How to Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) 2023

Published on January 29, 2023 · Updated on March 26, 2023

How to Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) 2023

Published on January 29, 2023 · Updated on March 26, 2023

Like the approximately 700,000 social workers in the United States, Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW) are dedicated to helping people cope with challenges. Though similar in mission to Licensed Social Workers, LCSWs gain advanced counseling techniques and medical knowledge to help them address mental and emotional health issues.  

LCSWs work independently without supervision, and in many cases, they are the only professionals providing mental health services to their community. To qualify for their role, LCSW candidates take specific coursework at the master’s degree level and spend significant time gaining clinical experience under supervision. 

Though the journey is demanding, the rewards of providing support and resources to clients make becoming an LCSW all worthwhile. 

What Does an LCSW Do?

LCSWs provide much-needed services, including in specialty areas such as marriage and family counseling and school counseling. They work for the government, businesses, or start a private practice. 

Though an LCSW’s specific job description varies depending on the organization they work for, the client population they work with, and the environment they work within, the job consists of working to provide counseling, support, and resources to clients dealing with issues of mental and emotional health. 

Their basic duties and responsibilities include:

  • Holding individual and group meetings with clients to provide emotional and mental health counseling 
  • Building and maintaining a strong rapport with client groups and individual clients
  • Conducting accurate mental, emotional, and physical clinical assessments of clients
  • Maintaining detailed, accurate, concise records of clients throughout the course of their treatment
  • Consulting with medical professionals, physicians, therapists, officers of the court and others as needed

LCSW Salary and Career Outlook

The entire social work field is experiencing remarkable expansion as the demand for their services grows. This is particularly true for Licensed Clinical Social Workers, who focus most of their attention on assessing and treating those with mental and emotional issues and struggles with substance abuse. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the mean annual wage for these professionals is $54,540 with a projected 15% job growth rate, far greater than that for most other professions.

Though the BLS is looked to as the gold standard for anticipating shifts and trends in the job market, their forecasts of job growth are merely projections, not promises.

Likewise, the mean annual wage that an individual LCSW can earn varies depending upon many factors. These include the industry, employer, or facility in which they work, the demand for LCSW services in the geographic area, and the education, experience, and reputation of the individual LCSW. 

According to the BLS, the states where LCSWs are paid the highest salaries include:

  • New Jersey – $91,070
  • District of Columbia – $73,490
  • California – $73,150
  • Connecticut – $66,500
  • Rhode Island – $65,430

How to Know if You Would Enjoy Being a Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Social work is a calling for many, and this is particularly true for Licensed Clinical Social Workers. LCSWs tend to be caring, compassionate individuals who are empathetic and determined. 

The most successful LCSWs have a genuine interest in people and aren’t satisfied to sit on the sidelines. They want to step in and use their skills, knowledge, training, and resources to help and empower their clients. You will be well-suited to the role if you do not get discouraged easily and are able to remain optimistic, even in the face of disappointment and challenge.

Steps to Becoming an LCSW

Becoming an LCSW represents a significant commitment of time and effort. Beyond the educational foundation provided by your baccalaureate degree, you’ll gain a broad understanding of:

  • Social justice
  • Social welfare history
  • Public policy
  • Diversity

The skills and knowledge attained in the classroom and during your clinical internship prove invaluable to you and to your clients.

The minimum level of education to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker is a master’s degree, so the first step in your career journey is earning a bachelor’s degree. Though there is no requirement that you earn a social work degree, a bachelor of social work (BSW) provides the education requirements for an MSW program and leads to entry-level positions in social work, great for gaining work experience.

