How to Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

Becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) is a process comprising several important steps, including completing a master’s-level degree program in social work and acquiring the correct licensing in your state of practice. Below is an overview of some common steps you can take if you are interested in pursuing a career in clinical social work.

Becoming a licensed clinical social worker requires you to:

  1. Complete a Bachelor's Degree
  2. Pursue a Master’s Degree in Social Work (MSW) or MSW-equivalent program
  3. Complete a LCSW Licensing and Examination Requirements
  4. Apply for LCSW State Licensure
  5. Renew Your License
  6. Advance Your Career Through Continued Learning

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If you are not sure what a licensed clinical social worker is, what they do, or how much they make, check out our LCSW FAQ at the bottom of this guide.

1. Complete a Bachelor's Degree

Many social workers earn a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related discipline before entering the field, however, it is not necessary. Learn more about your options:

  • Bachelor of Social Work (BSW): If you know you want to be an LCSW, studying social work during your undergraduate studies can provide you with relevant foundational knowledge. Typical coursework covers human behavior, social welfare policy and more.

    A BSW degree is the minimum requirement for many but not all social work positions. According to the Council on Social Work Education, all accredited BSW degree programs require at least 400 hours of supervised field experience. Those hours allow students to get an idea of what engaging with a client is like. With a BSW, you can later choose to enroll in an advanced standing Master of Social Work program as opposed to a traditional Master of Social Work program.

    There are online BSW programs available for people with personal obligations that make in-person learning impossible.
  • Non-BSW Pathway: If you aren’t entirely sure about becoming an LCSW, you may study other subjects such as sociology, psychology or human development for your undergraduate degree. You can still move on to pursue a Master of Social Work without a BSW.

2. Pursue a Master’s Degree in Social Work (MSW) or MSW-equivalent program

Obtaining a Master of Social Work (MSW) is necessary for licensure as a social worker. Like the BSW, there are two pathways to earning this degree. Both depend on whether you majored in social work as an undergraduate.

  • Master of Social Work (MSW) Pathway (for non-BSW grads): After earning your undergraduate degree, the next step is an MSW. To obtain licensure in some states, you’ll need to earn a degree from an accredited program. So, make sure you confirm that your program of choice is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, meaning that it meets the standards and criteria required for providing the best education and practices.

    MSW programs allow students to specialize their education and, in some cases, take on supervisory roles upon graduation. MSW programs are typically two to four years and require a minimum of 900 hours of supervised field instruction. Review our complete list of online Master of Social Work programs.
  • Advanced Standing MSW Pathway (for BSW grads): Graduates with a BSW degree may be eligible for an advanced standing Master of Social Work program, which typically allows them to complete their MSW in one year. These programs may have stricter admission criteria. Be sure to check your desired program’s admissions requirements. Some advanced standing MSW programs are offered online.

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3. Complete LCSW Licensing and Examination Requirements

Clinical social work licensure is regulated at the state level. Each state has its own licensing board that determines the specific requirements for clinical social work licensure. It's important for students interested in becoming LCSWs to make sure the graduate social work program and concentration that they choose meet the licensing requirements for their state of residence or the one they wish to practice in. In general, a Master of Social Work (MSW) from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education is required to become an LCSW in all 50 states.

Future LCSWs should note that earning this designation typically requires a passing score on a state-determined licensure exam and hours of professional experience, in addition to completion of a CSWE-accredited MSW program.

Current LCSWs who move to a different state may have to complete additional requirements in order to transfer their licenses. It is important to check state requirements before making a move.

4. Apply for LCSW State Licensure

As previously stated, licensure depends on your state of residence and the board-specific licensing requirements. The entire process to become an LCSW requires a considerable commitment post-graduation—completing an MSW program is just one part of the process.

LCSW Licensing Requirements by State

Below is an overview of LCSW licensing requirements in six states. These states have been included on this page simply to demonstrate how licensing requirements vary based on an aspiring LCSW’s geographical location.

Disclosure: All state requirements for social work licensure were retrieved as of 7/21/2020. Make sure to double-check licensing requirements with the state board, along with the program you are currently enrolled in or wish to enroll in.

How to Become an LCSW in California - Board of Behavioral Services

  1. Complete an MSW and additional coursework on topics such as child abuse assessment, human sexuality and spousal/partner abuse.
  2. Register as an Associate Clinical Social Worker (ASW).
  3. Take and pass the California Law & Ethics exam.
  4. Complete a live scan and pass a criminal background check
  5. Complete 3,000 supervised hours of social work over 104 weeks.
  6. Apply for and pass Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) clinical examination.
  7. Become an LCSW in California.

Earn your Master of Social Work and prepare for the LCSW/LMSW licensing exam. Complete in as little as 12 months with a BSW. Learn more information directly from MSW@USC.

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How to Become an LCSW in New York - Office of the Professions

  1. Complete recognized MSW program.
  2. Complete coursework/training in the identification and reporting of child abuse.
  3. Apply for and pass the ASWB examination.
  4. Become a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW).
  5. Complete at least three years of post-MSW supervised experience.
  6. Apply for and become an LCSW in New York.

Earn your Master of Social Work online from Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service. Learn more information directly from OnlineMSW@Fordham.com.

