Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

Written by Janice Monti
Last Updated: June 2023

Are you interested in a fulfilling career that can positively affect the well-being of individuals, groups, and communities in need? Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) provide clients with direct services and connect them with essential resources to improve their lives. This guide explores the steps to becoming an LCSW, along with work responsibilities, career pathways, and salary data.

What Is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker?

Licensed clinical social workers have earned master of social work (MSW) degrees and completed the requirements to obtain professional social work licensure in their state. They provide direct clinical services to at-risk and vulnerable populations in many settings and collaborate with other social workers or healthcare professionals independently and in private practice.

LCSWs may work in specialized practice areas, including child, family and school social work, psychiatric social work, and mental health and substance abuse social work.

Key Responsibilities of an LCSW

While responsibilities vary based on employer and specialization, LCSWs may perform similar duties across settings. These typically include:

  • Case management
  • Diagnosis and treatment of clients’ mental, emotional, and behavioral conditions
  • Crisis intervention
  • Referrals to outside resources and human services agencies

Where Do LCSWs Work?

A licensed clinical social worker can pursue employment in several settings, including government agencies, nonprofit facilities, community mental health centers, healthcare organizations, and private practice.

An LCSW must hold a license issued by the state where they work. Full reciprocity for social work licensure in the U.S. does not currently exist. While each state maintains different regulations, most licensing boards accept prior training and credentials earned in another state. LCSWs may hold multiple licenses if they meet each state’s requirements.

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Steps to Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker

While specific requirements vary by state, most licensed clinical social workers complete the following steps to obtain the necessary education, supervised experience, and credentials.

  1. Complete a Bachelor’s Degree: A master of social work (MSW) is the minimum educational requirement to become an LCSW. Most MSW programs require a bachelor’s in social work (BSW) or a related field like psychology, sociology, or counseling.

    Some MSW programs admit students with non-social work majors, but a BSW can provide a head start toward earning your master’s. A BSW provides foundational knowledge and clinical experience in the field and reduces the number of credits required to complete an MSW.

  2. Earn a Master of Social Work Degree: To obtain state licensure, you must complete an MSW program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Whether you choose a traditional on-campus or online format, you will take core classes in the first year and electives and classes in your specialization in the second year.

    Supervised field experience is an important component of the curriculum. BSW graduates may qualify for advanced standing, which can reduce up to half the credits needed to earn an MSW.

  3. Complete Supervised Experience Requirements: While each MSW degree establishes specific field placement requirements, all programs include fieldwork to help students connect classroom training to practical clinical experience. Accredited two-year MSW degrees generally require a minimum of 900 hours supervised by an experienced LCSW.

    The number of hours may be reduced for students with advanced standing. LCSWs must complete additional post-MSW clinical hours to meet licensure requirements in their state.

  4. Pass the Association of Social Work Board’s Clinical Exam: To obtain an LCSW license to practice in your state, you must pass the clinical exam approved by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). The application process for the ASWB exam varies by jurisdiction.

    Typically, each candidate submits an application, receives approval from the state board, and registers to take the exam through Pearson VUE at one of their test sites across the United States. The clinical exam, which requires a $260 fee, includes 170 multiple-choice questions.

  5. Apply for State Licensure: After earning your MSW and passing the ASWB clinical exam, you can apply for state licensure. While each state board sets specific eligibility requirements for social work licensure, including fees, education, and hours of field experience, LCSW licensure typically requires two years of supervised experience after earning a master’s degree.

How Much Do Licensed Clinical Social Workers Make?

More advanced social work degrees typically deliver higher salaries. Because licensed clinical social workers have completed additional training to treat clients and offer specialized services, they make more than social workers with BSWs or MSWs without clinical licensure.

The average annual salary for LCSWs in 2023 is $63,140, according to Payscale data from June 2023. Salaries vary considerably according to years of experience, location, work setting, and responsibility level. The lowest-paid LCSWs earn an average annual salary of $47,000, while the top earners make about $84,000 a year.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that all social workers’ overall employment will grow by 9% from 2021-2031, which is faster than the average for all occupations. BLS projections also indicate that LCSWs with mental health and substance abuse specializations can anticipate an 11% job growth over the same period.

Learn more about social worker salaries and how earning power varies among different social work careers.

Frequently Asked Questions about Becoming an LCSW

What is required to become an LCSW?

Each state board maintains specific standards for licensure eligibility. An LCSW generally must complete a CSWE-accredited MSW; pass the ASWB clinical exam; and fulfill any educational, field experience, or other requirements in the state where they intend to practice.

What can you do with an LCSW license?

A licensed clinical social worker can find employment in many settings, including private practice, hospitals, government agencies, and community health centers. Specializations in fields such as school social work, forensics, and mental health and substance abuse can lead to job opportunities working with specific populations.

How long does it take to become an LCSW?

Traditional MSW programs take two years to complete with full-time attendance. A student with a BSW may enter an advanced standing program to complete the degree in one year, depending on the number of credits accepted towards the MSW.

How much does an LCSW make?

An entry-level LCSW with less than a year on the job earns an average salary of $50,710. Midcareer LCSWs with 5-9 years of experience earn $64,730, on average, while experienced or late-career LCSWs with 10 or more years of experience earn over $68,000 a year.