What’s an LCSW? Learn How to Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Written by Rebecca Munday
Last Updated: July 2023

Do you want to help people with mental health or substance misuse conditions and practice at any social work level? The licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) credential allows you to do both. Find out more about how you can become an LCSW, what you can do with your clinical license, and how much you can earn as an LCSW.

What Is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker?

An LCSW is a social worker who examines, diagnoses, and treats clients with mental health and substance misuse conditions. If you want to help individuals and families experiencing these conditions, consider becoming an LCSW.

LCSWs implement programs and provide counseling for individuals, families, and groups at the micro and mezzo levels of social work. They can also advocate for policy change and community resources at the macro level. Learn more about an LCSW's responsibilities, skills, and work settings.

LCSW Responsibilities

  • Counsel clients, families, and groups through challenging situations.
  • Assess, diagnose, and treat people with mental health and substance misuse conditions according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
  • Develop and implement treatment plans and programs to meet client needs.
  • Connect clients to the resources they need to improve their circumstances.
  • Work with a multidisciplinary healthcare team.

Traits of an LCSW

  • Empathy
  • Program management and development
  • Communication and interpersonal skills
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Active listening

Workplaces for an LCSW

  • Psychiatric and substance misuse hospitals
  • Private practice
  • Outpatient care centers and offices of other healthcare providers
  • Local governments
  • Residential, intellectual and developmental disability, mental health, and substance misuse facilities

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How to Become an LCSW

Each state has its own requirements for becoming an LCSW. Check with your state's licensing board to ensure you meet the licensing requirements for your state. Typically, you need a bachelor's degree, a master's degree in social work (MSW), a passing score on the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) clinical exam, and about two years of supervised clinical experience.

  1. Earn a Bachelor's Degree: You can earn your bachelor's degree in social work or a related field, such as biology, psychology, or political science, to qualify for an MSW program. However, a bachelor's degree in social work (BSW) prepares you to enter an MSW program with advanced standing. Advanced standing allows you to earn an MSW degree in as few as half the credits.
  2. Earn a Master's Degree in Social Work: Complete at least 900 hours of field experience in generalist social work to earn your MSW. This field experience teaches you how to manage large caseloads, advocate for policy change, and perform assessments. You also learn about human behavior in the social environment and in social welfare policy.
  3. Complete Supervised Clinical Experience Hours: You need to become a licensed master social worker (LMSW), or your state's equivalent, to complete the supervision and supervised clinical experience necessary to become an LCSW. Most states require about 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience. However, your state may require you to complete as few as 1,500 hours or as many as 4,000 hours, so check with your state board.
  4. Pass the Association of Social Work Board's (ASWB) Clinical Exam: The ASWB clinical exam costs $260. The exam covers topics, such as assessment and intervention planning, psychotherapy, clinical interventions, and case management. Read their exam guide to find practice questions and exam categories.
  5. Secure Social Work Licensure in Your State: To apply for a clinical social work license, you must complete an application, pay the application fee, pass a background check, and submit any supporting documents. Supporting documents could include official transcripts, ASWB scores, and proof of your completed supervision and supervised experience.

LCSW Salary and Career Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 9% job growth for all social workers between 2021 and 2031. For social work that requires clinical licensure, such as healthcare, mental health, and substance misuse, the BLS projects 11% job growth in the same period.

As an LCSW, you can make an average of $63,880 per year, or about $34 an hour, according to Payscale data from July 2023.

Your geographic location, experience, and skills can influence your pay. Connecticut, California, New York, and New Jersey pay mental health and substance misuse social workers higher than average salaries nationwide. Experienced LCSWs earn an average of $20,000 more annually than LCSWs with less than a year of experience.

You can earn as much as 26% more than average as an LCSW if you have skills such as:

  • Program management
  • People management
  • Client intervention
  • Program development

Compare different careers and social work and how much social workers earn in our comprehensive guides.

Frequently Asked Questions about Becoming an LCSW

What is required to become an LCSW?

The requirements to become an LCSW vary by state, so check with your state's licensing board for details. You need an MSW, about two years of supervised clinical experience, a passing score on the ASWB clinical exam, a clean background check, and a completed license application.

How long does it take to become an LCSW?

Becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) takes 8-9 years. Prepare to spend 6-7 years earning your bachelor's and master's degrees in social work. Then, it takes about two years to complete your supervised clinical experience. After that, you will pass the ASWB clinical exam and apply for your license.

What can you do with an LCSW license?

An LCSW license allows you to practice clinical social work at the micro level. You can diagnose and treat mental health conditions, develop and implement treatment plans, advocate for your clients' needs, and connect clients to helpful resources.

How much does an LCSW make?

An LCSW makes an average of over $34 per hour, according to Payscale data from July 2023. This hourly salary totals to an average of $63,880 per year. You can increase your salary based on your experience, skills, location, or work setting.