Social Work

Want to Be a Therapist? Get Your MSW

Want to Be a Therapist? Get Your MSW
Clinical social work therapists need a master's degree to practice independently. Image from Unsplash
Lucy Davies profile
Lucy Davies June 30, 2021

Becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) requires a Master of Social Work (MSW). If your goal is to offer one-on-one therapy and counseling, an MSW can get you there.

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Before the Affordable Care Act (ACA) there was little protection for patients with mental illness enrolled in small group or individual health care plans, and even less for the uninsured. Those who needed mental health care were subject to exclusion by HIPAA and state laws, which allowed smaller plans to screen for mental health history and then use that data to deny coverage. The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 (MHPAEA) required large group insurance to cover mental health care at the same level as medical services. However, these laws still left nearly 50 million uninsured Americans vulnerable and without care.

After the adoption of the ACA, parents were able to keep children on family plans until age 26. This, along with the expansion of Medicaid benefits, meant the number of uninsured Americans dropped by almost 20 million by 2018. All this positive news for those seeking mental health care coverage has meant an increase in the need for providers—including licensed clinical social workers (LCSW), licensed professional counselors, and other therapists and healthcare workers focusing on substance abuse, family therapy, and trauma.

Many of these positions require a master’s in social work (MSW) to practice. In this article, we’ll look at the impact getting an MSW will have on your career as a therapist, and what to expect on your path to earning one. We’ll cover:

  • What is an MSW?
  • Do you need an MSW to be a clinical therapist?
  • MSW therapist job market and salary
  • What other jobs require an MSW?
  • Can I earn an MSW online?

What is an MSW?

In order to practice above entry levelas a social work therapist, you’ll need to pursue your Master of Social Work (MSW). A Master of Social Work degree will allow you to work in hospitals, schools, government, and, with proper licensure, private practice. While you might begin your counseling career as a licensed professional counselor (LPC), getting your master’s will allow you to work as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), opening the door to work directly with patients and bill insurance.

Let’s look at what it takes to get through an MSW program by looking at:

  • Curriculum
  • Specializations
  • Field placement

Curriculum

You’ll need to decide on what type of social work you wish to pursue to find the right program for your course of study. Are you planning to work on the micro level (with individual clients), the macro level (with larger groups and populations) or on the mezzo level (a combination of the two, working with groups and communities)? This distinction can help determine your curriculum and coursework, which can include child welfare and family social work, trauma and violence, death and dying, military social work, or substance abuse counseling. Whatever you choose, it is important to find a program that is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), so you can pursue licensure upon completing your degree.

Specializations

Specializations can include working with young children in the foster care system or as a school counselor, or with an aging population in nursing and long-term care homes or hospice care. You might want to work as a marriage and family therapist, in criminal justice, with LGBTQ youth or focus on helping veterans suffering from trauma. By building on your own work experience, you can decide which populations you want to focus on, take certification courses to gain specialized accreditation, and use your MSW to help move your career into specific areas of treatment.

The National Association of Social Work (NASW) lists 16 social work practice areas:

  • Administration and management
  • Advocacy and community organization
  • Aging
  • Alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs
  • Child welfare
  • Developmental disabilities
  • Healthcare
  • International social work
  • Justice and corrections
  • Mental health and clinical social work
  • Occupational and Employee Assistance Program (EAP) social work
  • Policy and planning
  • Politics
  • Public welfare
  • Research
  • School social work

Field placement

All accredited MSW programs require upwards of 1,000 hours of fieldwork. Many graduate schools have dedicated staff who help with placement in these practicum and internship positions to meet CSWE requirements and ensure students receive proper guidance and a positive experience. The time spent in a fieldwork position is an excellent opportunity to map out your career path with real-life challenges in a supervised environment.

Getting an MSW if you don’t have a BSW

You don’t need a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) to pursue an MSW. Most MSW degree programs will accept other related bachelor’s degrees like psychology, anthropology, or education. You can include letters of recommendation and personal essays on your application to support your level of interest in pursuing a Master of Social Work program.

Not having a social work bachelor’s will impact the length of your MSW program, however. You will need to complete courses BSWs take as undergraduates, meaning you will not qualify for advanced standing. Completing your MSW will probably require two years of full-time study, longer if you attend part-time.

