Question: How Do You Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)?

Answer: Clinical social workers are licensed at the state level and each state maintains its own eligibility requirements for those who wish to become Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs). In general, candidates must hold a master’s degree in social work (MSW) and have a minimum of 2000-3000 hours of clinical experience prior to taking an Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) licensure exam. In addition, many states require applicants to undergo a criminal background check and pass a jurisprudence exam prior to licensure.

Clinical Social Work

Clinical social work is one of the two primary areas of professional specialization within social work. A clinical social worker is a healthcare practitioner who is trained to provide direct client counseling services to individuals, families, and other social groups. In contrast, macro or community practice social workers occupy social service policy and program administration positions and typically do not consult directly with clients in a clinical setting. This distinction is important because clinical counseling requires specialized knowledge of the nature and causes of psychopathology, instruction in the identification of various behavioral and bio-psychosocial problems and disorders, and an understanding of the accepted treatment protocols for mental health issues.

Clinical social workers must be qualified to engage and intervene with individuals and families who require clinical counseling services, and to offer various types of practical assistance, which may include the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions. In order to attain the knowledge and skills necessary for this type of work, clinical social workers are trained at the master’s level in specialized MSW programs that include courses in psychopathology, behavioral science theory, and the practice psychotherapy, as well as extensive field education in clinical environments.

Licensing for Clinical Social Workers

Licensing for clinical social workers is overseen and administered by state licensing boards. Each state maintains specific eligibility criteria for clinical social work licensure, and these criteria vary by state. Individuals who meet a state’s education and training standards for licensure may apply to sit for a clinical social work exam administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). Those who achieve a passing score on the ASWB exam are then eligible to become LCSWs in that state.

It is important to note that not all MSW programs provide the necessary coursework and field education for LCSW licensure in every state. For example, some states require applicants for licensure to have completed specific courses in their master’s program. Applicants who do not meet these requirements may have to take post-graduate courses in order to be eligible for licensure in that state.

While the majority of states require applicants for licensure to hold an MSW degree, some states accept candidates who have a doctoral degree in social work. There are three states (Illinois, Indiana, and North Carolina) that extend eligibility to candidates who hold a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) from a CSWE-accredited program, provided those candidates meet other training requirements. Supervised clinical work experience requirements also vary by state, from 1600 to 6400 hours. The ASWB’s Social Work Licensure Requirements in the United States and Canada provides additional information regarding licensure for clinical social workers.

Benefits of LCSW Licensure

LCSW status confers certain privileges, including the legal right to set up an independent social work practice and provide clinical services without formal supervision. It is also typically helpful for career advancement and may be required by certain employers for specific positions. However, clinical social workers can and do practice prior to licensure and may continue to practice clinical social work in many settings without holding an LCSW license so long as they do not work autonomously or set up a private practice. It should also be noted that each state maintains its own system and nomenclature for social work licensing. LCSW is often used informally to describe what some states designate as Licensed Independent Social Workers (LISWs) and Licensed Independent Clinical Social Workers (LICSWs).

Steps to Becoming an LCSW

There are essentially three components to becoming an LCSW. The first involves meeting the state’s educational requirements, which usually consists of earning at a MSW from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and completing coursework and field education in the practice of clinical social work. The second involves gaining professional experience through a designated number of supervised direct-client-contact hours. States typically require candidates to complete at least two years of formal clinical training prior to becoming eligible for licensure. Finally, candidates for licensure must pass the ASWB exam and, in many states, submit to a criminal background check.

The licensure process can be further broken down into the following steps:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college or university in any subject area.
  2. Apply to and gain entrance to a CSWE-accredited MSW program that provides training in clinical social work.
  3. Graduates from CSWE-accredited BSW programs may be eligible to apply to Advance Standing MSW programs, which do not take as long to complete as traditional two-year MSW programs.
  4. Complete the graduation requirements for an MSW program, which should include at least 900 hours of field education in a clinical setting.
  5. Complete two years of post-graduate clinical training involving direct contact with clients under the supervision of a state-approved LCSW.
  6. Pass the ASWB exam for clinical social workers and, if necessary, a state jurisprudence exam.

The ASWB publishes additional information about the clinical social work exam and state licensure requirements for clinical social workers.


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