An Introduction on Social Work Credentials and Licensing
March 10, 2021
So you want to become a licensed social worker. You may have some important questions to ask!
What kind of degree do I need to become a Social Worker?
You need to pursue a Bachelors of Social Work (BSW), or a Masters of Social Work (MSW). But it may be more worthwhile for you to obtain the MSW. That’s because only a small number of states license the BSW. Even with a BSW license, positions are limited. By comparison, an overwhelming number of states will license the MSW, and only the MSW. Furthermore, a majority of social work positions require the Master’s degree. So the MSW is the clear front runner.
Whether you opt for the BSW or MSW, the school or program you choose must be accredited by the Council of Social Work Accreditation (CSWE), the sole accrediting agency for social work education in the United States. At present the CSWE has over 750 accredited baccalaureate and Master’s degree social work programs in its member base. For a complete list go to https://www.cswe.org.
As we said, your best bet may be to obtain the MSW. The degree is more valuable in the short term, and in the long run as well. It offers better career and earning opportunities. Importantly, it legitimizes your status as a trained and competent practitioner. Social Workers identify as a community of professionals with a high degree of education, training and ethics. Within that community, the MSW carries the most clout.
Finally, the MSW is a mandatory credential for anyone interested in progressing to higher level social work licensing where there may be greater opportunities to specialize and advance.
The two higher level licenses are: the Licensed Master Social Worker Advanced Generalist (LMSW – AG), and the Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). Both of these upper tier licensures represent the most advanced level available to a social worker, the kind that reflects superior expertise, and also allows you to hang a shingle on your door and say the therapist is in.
To obtain these more advanced licenses, the MSW is necessary. So is an additional two to three years of supervised social work experience (depending on states requirements), and a passing grade on an additional, advanced level ASWB exam.
Do I need to do field work or have some work experience to become a Licensed Social Worker?
Yes, you do. Most states require that you complete a minimum number of hours in a supervised field work experience. Accredited CSWE programs have this built into their curriculum. You will likely complete two supervised field work experiences while pursing your Masters. However, you should always do your homework and make sure the program you have enrolled in is fulfilling state field work requirements.
Happily, to become a licensed social worker you are not required to pursue any additional work or field experiences after graduation. What you do in school field work placements will suffice.
What kind of exams do I have to take to become a licensed social worker and how do I learn more about them?
Any candidate aspiring to become a licensed social worker must take the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exam.
There are two types of exams for licensure; the Bachelors or the Masters Exam.
These exams are typically taken right after completing one’s schooling. Your school should provide information about these tests and may offer you some preparation as well.
For those seeking a higher level of licensure, social workers can take the Advanced Generalist or the Clinical Exam. As we mentioned before, these exams are only taken after obtaining several more years of supervised work experience post-grad.
To learn more about any of these exams and to register, visit the ASWB website: https://aswb.org
Do I have to become licensed to practice?
Social work is a strictly regulated profession so yes, you must meet all the requirements of licensure to practice in your state. A small number of states do not require licensure. But the lack of a license may limit your practice opportunities and also the ability to be third-party reimbursable (receive payment from an insurance company for covered services you provide.) Being unlicensed can also impact your ability to freely practice in another geographic area if you relocate across state lines.
The licensing of social workers is taken seriously. It is the primary means to bestowing legitimacy on the profession and protecting the public. The professional regulation of social work is used to maintain standards for safe, competent and ethical professional practice. Like other regulated professions – for example medicine and law - the regulatory aspect of licensure provides protections for both the social work practitioners themselves, and any clients they serve who may file complaints.
Is there a national social work license?
At present there is no national social work license. The United States leaves the licensing of social work professionals up to each individual state. Some uniformity is achieved by becoming a member of the ASWB.
How do I become a licensed social worker in my state?
Social work licensure varies by state. You will need to check in with your local regulatory office. If you enroll in a CSWE accredited education program, they will likely guide you through the process. The general requirements for licensure are:
- Candidates must complete a program with CSWE accreditation
- Pass the ASWB exam
- Fulfill supervised field work practice requirements
- Meet professional fitness requirements which may involve a criminal background check
How do I move from one state to another and obtain a license in my new geographic area?
At present there is no uniform system of reciprocity in the United States. The good news is that your ASWB scores may transfer with you and satisfy state requirements. Obtaining a license in your new state tends to be an administrative process where you will have to provide transcripts, background information and other documentation. Once licensed, many social workers join the ASWB Social Work Registry. A benefit of this is that the registry may offer a portal for satisfying state requirements and make more efficient the process of applying for licensure in a new state.