How to Become an LCSW

Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) assess, diagnose, and treat clients with mental health conditions and behavioral conditions.

They also conduct social justice advocacy, work for societal change, and fill leadership roles. LCSWs must earn at least a master’s degree in social work (MSW).

This guide covers how to become an LCSW, including education, experience, licensure, and certification.

Steps to Become an LCSW

The process for becoming an LCSW begins with a bachelor’s degree and ends with state licensure and optional specialty certifications and credentials. The steps are often as follows:

  1. Complete a Bachelor’s Degree (BSW)
  2. Pursue a Master’s Degree in Social Work (MSW)
  3. Complete Post Degree Supervised Experience Requirements
  4. Pass the ASWB Clinical Examination
  5. Apply for State Licensure
  6. Consider Additional Certifications and Credentials

Becoming an LCSW involves benchmarks, including earning degrees, gaining experience, and getting a license.

The timeframe from BSW to licensure often spans 6-8 years. However, the field of social work is broad, and your timeline can vary depending on your goals and your state’s requirements.

Other factors may include earning a doctorate or additional certifications and whether you study full- or part-time.

LCSW Education Requirements

An MSW is the minimum requirement to become an LCSW. Most MSW programs require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree, and tend to prefer a liberal arts background with majors in areas like psychology, sociology, or social science.

BSW-holders qualify for entry-level social work in areas like aging services, mental health, and residential treatment. MSWs acquire advanced skills in psychotherapy and clinical services, management, and policy.

Bachelor’s Degree

Prospective LCSWs complete a four-year degree as a prerequisite to an MSW program. The bachelor’s degree does not have to be a BSW, but completing a BSW often enables applicants to enter their MSW program with advanced standing.

Coming in with a BSW accelerates the time to MSW graduation; BSW-holders likely have completed more credits and field experience hours than peers with other bachelor’s degrees.

Many MSW programs require a 3.0 GPA for candidates with bachelor’s degrees but may impose a higher GPA requirement for advanced standing.

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Master’s Degree

Clinical social workers need an MSW. The master’s is also the minimum requirement for independent practice.

MSWs take around two years to complete. Roughly half of the curriculum focuses on foundational, core, and specialty coursework. The other half centers on supervised field experiences at area agencies or organizations.

The hourly requirement for fieldwork can total 900-1,200 hours, depending on the program and state requirements.

Applicants may need to provide GRE scores, and accepted enrollees may be required to take comprehensive exams or complete capstone projects.

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Doctoral Degree

You don’t need a doctoral degree to become an LCSW, but earning a doctor of social work (DSW) can be advantageous.

DSW-holders qualify for high-level roles in policy, research, and supervision, and may also be eligible for university teaching positions.

Students can expect to spend at least three years earning their DSW, including coursework, residencies, and dissertations or capstones. Some programs may include internships or applying concepts learned in students’ current workplaces or volunteer practice environments.

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Complete Post Degree Supervised Experience Requirements

After graduating with an MSW, state licensure boards require post-degree supervised experience. The number of required hours varies by jurisdiction and often ranges from 1,600-4,000 hours or two years.

Requirements for post-master’s supervised experiences often specify performing clinical services or administrative duties overseen by an LCSW or certified master social worker.

Clinical services entail direct client contact conducting psychotherapy, assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health conditions. Administrative duties may include clinical supervision, program planning and evaluation, and research.

Pass the ASWB Clinical Examination

State licensure requires passing the clinical exam developed and administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB).

Registration is available online or by fax or mail. Most jurisdictions require applicants to apply for licensure and pay licensing fees to the state’s social work licensing board.

Within two days of registering, ASWB sends an authorization-to-test email, detailing how to pay the $230 – $260 exam fee and schedule a testing appointment through Pearson VUE.

To help prepare for the exam, the ASWB website has online practice tests available to registrants for $85. The practice tests have questions from past exams and use the Pearson VUE testing software.

Review your state licensing board’s requirements carefully; some jurisdictions may require additional testing.

  • Degree/Experience Required: MSW, two years of experience in a clinical setting
  • Exam Fee: $260 for clinical /generalists, $230 for ASW, BSW, NSW
  • Exam Focus: Application of specialized clinical knowledge and advanced clinical skills

Apply for State Licensure

As mentioned in the section above, most state licensure boards require candidates to apply for their licenses and pay the licensure fees when registering for the ASWB exam.

But some states only accept licensure applications after the candidate has taken the exam.

Log onto the ASWB website to check your state board of social work’s requirements and application procedures to ensure you’re following the correct process.

Consider Additional Social Work Certifications

Now that you’re an LCSW, you can opt to pursue specialty certifications from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).

You need NASW membership to earn credentials, which are available in areas that include addictions, case management, education, and healthcare.

NASW credentials are widely known within the social work profession and signify in-depth knowledge, experience, competence, and dedication, along with adherence to national practice and ethics standards.

Employers may prefer NASW-certified social workers, especially for leadership roles, and may pay them higher salaries.

Candidates apply for their credentials by submitting a downloaded application and mailing it to the NASW with supporting documentation.

Salary and Employment for Licensed Clinical Social Workers

Licensed clinical social workers are one of the highest-paying specialties in social work. This can be partially due to additional education and training requirements, and higher autonomy and responsibility.

According to March 2023 Payscale data, the average annual salary for LCSWs is $62,530. However, the actual salary can vary based on location and experience, with some LCSWs earning as little as $47,000 or as much as $83,000 per year.

The job outlook for LCSWs is strong. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that employment opportunities for social workers in healthcare are projected to increase by 11% from 2021 to 2031.

Frequently Asked Questions

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

Earning an MSW, completing the post-master’s training, and studying for and taking the licensure exam can take 6-8 years. But your specific timeline may vary depending on your academic goals and your state’s requirements.

What is the difference between an LCSW and an LMSW?

An LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker who can practice independently and conduct one-on-one psychotherapy, assessment, and treatment. A LMSW is a licensed master social worker, who provides non-clinical services, such as group therapy and coordinating care and resources, but must be supervised to perform clinical work.

What is the difference between an LCSW and an LPC?

LCSWs and LPCs are mental health professionals, but differ in education requirements, scope of practice and regulatory oversight. LCSWs have a master’s degree in social work, work with a wider variety of clients, and are regulated by state social work boards. LPCs have a master’s degree in counseling, focus on individual counseling, and are regulated by state counseling boards.

How do you maintain LCSW licensure?

State social work boards specify procedures for maintaining LCSW licensure. LCSWs should check with their jurisdiction for their requirements, which can consist of continuing education (CE) from a state board-approved CE provider.