Licensing Process To Become a Social Worker

A Licensed Social Worker is a Staple To Public Health

You’ll need to get a license depending on what type and level of social work you want to practice. Different states have different requirements, but all aspiring social workers can benefit from the following information that generally overlaps nationally.

The social work profession – helping people in need – is as old as human civilization. Since the industrial revolution, the advent of large communities of people, and the advent of the psychology in the 19th century, social work has become a specifically defined field in its own right.

How To Become a Social Worker

To work as a social worker you’ll need to be licensed by your state; right now there is no national system for earning a social work license.

Common state regulatory agencies that license social workers are a state’s Social Worker Board or a state’s Department of Health and Human Services.

The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) maintains a directory of each state’s social work licensing authority. You can find your state’s specific licensing requirements by navigating to the homepage of its social work licensing authority.

Education is key to becoming a social worker. 36 states require at least a bachelor’s degree, usually in social work (BSW), to be eligible for a social work license. 10 additional states require at least a master’s degree in social work (MSW) to be licensed.

States also often specify a minimum number of hours of relevant experience you’ll need to have accrued before you can be eligible for licensure, typically earned as part of an education program.

Most states also require that you pass a social work exam before you can earn your license. These exams could be created by your state’s Social Work Board or by a national social work organization that’s recognized by your state’s board. One of the most common national social work organizations that sponsors state-board-recognized exams is the ASWB.

Social work career opportunities are projected to increase over the decade leading up to 2028 by 11% –“much faster than average for all occupations”– according to the US Department of Labor. There’s no time like the present to start working towards a career in social work!

The Social Work License

You’ll need to get a license depending on what type and level of social work you want to practice. Different states have different requirements, but all aspiring social workers can benefit from the following information that generally overlaps nationally.

States issue different social work licenses through their individual state licensing boards. You can find a link to your state’s licensing board and more state-specific information through this directory maintained by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB).

States determine their own licensure levels, titles, and associated scopes of practice. This can be confusing if you’re trying to understand this at the national level. To make it easier, think of social work licenses as being offered based on successive levels of education and experience; and they’re always issued by your state’s licensing board.

To earn a license you’ll likely need a degree in social work. Importantly, nearly all state boards require the education program you complete to be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). This is the national organization that represents social work education, and currently accredits more than 750 bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. The CSWE maintains an online directory of all accredited programs in the nation.

There are different types of social work licenses, and it’s up to states to define the scope of practice and requirements for each one. The process for becoming licensed usually goes something like this:

  • Earn a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or Master of Social Work (MSW) degree from a CSWE-accredited program.
  • You may need to obtain additional specialized education from a state board-recognized national social work organization or school.
  • Pass a specific exam or earn a credential for the license you want. These are often sponsored by a national social work organization.
  • For many licenses states often set a minimum-hours-of-practice requirement.

National exams based on levels of education – NASW vs ASWB

There are two main national social work organizations that sponsor exams and certifications commonly required by state boards for different types of social work licensure:

  • National Association of Social Workers – NASW
  • Association of Social Work Boards – ASWB

    The ASWB explains that basically across the nation, states tend to have four levels of social work licenses, and it offers certification exams corresponding to each level:

    • Bachelor’s-level social work licenses that generally require a BSW
    • Master’s-level social work licenses that generally require an MSW
    • Advanced Generalist-level social work licenses that generally require an MSW plus two years (2,000 hours) of post-master’s supervised experience
    • Clinical-level social work licenses that generally require an MSW plus at least two years (2,000 hours) of post-master’s direct clinical social work experience

    The NASW takes a slightly different approach and offers tailored credentials earned based on membership with the NASW, hours of social work experience, level of education, and even passage of ASWB exams. You’ll need to have the following levels of education in order to be eligible to earn these credentials:

    The Bachelor Degree in Social Work

    A Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) is the entry-level requirement for social work careers in fields like substance abuse and child-family services. Additional education is typically required for clinical social work, but many BSW programs offer shortened bridge programs into graduate study. Every state has its own licensing process for different types of social work positions, and every state requires that the BSW program be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) if a license is required. The CSWE requires BSW programs it accredits to include at least 400 hours of field education. The four-year BSW is generally comprised of two years of liberal arts courses, and these can often be substituted for with an associate’s degree. The latter two years of a BSW program focus specifically on the field of social work. Getting into a BSW program means having at least a high school diploma or GED, along with meeting minimum GPA requirements.

