How to Become a Clinical Social Worker

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Clinical social worker in a meeting with two clients

Health care spending in the United States reached $3.5 trillion in 2017. This increase was driven by several key factors, including an aging baby-boom generation, increased participation in insurance programs and rising prices for medical products, according to the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). However, a recent study by Jama Network, a publisher of medical research and information, noted that increased health care spending is not necessarily improving patient health outcomes.

Among the professionals who are seeking to remedy this situation are social workers. They are playing a part in reducing costs and improving health outcomes by addressing underlying societal factors that affect people’s health. Becoming a clinical social worker can enable professionals to work directly with health providers in support of this goal.

What is a Clinical Social Worker?

A clinical social worker (CSW) is a licensed practitioner who can assess, diagnose and treat mental, emotional or behavioral-related illnesses. CSWs develop strong personal connections with their clients, developing integrated health treatments that account for outside influences such as the client’s family, employment and housing situations. Through this integrated approach and with dedicated support, CSWs are positioned to have a lasting impact on the health of clients and their families.

While clinical social workers can perform in a variety of settings, many work in health care institutions such as hospitals, private practices, primary care facilities and social services organizations. Research by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) indicates that social workers are playing an increasingly important role in improving and preventing health problems by using treatment options that cater to the unique circumstances of each client.

Clinical social workers are experts at assisting people often in their most vulnerable moments. They may help clients overcome addictions, resolve family conflicts or address other major personal challenges. Professionals can prepare themselves for this difficult yet rewarding work by taking the following steps to become a clinical social worker.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

While there are a few different paths professionals can take to become a CSW, earning a bachelor’s degree in social work is the most common first step. Some employers may accept applicants who have degrees in related fields such as sociology or psychology, although these instances may require approval by professional associations such as the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB).

A bachelor’s degree in social work provides education in the fundamental principles of the profession, focusing on human behavior, professional ethics, government policy and cultural diversity. Students are also required to complete an internship in the specialty field of their choice. Often, students will begin working as entry-level social workers or administrators after completing their internship, gaining on-the-job experience before moving on to pursue a master’s degree.

Step 2: Earn a Master’s Degree

To become a clinical social worker, professionals are required to complete a master’s program in social work or a similar program, such as a Master’s in Counseling, from a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited institution. Over a two-year period, students have the opportunity to advance their skills and learn techniques to effectively communicate with clients and appropriately assess, diagnose and treat conditions.

All students are required to complete a practicum and internship in their selected field. During these experiences, students practice managing multiple client cases in a community clinic, mental health facility or school setting under the supervision of a licensed CSW. Depending on the master’s degree track, students are expected to complete between 50 and 120 hours of work. Their performance must demonstrate to supervisors and faculty the ability to directly interact with clients and apply skills learned through coursework.

Step 3: Gain Further Experience and Become Licensed

To be eligible for the clinical social worker license exam, professionals must have a minimum of two years of supervised clinical work experience after graduating from a master’s program. Licensing requirements vary by state. The exam ensures that the CSW candidate meets necessary standards to begin independently working with patients. The exam tests the candidate’s ability to establish and maintain relationships with clients based on empathy and trust; it also evaluates their skill at developing and measuring treatment plans.

Most states require CSWs to complete continuing education courses to maintain their licenses. State licensing boards encourage professionals to do more than the minimum number of required hours of clinical work or coursework.

Step 4: Obtain Optional Certifications

While some states do not require additional certifications to become a clinical social worker, professionals may find that earning a voluntary credential may help them excel further in their career. Organizations such as the American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work (ABE) offer voluntary certifications for clinical social workers, such as the Board Certified Diplomate in Clinical Social Work (BCD) for advanced generalist practice, or a specialized credential for practicing clinical social work with children and their families. In addition to demonstrating continued dedication to the social work practice, certifications may help CSWs earn higher salaries.

Salaries for Clinical Social Workers

In 2017, the median annual salary for all social workers was $47,980, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, with the diversity of social work practices and work environments, salaries can range from $29,560 to $79,740 per year.

The BLS projects a 16 percent increase in employment for all social workers and a 20 percent increase for health care social workers between 2016 and 2026, both well ahead of the national average job growth rate. With national health care spending continuing to increase, and more people seeking treatment for mental health-related illnesses, new clinical social workers are likely to encounter promising opportunities to develop successful careers.

Learn More

The online Master’s in Counseling program at Wake Forest University is a sound choice for students who are exploring a clinical future in mental health care. The program covers valuable skills that can fuel success in a number of possible career fields. The 60-hour mental health counseling online program offers clinical instruction through both practicum and internship experiences, as well as advanced therapeutic techniques.

If you are interested in developing a deeper understanding of human nature, and seek to become a catalyst for positive health and societal change, learn how Wake Forest University can prepare you to achieve your professional goals. 

Recommended Reading

How to Become a Mental Health Counselor
What Is the Difference Between a Counselor and a Psychologist?
Why Now Is the Right Time to Pursue Your Master’s in Counseling


Association of Social Work Boards, About licensing and regulation
Association of Social Work Boards, Continuing competence
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, “Social Workers”
Jama Network, “Health Care Spending in the United States and Other High-Income Countries”
National Association of Social Workers, Clinical Social Work
National Association of Social Workers, Credentials & Certifications
National Association of Social Workers, “NASW Standards for Clinical Social Work in Social Work Practice”
National Center for Biotechnology Information, “Health Outcomes and Costs of Social Work Services: A Systematic Review”
U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “National Health Expenditure Projections 2017-2026”
Wake Forest University, Online Master’s in Counseling