Explore a Career as a Clinical Social Worker

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A clinical social worker counsels a client.

Social work is widely recognized as a profession centered on helping others. The work gives individuals an opportunity to empower people to overcome challenges by providing a blend of counseling, access to support services, and similar forms of guidance applicable in a wide range of settings. As such, social workers can find work in any number of settings, ranging from schools and hospitals to correctional facilities and mental health clinics.

The opportunities to work in diverse settings and provide counseling and support are even greater in clinical social work. Clinical social workers focus on assessing, diagnosing, and treating various mental, behavioral, and emotional conditions. To become a clinical social worker, obtaining a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree is typically a requirement.

Each state has its own licensure requirements for a clinical social worker, and it’s important to consider the standards of a particular state before pursuing an MSW degree. However, most of these requirements — regardless of state — include an MSW. The Regis College online MSW can be a natural fit for many students, as the program focuses on clinical practice. But what does clinical practice look like? For those considering this career path, it’s helpful to examine what a career in clinical social work entails.

What Is a Clinical Social Worker?

A clinical social worker specializes in providing treatment for mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, roughly 1 out of every 4 U.S. adults suffers from a mental health condition such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, and depression.

Given the wide array and prevalence of mental and behavioral health issues, clinical social workers can be considered one of the most valuable resources in health care. Social workers are generally considered one of the largest groups of mental health services providers in the country. Furthermore, their ability to work with groups of various sizes in different settings only serves to add to their importance.

Clinical Social Worker Salary

The social work field is experiencing significant demand. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects the number of positions in the social work sector to grow by 9% from 2021 to 2031, nearly double the 5% national average.

Median pay in the sector was $50,390 as of 2021. However, it’s worth noting that this figure accounts for a wide range of job roles, as entry-level social work positions may only require an associate degree, while clinical social work usually demands an MSW.

Payscale reports that the median licensed clinical social worker salary is approximately $62,000, per November 2022 data. Individual salaries will be affected by a social worker’s experience, education, region, and other relevant factors.

Work Expectations for Clinical Social Workers

The role’s focus on helping others means the demands placed on social workers can change fairly often. The nature of their work often involves traveling to a variety of locations. In general, clinical social workers will face many of the same challenges, but they’ll also need to deal with a few specific difficulties.

The challenges for a clinical social worker can include:

  • Emotional burnout: Counseling is emotionally demanding work. Clinical social workers are tasked with interacting with those challenged by behavioral or mental disorders on a regular basis. This requires a strong emotional commitment to the clients they’re supporting and the work they’re doing, which can lead to fatigue and burnout over time.
  • Heavy workloads: Clinical social workers often end up carrying large client loads, as they work in nonprofit settings where funding for staff is limited but demand for services is high.

While clinical social workers face their fair share of challenges, the effort comes with many rewards. These can include:

  • Highly fulfilling work in helping clients overcome challenges
  • Opportunities to make a difference in the lives of individuals and their loved ones
  • Filling a care gap in mental and behavioral health

Because counselors are in demand in diverse settings, clinical social workers have the opportunity to work in any of a variety of areas, each of which entails different duties depending on their clients’ needs. For example, the American Board of Clinical Social Work (ABCSW) lists possible work settings as varied as clinics, courts, private practice offices, rural health care settings, rehabilitation facilities, religious organizations, and residential environments.

What Does a Clinical Social Worker Do?

The clinical social work job description can vary, depending on the clients’ needs and the work environment. In many cases, clinical social workers will function as counselors. The ABCSW points out that the profession is focused on providing services to individuals with behavioral and biopsychosocial disorders, though the work isn’t exclusive to such demographics.

Clinical social workers aim to offer both preventive support and treatment of conditions. Consequently, they are expected to understand:

  • Issues pertaining to addiction
  • The implications of mental illnesses, trauma, and injuries
  • Matters pertaining to diversity and cultural competency

These are just a few of the key health-related areas of concern that clinical social workers must be aware of. The job often requires a significant degree of flexibility, as counselors frequently work on multidisciplinary teams and are involved in providing a variety of services, including counseling, diagnosis, and treatment plan development.

How to Become a Clinical Social Worker

For those interested in how to become a clinical social worker, the process can be boiled down to six key steps, beginning with pursuing an education:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree in a relevant subject, such as sociology, psychology, or social work. Earning a degree in one of these areas allows individuals to secure nonclinical work in the field.
  2. Earn a master’s degree in social work through a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CWSE).
  3. Gain relevant work experience. Specific work requirements vary by state and are set by the state’s social work board.
  4. Apply for licensure, once educational and work experience requirements have been met.
  5. Pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) national clinical exam. It consists of 170 questions, and exam takers have four hours to complete it. Passing the exam is mandatory to earn a social work license.
  6. Maintain licensure. After becoming credentialed as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), individuals need to follow their specific state’s requirements to maintain licensure. This typically involves paying a fee and meeting continuing education requirements.

Preparing for a Career in Clinical Social Work

While coursework in any MSW program can be applied to operations in a variety of settings, a clinically focused program can help students engage with the specific topics and practical skills needed to advance in the profession. For the most part, students pursuing an MSW with a focus on clinical practice can expect to blend their general social work courses with specialized materials focusing on counseling, treatment plan development, and medical-related matters. Students are also typically expected to complete a period of practical work under the supervision of a licensed professional as part of the degree program.

The curriculum in Regis College’s online MSW program is specifically designed with clinical social work in mind and includes courses on such topics as:

  • Community practice
  • Human behavior
  • Social welfare policy
  • Ethics
  • Clinical policies and administration
  • Clinical assessment and diagnosis
  • Advanced clinical practice with individuals

Regis College’s online MSW program is organized into a foundational year that focuses on generalist courses that are applicable to just about any social work setting. From there, students embark on their specialized clinical year, which emphasizes nuanced clinical coursework and incorporates experiential learning. Regis helps students in the program find a field placement, which requires a total of 1,080 hours of work spread over two field experiences.

Want to learn more about how Regis College’s online MSW program can prepare you for a successful career as a clinical social worker? Contact us to find out how we can help you reach your professional goals.

Recommended Readings

Child Illiteracy in America: Statistics, Facts, and Resources

De-escalation Skills and Tips for Mental Health in the Community

Is a Correctional Social Worker Career Right for You? 


American Board of Clinical Social Work, “What Is Clinical Social Work?”

Healthier Trajectory, “What Is Clinical Social Work?”

Indeed, “6 Steps for How to Become a Clinical Social Worker”

Johns Hopkins Medicine, Mental Health Disorder Statistics

National Association of Social Workers, Clinical Social Work

Payscale, Average Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) Salary

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers

World Health Organization, Mental Disorders