Learn How to Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

Written by Maura Deering
Last Updated: June 2023

Social workers can facilitate meaningful changes for people struggling with daily challenges, mental health issues, and addictions.

Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) typically earn higher salaries than non-clinical social workers. The demand for LCSWs is projected to increase due to more people seeking treatment for mental health conditions.

What Does an LCSW Do?

LCSWs can practice independently and diagnose and provide counseling to clients seeking assistance with behavioral or substance use issues. They also manage cases, refer clients to resources, and check in with clients regularly.

LCSWs help people experiencing homelessness, post-traumatic stress disorder, and alcohol and drug use problems. They can also assist children in abusive situations and unemployed workers. They fill positions at government agencies, mental health facilities, and services organizations.

LCSWs interact with people in crisis and stressful situations. They must remain calm under pressure, communicate with patience and compassion, and manage multiple cases. LCSWs must also know how to take care of themselves to avoid burnout and compassion fatigue.

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Steps to Become an LCSW

Specific licensing requirements for social workers vary from state to state, but most LCSWs need to complete these general steps:

  1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree: LCSWs start with a bachelor’s degree from a four-year institution. A bachelor of social work (BSW) is not required, but it can give you advanced standing in a master’s in social work program.
  2. Earn a Master’s in Social Work: Master of social work (MSW) programs take about two years to complete and include at least 900 hours of fieldwork. Advanced standing for BSW holders accelerates the timeline by a year or so.
  3. Complete Supervised Clinical Experience: After earning an MSW, prospective LCSWs need post-graduate, supervised clinical experience. Each state mandates the number of required hours, but license seekers should generally plan for about two years.
  4. Pass ASWB Clinical Exam: Prospective LCSWs must pass the Association of Social Work Board (ASWB) clinical examination to become licensed. The exam costs $260 and consists of 170 multiple-choice questions.
  5. Apply for LCSW Licensure: LCSW licensing processes differ between states. Candidates can learn about their state board’s application procedures through the ASWB website.

LCSW Education

LCSW licensure requires an MSW. While not a requirement for admission, a BSW can reduce the time it takes to earn an MSW by about one year.

BSW Degree

Undergraduates interested in social work careers can jumpstart their path to becoming an LCSW with a BSW degree. MSW programs admit applicants with bachelor’s degrees in any field, but candidates with a BSW can graduate sooner. A BSW from a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)-accredited program provides the foundation for an MSW.

  • Admission Requirements: High school diploma or GED certificate; minimum GPA specified by each program; SAT or ACT scores, if required; application, transcripts, personal essay, and recommendation letters
  • Program Curriculum: Coursework, including introduction to social work, human behavior, social welfare policy, and practice methods for individuals, families, and groups; supervised fieldwork; practicum or project
  • Time to Complete: Four years for first-year students; 2-3 years for transfer students, depending on number of transferable credits
  • Skills Learned: Research methods; working with individuals, families, and groups; case management; crisis intervention

MSW Degree

Prospective LCSWs graduate from a CSWE-accredited MSW program that offers a focus on clinical social work. An MSW is the minimum degree required to become an LCSW. Students devote at least 900 hours to supervised clinical field experience and complete 50-70 credits of coursework.

MSW programs generally take 1-2 years to complete. Students take core social work classes during their first year, then concentrate on clinical social work in the second year.

  • Admission Requirements: Bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university; minimum GPA specified by each program; prerequisite courses in statistics, social sciences, and natural sciences; application, transcripts, personal essay, and recommendation letters
  • Program Curriculum: Coursework may include assessment and diagnosis, cognitive group therapy, human behavior and the social environment, motivational interviewing, research methods, and treatment of traumatized populations; supervised clinical fieldwork; master’s research project
  • Time to Complete: Two years for non-BSW holders; one year for advanced-standing students with BSWs
  • Skills Learned: Working with individuals, families, and groups in specific specializations; therapeutic counseling; clinical assessment

LCSW Licensure and Certification

LCSW candidates must obtain licensure from their state social work board. Eligibility requirements for licensing include an application to the state board; an MSW program in clinical social work; post-master’s supervised field experience; and a passing score on the ASWB clinical exam.

Some states may have additional requirements, such as exams, coursework, or demonstrated competencies. State boards also require continuing education hours for license renewal.

Optional certifications are available to LCSWs from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). Certifications can indicate to employers and the public expertise in a specific area of clinical social work. LCSWs can earn credentials in addictions, case management, gerontology, and military social work. Certifications require a passing score on the applicable examination.

Clinical social work certification eligibility requires an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program, a number of contact hours (depending on credential), years of work experience, a current license, and adherence to the NASW Code of Ethics and NASW Standards for Continuing Education.

Working as an LCSW

LCSWs find positions in clinics, hospitals, and rehabilitation clinics. They work with individuals, families, and groups providing therapy and counseling and assisting with housing, employment, and social services access.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social workers specializing in healthcare, mental health, or substance misuse should see the most opportunities. The BLS projects an 11% employment growth during 2021-2031 in these areas.

Earning a NASW certification can give an edge over the competition. March 2023 Payscale data reports an average annual salary of $62,600 for LCSWs. Skills that can increase salaries include patient counseling, clinical supervision, and program development and management.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between LMSW and LCSW?

LMSWs and LCSWs both earn MSWs but differ in their scopes of practice. LMSWs can advise their clients but cannot offer counseling unless supervised by an LCSW or psychologist. LCSWs can provide clinical services, including independent counseling and diagnosis and therapeutic treatment of mental health conditions.

Can LCSWs prescribe medication?

LCSWs cannot prescribe medication. But, they may refer clients to mental health professionals who can give prescriptions, including psychiatrists and psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners (NPs). The scope of prescriptive authority for NPs varies by state.

Is being an LCSW stressful?

Social work can be stressful. Factors that may cause stress include increasingly complex social issues, heavy caseloads, and distressed clients. LCSWs can experience compassion fatigue and emotional drain. Self-care practices and supportive work environments can help alleviate stress.

Is becoming an LCSW worth it?

LCSWs earn an average annual salary of $62,600, which is higher than the average social worker salary at $51,607, according to March 2023 data from Payscale. In addition to higher pay, LCSWs can go into private practice and provide services like counseling, diagnosis, and treatment.