Become a Social Worker: Education and Licensure Requirements
Written by Rebecca Munday
Last Updated: June 2023
District of Columbia
Since the practice of social work first began in 1898, social workers have addressed psychological and social problems on an individual and community level, bringing awareness to the needs of underserved populations.
Today, the practice continues to expand. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the field of social work will have about 74,400 openings every year between 2021 and 2031. If you want to fill one of those openings, learn more about how to become a social worker and help others with their psychosocial needs.
What Is a Social Worker?
Social work focuses on people and their environments to improve their well-being and meet their needs, including housing, food, employment, mental health care, and childcare.
Social workers help individuals, families, and groups navigate their way through these needs and improve their lives. They assess their clients’ needs, advocate for resources in the community, connect clients to resources, manage case files, and respond to crises. Social workers work with people from many backgrounds, including:
- Active military, veterans, and their families
- Older adults
- Children and families
- Individuals experiencing homelessness
- People with mental health and substance misuse conditions
- Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals
Employers in healthcare and the government hire most social workers. However, professionals work in various settings, such as private practice, correctional facilities, nonprofits, and education.
Featured Online Social Work Programs
Steps to Become a Social Worker
Becoming a social worker takes 6-9 years. After completing your bachelor’s and master’s degrees, you must pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exam, apply for a license, and gain experience. These steps vary based on what type of social work you choose and individual state licensure requirements.
1. Earn Your Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) Degree
You can enter your university’s social work program with a high school or GED diploma, a GPA that meets their requirements, and a clean academic record. A bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) prepares you to enter a master’s in social work (MSW) program with advanced standing or get an entry-level position in social work. Coursework explores social welfare policy, research methods, and human behavior and the social environment.
2. Find an Entry-Level Job in Social Work
Finding an entry-level position in social work can help you continue working through your MSW degree so you can graduate with less debt. You can also get valuable experience with generalist social work as a case manager, care coordinator, policy analyst, or school social worker.
3. Earn Your Master of Social Work (MSW) Degree
Earning a master of social work (MSW) prepares you to apply for your licensed master social worker (LMSW), licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), or your state’s equivalent credential, and practice in most areas of social work. An MSW builds upon your knowledge of social work policy, practicing social work, and human behavior and the social environment. MSW programs accept bachelor’s degrees in related fields, such as psychology, biology, and political science. A BSW allows you to complete your MSW in about half the time.
4. Complete Field Placement or Supervised Experience Requirements
You must complete at least one academic year, or 900 hours, of field placement to earn your MSW. BSW graduates need to complete at least 400 hours, according to the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE). Field placements provide experience in generalist social work, including case planning, interviewing, and maintaining case files. In most states, field placement does not meet the supervised experience you need to get your LCSW, or any license that requires supervised experience.
5. Pass Your ASWB Exam
The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exam tests your knowledge of social work practice. You must pass your ASWB exam before you apply for licensure in any state. The exams for each level require knowledge in some of the same areas, such as human development, diversity, and behavior in the environment. The percentage of the exam dedicated to each area varies by license.
- Bachelor’s Exam: Concepts of abuse and neglect, assessment, human development, diversity, and the behavior in the environment; professional relationships, values, and ethics; and interventions with clients and client systems
- Master’s Exam: Assessment and intervention planning, interventions with clients and client systems, human development, diversity, and the behavior in the environment; professional relationships, values, and ethics
- Clinical Exam: Psychotherapy, clinical interventions, and case management; assessment, diagnosis, and treatment planning; human development, diversity, and the behavior in the environment; professional values and ethics
6. Apply for Social Work Licensure
To apply for your social work license, you must complete the required education and experience, pass the ASWB exam, fill out an application, and pay the application fee. Requirements to get your license vary based on your state and license level. You should check with your state board for more information and to ensure you complete your application correctly. Find out more about common social work licenses:
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW): You can apply to be a licensed baccalaureate social worker (LBSW) once you graduate with a BSW and pass your ASWB bachelor’s exam. This license makes you eligible to apply for entry-level positions, such as victim advocate and community support worker.
