How the MSW Prepares you for Clinical Social Work

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Female social worker holding a clipboard, sitting in a cushioned chair opposite a male patient.

When it comes to social work, there are a few different paths that trained professionals can take with their careers. These individuals can choose direct social work, which involves helping clients and patients navigate the complex systems of the health care and insurance industries. On the other hand, professionals can also opt for a more advanced career in clinical social work.

To hold a position as a clinical social worker in a professional working environment, social workers must earn a master’s degree and pass the standard exam for their clinical social worker licensure.

Clinical social work differs from other types of social work. In addition to requiring an MSW degree and achieving licensure as a clinical social worker, professionals will also face more difficult challenges when working with their clients and patients.

Clinical social work: An overview

Before we delve into the ways in which an advanced master’s degree in social work can prepare students, we must first look at the various areas of this field and how they differ.

As the National Association of Social Workers noted, clinical social work is a specialty practice area within the larger, overarching social work field. Clinical social workers deal with mental, emotional, and other behavioral health disorders and illnesses. This includes assessing the symptoms of these issues, providing diagnoses, engaging in treatment planning, and guiding patients as they complete treatment. Clinical social workers may also work on prevention techniques with their patients, in an effort to avoid triggers or eliminate disruptive response behaviors.

Clinical social workers may work with individual patients, couples, families, or groups in a psychiatric or other type of health care setting. These professionals may also work with children through a school social work or child welfare program within the community. As employment resource pointed out, clinical social workers may also specialize in geriatric social work, looking after the care and needs of the elderly; or they may operate as substance abuse social workers and help patients overcome drug or alcohol addiction.

In addition to providing support, guidance, and counseling for troubled individuals, clinical social workers will also help advocate for their patients and provide them with additional resources or support to help in their recovery. These other resources might include community welfare programs, health care resources, financial assistance, and more.

Clinical vs. non-clinical: What’s the difference?

Some key distinctions between clinical and non-clinical social work include:

  • Educational requirements: As higher education resource Social Work Degree Guide noted, non-clinical social worker positions typically only require a bachelor’s degree in social work or a similar area. Clinical social workers, on the other hand, must have a master’s degree and pass their state LCSW licensure exam.
  • Work environment: Clinical social workers professionally operate within schools, health care organizations, mental health and other psychiatric and treatment facilities. Non-clinical social workers usually work in more private settings, including for private social work firms, internally for large corporations, at nonprofits, or for charitable organizations.
  • More challenging issues: Social Work Degree Guide also noted that typically, non-clinical social workers will help people with more common problems or issues. These might include career counseling, educational guidance, or discussing school-related problems. Non-clinical social workers may also help guide public policymakers on social issues, or consult with companies on employee problems like anger management. Clinical social workers deal with more challenging issues, and are better equipped to do so thanks to their more advanced education and state licensure. Clinical social workers may provide family therapy for those going through divorce, help individuals dealing with substance abuse, or assist families and children who are victims of spousal abuse, for example.

“These high-stake jobs [in clinical social work] can often determine the fate of substance abusers, children, and their families, and for this reason are far more rigorous in terms of education, standards, performance assessments, and ongoing licensure requirements,” Social Work Degree Guide explained.

Preparing for professional clinical social work

As noted, those interested in a career in clinical social work will have to complete the required educational and licensure achievements. This includes first earning a bachelor’s degree in social work or a similar area like psychology, child development, or sociology, educational resource HumanServicesEdu.Org explained. Once students have completed their bachelor’s program, they can move on to earn their master’s in social work.

However, it’s imperative that students select a degree program that will properly prepare them for the types of challenging issues they will encounter during their career. When considering MSW degree programs, professionals should seek out those that have a curriculum specifically aligned with the LCSW licensure exam subject matter.

The online Master of Social Work program from Regis College, for example, is specialized according to the professional requirements of the clinical social work industry. In addition to covering general concepts like human behavior, diversity and cross-cultural issues, and social welfare policy during the foundational year, students also study specialized clinical subject matter and concepts in the clinical year.

During this clinical year, students delve into topics like:

  • Advanced clinical practice with individuals, families, and groups
  • Evaluation of clinical social work practice
  • Clinical assessments and diagnosis
  • Clinical practice policies and administration

Students are also required to complete field education internships, which provide them with invaluable real-world experience in the social work field. This experiential learning component includes more than 1,000 hours of field placement practice, a requirement for licensure, and enables students to practice the skills and techniques they learned in the classroom in actual working environment settings.

When students complete the online MSW at Regis College, they have all the expertise and knowledge they need to sit for the required LCSW exam. After completing this standardized exam, students must also complete a certain number of hours working in the field, which varies depending on state requirements. Students should consult their state’s licensing board for full details. Graduates can then receive their state licensure to act as clinical social workers.

Overall, not only is a master’s degree in social work a professional requirement for clinical practice, it also helps students gain the skills and understanding they need for state licensure.

To find out more about Regis College’s online Masters of Social Work and connect with one of our expert enrollment advisors today.


Recommended Readings:

Skills and characteristics of successful social workers

Master of social work jobs after graduation



National Association of Social Workers – Clinical Social Work

CareersInPsychology.Org – How to Become a Clinical Social Worker

Social Work Degree Guide – What is the Difference Between a Social Worker and a Clinical Social Worker?

HumanServicesEdu – Licensed Clinical Social Worker