Clinical vs Direct Practice Social Work

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) estimates that there are as many as 672,000 social workers in the United States workforce today, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the profession will grow 16% through 2026 -- much faster than the economy as a whole. Social workers practice in a variety of settings, but they usually fall in one of three main categories of social work: clinical, macro, and direct.

Macro social workers don't connect one-on-one with clients. Instead, they work toward policy change and program implementation. However, both direct and clinical social workers engage with clients firsthand. Clinical social workers must hold at least a master's degree in social work (MSW), and they have the authority to diagnose and treat clients with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems. Most states require clinical social workers to complete thousands of hours of supervised experience before obtaining licensure. On the other hand, graduates with just a bachelor's in social work (BSW) can proceed straight into a direct social work position, such as case manager, care coordinator, or healthcare social worker. Direct social workers aren't required to meet the same education and experience standards as clinical social workers.

Clinical Social Work Degree

Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) provide a range of social work services, including treatment for mental illnesses. Each state has its own requirements for LCSWs, and some even refer to them with a different title, but they all require an MSW. MSW programs often allow students to specialize in a particular area of practice, such as substance abuse counseling, child and family social work, mental health counseling, and disability services.

What Degree Do I Need to Work in Clinical Social Work

Almost all clinical social work jobs require applicants to have an MSW. Some candidates find that choosing a specialization helps in finding employment. States vary in their standards for clinical social workers, but most require candidates to obtain special licensure. Graduate-level social work programs can prepare candidates to become LCSWs (or their state's equivalent of that title). In addition to earning a master's degree, social workers who pursue this license must pass a clinical-level standardized exam and complete required supervised work hours.

LCSWs can work in clinical settings to diagnose and treat patients with psychiatric disorders. Many work in mental health treatment facilities to help people struggling with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and similar conditions. These social workers may also practice in substance abuse rehabilitation facilities to help treat those struggling with addiction, while others might open their own private practices to counsel families and children. Salaries for LCSWs vary widely, but Payscale reports the average LCSW salary ranges between $40,673 and $76,321, depending on years of experience, specialization and geographical location. Generally, LCSWs in hospitals and private practice make more than their peers.

Clinical Social Work Master's Curriculum

  • Clinical Practice with Individuals: This class provides basic knowledge about helping individuals through clinical social work. Students learn how to assess a patient, prepare a treatment plan, and execute interventions.
  • Clinical Practice with Groups: Many clinical social workers lead group classes, such as those in rehabilitation centers. This course prepares students to help groups of people whose struggles are similar, but backgrounds are diverse.
  • Substance Abuse Counseling: This class helps students understand the unique challenges that people who struggle with addiction face, plus how to properly diagnose their patients and create evidence-based treatment plans.
  • Social Policy: Policy classes prepare degree candidates to tackle the complicated legal and ethical questions that may arise in their practices. Students may also learn how to leverage policies for their clients' benefit.
  • Field Education Practicum: Many social work degree programs allow students to earn graduate credits for field experience. These learners may work as interns under licensed professionals.

Direct Services Social Work Degree

Direct social workers help clients navigate complex systems, find appropriate resources, and manage life's difficulties. The education and licensing requirements for these professionals vary by state and position, but most direct services positions require at least a bachelor's degree. Many also require candidates to hold a specialization certificate or a master's degree.

What Degree Do I Need to Work in Direct Services Social Work?

Direct services is perhaps the most diverse of the three social work categories, with positions available in a variety of settings. For example, direct social work in healthcare requires practitioners to help patients understand their insurance, advocate for their healthcare rights, and find the appropriate resources to use during recovery. Child and family social workers visit homes to ensure child safety, evaluate potential foster care homes, and help with adoption proceedings. Direct social workers also practice in schools, where they identify students in need, discover the root of their problems and connect them with resources.

Generally, direct social workers must have at least a bachelor's degree, but professional certifications and higher degrees can help them move forward in their careers. At undergraduate and graduate levels, a social work student can choose a concentration, such as gerontology, children and families, healthcare, or school social work. A social worker's income potential changes based on their specialty and level of education. Salary.com reports that the national average for social workers with a bachelor's degree is $55,498, and for those with a graduate degree it's $62,043.

Direct Services Social Work Master's Curriculum

  • Social Work with Diverse Populations: Social workers help people from all walks of life. These courses help students understand cultural differences and the challenges they present, plus the benefits of a diverse community.
  • Child Welfare: Social workers across the field encounter children who have endured abuse and neglect, but the signs aren't always obvious. These classes teach aspiring social workers how to identify a child in need, and what children need to thrive.
  • Adult Development & Aging: These classes prepare students to confront the unique mental and social challenges that the aging population faces. Professionals can then help elderly clients find the resources they need to age with dignity.
  • Social Welfare Programs, Policies and Issues: Before a social worker can help clients locate resources and get through bureaucracies, the professional must understand the available programs and current laws. These courses get learners up-to-date on current social welfare issues.
  • Field Practicum: Both graduate and undergraduate programs may require students to complete internships in the field for credit. These practicums help degree candidates understand what it means to make a career in direct practice in social work.

