Clinical social workers are always licensed. In most states, master’s level social workers are licensed whether or not they are in clinical practice. Many states also license baccalaureate social workers. If a state doesn’t, it doesn’t mean that bachelor’s in social work program graduates can’t get jobs using skills they were taught in their classes. However, each state has the responsibility of determining the titles professionals can use and the scope of practice they are allowed.
The titles vary. Licensed Social Worker (LSW) doesn’t always mean the same thing when one crosses state lines. Sometimes it signifies baccalaureate level practice, sometimes master’s level practice. The highest level of practice is generally termed “independent”, “clinical” or “independent clinical”. They may be abbreviated LISW, LCSW, or LICSW. Some states have both an “independent” and “independent clinical” category. The paths may begin to diverge during the student years.
Prospective social workers at any level should enroll in CSWE accredited programs. Most states require that U.S. candidates have degrees from programs that hold CSWE accreditation or have candidate status. The latter is granted to programs that are just beginning; such programs need to demonstrate success before they are granted full accreditation. There are states that do not accept candidate status, however. They will either hold off on licensing a candidate or award only a provisional license until the accreditation process is complete.
An undergraduate degree in another field does not disqualify anyone from pursuing a social work license. The person with an undergraduate degree in another field will need to pursue a CSWE accredited master's degree, which most social workers will do anyway, to be eligible for social work licensure.
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At the master’s level, programs vary a good deal. They all include a core of generalist courses, but may prepare professionals for different advanced practice roles. In some states, program choice plays a direct role in determining license category down the line. The clinical license may be tied to having clinical coursework and a clinical practicum. In many states, though, the distinction is not made until the post-graduate period.
After graduation, a would-be clinical social worker must practice under board-approved supervision. Requirements vary, but a candidate can expect to do at least two years of full-time work (paid) before receiving the higher credential. In many states, the same holds true for nonclinical master’s social workers. A few states require baccalaureate social workers to complete board approved supervision; workers may be given a lesser title until they finish their training.
The supervision that is required for licensing is different than the standard employer-employee supervision. There is generally a minimum number of direct consultation/ supervision hours that a professional must have (and document). Licensing boards can be very particular about the qualifications of the person who sits down with the supervisee, reviews their treatment plans and diagnoses, and guides their professional development. Many stipulate that the clinical supervisor must be an LCSW and not a mental health practitioner with other licensing. Some allow at least some of the supervision to be done by another qualified professional like a psychologist or psychiatrist. Most states allow the trainee to contract with a licensed social worker if there is not an appropriate person at the worksite. There may, however, be extra regulations (and paperwork).
All states have adopted ASWB licensing examinations. There are four levels: bachelor’s, master’s, clinical, and advanced generalist. Some states use them all, requiring the master’s exam at the onset of practice and the clinical or advanced generalist after supervision requirements are complete. However, some require only one exam.
The professional fitness requirement may have several components. Sometimes it’s just a matter of answering questions and consenting to a background check. In some states, fingerprints are required. Social workers who have been licensed in other jurisdictions will need to have their state board(s) fill out license verification forms.
A criminal conviction or past infraction does not always mean that licensure will be denied. It can depend on the seriousness of the crime and other circumstances or mitigating factors.
The National Association of Social Workers’ ACSW certification is not the same as licensing. It does not grant the legal authority to practice. In most cases, it is just an added badge of accomplishment. However, there could be instances where it would make it easier for a social worker to receive the independent license in a new jurisdiction. (The certification depends on, among other things, supervised practice. Some states note that they accept the credential as evidence that a candidate has met their own requirements for supervised practice.)