BSW and gain professional experience

Another option is to earn a BSW and gain experience in non-clinical social work roles before returning to school to complete an MSW. Some MSW programs require students to have professional experience before they can be eligible for admission. This is an ideal option for students who want to explore a wider range of opportunities within a social work career before committing to an MSW and becoming a clinical social worker. It may also be a better option for students who want to avoid taking on the time or financial commitment of a graduate degree directly after finishing undergraduate studies.

Students considering this path should ensure that they enroll in a BSW program at a regionally accredited university, as attending a nationally accredited or non-accredited school can limit their options for graduate programs.

Option 3: Pursue an MSW as a change in careers

You may be interested in pursuing a career as an LCSW but have a bachelor’s degree in a field other than social work. In this case, seek out MSW programs that are open to students of all educational backgrounds. These programs, which usually require more credits than those designed for students with a BSW, include foundational as well as advanced social work concepts and skills in their curriculum. There may also be requirements for prerequisite undergraduate coursework that students have to fulfill before enrolling in the program.

Complete supervised clinical requirements and licensure exams

Regardless of how and when you earn your MSW, the next steps toward becoming an LCSW are completing clinical supervision hours and passing your licensure exam. Clinical supervision is an opportunity for new social workers to gain real-world experience under the guidance of an LCSW, who helps them further develop their skills and practice. Many students complete clinical supervision through their job. Each state sets its own requirements for the number of supervised clinical hours an individual must have before they’re eligible to take their licensure exam, but it’s typically around 3,000 total hours.

Once students have completed this step, they must request approval from their state regulatory board to take the licensure exam through the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). As of this publication, the exam fee is $260. The licensure exam consists of 170 questions and is administered by appointment at testing centers throughout the U.S. For more information about the licensing exam and process, review the ASWB Exam Guidebook.

Explore MSW and Related Degree Programs

Social Work Career Outlook & Salary Information

Being an LCSW opens up the widest variety of options for social workers, as it qualifies them for clinical as well as non-clinical positions. Clinical social workers can provide direct care to clients through private practice, mental health care groups and platforms, government agencies, medical and psychiatric hospitals, and more.

LCSWs also typically earn more than non-clinical social workers. According to ZipRecruiter, the average annual salary for LCSWs in the U.S. is $94,158. By comparison, social workers with a bachelor’s degree earn, on average, $52,521 per year.

The social services field has a strong employment outlook in the coming decade. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that an average of 281,600 new jobs will open up through 2032.

Here are some of the common jobs available to social workers:

  • Social workers – Help individuals, groups, and families prevent and cope with problems in their everyday lives
    • Median annual salary: $55,350
    • Projected employment growth (through 2032): 7%
    • New jobs projected: 63,800 per year
  • Marriage and family therapist – Work with individuals, couples, families, and other groups to diagnose and treat cognitive, behavioral, or similar disorders in the context of relationships and interpersonal dynamics.
    • Median annual salary: $56,570
    • Projected employment growth (through 2032): 15%
    • New jobs projected: 5,900 per year
  • Licensed mental health counselors – Help individuals cope with and recover from a range of issues, including depression, anxiety, trauma, addiction, behavioral disorders, and more.
    • Median annual salary: $49,710
    • Projected employment growth (through 2032): 18%
    • New jobs projected: 42,000 per year

How to Choose the MSW Degree Program That’s Right For You

Finding the right MSW program starts with defining your specific needs and goals. Consider the following before you begin exploring MSW degree programs:

  • Do you want an online or in-person program?
  • Will you enroll full-time or part-time?
  • Do you have a BSW, or are you entering social work from a different field?
  • What specialization are you seeking?
  • In which state do you plan to get your LCSW after graduation?
  • What is your budget, and how much financial aid will you need?

Setting these parameters will help you narrow your search as you start considering the many MSW options available. You can learn more about programs by visiting their websites, talking to admissions counselors and program representatives, following programs on social media, and participating in online or on-campus open houses and information sessions.

