Social work is a helping profession that requires specialized knowledge of social resources, human behavior and psychology to help people achieve productive and satisfying outcomes.
Working with individuals, families, or groups, social workers provide an array of services that may include non-medical counseling and psychotherapy, referral services, interpretations of behavior, and work with communities to improve health services. Social workers are serving a public trust and, as such, must complete many steps of rigorous education, training with supervision, demonstrated competencies, fulfillment of California licensing requirements, and a commitment to high standards of practice.
As such, it is important to know how to become a social worker in California.
The credentialing of social workers grew out of a need to regulate the practice and provide a means to identify the expertise of the social worker. The LCSW or License in Clinical Social Work is required to practice social work in clinical practice, to supervise social workers in training or to hold a clinical administration position. There are a number of steps involved in becoming a licensed social worker in California, including rigorous courses, examinations, and supervised work experiences. The California Board of Behavioral Sciences approves licenses and provides clear information to help you with your documentation for your license application.
To begin your licensing requirements, you will need to have a master’s degree in social work from an accredited program and register as an ASW or associate social worker with the California Board of Behavioral Sciences. You will need to acquire 3,200 hours of professional experience and 104 weeks of clinical supervision with a LCSW license holder. You must document your hours and demonstrate that your supervision experiences have included required amounts of time for specific aspects of social work practice including individual or group psychotherapy, advocacy, consultation, as well as evaluation and research. As part of your preparations for licensure, you must take pre-licensure courses in areas such as child abuse assessment, aging and lifelong care, and partner abuse.
Your final steps will involve the successful completion of two examinations: the California Law and Ethics Exam and the ASWB or the Association of Social Work Board examination. The California Law and Ethics examination is specific to the state of California to ensure you are knowledgeable of this state’s legal and ethical requirements. The ASWB is a national clinical examination that demonstrates a standard of knowledge in social work that is accepted in most states, depending on state licensure requirements. Once you fulfill these requirements, you are a California licensed social worker, able to work in private practice. Your license must be renewed every two years, with additional training requirements to ensure you are current.
If you have a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) you may be able to find jobs in which you are able to help others but you must pursue a master’s degree in social work from an accredited program through the Council on Social Work Education to obtain your license and work as a clinical social worker. The 60 graduate credit program will also involve 1000 hours of field experience. Depending on full time or part time student status, the master’s degree may be completed in four semesters full time or six to eight semesters part time. You may check with the university to see if you may be granted advanced standing and obtain credit for your bachelor’s of social work courses. You will want to identify your professional objectives as the programs can offer you focused training in along career tracks to work in schools, the military or business.
In addition to your bachelors’ degree in social work, the program will have additional admission requirements. Most graduate schools look for candidates with a strong grade point average. You will also need to take the GRE or Graduate Record Examination. A well-written essay will help them to learn who you are and your objectives to evaluate your fit with the program and their ability to provide you with the training that will take you into the career you desire. Of course, your field experiences that were part of your bachelor’s program and any additional activities will help you to demonstrate your preparedness for the graduate program.
You do not have to hold a bachelor’s degree in social work to enter an accredited master’s program. However, you may have to do additional coursework to build your background knowledge. If you have taken courses in psychology or sociology, this will help with your preparations for the master’s program, but they are not required. You will need to check with the admissions officers for the program you want to enter to identify if there are courses you will need to take to be considered for admission.
In addition, master’s degree programs will require that you provide transcripts, essays, and your GRE or Graduate Record Examination scores. All master’s of social work programs require applicants to undergo a paid or volunteer work experience that mirrors the services you may provide in the field. For example, did you work with children or volunteer in a community mental health facility? The combination of good grades, a good GRE score, a well-written essay and field experiences should help you to get admitted to the program of your choice.
If you are a licensed social worker but do not currently live in California, there are steps that you can take to obtain your social work licensure in California. The first step is to obtain a copy of the out of state licensure application and review it to understand the education, coursework and experiences you must document to meet the California licensure requirements. The application process for an out-of-state applicant, as well as the qualifications required, may differ depending on the following:
If you have not taken the ASWB, the board may be willing to accept your passing score. You will also need to plan to take the California Law and Ethics Examination, which will involve taking an 18 hour course in preparation of the exam.
