LCSW - Licensed Clinical Social Worker

The LCSW: A Staple to Social Work

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) is the top-level credential for social workers in states across the nation. LCSWs can generally work everywhere that a Licensed Social Worker (LSW) can, as well as independently and in more advanced higher-level positions.

Role of Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) vs Licensed Social Workers (LSWs)

The common differences between Clinical Social Workers and Social Workers are:

  • Clinical social workers can work independently without supervision, while LSWs often must be supervised or work within an agency.
  • Clinical social workers have more experience and education than LSWs, with LSW typically being an entry-level social work credential.
  • Clinical social workers can use advanced psycho-therapeutic and counseling techniques combined with in-depth medical knowledge to address the mental and emotional health issues of individuals, families, and groups, while LSWs are only permitted to use generalized techniques to address broader less-specialized issues.

Clinical social workers can specialize in a wide range of social work sub-fields including:

  • Mental health
  • Substance abuse
  • Marriage and family counseling
  • Education and school counseling
  • Medical social work
  • Public health
  • Policymaking
  • Research
  • Higher education

How to Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

Becoming a clinical social worker typically requires three things:

  • A master’s degree in Social Work (MSW) from a school that’s accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
  • A set number of years of supervised experience in clinical social work –often two or three years, or 3,000-to-4,000 hours– and this often has specific requirements for face-to-face client contact and direct supervision
  • Passing the Clinical exam from the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB)

Because every state can define the scope of practice for clinical social workers differently, as well as the licensing/experience requirements for obtaining an LCSW, it’s important to check with the exact social work regulations in your own state that are developed by your state’s board of social work.

Education Prerequisites for Becoming a LCSW

There are two main pathways for becoming a clinical social worker: advancement from being a Licensed Social Worker, and direct-entry.

Advancement from being a general social worker

Many clinical social workers start out as general social workers.

Becoming a general Licensed Social Worker (LSW) typically requires a bachelor’s degree in Social Work from a CSWE-accredited school and passing the ASWB’s Bachelors exam.

As an LSW you can often fulfill some of the supervised experience requirements needed to become a clinical social worker.

You’ll still need to earn a master’s degree in Social Work (MSW), and many MSW programs can be completed while you work. In fact, it can be advantageous to have real-world experience as a social worker while you’re studying in an MSW program, and MSW programs may even integrate your studies with your on-the-job experience.

However in regards to fulfilling your state’s supervised experience requirement, most require you to have a significant amount in clinical social work after you’ve earned your MSW.

When your MSW is completed and you’ve fulfilled your supervised experience requirements you’ll typically be eligible to take the ASWB Clinical exam and become a clinical social worker once you pass it.

Direct entry

You can also become a clinical social worker by entering the field starting with a master’s degree in Social Work (MSW).

The academic prerequisites for acceptance into a CSWE-accredited MSW program are often an undergraduate degree in any field. Though there’s relevant natural overlap if you earn a bachelor’s degree in related fields like:

  • Social Work
  • Psychology
  • Child Development
  • Sociology

Internships and field placements are a part of any good MSW program and these will help you accrue the necessary supervised clinical social work experience required by your state to become a clinical social worker.

Once you’ve earned your MSW, many states have provisions that allow you to work as a social worker to gain your requisite hours of supervised clinical work experience, upon which time you can register to take the ASWB Clinical exam and become an LCSW upon passage.

For states that don’t have this provision, you’ll need to work in the capacity as an LSW until you’ve met your state’s supervised clinical social work experience requirements.

Taking and Passing the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) Clinical Exam

You’re generally eligible to take the ASWB Clinical exam once you’ve earned your MSW degree from a CSWE-accredited school, and have fulfilled your state’s requirements for supervised clinical social work experience.

Step One – Typically the first step in registering for the ASWB Clinical exam is taken with your state’s board of social work. You submit your application for the LCSW credential to your state’s board of social work, and your state board will contact the ASWB to let them know you’re eligible to take the Clinical exam.

Step Two – Once the ASWB has received your authorization to test from your state’s board of social work, you can register to take the Clinical exam with the ASWB. You can find a detailed description of this process in the ASWB’s Examination Candidate Handbook. You can register with the ASWB online, by fax/mail, or by phone at (888) 579-3926.

Step Three– The exam is proctored by the third-party testing company Pearson Vue, which also maintains the testing sites. After you’ve registered with the ASWB they will send you information about the final registration process you must complete with Pearson Vue where you select your testing location, date, and time. You can type your zip code in here to find the testing local nearest you.

About the ASWB Clinical Exam

The test is a computer-based, four-option multiple-choice exam consisting of 170 questions. There’s a four-hour time limit. Currently the ASWB Clinical exam costs $260.

The Clinical exam is divided into four main sections:

  • Treatment planning, assessments, and diagnoses – 30%
  • Intervening clinically, psychotherapy, and case management – 27%
  • Human diversity, development, and behavior – 24%
  • Ethics and professional values – 19%

You can find a full outline of the ASWB Clinical exam here.

Impact of LCSW in the Community

Holding an LCSW credential opens the door to independent practice and advanced clinical social work positions with non-profits, schools, mental health clinics, and drug addiction treatment centers, to name just a few.

While statistics on clinical social workers are not tracked nationally, numbers for MSW degrees are, and those are one benchmark for measuring the growth of clinical social workers.

The percentage of social workers earning an MSW degree versus a bachelor’s degree in Social Work (BSW) is steadily increasing. Since the year 2000 the number of MSWs has risen by 55%. In 2015 nationwide there were 26,329 MSW degrees awarded versus 21,164 BSWs. In fact, 45% of social workers nationwide hold an MSW or higher, and that number is increasing.

The impact of clinical social workers on local communities is a ripple-effect felt throughout all strata of society. As clinical social workers increase their numbers nationally, especially in light of recent demands for a greater societal emphasis on social justice and well-being rather than barrel-of-a-gun heavy-handed policing and criminalization, we’ve seen positive developments like:

  • The public high school graduation rate has increased from 79% in 2011 to 85% in 2017
  • Arrests for juvenile crime are down from a high of 8,476 in 1996 to 2,167 in 2018 (per 100,000 people)
  • Juvenile gang murders are down by over 50% from 673 in 2010 to 308 in 2018
  • Rates of non-fatal domestic violence fell by 63% between 1994 and 2012

The net gains to local communities because of clinical social workers are immeasurable and invaluable. There’s no time like the present to join the honored ranks of clinical social workers and make your mark in your local community.