Become a Social WorkerSeveral basic tiers of social work careers reflect the level of education and amount of social work training one has received. To become a social worker in any state, you are required to have at least a bachelor's degree for entry-level positions. More advanced practitioners need higher levels of education and professional licensure. All 50 states require social workers to be licensed to practice independently. Licensure is a regulatory measure states use to minimize abuse of social workers' professional positions and ensure proper counseling is given by qualified practitioners. Social work licensure requirements vary widely by state, so be sure to read about your state's requirements. States generally follow the process outlined below:

What is Social Work?

Social work is a broadly defined profession encompassing many different kinds of professionals who all serve people in need. The International Federation of Social Workers calls social work “an interrelated system of values, theory and practice.” Social workers are unique in the way that they look at many different aspects of a problem, from the individual to the societal, from the psychological to the political. Common ways of serving clients include providing counseling, therapy and education, as well as connecting clients to appropriate public or private resources.  Learn More.

Social Work Education

A Bachelor of Social Work is usually the minimum educational requirement for beginning your career as a social worker. Some entry-level positions may also accept candidates with a bachelor's degree in psychology, sociology, or other related fields.
  • Undergraduate Social Work Education: States require that social workers hold a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) from a school approved by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).
  • Graduate Social Work Education: States often require that social workers obtain a Masters in Social Work or a relevant doctoral degree before applying for advanced social work licensure. There are also options for pursuing your Master of Social Work online, such as the University of Southern California's MSW@USC.

Social Work Licensure

There are several main types of social work licensure, including licensure for social workers with a bachelor's degree, licensure for social workers with a master's degree and licensure for clinical social workers. Within these fields, social workers can also apply for additional credentials and certifications through the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).
  • Initial License: States often require first-time social workers to become licensed asbachelor- or associate-level social workers, often referred to as Licensed Baccalaureate Social Workers (LBSW). Upon receiving this type of licensure, social workers in most states will be required to work under the supervision of an approved Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW).
  • Master License: Social workers holding an initial license and a graduate degree in social work may become licensed as master- or graduate-level social workers, often referred to as Licensed Master Social Workers (LMSW). This type of licensure often requires both field experience and the successful completion of a standardized exam.
  • Clinical License: A clinical license is a full professional license to practice social work. Social workers holding a current license and a graduate degree in social work may become licensed as a clinical-level social worker, often referred to as Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW). This type of licensure often requires years of professional experience, in addition to the successful completion of a standardized exam.
  • License Renewal: All states require licensed social workers to pay annual renewal fees. Several states also require licensed social workers to complete a certain amount of continuing education courses for license renewal.
  • Endorsement: There is no existing structure for transferring a social work license from one state to another. States require that you submit information such as your transcripts and background information, and apply directly for licensure within that state. Test scores are usually transferable from one location to another.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker Overview (LCSW)

A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) is a licensed professional who provides services such as counseling and therapy to clients in a clinical setting. Depending on the field, an LCSW could end up working in a variety of environments such as a hospital, doctor’s office, school, clinic or client’s home. The work ranges from one-on-one sessions with clients to administrative roles. When considering the possibility of becoming an LCSW, it’s important to look into the different education options. All states require social workers to have a license, but there are different paths to licensure depending on education requirements and career goals.

Education Requirements

Those looking to start a career as a social worker can begin by earning a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). Students should confirm that the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) has approved prospective BSW programs. This ensures that the program meets a specific set of standards and that the coursework focuses on key aspects of social work, including public policy, community outreach and criminal justice. Equally important are classes that allow students to gain experience working with various populations, cultures and clients. Generally, these programs also require courses on ethics and law. The goal is to give students a broad understanding of what it means to be an LCSW. For a student planning on becoming an LCSW, earning a BSW is a great starting point, but not necessarily required.

After earning a bachelor’s degree, a social worker may become licensed as a bachelor’s or associate’s level first-time social worker via an Initial License. Social workers with an Initial License are generally called Licensed Baccalaureate Social Workers (LBSW).

Students may choose to continue their education and career by pursuing a master’s or doctorate in social work. These advanced degrees allow access to job opportunities in the industry that require the additional training offered in higher-level programs. Graduate programs delve deeper into specific issues and require fieldwork and internships for experience.

After earning an advanced degree on top of an Initial License, an LCSW candidate must sit for the exam to earn a Master License. Social workers with a Master License are generally called Licensed Master Social Workers (LMSW).

Finally, if a social worker has experience in the field, as well as a graduate degree, he or she may apply for a Clinical License, which is the professional license for practicing social workers, and become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). Even after earning this license, social workers are required to renew it every year. This generally involves fees, classes and exams. All licenses can be applied for via the National Association of Social Workers. The total cost varies depending on program and state requirements.

Job Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a social worker is $44,200, but salaries vary depending on geographical area, work environment and education level. For example, child and family social workers skewed toward the lower end of the salary spectrum, while health care social workers had the highest median salary of $52,520. The BLS projects a 19 percent growth in social work job opportunities through 2022.

Becoming an LCSW requires a level of passion for helping people and communities that goes beyond education and licensing. It’s important for social workers to plan ahead and find an education program that supports their ideal career path. Earning a degree and becoming an LCSW opens up a variety of career possibilities, all of which will allow social workers to serve populations in a much-needed and highly beneficial way.

Social Work Requirements

  • Social Work Exams: Many states require applicants to take standardized examinations administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), though some states require their own examinations in addition to or in place of ASWB examinations.
  • Supervised Experience: Documented professional experience under the supervision of a qualified LCSW for approximately two years is often a requirement for licensure beyond initial licensure, though some states require professional experience for all types of licensure.
  • Social Work Jobs: Demand is expected to increase for social workers by 2018, according to the BLS.

Changing Careers

Many social workers in the field today are entering the profession from a previous career. If you are considering changing careers, you may find social work to be a rewarding and sensible transition from your previous occupation. Social work is a helping profession. It attracts people who are interested in creating positive change in the lives of individuals, families and communities. Many professionals, such as psychologists, counselors, and public health workers, transition easily into a social work career because of the similarities between the experiences and goals of their prior positions and those of a social worker. But social work is a diverse field, and many professionals with disparate backgrounds will be surprised to learn that their previous training can help them on the road to successful social work education and employment. Once you have made the decision to transition into social work, you should consider how to receive your training and social work education to fulfill the requirements to practice in your state. Each state has its own requirements for becoming a licensed social worker, so it is important that you are familiar with the criteria in the state where you wish to work. For the working professional who has already completed an undergraduate degree, earning a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree is the best way to work toward changing careers. Not all states require that social workers have a Master of Social Work, but earning it will offer advantages in the job market. An advanced degree will help you gain expertise, skills and experience in the field before you apply for jobs. A candidate with an MSW is also more likely to find challenging and fulfilling work with higher compensation.

Further Reading