Become a Clinical Social Worker

By Maura Deering
Last Updated: September 25, 2020

Clinical social workers assess, diagnose, treat, and prevent behavioral, emotional, and mental issues. In order to become a licensed clinical social worker, professionals need to meet the standards set by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).

Clinical social workers must hold a master of social work (MSW) from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and a clinical social work license from their state board. Additionally, they must log 3,000 hours or two years of postgraduate, supervised clinical experience. Licensed clinical social workers (LSCWs) must pass an examination in order to receive their credentials.

According to data from U.S. News & World Report, the median annual salary for clinical social workers totals $56,200, while those in the top 25% of the field earn $70,280. Salaries for clinical social workers vary by location and setting. This page provides details on the industries and states that provide the highest wages for clinical social workers, as well as information on job duties and certification requirements.

Frequently Asked Questions

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

    NASW's definition of a clinical social worker specifies the job duties as diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of "psychosocial dysfunction, disability, or impairment." Non-clinical social workers cannot perform psychotherapy or diagnoses; they can offer guidance and connect clients with resources. Social workers may only need a bachelor of social work (BSW) to find employment, while clinical social workers must obtain an MSW.

  • Can clinical social workers prescribe medicine?

    No. Clinical social workers cannot prescribe medication in any state, nor can any type of social worker. Mental health professionals with the ability to prescribe medication include psychiatrists and psychiatric or mental health nurse practitioners, along with medical doctors and physician assistants. The prescriptive authority of nurse practitioners is restricted in some states.

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

    The typical timeline to become a clinical social worker spans about eight years. Clinical social workers usually begin by completing a four-year bachelor's degree or BSW. The following step, an MSW program, generally takes two years to complete; however, BSW-holders may be able to forego a year of study. Clinical social workers must also acquire two years of post-MSW supervised, clinical experience.

  • Is a clinical social worker a mandated reporter?

    Clinical social workers are mandated reporters. Healthcare professionals who work with vulnerable populations, such as children, fall into the category of mandated reporters. Mandated reporters must notify authorities of any suspected abuse or neglect of a child. If their jurisdiction requires it, the parents may have to be notified of the report, but the reporter remains anonymous.

Roles and Responsibilities of Clinical Social Workers

Clinical social workers perform a variety of roles and responsibilities, including conducting assessments and diagnoses, performing evaluation and treatment, and monitoring the effectiveness of treatments. Treatment can take the form of psychotherapy, interventions, and postventions on an individual or group basis. They also provide referrals for outside resources, conduct client advocacy, and collaborate with others on the client's care team.

Similarly to non-clinical social workers, clinical social workers also provide referrals for outside resources, conduct client advocacy, and collaborate with others on the client's care team. Non-clinical social workers have not been trained or licensed to conduct psychotherapy and diagnosis, which focuses their scope of practice on resource identification and referrals, client advocacy, and guidance.

Top Industries for Clinical Social Workers

Clinical social workers fill a range of patient-centered roles in numerous work settings, including aging services, child welfare agencies, hospitals, mental health facilities, substance abuse treatment programs and rehabilitation centers. They also work in primary health care centers, schools, employee assistance programs, and private practice settings.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the top industries for social workers are local government, ambulatory healthcare services, state government, and individual and family services. The BLS reports that social workers working in local government make a median annual salary of $55,500, while those in ambulatory healthcare services make $51,290; state government social workers earn a salary of $49,100, and social workers working in individual and family services make $43,030 per year.

Clinical social workers often work in the many of the same work settings as social workers, and they tend to earn more money than other mental health professionals, including therapists, counselors, and non-clinical social workers.

Top Paying States for Clinical Social Workers

According to U.S. News & World Report, clinical social workers earn the highest salary in Nevada, where they earn an annual mean salary of $82,820. California offers $76,450, the second highest salary in the nation. The third spot goes to Connecticut, which pays $72,640. The District of Columbia and Oregon round out the top five, with salaries of $72,090 and $70,830 respectively.

In Nevada, top-paying employers include the federal government and Kaiser Permanente, with salaries exceeding the annual mean wage. Kaiser Permanente also ranks high for salaries in California, along with government agencies and university health settings, paying $97,000 and above.

Top Paying Cities for Clinical Social Workers

In alignment with the top-paying states, the highest-paying cities for clinical social workers are largely located in California and Nevada. Las Vegas tops the list with an annual mean wage of $90,030. Salinas and San Jose, California pay respective salaries of $85,440 and $84,930. Clinical social workers in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, earn a competitive salary of $84,710, and those in San Luis Obispo, California make $83,660 per year.

Las Vegas and Lake Havasu City also have lower costs of living than the other three cities, allowing residents to benefit from higher earnings retention.

Salary and Job Growth for Clinical Social Workers

With a median annual salary of $56,200, clinical social workers earn more money than non-clinical social workers. Licensed social workers also benefit from more promising job growth prospects.

The BLS projects a 13% job growth rate for all social workers between 2019-2029, and reports even more favorable job prospects for clinical social workers, attributed to increased clinical healthcare spending and treatment. The BLS projects employment growth rates that are especially promising for clinical social workers specializing in healthcare, and mental health and substance abuse, at 14% and 17% respectively.

While a workforce survey from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) reports that opportunities exist for new MSW graduates without a clinical license, nearly 50% of respondents indicated having difficulty finding a satisfactory job. Respondents cited different reasons: 33% claimed inadequate compensation, 16% cited a lack of jobs in desired settings, with 11% pointing to few jobs in desired locations, and just 9% cited a shortage of positions overall.

How to Become a Clinical Social Worker

According to the CSWE survey, more than 80% of new MSW-holders already held licenses or planned to become licensed as clinical social workers within the next five years. The survey also found that eight out of 10 graduates reported that their MSW program focused on direct or clinical practice.

Although specific requirements for licensure may vary by state, becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) follows common steps. Typically, the first step consists of earning a BSW or a bachelor's degree in a related discipline. MSW programs accept undergraduate degrees in sociology, psychology, human development, and similar fields, but earning a BSW may allow for faster completion of an MSW.

The usual timeframe to earn an MSW is two years. Students should ensure that their program holds CSWE accreditation. Upon finishing an MSW program, graduates must complete around two years or 3,000 hours of supervised clinical work.

Licensing boards require applicants to pass an examination administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), and might also require a state specific exam. Social workers seeking licensure should check with their state licensure boards for any variation in requirements.

Licensure and Certification Requirements

LCSWs can also apply for NASW certification as a qualified clinical social worker (QCSW). Applicants are required to hold an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program, 30 postgraduate continuing education hours in clinical social work completed within the most recent two years, and proof of three years or 4,500 hours of paid, supervised postgraduate clinical social work experience.

NASW offers other social work credentials to its members, such as a diplomate in clinical social work. All clinical social workers can apply for certification in several specialties, including gerontology, military, and healthcare social work.