How to Become a Clinical Social Worker
Are you interested in utilizing a holistic, strengths-based, social justice oriented approach to improve the well-being of individuals, families and groups? Then a career as a clinical social worker might be a good fit for you!
According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), “Clinical social work is a specialty practice area of social work that focuses on the assessment, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness, emotional and other behavioral disturbances.”
Individual, group and family therapy are common treatment modalities utilized by clinical social workers. Clinical social workers work in various settings to include private practice, hospitals, primary care, community mental health, schools and other agencies to name a few. Clinical social workers may work as directors, managers, psychotherapists and case managers.
Clinical Social Workers must be licensed at the clinical level in their state of practice to perform these services. You must have a master’s degree, complete supervision hours, complete additional coursework (if applicable) and pass the clinical social work exam to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Want to know more about what it takes to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)? Keep on scrolling!
To become a clinical social worker, you must have a Master’s Degree in Social Work (MSW) from an institution accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Once you complete your Masters degree, you must then become licensed as a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW, LGSW or LSW). You can obtain many rewarding jobs with a LMSW to include case management in a variety of settings, hospice and home health. Many social workers only pursue the LMSW as it opens many doors.
However, for clinical social work careers like psychotherapy or counseling, the LMSW is considered a provisional license as you must practice under supervision until you obtain your clinical social work license, which allows you to practice independently and bill insurance for services provided.
To become a LMSW, you must take the “Master’s” exam offered by The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). The cost of the exam is $230. Once you pass the test, you can apply for licensure with your state licensing board. Many boards require your exam scores, which can be sent directly to the board by ASWB, your graduate transcript, an application and application fee.
To be approved to take the LMSW exam, contact your state licensing board. Many boards require your transcript, completion of an application and payment of fees. Once required items are received, the state board will send you an approval letter and will notify the ASWB that you have been approved for the exam. Once you receive your approval letter, you can schedule your exam at a local testing center through the ASWB.
The Master’s exam is a general exam that covers multiple areas of social work practice to include macro topics such as policy and community organizing and micro topics such as human development, assessment and intervention planning. There are various resources available to help you prepare for the LMSW exam to include books, courses, apps, online and in person study groups. I used the Pocket Prep LMSW app primarily and benefited from taking the exam a few weeks before I graduated since I applied to take the exam with the South Carolina state board. South Carolina allows MSW students to take the exam prior to graduating with a letter from your MSW program’s Dean certifying that you are in your final semester of your MSW program.
Some states have different provisional licensure processes. For example, in North Carolina you can take the clinical exam, instead of the Master’s exam, upon graduating with your MSW if you plan to pursue licensure as a clinical social worker. After passing the clinical exam, you become licensed as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker Associate (LCSWA) and must complete 3,000 hours of paid supervised clinical practice and 100 hours of supervision. After completing supervision, you can apply for the clinical social work license.
It is best to consult your local board or the board in the state you wish to practice to confirm what steps you need to take to obtain provisional licensure.
Supervised Practice Requirements
Once you become licensed as an LMSW (or whatever provisional licensure your local board issues), you can then begin taking steps to become a licensed clinical social worker. First, you must be employed full or part time in a clinical social work capacity. Social, medical and governmental agencies count as clinical settings. You must complete a specified number of hours of supervised clinical practice (3,000-4,000) and a specified number of hours of supervision (100-120). Both the clinical practice hours and supervision hours must happen concurrently within a given time frame. This information is available on your state board’s website.
During supervision hours, your supervisor may ask you to present a case that you are working on for review. Your supervisor will provide feedback and guidance or may ask you questions to help expand your thought process regarding the case you presented. My supervisor and I used social work ethics, theoretical models and DSM-5 criteria as reference points when reviewing cases.
After working in a resident primary clinic for the past 3 years, I like to compare this process to a medical residency. Once medical students complete medical school, they must complete at least 3 years of residency depending on speciality. Residency is essentially a practice period supervised by attending physicians, followed by board exams. This is very similar to the clinical social work licensure process.
Embrace the supervision process! Assessing and treating mental health issues is serious business that has a huge impact on someone’s life. Although it may seem long, as most boards mandate that supervision must take place in a 2-6 year period, try to see it as a process that increases your knowledge and legitimacy in the important fields of health and mental health.
How to Find a Supervisor
So you’ve decided that your ready to begin clinical supervision. Awesome! When seeking a supervisor, make sure that your supervisor is approved by your state board to provide supervision. Depending on jurisdiction, supervisors must have a supervision credential, years of experience and sometimes must take supervision courses.
Many state licensure boards provide a registry of approved supervisors online. This is how I was able to find my supervisor. I reached out to her via email to confirm that she was still providing supervision services and then we met at a local bookstore to determine if we would work well together.
Be sure to talk to your supervisor about the cost of supervision. Many supervisors charge by the hour for supervision. The cost can add up quickly considering you will need anywhere from 100-120 hours of supervision. Make sure that the rate fits into your budget. My supervisor charged $30/hour. She gave me a discount if I paid monthly. I paid $105/month for 4 sessions. This is how I paid for all 100 of my supervision hours for a total of $2,625.
Supervision is a big investment both money wise and time wise. It requires sacrifice and discipline that will pay off in the long run both in job prospects and salary.
Some employers offer free supervision in exchange for a commitment to stay at the organization for a specified period of time. Check with your employer to see if this is an option or ask about it during your job interview process.
