Certifications can enhance your degrees by confirming your expertise in a specific social work practice area.
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Courtney Eiland
Courtney Eiland

February 09, 2023

Looking to establish your expertise in a specialized social work practice? A certificate program is just what you need. Many certificates can now be conveniently completed online.

The social work profession encompasses many specializations: public health, human and social services, clinical social work, substance abuse case work, and school counseling, to name just a few. A Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or Master of Social Work (MSW) can qualify you for numerous fulfilling specialized roles in the field, but you shouldn't end your professional learning and development there. Indeed, social workers must be lifelong learners. That's where certifications come in.

Certifications can enhance your degrees by confirming your expertise in a specific area. Structured learning through continuing education (CE) resources, like webinars and online certifications, not only adds more acronyms to your email signature but also increases your marketability and shows professional growth.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Specialty Certification program, just over two decades old, provides licensure opportunities for social workers. Add these to your state-mandated license and you have an impressive set of social work credentials.

In some instances, social work degree programs provide opportunities to complete certificate courses. Alternatively, professional membership associations like the NASW, the American Board of Clinical Social Work (ABCSW), the School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA), and other accreditation bodies offer certifications.

Many certificates are conveniently available online. All you have to do is sign up, submit the necessary documentation, and meet all the certification prerequisites by completing rigorous coursework. Let's explore how to earn a social work certification online and discuss the different types of certifications available.

Online social work certifications

Online social work certifications provide convenience and flexibility, both musts for busy professionals. Many certification programs enable you to complete requirements at your own pace with few (or no) live sessions. Typical prerequisites for online certifications include:

  • A BSW or MSW from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
  • A specified number of years of supervised and professional work experience related to the certification you are seeking
  • Active state social work licensure
  • Letters of recommendation or evaluations from advanced-level social work practitioners
  • Ongoing professional development/continuing education hours

While the prerequisites listed above are typical, there are some differences, especially for certifications with higher levels of distinction. Candidates who hold only a BSW may be required to complete supervised field placement requirements to qualify for higher-level certifications.

Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology (CSW-G)

A Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology (CSW-G) credential equips social workers with advanced knowledge and expertise in working with the aging population. Gerontology social workers can work in micro settings, conducting bio-psychological assessments, clinical interventions, and care planning. They can also work in macro settings, utilizing knowledge of policies and legislation that impact older adults and their caregivers to advocate on their behalf.

Those seeking this certification must:

  • Hold an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program
  • Obtain 30 hours of post-degree continuing education credits
  • Have at least two years of full-time post-degree clinical social work professional experience working with the aging population
  • Have an active clinical social work license
  • Abide by the NASW Code of Ethics, the NASW Standards for Social Work in Long-Term Care Facilities, and the NASW Standards for Continuing Professional Education

This certification program provided online through the NASW requires renewal every two years.

Certified School Social Work Specialist (C-SSWS)

A Certified School Social Work Specialist (C-SSWS) works primarily in micro or mezzo settings, serving individuals, groups, and families. Social workers with this certification often work as child, family, and school social workers since their case management functions impact all three areas. School social workers with this credential demonstrate advanced competencies in conflict mediation and resolution, crisis intervention, community organization, advocacy, consultation, effective educational strategies, human behavior, student population characteristics, and child welfare.

To qualify for the C-SSWS credential, applicants must hold an MSW from a CSWE-accredited degree program. In addition, applicants must have an active social work license and 2,160 hours of supervised experience in a school setting (school counselor, etc.). This credential also requires renewal every two years.

Board Certified Diplomate (BCD) in Clinical Social Work

The Board Certified Diplomate (BCD) in Clinical Social Work represents one of the highest levels of distinction within the clinical social work practice. This ABCSW-approved certification enjoys national recognition and professional prestige amongst peers, consumers, government agencies, and healthcare companies.

Because of the magnitude of this certification, the qualifications are quite rigorous. BCD clinicians must meet the following requirements

  • Hold an MSW from a program accredited by the CSWE
  • Hold active state licensure for clinical practice
  • Have accrued 3,000 hours of "direct general clinical social work practice" in the past ten years, with at least 300 of the practice hours completed within 12 months of applying
  • Have accrued at least five years of postgraduate social work totaling 7,500 practice hours. These include 3,000 hours under clinical supervision and 4,500 hours of independent social work practice
  • Have completed at least 40 hours of continuing education within three years of applying (varies by state)
  • Submit evaluations from three peers meeting the aforementioned clinical practice standards or hold a Doctor of Medicine (MD)

BCD clinicians who wish to maintain this credential must undergo annual recertification to meet the board's practice standards.

In addition, the NASW offers a Diplomate in Clinical Social Work (DCSW). This globally recognized distinction, open to NASW members, confers one of the highest levels of expertise for clinical social workers.

Certified Hospice and Palliative Social Worker

A Certified Hospice and Palliative Social Worker (CHP-SW) certification confirms expertise in social work service to the terminally ill and those with severe life-limiting illnesses. Offered through the NASW, this credential is open to BSW holders who meet the following prerequisites:

  • A minimum of 20 CEs related to hospice and palliative care
  • A minimum of three years of supervised social work experience in hospice and palliative care
  • An active social work state license
  • Commitment to adhere to the NASW's Code of Ethics and Standards for End of Life Care

The NASW also provides an Advanced Certified Hospice and Palliative Social Worker (ACHP-SW) for MSW holders. This certification, supported by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO), is the premier credential for social workers in end-of-life care.

Certified Social Work Case Manager (C-SWCM)

While many social work online certificates require at least a master's degree to qualify, applicants with a bachelor's degree from a CSWE-accredited program can apply for a Certified Social Work Case Manager (C-SWCM) certification. This certification focuses on Person-in-Environment application of the biopsychosocial model to assess client and system strengths.

In addition to the BSW requirement, qualifications for this credential include the following:

  • A minimum of three years and 4,500 hours of paid, supervised post-BSW work experience delivering case management services
  • A current BSW-level state license
  • Adherence to the NASW Code of Ethics
  • Engagement in continuous professional development

Certified Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs Social Worker (C-CATODSW)

The Certified Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs Social Worker (C-CATODSW) credential designates expertise in alcohol and substance abuse intervention and prevention. Open to MSW degree holders, this certification confirms advanced expertise in screening, assessment, crisis intervention, case management, treatment planning, resource referrals, and other intervention methods to help improve the lives of those affected by alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs.

Eligibility requirements for this certification include the following:

  • An MSW degree from a CSWE-accredited program
  • A minimum of 180 hours of related continuing education
  • At least two years of relevant supervised post-MSW clinical experience in a setting that provides substance abuse disorder treatment
  • An active state license

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

The Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) credential, commonly held by mental health professionals, substance abuse counselors, therapists, and other healthcare or clinical-based fields, demonstrates mastery at the micro and mezzo intervention levels. Earning this credential requires a mix of online and in-person learning.

While many certifications require an online application and supporting documentation, an LCSW credential requires a master's degree, field education, and successfully passing your state licensure exam from the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB).

Those with the LCSW credential, a multidisciplinary designation, can pursue additional certifications in one-on-one clinical roles such as gerontology, trauma-informed care, addictions, and other micro and mezzo-level specialties. Furthermore, if you seek autonomy and potentially higher wages, LCSWs who work in private practice and carry multiple certifications have a slight advantage.

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