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Clinical Social Worker: Career and Salary Overview


Many people in our society encounter challenges that they can't overcome with their own resources. Children in precarious home situations, for instance, need assistance to find something more stable. Veterans might struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder or medical costs, while homeless people might not have a way to apply to jobs on their own.

Social workers aid all of these people through local government agencies, mental health clinics, or individual and family services organizations. They manage client cases, connect clients to resources, and conduct regular check-ins to ensure clients are on the right path.

Clinical social workers take on the added responsibility of mental health guidance and can diagnose patients with certain behavioral, mood, or substance abuse disorders. Clinical social workers can also provide counseling services to these clients.

Clinical social workers receive a median annual wage of about $56,200, according to data from U.S. News & World Report. Specific career and salary information varies considerably based on factors like location and industry. You can learn more about those specifics by reading this guide.

Frequently Asked Questions

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

Social workers and clinical workers work similar jobs, but clinical social workers take on responsibilities that non-clinical workers legally cannot. All professionals in this field can connect clients with resources and offer case management services. However, only clinically licensed social workers can provide treatment through counseling.

Can clinical social workers prescribe medicine?

Although clinical social workers can diagnose patients with substance abuse or behavioral disorders and provide counseling treatment, they cannot prescribe medication. When it comes to connecting clients with the proper medication, they must refer their patients to licensed medical professionals with prescriptive authority.

How long does it take to become a clinical social worker?

It generally takes at least eight years, comprising a four-year bachelor's degree and two-year master's degree, to become a licensed clinical social worker. Candidates then spend 2-3 years working in supervised positions before they can apply for licensure. Factors like enrolling in accelerated programs or studying part time affect aspiring social workers' timelines.

Is a clinical social worker a mandated reporter?

Yes. A mandated reporter must report any suspected child abuse or neglect when carrying out their jobs. Much like teachers, law enforcement officers, and childcare providers, clinical social workers fall into the mandated reporter category.

Top Industries for Clinical Social Workers

In general, the top-paying industry for social workers is local government. In this industry, social workers make a median annual salary of $55,500, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) figures. Professionals who worked for ambulatory healthcare services made annual earnings of about $51,290, more than the overall median salary.

According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), clinical social workers can find employment in a variety of places. Their work remains integral at hospitals, community health centers, schools, substance abuse recovery and treatment programs, and many other similar organizations.

Top Paying States for Clinical Social Workers

Location can have a significant impact on employment opportunities and salary figures. Clinical social workers tend to earn higher salaries in states closer to the coasts where living costs remain higher.

According to data from U.S. News & World Report, Nevada ranked as the top-paying state for clinical social workers; professionals make a mean annual income of about $82,820 in the state. California ranked second, where clinical social workers earned a mean salary of $76,450. Other high-paying locations include Connecticut, Washington, D.C., and Oregon, where clinical social workers make an average income of nearly $71,000-$72,600.

Top Paying Cities for Clinical Social Workers

The city or town where one lives also factors into how much a clinical social worker can make. Generally speaking, professionals living in larger metropolitan areas earn more than those in rural areas, where the cost of living remains lower.

U.S. News & World Report found that the top-paying city for clinical social workers was Las Vegas, where clinical social workers make an average salary of $90,030. Other cities where clinical social workers earn high salaries include Lake Havasu, Arizona ($84,710) and three California cities: Salinas ($85,440), San Jose ($84,930), and San Luis Obispo ($83,660).

Salary and Job Growth for Clinical Social Workers

Clinical social workers earn a median salary of $56,200 -- that's about $6,00 more than all social workers as an industry. In general, social workers make a median annual salary of $50,470, according to the BLS.

Still, many entry-level social workers feel unsatisfied with their wages. Even though they can find employment, the jobs don't necessarily align with their career goals, and their salaries were somewhat lower than what they expected.

That's according to a 2018 workforce survey from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). This report found that 33% of recent master of social work (MSW) graduates did not feel they earned enough compensation, and 16% said they did not find a job in their desired area.

Nevertheless, the job outlook for clinical social workers continues to look optimistic. The BLS projects that the number of social workers may increase by 13% from 2019 to 2029. Additionally, job prospects seem especially positive for clinical social workers, who can offer treatment to a population increasingly turning to counseling services.

For anyone curious about additional resources, you can find more in-depth information on social work careers and social work salaries.

How to Become a Clinical Social Worker

The majority of MSW graduates plan on becoming licensed clinical social workers, according to a CSWE workforce survey. In fact, 80% of survey respondents planned on earning their licensure and working as a clinical social worker within the next five years. In addition, about 81.5% of MSW survey respondents said their MSW focused on direct or clinical practice.

Earning an MSW, though, counts as only one step in becoming a clinical social worker. The requirements to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) vary in each state, although they typically follow the same blueprint.

First, students must complete a bachelor of social work. This traditionally takes about four years. After graduating, they can enroll in an MSW program, which usually lasts two years. Upon completing their education requirements, social work candidates participate in at least 3,000 hours, or about two years, of supervised work experience. Some states might require three years instead. LCSW candidates must also pass a national exam.

Given all of these steps, it usually takes LCSW candidates at least eight years of education and supervised experience before they can officially work as clinical social workers.

Licensure and Certification Requirements

When entering the industry, aspiring social workers can choose between four different types of social work licensure. Clinical social workers opt for LCSW licensure, which involves the most educational and experience requirements. State requirements vary, so candidates should check with their state licensing board for specifics.

In addition, clinical social workers can obtain professional certification. They do not need certification to practice. However, it can add a degree of credibility to their resume and boost their profiles when applying to jobs.

One popular type of certification is the Qualified Clinical Social Worker (QCSW) credential from the NASW. Candidates need an MSW, 30 contact hours of postgraduate continuing education, three years of postgraduate work experience, and an active social work license. Clinical social workers can also earn certifications specializing in gerontology and substance abuse.