     

    State board bachelor’s-level (BSW) social work licenses

    Most states have BSW-level social work licenses. These license titles are commonly:

    • Licensed Social Worker (LSW)
    • Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
    • Registered Social Worker (RSW)
    • Certified Social Work Case Manager (C-SWCM)
    • Social Worker in Gerontology (SW-G)
    • Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Social Worker (CHP-SW)
    • Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families – Social Worker (MVF-SW)
    • Certified Children, Youth, and Family Social Worker (C-CYFSW)

    The Masters Degree in Social Work (MSW)

    A Master of Social Work (MSW) is often the entry-level credential for careers in clinical social work, and some states even require an MSW to work generally as a social worker. The social work licensure process is determined individually by each state. When an MSW is required for a specific license, every state mandates that the degree program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). The CSWE requires the MSW programs it accredits to include at least 900 hours of field education. It’s common for MSW programs to prefer prospective students who have a BSW or related degree –and they can offer accelerated completion options for BSW holders– but many also offer admission spots for candidates who have a bachelor’s degree in any field. MSW programs typically take around two years of full-time study to complete.

     

    • Certified Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Social Worker (C-CATODSW)
    • Certified Advanced Social Work Case Manager (C-ASWCM)
    • Qualified Clinical Social Worker (QCSW)
    • Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology (CSW-G)
    • Certified Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Social Worker (C-CATODSW)
    • Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW)
    • Diplomate in Clinical Social Work (DCSW)
    • Certified School Social Work Specialist (C-SSWS)
    • Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology (CSW-G)
    • Advanced Social Worker in Gerontology (ASW-G)
    • Certified Social Worker in Health Care (C-SWHC)
    • Advanced Certified Hospice and Palliative Social Worker (ACHP-SW)
    • Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families – Advanced Social Worker (MVF-ASW)
    • Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families – Clinical Social Worker (MVF-CSW)
    • Certified Advanced Children, Youth, and Family Social Worker (C-ACYFSW)

    Four states –Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, and South Dakota– have associate’s-level social work licenses. Additionally Massachusetts is the only state in the nation to license social workers whose only education is a high school diploma.

    State board master’s-level (MSW) social work licenses

    All states license social workers at the MSW-level. An MSW is the minimum requirement for licensure in 10 states. Common license titles are:

    • Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)
    • Licensed Certified Social Worker (LCSW)
    • Licensed Social Worker (LSW)

    States whose entry-level social work license is at the MSW-level are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.

    State board master’s-level (MSW) clinical social work licenses

    All states except one* have a separate license for clinical social workers, and all states require at least an MSW to earn a clinical social work license. Common license titles are:

    • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
    • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
    • Licensed Specialist Clinical Social Worker (LSCSW)

    The Doctorate Degree in Social Work (DSW)

    A doctorate of social work (DSW) of PhD in social work can naturally often be substituted for an MSW.

    A Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) is the highest level of education in its class. In some states it fulfills the educational requirements for the most advanced social work positions requiring a state-issued licensed. DSW programs tend to focus on clinical practice as opposed to PhD Social Work programs that emphasize research. DSW programs usually take at least three years of full-time post-master’s study to complete and involve a strong off-campus clinical study component. Unlike BSW and MSW programs, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) currently does not accredit DSW programs, a policy that is under review until at least June 2020. In addition to the typical academic requirement of holding an MSW or closely related degree for admission, it’s common for DSW programs to also have an experience requirement.

    Get licensed and start practicing

    Once your state board has issued your social work license you’ll be ready to start your career in earnest. You’ll likely have already developed ties through academic internships and clinical experience while a student.

    The NASW and the CSWE both maintain virtual career centers that are good sources for job leads.

    While you’re busy advancing in your career don’t forget that your state probably requires you to maintain a certain amount of continuing education every year. Demonstrating this is often a requirement for renewing your social work license.