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How to Become an LCSW in Texas - Texas State Board of Social Worker Examiners

  1. Earn an MSW degree (60 semester hours of coursework, 900-hour practicum).
  2. Pass a national exam to earn an LMW license.
  3. Complete 3,000 clock-hours of full-time employment experience.
  4. Complete 100 hours of direct supervision with a plan and a supervisor approved by Texas State Board of Social Worker Examiners.
  5. Pass a national advanced clinical examination from the ASWB.
  6. Pass the Texas Jurisprudence examination from the state of Texas.
  7. Apply for and become an LCSW in Texas.

Learn how to ethically integrate faith and social work practice in as few as 12 months. Learn more information directly from OnlineMSW@Baylor.

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How to Become a Licensed Social Worker (LSW) in Ohio - Ohio Counselor, Social Worker, Marriage and Family Therapist Board (CSWMFT)

  1. Hold an undergraduate degree in social work or a related field.
  2. Complete an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program.
  3. Have a minimum of two years post-MSW and post-LSW experience and 150 hours of supervision.
  4. Apply for Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW) application, which is valid for two years.
  5. Take clinical or advanced generalist exam for LSW.
  6. Pass the board’s online laws and rules exam, valid for one year.
  7. Take the ASWB exam.
  8. Become an LSW.

Case Western Reserve University’s online MSSA program prepares the next generation of social work leaders to become change agents who meet the needs of their communities. Learn more information directly from Online Social Work at CWRU.

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How to Become an LCSW in - Colorado - State Board of Social Work Examiners

  1. Earn an MSW degree.
  2. Complete a minimum of 3,360 hours of supervised experience, a minimum of 96 hours of direct supervisor contact hours and two years minimum time to accrue time.
  3. Complete the licensure by endorsement application.
  4. Pass the appropriate ASWB exam.
  5. Take the Colorado Jurisprudence exam.
  6. Become an LCSW.

The University of Denver’s school of social work offers two online MSW tracks: traditional and advanced standing. Students with a BSW can earn an MSW in as few as 18 months; students without a BSW can earn an MSW in as few as 27 months. Learn more information directly from MSW@Denver.

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How to Become an LCSW in - Massachusetts - Board of Registration of Social Workers

  1. Earn an MSW.
  2. Provide two professional references.
  3. Provide one second-year field placement supervisory reference.
  4. Take the ASWB exam (Massachusetts does not use the ASWB Advanced Generalist exam; LCSWs take the Master’s exam).
  5. Become an LCSW.

Aspiring clinical social workers can earn their Master of Social Work degree online from Simmons University in as few as 16 months. Learn more information directly from MSW@Simmons.

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While becoming a LCSW is not required to practice clinical social work within some organizations, earning an LCSW credential may open up professional doors, boost your marketability and provide a higher sense of autonomy in your work with the community. If you want to pursue a private social work practice, earning your LCSW is a requirement.

Note: The designation for social workers who have their clinical social work license varies by state. While some states grant the title of Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) to social workers with their license, other states use different titles, including but not limited to Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) or Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW).

5. Renew Your License

As an LCSW, it’s important to complete continuing education requirements and to renew your license based on your state licensing board’s renewal requirements. If you fail to do so, you will not be able to continue to practice. License renewal terms vary by state. In California for example, the LCSW license must be renewed every two years and it cannot be renewed earlier than 90 days before it expires.

For some states, such as Maryland, the continuing education requirement is 40 credit units of continuing education in programs and categories approved by the board for each two-year period of social work licensure. And in Colorado, you may have to complete a Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) reinstatement form (PDF, 98 KB) to renew a lapsed license. Because each state differs and varies by requirement, you should check with your state’s licensing board.

6. Advanced Your Career Through Continued Learning

According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), social workers should pursue48 hours of continued learning before each licensure renewal period. However, continued learning for licensure renewal is different by state and level of licensure.It’s imperative that social workers continue to learn throughout their career to stay up to date on new research and best practices. You can find the standards in a 2003 NASW publication on continuing professional education (PDF, 115 KB).

The Next Step

We’re hoping that the path to become a LCSW is now clear to you. If you’re ready to explore your options for a MSW program, what better than choosing an program with a clinical social work concentration?

Licensed Clinical Social Worker FAQ

What is an LCSW?

An LCSW is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. These professionals work in a wide variety of settings to provide emotional support, mental health evaluations, therapy and case management services to people experiencing psychological, emotional, medical, social and/or familial challenges. LCSWs are required to have a CSWE-accredited MSW, a minimum of two years or 3,000 hours of post-MSW experience in a supervised clinical setting and a clinical license in the state of practice, according to the NASW Standards for Clinical Social Work in Social Work Practice [PDF, 139 KB].

What does a Licensed Clinical Social Worker do?

An LCSW helps individuals, families and communities affected by mental disorders, behavioral disturbances and other life changes or challenges. They work in private practices, hospitals, primary care facilities and community mental health centers, often collaborating with other medical and mental health professionals.

What is the difference between a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and other social workers?

Clinical social workers provide assessment, diagnoses, treatment and preventive care for mental, behavioral and emotional concerns. They may use individual or group therapy to do so. LCSWs must obtain an MSW and take an ASWB exam.

On the other hand, not all non-clinical social workers have an MSW. They tend to deal with more public issues, such as housing. They focus on how these issues impact their clients and help them adjust to changes or cope with challenges in their lives.

What is the average salary for LCSWs?

Although the U.S. Bureau Labor Statistics (BLS) does not document pay for the LCSW occupation, it does collect pay data for health care social workers. The median annual salary for social workers in health care was $56,750 as of May 2019. The median annual wages for all social workers that year was $50,470.

Last updated: August 2020