As you research schools and programs, be sure to confirm that they are accredited by a recognized accrediting agency and CSWE. Also, confirm that the programs you’re considering meet the education requirements for LCSW licensure in the state in which you plan to practice.

Before applying, review the eligibility requirements for each program to ensure you meet them. Eligibility requirements may include a BSW or related undergraduate degree, prior coursework in social work or a related area, and professional social work experience. Programs will most likely also require students to pass a background check to ensure they’re eligible to work in clinical settings for their internship.

Confirm the program’s total cost, including tuition, fees, and transportation to clinical sites, and determine how you will pay for your MSW. Speak to a financial aid counselor for information about scholarships, grants, fellowships, student loans, and work-study to help you determine which program best fits your budget. Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for consideration for federal student aid like loans, grants, and work-study. If you’re employed while earning your MSW, find out if your employer offers tuition assistance benefits.

Social Work Frequently Asked Questions

Should I get an MSW degree online or in person?

Whether you should get your MSW online or in person depends on your personal needs and preferences. High-quality accredited MSW programs are available both online and in person. Some also offer a combination of online and in-person classes.

Many students choose online programs because they offer maximum flexibility and accessibility. This may make earning an MSW more achievable for students who are also balancing work and family responsibilities or don’t live near a school that offers an accredited social work program.

However, online learning isn’t for everyone. Students must be able to dedicate time and energy to their studies without the added incentive of regular class meetings and face-to-face interaction with teachers and classmates.

Students who prefer learning through real-time discussions and hands-on activities should consider an in-person MSW program. This is also a better option for students who want a traditional on-campus college experience.

How long does it take to complete an MSW degree?

The length of time it takes to complete an MSW degree varies based on how many credits the program requires and the pace at which students complete their coursework.

MSW degrees require 30-60 credits. Students who have a BSW may be eligible for advanced standing programs, which require fewer credits and may be completed in 12-18 months of full-time study.

Programs designed for students who don’t have a background in social work require more credits, as they must cover foundational as well as advanced coursework. These programs may take 2-3 years to complete.

Pursuing your MSW on a part-time basis will also add time to the duration of the program. When exploring programs, students should inquire about how full-time versus part-time enrollment affects the program’s completion time.

How much does an MSW degree cost? reports that the average cost of public service master’s degrees, including social work, is $72,770. However, many programs may be more affordable based on the type of institution and where a student lives.

Students can often find the most affordable MSW programs at public universities, particularly if they live in the state where the school is located. The average in-state tuition for master’s programs at public colleges in the 2021-22 academic year was $12,596, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Meanwhile, for master’s programs at private nonprofit colleges, the average tuition was $29,931.

However, what students end up paying for their MSW degree also depends on what kind of scholarships, grants, assistantships, and employer tuition reimbursement benefits they receive.

For specific information about how much a program costs and what financial aid resources are available, contact the school’s financial aid office to speak to a financial aid counselor.

Social Worker Resources

Students and social work professionals can use these resources and organizations to learn more about reputable degree programs, navigate social work licensure regulations, build their professional networks, and stay current on trends in the field.

  • National Association of Social Workers (NASW): Founded in 1955, this is the world’s largest membership organization of professional social workers and is dedicated to enhancing the professional growth and development of its members, creating and maintaining professional standards, and advancing sound social policies.
  • Clinical Social Work Association (CSWA): This organization represents, protects, and amplifies the voices of clinical social workers and promotes the highest standards of professional practice through advocacy, supporting the effectiveness of state societies, and facilitating educational opportunities.
  • Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB): This body provides support and services to the social work regulatory community to advance safe, competent, and ethical practices to strengthen public protection.
  • Council on Social Work Education (CSWE): This organization represents social work education in the United States, with more than 800 accredited baccalaureate and master’s degree social work programs and their affiliated social work educators, students, and staff, as well as practitioners and agencies dedicated to advancing quality social work education.

Learn More About Social Work Degrees