Becoming A Licensed Social Worker How to Get Started, Gain Experience and Earn a License in Your State

Whether serving individuals, families or communities, social workers are on the front lines, helping people better their lives and advocating for greater social supports. Social workers assist clients who are working to overcome challenges and must have high levels of training and experience to carry out their jobs effectively. Social work licensing is the key to ensuring clients receive the highest level of care possible by regulating the field and recognizing and endorsing competent and knowledgeable professionals. Learn about the steps to becoming a fully licensed social worker and discover beneficial resources to help students begin their careers.

Social Work: Licenses and Certifications

Social work licenses, administered at the state level, fall broadly into two categories: direct service and clinical. While requirements for both vary, clinical social workers typically possess advanced, broad expertise and have more stringent licensing conditions that allow them to treat and diagnose clients, while direct service professionals connect their clients to relevant programs. A number of accrediting bodies granting licensure exist throughout the country. Candidates need to identify the correct body based on their state and the type of certification mandated for their skillset. Find out more about both of these components in the following sections.

Taking the Steps to Social Work Licensure

After completing the appropriate degree course, candidates for social work licensure are that much closer to realizing their goals. Still, there are a few more steps that must be taken to gain social work licensure. Because candidates can serve clients directly and help them better their lives, states require graduates to fulfill additional requirements, such as completing supervised practice hours, successfully passing a competency exam and proving they are fit to take on clients. The following outlines the licensing process.

  • Supervised Practice

    After graduation, social work licensure candidates must complete a set number of supervised practice hours as mandated by their state and the type of license they are seeking. These factors determine both how many hours and whether or not those hours need to be direct service or clinical. Students should plan for approximately two years of full-time work. Licensure candidates should take time to review their options and pick a location with a board-approved supervisor that will propel them into a position aligned with their goals. Because social work boards set rules at the state-level, candidates must also ensure their prospective supervisor meets all the stipulations for overseeing their work.

  • Examination

    Once their supervised hours are completed, candidates must pass one of the examinations created by the American Social Work Boards. Depending on their level of education and area of specialty, candidates will either take the bachelor’s, master’s, clinical or advanced generalist level examination. These tests are administered by Pearson Vue and can be taken throughout the United States.

  • Professional Fitness Requirement

    Although the PFR is a requirement in all states, the components may vary in different locations. While some require a questionnaire and a background check, other states also mandate fingerprinting. Having a conviction or previous transgression on your record doesn’t necessarily preclude individuals from licensure; incidents are reviewed on a case-by-case basis in the state where a candidate is seeking approval.

Clinical vs. Direct Social Workers

While both these fields of social work are slated to grow by 12 percent in coming years, the direct services side tends to employ more individuals. As of 2014, more than 348,000 social workers were employed in direct service, compared to nearly 256,000 professionals in clinical social work. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts nearly 75,000 jobs will be added in the field between 2014 and 2024. Here is more information about the specific requirements of these roles.

Clinical Social Workers

Duties: Works directly with clients to provided diagnoses, administer counseling and perform psychotherapy; provides mental health therapies; advocates on behalf of their client’s needs; often works with other trained psychiatric professionals

Education: Requires a master’s level degree in social work from an accredited institution

Supervised hours: Hours vary by state and type of license, but all must complete supervised practice hours before they are licensed to work in private practice or as an employee at an organization or agency; must be completed post-degree

Licensing: All states require any professional using the title “Clinical Social Worker” to be licensed

Direct Social Workers

Duties: Identifies problems affecting the quality of life for their clients; connects them to suitable services; manages a number of cases situated in their area of expertise; provides limited counseling

Education: Entry-level roles require a bachelor’s degree in social work, psychology or sociology

Supervised hours: Hours vary by state, but most bachelor’s programs require supervised hours in a field placement or internship

Licensing: While most must be licensed, this depends on the individual state

Getting Experience in Social Work

Experience is a critical component to becoming a social worker. Students hoping to earn their license must complete practice hours as mandated by their state and desired specialization, as well as determine how much time must be dedicated to direct care versus non-clinical hours. Whether in a paid position or a volunteer role, here are some common places for candidates to complete practice hours.