Getting an MSW if you have a BSW

If you have an undergraduate degree from a university with a CSWE-accredited program, you likely qualify for an advanced standing program of study. This allows you to get your degree in about half the time by building on your bachelor’s work. NYU’s Silver School of Social Work offers an advanced standing program with two semesters of study and 600 hours of fieldwork. You may also find accelerated programs, which compress a two-year course of study into 16 months, allowing you to save both money and time.

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There are a couple of significant practical considerations:

- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification

Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:

- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. (source)

A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. (source)

- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees

University and Program Name Learn More

Do you need an MSW to be a clinical therapist?

Yes, clinical therapists need a master’s degree in social work to practice independently. Therapists work in mental health counseling with individuals to help identify and treat mental and emotional health issues and disorders. They must be trained at the master’s level and properly licensed.

Many clinical therapists begin with an undergraduate degree in psychology, then move on to get an MSW as well as licensure to practice in their state. Social work involves addressing the challenges of communities, while work as a therapist involves one-on-one treatment. The MSW degree trains therapists in both macro and micro levels of care.

Alternative degrees for therapists

While an MSW covers the same material as counseling and psychology degrees, there are other degree programs that therapists can pursue to move their careers along. Some therapists may want to build on their psychology background, pursue a master’s in psychology, and work within a more clinical framework. Others may want to work in psychotherapy, which might move them from a master’s in social work to a master’s in marriage and family therapy or a counseling degree. These distinctions are slight, but knowing the group of people you’d like to focus on helps determine your course of study.

MSW therapist job market and salary

As the need for mental health counselors grows, so do the scope and range of social service careers. As with any occupational genre, there is a salary range for MSW holders—therapists, counselors, and social workers included. Work as a licensed clinical social worker in the US pays an average ranging from $61,000 to $73,000, depending on your region.

The difference in pay can be significant between states, with therapists working in Hawaii, Massachusetts, Nevada, Rhode Island and Virginia topping the list in salaries. Salary.com lists the median salary for an MSW holder in New York at almost $79,000, while Chicago lists about $10,000 less. New Orleans averages $5,000 below that.

You may earn more depending on the facility you work in. Hospitals pay social workers more than residential and long-term care facilities do. School social worker pay can vary significantly by district. Private practice can be an option for higher pay but will come with greater responsibility and without the protection of an employer or larger practice.

As with any career involving mental health care, you’ll need to balance responsibility and stress. Social work is tough and not known for its high-level compensation, but finding your place in the world of social services can be rewarding in ways other than just your take-home pay. You’ll find support from the National Association of Social Workers in every state and the Clinical Social Work Associationwith job placement, legal guidelines, forms and health codes, and up-to-date technology standards.

What other jobs require an MSW?

It’s clear that many positions in the world of mental health care require an MSW, including those in family practice, human services management, behavioral health, and even law and policy. Many jobs in these sectors require an MSW to practice or pay a higher salary to degree holders.

You may want to work as a therapist in private practice or in social work in a more administrative role. Or maybe in a corporate position setting policy for workplace protections and corporate social responsibility. Law and policy overlap with many of these positions, and a social work degree will add depth and value to decision-making. Directing nonprofits and charitable organizations might also require an MSW, as will a position as a professor of social work (in fact, that job may require a PhD).

Without the degree, you can still work in the field and in related jobs but may not have the same opportunities for salary, growth, and responsibility. Positions like teaching assistant, behavioral disorder or substance abuse counselor, and community healthcare worker will require some certification but may not need an advanced degree.

Can I earn an MSW online?

The great news about earning your MSW is that there are so many ways to do it. Depending on the amount of time you’ve invested with your current career or the pace at which you’d like to complete your studies, you can choose to attend graduate school on a full-time or a part-time basis. You can use your undergraduate degree to place you in an advanced standing or accelerated path to an MSW.

You also have the option to pursue an online master’s in competitive programs in excellent schools. Tulane University offers an online master’s and doctorate program in addition to their traditional on-campus studies, with full-time study completed in 16 months and part-time completed in 32. Virginia Commonwealth University offers an online option too, with fieldwork placement close to home and an emphasis on cultural competence.

Online and in-person programs are now widely offered at top schools to allow students to study from anywhere and within their busy schedules. If you are interested in becoming a therapist and moving into a more specialized position, a master’s in social work can get you started.

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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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