If your out of state license is currently not active, you may want to contact your state and reinstate your license before applying for the California social work licensure. If you do not reinstate your license, you must apply for your California license as if you were never licensed, with an unlicensed status.
If you have been licensed out of state for less than four years, you may have enough supervisory experience, as most states now require the 3,200 hours of supervision for licensure. If, however, you do not have the 3,200 hours of supervision, you may count up to 100 hours for each month actively licensed, for a maximum of 1,200 hours. If you are still short, you must document additional experience on the Out-of-State Experience Verification form to total 3,200 hours (or gain in-state supervised experience while registered as an ASW).
If you currently hold an active license as an LCSW in another state and you have held that license for four years or more in another state, you do not have to submit documentation of supervised experience.
By the way, there will be a license fee that will be part of your application process.
For California persons with a master’s degree in social work, the Associate Clinical Social Work registration is the credential they need to obtain their required social work licensure supervision hours. You will need to provide an official copy of your transcript(s) verifying your master’s degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of the Council on Social Work Education. The degree title and date of conferral must be posted. The transcript must be sealed and come directly from the issuing institution. If you obtained your master’s in social work in California, your program will have guaranteed that you had the required coursework on California laws and ethics. If your program was out of state, you will need to attach proof of having taken the required courses. Once your application has been approved, you may begin acquiring the experience you need to obtain your licensure. There will be a fee as part of the process.
The California Board of Behavioral Sciences reviews and approves licensing applications. We have already discussed the steps that it will take to begin the California licensure in social work process. To qualify for the LCSW or LIcensed Clinical Social Work License, you must have a master’s degree in social work, complete training in California law and ethics and register for the Associate Clinical Social Work license to move forward with your licensure requirements.
You must complete 3,200 hours of experience that is supervised by a licensed California social worker. These hours must include specific categories of social work practice, that are individual or group psychotherapy, advocacy, consultation, evaluation and research. You must document your time and experiences and your supervisor must verify your report of your supervision. Make sure you follow the required breakdown of supervision experiences while working toward your social work licensure in California.
Unless your graduate program provided these courses, you must take the following courses: Child Abuse Assessment and Reporting, Human Sexuality, Alcoholism and Chemical Substance Abuse & Dependency, Long Term Care and Elder/Dependent Adult Abuse, Spousal/Partner Abuse Assessment, Detection, and Intervention.
Once you have completed your coursework and supervision, you may take the two required examinations. The California Law and Ethics Exam is administered throughout the state five to six days a week at Psychological Services. You must also take the ASWB or Association of Social Work Board examination. This national examination is administered at Pearson Professional Centers across the state. The ASWB provides information to help you prepare. The exam consists of 170 multiple-choice questions. Should you fail the exam, the waiting period to retake it is 90 days.
Once you have completed these requirements, you must provide the required social work licensure verifications and documents to the state along with the licensure fee to become a licensed clinical social worker or LCSW.
California does not have a list of states with which they have licensure reciprocity. However, since the state adopted the ASWB examination, the national examination now makes the process of obtaining social work licensure in California more efficient if you obtained a passing score on this examination in your state and can provide the documentation for the other requirements. The out of state application form provides the details you will need address as you apply for the licensure from another state.
The Board of Behavioral Sciences offers a listing of accredited social work programs. The Council on Social Work Education provides standards of accreditation for social work programs. Accredited schools of social work are available at the campuses of California State University, Universities of California campuses, Azusa Pacific University, Loma Linda University, and University of Southern California.
Most of the programs have admission options for students based on their education and experience as an undergraduate. Advanced placement admissions are for students who have a bachelors in social work, at least a 3.0 GPA and field experiences. Students with a bachelor's degree who meet admission requirements are typically enrolled for a two year program earning about 60 credit units and working in field experience placements. There are three-year program offerings for students who are attending part time.
Admission to graduate school typically requires at least a 2.75 GPA, your transcript, letter or essay of intent, three letters of recommendation, passing scores on the Graduate Record Exam, and experience, either volunteer or working in a helping or service capacity. You should plan to attend their informational meetings as you prepare to apply to learn more about the program and your potential field experiences. You may also expect to go through an interview process.