  • Community health center. Prospective social workers who aspire to work with clients of many different backgrounds and areas of need can often be found in these settings, where both direct service and clinical skills are needed.
  • Counseling center. Licensees are able to offer direct clinical services at these facilities, which frequently provide counseling for numerous mental health issues. Some of the most common areas of counseling include depression, eating disorders, grief, trauma and anxiety.
  • Medical center. Be it a hospital, long-term care facility, home health agency, hospice or rehabilitation center, social workers who plan to work in these settings can gain valuable experience while also completing their mandated number of supervised hours.
  • Mental health clinics. Social work candidates who wish to work in the clinical arena are often drawn to mental health clinics, allowing them to hone their skills in therapy, diagnosis and treatment under the watchful eye of a licensed clinical social worker.
  • Nonprofit agencies. Many social workers who aspire to direct service roles elect to complete their supervised hours with nonprofits, as these settings typically allow them to develop programs and gain skills in administration, while also connecting their clients to resources matching their individual needs.
  • Schools. Child welfare is a popular area of social work, and school counselors are on the front lines, ensuring every child is receiving proper care. These types of supervised positions often also require a background check, as they involve working directly with underage clients.
  • Skype. Depending on the location, some states now allow up to 50 percent of supervised hours to be completed via webcam. This option is especially appealing for candidates who live in rural places and can’t make a long commute every day.
  • Treatment center. Many social workers are employed in areas of substance abuse or juvenile detention and may work in either for-profit or nonprofit facilities. Individuals interested in working alongside legal and correctional professionals often elect to complete their hours in these settings.
  • Independent social workers. After receiving proper licensure, many social workers elect to set up their own private practice and develop a portfolio of clients. Typically focused on a specific need or area of expertise, those who wish to concentrate their skills can do so while completing their supervised hours.

Social Work Licensures by State

Social work licenses are available based on the state where an individual plan to practice and the specific area of their expertise. While the Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW) and Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) are the most common forms of licensure, many other licenses are also available. After reviewing the following list of licenses, requirements and locations where they are administered, students should check with their state licensure board to be sure they are on the right path, fulfilling all educational and supervisory requirements.

Social Work LicenseTest, Education and ExperienceAvailable States
Certified Social Worker (CSW)Requires a bachelor’s degree in social work from an accredited school and passage of an examination determining candidates are competent to practice as a social worker; qualifies holders for entry-level roles with no psychotherapy componentNC, NE, NJ, SD, UT, WI, WY
Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)Requires a bachelor’s degree in social work from an accredited program with a nonclinical track; 3,200 hours of supervised work, including 800 hours in direct client contact; requires successful passage of ASWB advanced generalist examinationWashington
Licensed Certified Social Worker – Clinical (LCSW-C)Requires an MSW from an accredited program; 3,000 hours of supervised experience, 100 of these coming from face-to-face supervision; must also pass the ASWB clinical examinationMaryland
Licensed Certified Social Worker (LCSWMac)Requires an MSW from an accredited school with 1,000 hours of direct client contact, which must be gained within a three-year period; must pass the AWSB advanced generalist examinationMississippi
Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)Requires an MSW from an accredited school with a clinical concentration; 3,000 hours of full-time, supervised social work within a clinical setting after graduation; must pass the ASWB clinical level examination to ensure competence as an independent clinical social workerAL, AR, AZ, CA, CT, DE, FL, GA, HI, ID, IL, IN, KY, LA, MA, MD, ME, MO, MS, MT, NC, ND, NJ, NY, OK, OR, PA, RI, SD, TN, TX, UT, VA, VT, WA, WI, WV, WY
Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)Requires a graduate-level degree in social work from an accredited institution; 4,000 hours of clinical social work practice, 1,800 of these from direct clinical client contact; must pass the ASWB clinical level examinationAL, DC, MA, MN, WV
Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)Requires an MSW from an accredited school with a clinical concentration; 4,000 hours of working experience, including 1,000 hours of direct client contact supervised by an LICSW; must pass the ASWB clinical level examination to ensure minimum competenceDC, ND, MA, MN, RI, WA, WV
Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW)Requires an MSW or DSW from an accredited institution; two years of full-time, master’s level work in psychosocial assessment, diagnosis and treatment; must successfully pass the ASWB clinical level examinationIA, OH, MN
Licensed Master Social Worker – Advanced Practice (LMSW-AP)Requires an MSW or DSW from an accredited institution; two years of full-time, non-clinical practice completed post-college; must pass the ASWB clinical or advanced generalist level examinationTexas
Licensed Master Social Worker – Clinical Conditional (LMSW-CC)Requires an MSW from an accredited school; license is considered conditional and is provided to graduates in the process of completing their supervised clinical workMaine
Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)Requires an MSW from an accredited school; must pass the ASWB clinical level examination; some states require second exam and supervised working hoursAR, AZ, DC, GA, IA, ID, IL, KS, LA, ME, MI, MO, MS, OK, OR, SC, TN, TX
Licensed Master Social Worker-Clinical (LMSW-C)Requires an MSW from an accredited school within a clinical track; a state-specified number of clinical hours; must successfully pass the ASWB clinical level examinationME, MI
Licensed Master Social Worker-Macro (LMSW-M)Requires an MSW from an accredited institution; two years of full-time supervised work in a non-clinical setting; must successfully pass the ASWB advanced generalist examinationMichigan
Licensed Social Worker (LSW)Requires an MSW or DSW from an accredited program; 3,000 hours of supervised practice experience earned in four years, post-college; must take the ASWB clinical level examinationHI, IN, KY, MA, ME, MN, MS, ND, NJ, NY, OH, OK, PA, VA, WV
Licensed Specialist Clinical Social WorkerRequires an MSW from an accredited institution; 4,000 hours of supervised clinical social work earned within six years of graduation; must successfully pass the ASWB clinical examKansas
Social Service Worker (SSW)Requires a bachelor’s degree in social work from an accredited program; must successfully pass the ASWB bachelor’s level examination; some states may require partial of full completion of an MSWUtah