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW): Becoming a licensed master social worker (LMSW), or your state’s equivalent, allows you to practice generalist social work in most settings at the macro and mezzo levels. You need an MSW and a passing score on the ASWB master’s exam to receive your LMSW.
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW): You must pass your ASWB clinical exam and complete about two years (3,000 hours) of supervised experience in clinical social work to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), or your state’s equivalent. An LCSW allows you to practice clinical social work, open your own practice, or work with people with mental health and substance misuse conditions.
7. Advance Your Career as a Social Worker
To advance your career, you’ll need to complete continuing education to renew your license every two years. However, beyond that, you can decide how you want to grow your career to match your goals and interests. Find out more about advancing your career with specialty certifications, an LCSW, and your own practice.
- Complete Continuing Education to Renew Your License: You need to complete 9-45 hours of continuing education, depending on your state and licensure type, every two years to renew your license. Many states require a certain amount of continuing education units specific to ethics, domestic or child abuse, and substance misuse.
- Earn Specialty Certifications from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW): The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers certifications in areas, such as leadership clinical practice and case management. Earn a certification from NASW to show that you meet national standards in your area of expertise.
- Earn your LCSW and Open Your Own Practice: Once you earn your LCSW, you can open your own practice to practice generalist and clinical social work. Opening your own practice allows you more freedom to choose the population you serve, the people you work with, and the rates you charge.
What to Consider Before Becoming a Social Worker
Salary is not the only factor you should consider when deciding to become a social worker. Research factors like scope of practice, speciality, and license requirements to learn more about the career you want.
State License Requirements
Requirements for each license level are similar between states, but not the same. Most states allow you to transfer education and experience, even your ASWB exam scores, from another state. If you plan your education and experience around where you want to work, it will be easier and faster for you to get your license and start practicing.
Level of Social Work
Deciding which level of social work you want to practice helps you know which license and education requirements you need to work toward. You may be able to get a job in macro social work, as a policy analyst or community support worker with a BSW. However, if you want to work in micro social work, you need a clinical social work license to counsel individuals through trauma and mental health and substance misuse conditions.
Consider the average salary for social workers in your specialty and compare it to the costs of living in cities and states where you want to live. This will help you understand the purchasing power and standard of living you could have as a social worker. Use these calculations to narrow down the specialties and work settings that interest you most.
Scope of Practice
Deciding how much independence and responsibility you want in your scope of practice helps you choose between becoming an LMSW or an LCSW. LMSWs practice direct, or generalist, social work and connect people to the resources they need. Clinical social workers practice clinical social work and direct social work. They provide psychotherapy, assessing and diagnosing mental health and substance misuse conditions.
Career Path and Specialization
Choosing a social work career path and specialty helps you narrow down the education and experience requirements you need to meet. If you want to work with children and families in individual and family services, you may be able to get an entry-level position as a case manager with a BSW. However, if you want to work with people who have mental health or substance misuse conditions, you need an LCSW to assess, diagnose, and treat your clients.
Frequently Asked Questions about Becoming a Social Worker
What is a social worker?
A social worker is a trained professional that helps individuals, families, and groups their psychosocial needs, such as mental health and substance misuse conditions, chronic medical conditions, crisis situations, abuse, poverty, homelessness, and hunger. They identify people in need, maintain case files and records, connect individuals to resources, and provide psychotherapy.
How long does it take to become a social worker?
You can become a licensed master social worker (LMSW), or your state’s equivalent, in as little as six years. An LMSW will qualify you for most roles in generalist social work. If you want to become an LCSW, you will spend 8-9 years completing your bachelor’s degree, MSW, and supervised experience.
Are social workers in high demand?
The BLS projects 9% job growth for social workers between 2021 and 2031, which is 4% higher than the job outlook for all occupations. The BLS also expects an 11% job growth for social workers who work in healthcare, mental health, and substance misuse between 2021 and 2031.
Is it hard to become a social worker?
Becoming a social worker requires 6-9 years of education and experience to become licensed. Entry-level positions do not pay as well as other occupations, so determination and passion play a key role in succeeding on the path to becoming a licensed social worker