Clinical Vs. Direct Services Social Work

Both clinical and direct services social workers perform duties that require one-on-one client interaction, but clinical social workers have more authority for diagnosing and treating. For that reason, the requirements to become a clinical social worker tend to be stricter. All clinical social workers must have a master's degree and a state license, while some direct social workers practice with only a bachelor's degree. This is reflected in the pay range for each area.

Quick Facts Clinical Social Work Direct Services Social Work
Minimum degree level needed to work in the field Master's Bachelor's
Online degrees available? Yes, but some in-person components are required Yes
Popular career paths Mental Health Counselor, Group Therapist, and Substance Abuse Counselor Case Manager, Care Coordinator, and Community Health Worker
Average annual salary $40,673 - $76,321 $55,498 - $62,043
License required? Yes Sometimes

Which Social Work Degree Is Right for You?

Most clinical social workers practice in mental health and rehabilitation clinics, while direct social workers find employment in schools, hospitals, and government agencies. The main difference between clinical and direct social workers is what each is legally allowed to do. All social workers can connect clients with resources and offer guidance through difficult situations, but only clinical social workers can provide counseling treatments.

Prospective social work students should consider what kind of environments best suit their personalities and skill-set before choosing a degree program. For example, people who enjoy helping people cope and who prefer one-on-one interaction may wish to pursue an MSW, while those who enjoy working with a team and solving problems may prefer direct social work and therefore choose a BSW.

Learners should also weigh the cost of obtaining each degree with its corresponding earning potential. Clinical social workers usually earn higher salaries than their direct service peers, but they also spend more time and money on training. Students who worry about the cost of a graduate degree may consider earning an MSW online, as online programs tend to cost less than on-campus degrees.

Perhaps most importantly, aspiring social workers should think about their motivation, and what attracts them to social work. If the idea of helping children find safe homes drives someone to become a social worker, that person should pursue direct social work. Likewise, those who prefer the idea of helping people cope with substance abuse should invest in a master's degree and clinical license.

Salary Outlook for Clinical and Direct Service Social Workers

  • Clinical Social Worker: While the exact type of help that clinical social workers provide can vary based on the types of patients they see, some aspects of the position are the same almost everywhere. These professionals have master's degrees, often with specializations in their niche. In their careers, they provide treatment for people with mental illnesses, cognitive disabilities, and substance addiction.
  • Social Services Director: These social work managers oversee operations within an organization. They may manage social workers, speak at their institution's events, implement policies to help clients and employees, and set social service appointments for incoming clients. Because directors may also provide treatment and care, they often must have a master's degree and LCSW licensure.
  • Social Worker, Hospice: Hospice social workers help people with terminal illnesses and their families by providing emotional support and logistical guidance. These professionals may practice with a bachelor's or master's degree, depending on state and employer requirements.
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker: LCSWs must earn a master's degree, complete supervised work experience, and pass the clinical-level board exam to obtain licensure. Once licensed, they can work without supervision in mental health settings. LCSWs diagnose patients, form treatment plans, and meet with clients to implement treatment.
  • Social Worker: The term “social worker” often refers to professionals in direct social service positions. Some of these social workers have bachelor's degrees, while others have master's degrees but no clinical licensure. They work in schools, healthcare teams, or government agencies (such as the Department of Family Services).
Job Title Overall Median Salary Median Salary for Entry-Level Employees (0-5 years) Median Salary for Mid-Career Employees (5-10 years) Median Salary for Late-Career Employees (>20 years)
Clinical Social Worker $52,619 $48,408 $54,410 $63,301
Social Services Director $51,494 $47,095 $51,725 $58,879
Social Worker, Hospice $49,521 $48,005 $51,765 $51,900
Licensed Clinical Social Worker $55,585 $50,005 $55,449 $62,033
Social Worker $45,556 $43,440 $47,438 $60,409

Clinical and Direct Practice Resources

  • The Clinical Social Work Association: The CSWA is one of many professional organizations that provides current and prospective social workers with career resources, including advocacy, networking, and industry news.
  • The National Association of Social Workers: The NASW is the biggest organization for social workers in the United States. Members can access continuing education opportunities and networking resources, and most states have local chapters.
  • The Council on Social Work Education: The CSWE is the accrediting body for social work schools. Members can find accredited clinical social work programs, news about education, local meetings for social work students and professors, and the council's policy positions.
  • The Association of Social Work Boards: The ASWB provides the testing for social work licenses. Members can access study materials and practice exams to help them prepare.
  • The Society for Social Work and Research: Social work students and professionals who want to stay up-to-date with the latest research should visit the SSWR's website. This society encourages research to further the mission of social work.
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