Additional Resources

Although graduating from an accredited social work degree program is a monumental step towards joining the field, completing mandated supervised practice hours and passing the appropriate ASWB examination is just as important for students seeking full licensure. The following list of resources was designed to help candidates determine their state exam requirements and provide helpful preparatory materials to help them succeed.

  • After the exam. Candidates wondering what happens after they’ve taken their license examination will find answers to this question and more via this resource.
  • Association of Social Work Boards. The ASWB administers all the pre-licensure examinations that must be taken before being granted full licensing.
  • Council on Social Work Accreditation. Given that any social worker who wishes to be licensed must have attended an accredited institution, understanding the purpose of accreditation is highly important.
  • Licensure Verification. Many states allow individuals to verify social worker licensing, like the Tennessee’s Department of Health. This is an important step when selecting a supervisor to complete practice hours.
  • Examination prep materials. The ASWB provides an online practice test and test prep materials for candidates who want to ensure they ace the examination.
  • Examinations by the numbers. Between January and November 2015, over 41,000 social work exams were administered. Want to learn more about the state of testing?
  • Find a test center near you. All examinations are administered by Pearson Vue, who offers a helpful search tool to help licensees find their closest exam center.
  • How does a social worker obtain a license? This guide by the University of Southern California is helpful for students starting the process of becoming licensed.
  • Intensive Licensure Preparation Tutorials. Some NASW chapters offer on-site courses to help students prepare for their exam, as shown on New Jersey’s chapter website.
  • Testing accommodations. For students with disabilities or language needs, there are a number of accommodations available for test takers.
  • National Association of Social Workers. This member organization is the largest professional social work association in the country, and advocates on behalf of licensed clinical and direct service social workers.
  • Navigating the licensing process. While all states have different guidelines, California’s Board of Behavioral Sciences provides a helpful overview of the types of requirements students should be aware of.
  • Social Work Licensure. This state-by-state guide provides a variety of resources to help students find out what they’ll need to do to be licensed in their area.
  • Social work licensure: FAQs. This helpful list of common questions addresses many of the concerns candidates have going into the process of becoming licensed.
  • State licensure statues and regulations. This website offers links to all 50 states’ requirements for licensure.
  • Examination Candidate Handbook. Before setting an examination date, every candidate should familiarize themselves with this resource.
  • The New Social Worker. This social work careers magazine provides a helpful list of 10 tips for passing the licensing examination.
  • “The who, what, when, and how of exam development.” Want to know more about how examinations are created? Look no further than this ASWB article.

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