A master’s degree in social work (MSW) is required to become an LCSW. MSW degrees generally take two years to complete and include both academic studies and practical fieldwork. The curriculum will vary depending upon the university or college that you attend, but most coursework will include:

  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment
  • Social Work Research Methods
  • Psychopathology
  • Social Welfare Policy and Services
  • Diversity and Oppression
  • Clinical Assessment and Diagnosis
  • Field Education
  • Developing Engagement and Assessment Skills
  • Program and Strategic Planning
  • Interpersonal Violence
  • Economic Justice
  • Children and Youth
  • Understanding Addictive Behaviors

It is important that any program you apply to and attend holds accreditation through the Council on Social Work Education. This agency works in accordance with the requirements of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), and is responsible for ensuring that social work programs meet competency standards.

Though completion of your MSW qualifies you for licensure, prospective LCSWs need to acquire the experience in a clinical setting required by your state’s board of social work examiners. Each state sets its own regulations and standards for social worker qualifications, education, training and experience. The requirements for Licensed Clinical Social Workers are the most rigorous because LCSWs engage in clinical supervision. 

Though every state is different, most require two years of full-time clinical social work under direct supervision. This time period is interpreted as 3,000 hours, which usually needs to be completed in 2-4 years, and at least half of which needs to be spent in face-to-face contact with clients. LCSWs also spend time in psychotherapeutic counseling

In addition to fulfilling your relevant clinical experience requirement, you also must pass the Association of Social Work Board’s (ASWB) licensing exam required by your state. 

Once you have graduated with an MSW program and have met your state’s requirements for supervised clinical training, you are ready to apply for your LCSW license! Though each state’s process is slightly different, most follow the steps below:

  • Obtain the licensure application forms from your state’s board of social work examiners and complete the required information regarding your education and your clinical experience.
  • Obtain and submit a Certification and Authorization Form for a Criminal History Background Check. 
  • Submit the required application fee.
  • Submit the official transcript from the educational program where you earned your MSW, including proof of your clinical social work practice.
  • Submit a supervisor’s certification of your full-time clinical social work experience.
  • Submit proof that you have completed the clinical exam administered by the ASWB.

How Long Does It Take to Become an LCSW?

Becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker represents a minimum time commitment of eight years. 

  • Earn a bachelor’s degree at an accredited college or university – Four years
  • Earn a Master’s degree in Social Work (MSW) – Two years
  • Gain clinical social work experience required by your state’s licensure board – Two years

Best Degrees to Become an LCSW

Though becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker specifically requires a master’s degree in social work, there are no such requirements for a course of study at the undergraduate level. 

Still, earning a BSW does have certain benefits. Not only does it provide a strong foundation in the rudimentary theories and mission of the field, but graduating with a BSW prepares you for an entry-level position as a caseworker for a nonprofit or government agency. 

Your undergraduate education leads to valuable real-world social work experience and helps inform your knowledge of the various specialty areas of practice. This hands-on practice not only helps to demonstrate your interest in the field to admissions committees at the master’s degree level, but your salary can help you pay for your graduate school tuition.

Where Can I Learn More About Becoming an LCSW?

Licensed Clinical Social Workers are invaluable members of society. They assist people from all walks of life, helping them to cope with a variety of challenges and counseling them through addiction, trauma, emotional challenges, and mental health issues. The position is both rewarding and demanding, and it’s important that those considering it as a career have access to information and resources specific to their field. 

To learn more, contact any of these organizations that offer this type of professional support:


  • Is an LCSW a psychologist?
    • Though Licensed Clinical Social Workers are mental health professionals who can counsel clients, they are not psychologists.
  • Is an LCSW better than a psychologist?
    • Psychologists and LCSWs are both valuable health professionals that help patients deal with challenges in their lives, but the two professions are very different and provide their services in a very different way.
  • Is an LCSW considered a doctor?
    • A Licensed Clinical Social Worker is a mental health professional who is able to counsel clients, but they are not doctors and are not able to prescribe medication.
  • What is the difference between MSW and LCSW?
    • MSW stands for Master of Social Work, a degree conferred after completing a graduate degree program in the study of Social Work. By contrast, LCSW stands for Licensed Clinical Social Worker, a credentialed professional position that a person holding an MSW is eligible for.