Online MSW Programs for Aspiring Clinical Social Workers

In addition to a Master’s in Social Work, to be eligible for a clinical license, a social worker must have supervision and direct client hours. It may take several years to get the experience necessary. Clinical social work is a practice area within the broader field of social work that focuses on assessment, treatment, and prevention of mental illness. Clinical social workers take on the difficult tasks of diagnosis of mental illness, emotional disturbances, and behavioral disorders.

Clinical practice requires a state license and certification of competence to practice at the clinical level. Additionally, they may provide their critical services in many settings including practices, primary care facilities, government agencies, hospitals, and community-based organizations.

Information on this page was last reviewed in January 2020.

Standards for Clinical Social Work in Social Work Practice

The following standards are adapted from the NASW Standards for Clinical Social Work in Social Work Practice guide, adopted by the NASW Board of Directors in 2005. An extended version of each standard can be found at the NASW Practice Standards & Guidelines.

  1. Ethics and Values – Clinical social workers should follow the values and ethics of the profession referencing the NASW Code of Ethics in their practice.
  2. Specialized Practice Skills and Intervention – Deepened with many different theories, clinical social workers will demonstrate competence and knowledge for effective clinical interventions with all clients.
  3. Referrals – Clinical social workers will collaborate and coordinate community services for appropriate referrals.
  4. Accessibility to Clients – Clinical social workers shall make themselves available to clients in both emergency and nonemergency situations.
  5. Privacy and Confidentiality – Information obtained by clinical social workers is confidential and private by clients unless otherwise consented by the client, as required by law, or by ethical considerations.
  6. Supervision and Consultation – Clinical social workers shall keep professional consultation and supervision accessible.
  7. Professional Procedures and Environment – Professional offices and procedures must be outlined policies for private or independent practice.
  8. Documentation – All documentation of services provided to clients must be kept in the client’s file or record of services.
  9. Independent Practice – Clinical social workers have the right to form an independent practice.
  10. Cultural Competence – Clinical social workers shall demonstrate culturally competent services in line with the NASW Standards for Cultural Competence in Social Work Practice.
  11. Professional Development – Clinical social workers have a personal responsibility to maintain their professional development in line with state requirements and the NASW Standards for Continuing Professional Education.
  12. Technology – Clinical social workers need access to the internet and to computers so they can communicate via email, search information via the Web and use the internet for education, resources and networking to maintain an efficient and productive clinical practice.

Requirements for Clinical Social Work Licensing

States assign several titles to the clinical social work profession; a common title is Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). The typical LCSW licensing requirements are:

  1. Graduating from a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited program
  2. Clinical training
  3. Passing the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exam

Educational Requirements

A bachelor’s degree can provide a basis for supervised levels of social work. Most states require a master’s degree in social work (MSW) from a CSWE-accredited institution. After graduation, applicants for a license must register as an associate clinical social worker, or similar depending on state requirements, to initiate the required field practice education.

Some states require additional coursework based on a review of the undergraduate and graduate transcripts. Some common topics for additional coursework involve human sexuality, detecting child abuse, and elder abuse prevention.

Accreditation is an important element of the educational requirement, and it is a factor that applicants and students should consider early in the process of selecting a school or online MSW program. The CSWE is the accepted and respected accreditation for clinical social work programs. CSWE accreditation has achieved broad acceptance among educational institutions, federal and state governments, public sector institutions, the nonprofit sector, and the private sector.

Supervised Practice

The requirements consist of approximately 3,000 hours, or more, of supervised clinical work. This experience may help future clinical social workers learn more in working with other professionals in the field. Fieldwork is a vital qualification for licensing that permits the independent practice of clinical social work.

State Examinations

Tests can consist of state boards exams, national exams, or some combination of exams and interviews. Each state makes a determination of testing requirements.

Coursework for Online MSW Programs with a Clinical or Mental Health Concentration

Schools each set specific online MSW degree coursework, Students should expect to cover the below-described areas of study through their online coursework.

  • Clinical assessment, diagnosis, and treatment
  • Mental health and human behavior
  • Psychodynamics and psychopathology
  • Family therapy and group dynamics
  • Evaluation of research and research methods
  • Clinical social work practice, professional practice methods, and issues affecting work with individuals, groups, and families