Earning Your MSW For A Career In Psychiatric Social Work

Earning Your MSW For A Career In Psychiatric Social Work
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Noodle Staff November 29, 2018

People who pursue jobs in the social work field usually do so because they have a desire to make a difference in the world. They are motivated by their drive to help others, and want to create positive changes in small ways. So, they start their educational paths towards their Master’s in Social Work, and ultimately work to become licensed social workers.

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People who pursue jobs in the social work field usually do so because they have a desire to make a difference in the world. They are motivated by their drive to help others, and want to create positive changes in small ways. So, they start their educational paths towards their Master’s in Social Work, and ultimately work to become licensed social workers.

Once you decide that you want a career in social work, you should start considering the particular area in which you would most like to center your studies. Social work is a broad field that encompasses numerous specializations. These include substance abuse disorder, child welfare, abuse, aging, and many others.

For some aspiring social workers, the path is clear: a passion for helping those with mental illness leads them to the specialized field of psychiatric social work.

If you hope to care for individuals who are coping with mental illness, you will find that there is a great demand in the field of social work. Those who can’t advocate for themselves may need help to do so; you can be the professional who makes a real difference in those individuals’ lives.

Steps to becoming a psychiatric social worker

So what is a psychiatric social worker? These professionals aid mental health patients as they navigate their illness. This might mean directing patients with mental illness towards medical interventions, helping them find resources to improve their quality of life, or working with them on their individual needs. Because the professionals who do this work play such an important role in their patients’ lives, psychiatric social workers — as well as most other licensed social workers — must hold a master’s degree and follow a few other steps before they can work with patients unsupervised.

To become a psychiatric social worker, you should be prepared to follow these steps:

  1. Earn your bachelor’s degree. Although your bachelor’s degree does not have to be in the field of social work, a Bachelor’s of Social Work is recommended. Some entry-level jobs will accept applicants with other bachelor’s degrees, as long as they are in comparable fields, but those who aspire to be social workers generally obtain the BSW. A major benefit of earning your BSW is that you will be receiving hands-on experience through supervised fieldwork while completing your undergraduate coursework. This experience will be invaluable as you take the next steps in your social work career.

  2. Solidify your resume with work experience. Once you receive your BSW, you can begin working in entry-level positions at some state social services agencies. This will expose you to the type of work you would be doing as a licensed social worker, allowing you to determine whether this career path is the right choice before pursuing your master’s.

  3. Obtain your graduate degree in social work. Whether you have a BSW or a bachelor’s in another field, you will be eligible to apply to many different universities for your master’s degree. The main distinction is that those who already hold a BSW may qualify for advanced status in their MSW program, while those who hold other bachelor’s degrees will need to take the traditional route. During your graduate program, you will concentrate on your chosen field of specialization and complete over 900 hours of supervised fieldwork.

  4. Apply for your license. Each state has different requirements for social work licensing. However, all states require at least 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience or two years of work experience, which is why step number two — gaining work experience — is important on your road to becoming a social worker. Once you have met your state’s qualifications, you can request to take the Association of Social Work Boards’ licensing exam. You will be granted the designation of Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) once you’ve successfully passed the test.

  5. Maintain your license. Remaining a licensed social worker involves continuous education and professional development. Each state has different standards, but most states require social workers to complete a certain number of continuing education credits every two years.


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What Does a Psychiatric Social Worker Typically Do?

Psychiatric social workers may work in hospital settings, inpatient centers, or outpatient centers. Though there is no average day in this career, these professionals generally evaluate patients and determine what services should be offered to these individuals and their families.

Psychiatric social workers must develop care plans including plans for counseling, treatment methods, referrals to other specialists, and support services. These care plans must be reviewed and amended periodically, as the patient and their family’s needs change.

Duties also include explaining treatment plans to patients and their families, keeping accurate records, and monitoring patients’ progress towards meeting their goals. Psychiatric social workers are required to formulate reports and review treatment plans annually.

Patient care consists of individual and group therapy sessions, learning from and instructing other mental health staff members in new techniques, and arranging for other agencies to provide services. Psychiatric social workers are often called upon to intervene in crisis situations, and and to operate as liaisons to patients who are ready to settle back into a regular life settings in their communities.

Social work requires a high level of empathy, which can make it difficult for some people to perform this role. Psychiatric social workers who are successful generally have inherent skills that make them more empathetic. These include active listening, critical thinking, tolerance, good communication, and the ability to set boundaries.

Psychiatric social worker training and education

It is important to research how to become a psychiatric social worker, since knowing the end requirements ahead of time can help you to choose your path more carefully along the way.

If you’re just starting to consider educational options, you have an open slate in front of you. Go for your associate’s degree in any field. From there, you can obtain your BSW and social work experience to help you become a successful social worker.

If you have a bachelor’s degree in an area other than social work, you can still pursue job experience and your MSW. With your bachelor’s degree, you will be able to work in entry-level positions where you can receive hands-on experience in social work.

Remember, however, that your MSW is not necessarily the end of the line in terms of education. If you want to advance your career, it may be smart to consider further areas of specialization and leadership opportunities.

Psychiatric social worker licensing and certification

Earning your MSW from an accredited university is the first step towards working as a psychiatric social worker. Once your MSW is accomplished, you must become licensed to work in your state.

Beginning licenses are called the Certified Advanced Practice Social Worker (CAPSW). To be eligible for this license, you will need around 3,000 hours of clinical social work experience under the supervision of a board-approved supervisor (depending on your state’s requirements). Once you have met those hours, you will have to pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) Master’s level exam.

With experience comes higher levels of social work, but these levels are different in each state. Typically, the highest level is the Certified Independent Practice Social Worker (CIPSW). This licensure requires further supervised hours and the successful completion of the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) Clinical or Advanced Generalist Level exam.

If you want to know which licensing certificates you may be eligible for, contact the Board of Social Work for your specific state.

Psychiatric social worker salaries and earnings

Healthcare social workers generally receive the same salaries regardless of their specialization. They are paid based on their experience and location. The average psychiatric social worker salary with a bachelor’s degree is $46,872 per year, but this can be higher or lower depending on where you live.

A master’s degree will generally allow you to obtain a higher paying position than you could earn with an undergraduate degree alone. For instance, some of the major cities and their average social worker with MSW salaries, according to Glassdoor, are listed here:

  • San Francisco, CA: $72,505
  • Austin, TX: $53,274
  • Chicago, IL: $53,214
  • New Orleans, LA: $46,151
  • Miami, FL: $51,882
  • New York City, NY: $60,815
  • Boston, MA: $58,014

As you can see, when it comes to social work, the increased cost of obtaining your master’s degree will pay off quickly. Having your MSW will then compound the rewards annually.

Psychiatric social work needs you!

Social work is a challenging field. Those with mental illnesses are often shunned, and their conditions stigmatized. Even in social work itself, many people prefer working with children or the elderly over aiding those with psychiatric problems.

Every psychiatric patient needs someone to advocate for them. If that someone could be you, start taking steps to enter this in-demand field!

Questions or feedback? Email

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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