Group supervision is another affordable option. You can only complete a specified portion of supervision hours in a group setting. Follow up with your state licensing board to confirm how many hours can be completed in a group and how many must be completed one-on-one.
Once you have identified a supervisor, your state board may require you to submit a supervision contract. The contract will detail where you will meet, how often and will confirm that your are practicing in a clinical setting. The contract form will be available on your state board’s website.
The board will notify you once your contract has been approved. When you receive this notification, you can begin supervision!
Best Practices During Supervision
Establish mutually agreed upon guidelines, expectations and goals.
My supervisor and I agreed that my supervisor would take detailed notes each meetings (I also took my own notes). My supervisor typed the notes and we would both sign them after reviewing.
It was my responsibility to prepare case presentation for review for each session.
We also developed a cancellation policy and tardy policy.
We included cost of supervision in our guidelines also.
Stick to a regular schedule.
I met with my supervisor every Friday at 5 PM.
Keeping a regular schedule will help you develop a routine and plan your schedule around supervision.
My supervisor and I both kept a supervisor binder. I had a DSM-5 guide, cheat sheets about theoretical models, and my notes and supplemental documents from each session in chronological order in my binder.
My supervisor and I both tracked the number of sessions completed by keeping a checklist and numbering our session notes by session.
Some jurisdictions may require you to take additional coursework prior to taking the clinical social work exam and obtaining the clinical social work license. For example, South Carolina requires Psychodiagnostics, Psychopathology and Social Work Ethics course work. Since I took psychodiagnostics in my MSW program at The University of Georgia, I was given credit for this course. I was able to take online courses through the University of South Carolina in Psychopathology and Social Work Ethics. The courses cost $250 each for a total of $500.
Local universities, private companies and licensed clinical social workers offer courses required for clinical social work licensure. Be sure to confirm that the entity providing the course is approved by your state board to provide these courses to ensure that you will be given credit for these courses in pursuit of your clinical social work license. You can also earn Continuing Education Credits (CEUs) for these courses if the entity has approval from the board toward your current license.
The Clinical Social Work Exam
Congratulations, you’ve completed your supervised practice hours, supervision hours and additional course work (if applicable). Now you’re ready to take the clinical exam. You must be approved by the board to take the clinical exam. You will need to submit proof that you completed your supervision hours. In South Carolina, my supervisor had to complete an application and a summary statement about the course of our supervision. Consult your board to confirm what steps you will need to take.
When you are approved to take the clinical exam, the board will notify you and ASWB of your approval. You can then pay for the clinical exam ($260) and schedule your exam with ASWB.
There are multiple resources available to help you prepare for the exam. I used the Pocket Prep LCSW app, viewed health and mental health videos by the Khan Academy and I purchased the practice exam directly from ASWB. Although the practice exam cost $80, I felt that it was worth my investment as the practice test is simulated exactly like the official clinical social work exam.
There are also in-person and online study groups and test prep courses available.I joined a few groups on Facebook. This is how I discovered the Khan Academy. Members share study resources and sometimes post practice questions.
It is important to consider your learning style and budget when preparing for the exam. I am a visual learner so the free Khan Academy videos worked well for me. Like a true millennial, my phone is always in my hand or close by so the Pocket Prep app was handy (pun intended). I did pay $20 for additional practice questions on the Pocket Prep app and $80 for the practice test as both fit into my budget. The ASWB also has free resources to include an outline of Knowledge, Skills and Abilities (KSAs) covered on the clinical social work exam.
The clinical exam is administered at an approved testing site by computer. You will receive your score, and unofficial score report immediately after completing the exam.If you do not pass your exam the first time, you can retake in 90 days. You got this!
Applying for the Clinical Social License
Woo hoo! You passed you clinical social work exam! ASWB will send your test scores to the board. The board will then issue your license. You will receive notification when your license has been issued.
Some states use different names/acronyms for the clinical license. For example, in South Carolina, where I am currently licensed, clinical social workers are called Licensed Independent Social Worker in Clinical Practice (LISW-CP). In Washington D.C., clinical social workers are called Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW). You can find the name and acronyms used in your state of practice on the board’s website.
Regardless of the name/acronym, your hard earned credential will allow you to improve the well-being of individuals, families and groups using a holistic, strengths-based, social justice oriented approach!
The clinical social work license is the highest level of licensure available in the social work profession. There are other certifications and degrees that you can pursue to include the Doctorate in Social Work and Clinical Social Work Diplomat. However, practice wise, this is the highest credential.
In closing, the clinical social work license qualifies social workers to engage in the assessment, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness, emotional and other behavioral disturbances . There are many steps to earning the clinical social work license to include:
Earning your MSW
Obtaining your LMSW (or relevant provisional license)
Completing supervised clinical work hours and supervision hours
Taking additional coursework (if applicable)
Passing the clinical exam
Earning your clinical social work license is a significant time (2-6 years) and financial (up to $5,000+) commitment that will enhance your skills as a clinician, increase your job prospects and earning potential by $5,000-$10,000. Best of luck in your social work career and clinical licensure journey.
As highlighted in the article, clinical licensure requirements vary by state. If you have to move to another state after earning your clinical social work license, follow up with that state’s board to determine if you will be offered reciprocity or have to take additional steps for your license to be recognized:
Information of Social Work Licensure by State:
Information about Social Work Licensure Exams:
Find Accredited Social Work Degree Programs:
Test Prep Resources:
Information about the Social Work Profession:
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