How Do I Become a Clinical Social Worker?

Explore the career requirements for clinical social workers. Get the facts about education and licensure requirements, salary, and potential job growth to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Clinical Social Work degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Clinical Social Worker Do?

Clinical social workers help people with mental, emotional and behavioral issues by diagnosing their specific problems and implementing treatments. They work with clients, who suffer from mental illnesses like depression or anxiety, to figure out what their needs are in order to develop plans to address and treat their issues. They assist with problems and changes that clients are facing, including crisis situations like abuse. Clinical social workers inform patients of community resources available to them and follow up with them to see how they're coping. They use programs and a variety of services to better meet the needs of clients and often communicate with patients' doctors to effectively coordinate treatment.

The following chart gives you an overview about entering this field.

Degree Required Master's degree
Training Required 2 years supervised clinical experience
Education Field of Study Social work
Key Responsibilities Evaluate client mental health issues and diagnose condition; devise treatment plan; provide individual or group therapy; teach patient coping skills and behavioral modification techniques
Licensure and/or Certification Clinical social workers must be licensed in all states
Job Growth (2014-2024) 19% for all mental health and substance abuse social workers*
Median Salary (2015) $42,170 for all mental health and substance abuse social workers*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Is a Clinical Social Worker?

As a social worker, you help people improve their lives by helping them solve everyday issues and cope with problems. This process could include helping someone deal with a life-threatening illness or assisting an individual with conflict resolution in family relationships. A clinical social worker is any type of social worker who has achieved the required level of education and licensing to work in a clinical setting. A licensed clinical social worker is also the only type of social worker who can provide psychotherapy services to clients.

Many clinical social workers focus on mental and behavioral health issues, which is why the terms 'clinical social worker' and 'mental health and substance abuse social worker' are sometimes used interchangeably. As of 2005, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) defined clinical social workers as the nation's largest group of behavioral health practitioners ( Thus, your job may include diagnosing and treating people with a wide range of problems, like behavioral disorders or emotional issues. You could also specialize in another area of social work, such as child and family social work or medical and public health social work.

As a clinical social worker, you might be employed at a hospital, community mental health center, school, child welfare agency, substance abuse treatment center, private practice or another other client-centered setting. You may treat individuals, families, couples and groups. In some respects, your job will be similar to that of a psychotherapist, but clinical social work is likely to involve a more holistic approach and may focus more on the clients' relationships with their environments than on internal struggles.

What Level of Degree Do I Need?

According to the NASW, you typically need a master's degree at minimum to become a clinical social worker. Although specific requirements vary by state, you generally need a master's degree from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). As of October 2016, the CSWE accredited 249 master's degree programs in social work ( It is the only accrediting body for this field in the nation recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

A bachelor's degree is typically required for entrance into a MSW program. You don't usually need an undergraduate major in social work; however, courses in psychology, sociology, social work, economics, biology and political science may be helpful. If you have a Bachelor of Social Work, you may qualify for an advanced-standing MSW program, which may take less time to complete than a typical MSW program.

What Will the MSW Program Involve?

A master's degree program in social work typically takes about two years of full-time study to complete and often includes an internship or supervised field instruction requirement. Many Master of Social Work (MSW) programs allow you to concentrate specifically on clinical social work practice. Some colleges and universities even allow you to earn your MSW in Clinical Social Work primarily online. Courses in a clinical social work MSW program include social welfare policy, organizations and communities, clinical practice with individuals and groups, cognitive-behavioral treatment, social work research and social work ethics.

What Are the Licensure Requirements?

You also need a license to practice as a clinical social worker. In addition to completing an accredited master's degree program, you typically need two years or 3,000 hours of work experience in a supervised clinical setting. The Association of Social Work Boards administers a clinical exam that states may use to qualify applicants for licensure ( However, because specific licensure requirements can vary by state, you may want to research your state's requirements before pursuing this career.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Rehabilitation counselors and school counselors are two careers that have duties similar to those of a clinical social worker and require master's degrees. Rehabilitation counselors help people who struggle with any sort of disability, whether physical, mental, developmental or emotional. They help patients work around the effects their disabilities may have on employment and daily life. School counselors help students thrive in school both academically and socially.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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