The programs will vary in the specialization tracks that are offered. For example, Azusa Pacific University provides advance training in clinical practice for individuals and families and a track for community leadership and program administration. Loma Linda University offers the masters of social work with special areas of focus including gerontology or criminal justice. The campuses of California State University offers the master’s in social work at a number of campuses across the state. The generalist curriculum includes field experiences and choices in focus on social work practice in mental health services or social work practice in families, children and youth services.
When you select your program, you may explore the track that you wish to emphasize in your training. Do you want to work in the schools, with the military, at a level of program administration or in a clinical environment? There are social work organizations that can provide you with information about these helping professions as you decide on our career path and interests.
The California Society for Clinical Social Work is a professional organization that provides information and resources to promote the practice of clinical social work. Clinical social workers work in a variety of setting that include hospitals, agencies, clinics, schools, employee assistance programs and private practice. This organization can be a resource to you in considering your future career path and, once you complete your licensure, the organization will be a resource for your to stay current with laws and professional practice.
If you are interested in working with children and adolescents, you may want to consider training that will prepare you to become a school social worker. The California Association of School Social Workers is a resource for learning more about the work, laws, and practices of the school social worker in California. If you are interested in working within the California school system to maintain and increase responsiveness to the social, emotional, education and mental health needs of all students and if you like working with youth, you will want to take the courses and have field experiences with this population and degree track.
The University of Southern California offers a program that specializes in military social work. Military life presents unique challenges to service members, veterans, and their families. Consider the anxiety of deployment to active duty as well as the psychological and social adjustment involved in returning from service. There are many other needs of the military service that involve help with the emotional and financial challenges of a military life. A program with the military track will provide you with the courses and field experiences to be prepared to service this community. You may learn more about this career path through the National Association of Social Workers California Chapter.
Take the time to explore the programs that are available across the state. Pay attention to the accreditation of the graduate level programs. You will want to reflect on your goals to choose the program that will best prepare you for your future. For a guide that provides a summary of the available social work undergraduate and graduate programs, you may want to refer to this California Programs and Degree Guide.
The California Board of Behavioral Sciences is the state regulatory agency, responsible for licensing, examination, and enforcement of professional standards for clinical social work. They ensure that licensure is meeting national standards and that licensed professionals are versed with the state laws and ethics standards.
When California adopted the requirement to take the Association of Social Work Board examination, the practice elevated social work standards to the national expectation. The Association of Social Work Board is a requirement to become a California licensed clinical social worker. To be eligible to take this exam, you must complete three steps:
The ASWB examinations are administered in five categories: Associate, Bachelors, Masters, Advanced Generalist, and Clinical. Each is designed to measure entry-level competence at a specific level of education and experience. For California, you will be taking the Masters level examination. As with all standardized testing programs, you may ask for accommodations. You may transfer your scores to different states. If you do not pass the exam, you may retake after waiting an interval of 90 days. There are practice resources available through the ASWB.
The ASWB content outline provides information that will help you prepare for the examination. Generally, the structure of the examination is summarized here:
Human Development, Diversity, and Behavior in the Environment (27%)
Assessment and Intervention Planning (24%)
Interventions with Clients/Client Systems SYSTEMS (24%)
Professional Relationships, Values, and Ethics (25%)
California requires the additional California Laws and Ethics examination. You may register to take the examination online with PSI. The test is administered in several locations across the state. If you do not pass, you may retake the examination. You must have pre-approval from the California Board of Behavioral Sciences to take the 90-minute examination. The areas covered by the examination are:
Confidentiality, Privilege, Consent
Limits to Confidentiality, Mandated Reporting
Legal Standards for Professional Practice
Professional Competence and Preventing Harm
Business Practices and Policies
With a bachelor’s degree in social work, you can still work in helping and service positions but not as a clinical social worker. There are jobs in outreach and advocacy for families, victims and social services. These types of jobs are typically hourly and pay about $15.00 to $20.00 an hour.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, clinical social workers earn an average hourly wage of $31.46 per hour. The mean annual wage is $65,440. Salaries for licensed clinical social workers in California range from $45,000 to $75,000. While you are working toward your LCSW, you will be supervised in the field with your BSW. A social worker with a bachelor’s degree may earn between $39,000 and $66,000. Considering you will be working at an entry level, you can anticipate earning the lower starting salary. Once you obtain your California social work license, you will have much more flexibility in the settings in which you will be able to work and you will make more money.
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