How Much Do Social Work Therapists Earn? (Hint: Not Enough)
March 10, 2021
The bad news is you're not going to get rich by becoming a social work therapist. The good news is that you won't starve in this profession and you're probably not doing this for the money, anyway.
Many paths lead to a career in clinical therapy; studying social work is just one of them. The umbrella term "therapist" refers to a range of mental health professionals who provide counseling services to individuals and groups.
So, what sets social work therapists apart? In terms of what they do, not that much. They can work in the same settings as clinical psychologists, licensed mental health counselors, and marriage and family therapists. The master's degree programs for social workers who want to become social work therapists cover many of the same subjects as psychology and counseling degrees, and social work therapists use many of the same tools and strategies to evaluate and diagnose patients as do other types of therapists.
Which brings us to social work salaries. If your goal is to become a clinical therapist, you're going to need an advanced degree. And if you're going to invest time and money into a master's degree or doctoral degree, you should be reasonably sure that investment will pay off. Is the stereotype of the overworked, underpaid social worker true? In this article about social work therapist salaries, we'll answer that question and cover:
- How does a social worker become a therapist?
- How long does it take to become a social work therapist?
- Where do clinical social workers work?
- How much does a social work therapist earn?
- What factors influence social worker therapist salary?
- Are social work therapists paid as much as other kinds of therapists?
- How can I make the most money in clinical social work?
How does a social worker become a therapist?
The entry-level degree required to become a social worker is the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), but you don't need a BSW to become a licensed clinical social worker. Surprised? Most Master of Social Work degree programs accept applicants with bachelor's degrees in psychology, behavioral health, counseling, and unrelated disciplines like business and mathematics. There are many MSW concentrations to choose from, but aspiring social work therapists end up in programs with a clinical or direct practice specialization.
Some of the best clinical social work programs can be found at the following schools:
- Boston College
- Boston University
- Case Western Reserve University
- Columbia University
- University of Chicago
- University of Denver
- University of Michigan - Ann Arbor
Clinical MSW degree programs are designed to teach clinical social workers about psychotherapeutic theories and techniques. They learn to practice a type of mental and behavioral health therapy that is strength-based and takes a client's environment and circumstances into account. Social work students in all MSW concentrations take core classes like:
- Assessment and Diagnosis
- Social Work Practice with Individuals and Families
- Group Theory and Practice
- Theories for Clinical Social Work Practice
- Comparative Psychodynamic Theories
- Human Behavior and the Environment
- Agency and Community Practice
- Evidence-Based Practice in Social Work
They also complete coursework in cognitive behavior therapy, couple and family therapy, and group therapy—plus a significant amount of supervised psychotherapy-focused field experience (even in online master's degree programs for social workers). By the time they graduate, students have the skills and knowledge to provide effective treatment for mental illness, behavioral disorders, substance abuse issues, and any other mental or emotional problems a client may have.
That doesn't mean they can launch their social work careers, though. Social work therapists can't work independently until they become licensed clinical social workers. To do that, they must have at least two years of post-graduate supervised work experience in a clinical setting and pass the master's level Association of Social Work Board exam. States can dictate their own licensing requirements for clinical social work professionals; some require social workers to pass a state exam or submit to a background check. States can also create their own designations, which means a social work therapist might become an LCSW, LGSW, LMSW, LCSW-C, LISW, or LSW.
Since the focus of this article is social worker salaries, you may be wondering if your choice of school will affect how much you can earn. The answer is: maybe. Getting your MSW from a big-name college or university may open some doors or give you a small edge in salary negotiations, but you've chosen a career in clinical social work, and that creates a ceiling. Don't expect to make much more than other types of mental health counselors just because you went to a fancy school.
How long does it take to become a social work therapist?
Training to become a social worker is probably the fastest way to become a clinical therapist. You could earn a four-year bachelor's degree in social work and then graduate from an advanced standing or fast-track MSW program in just twelve to eighteen months. Compare that to the four to eight years it can take to get the PsyD or PhD psychologists need to practice as clinical therapists. Add two-years of supervised work experience, and you could be earning a social work therapist salary in as few as seven years.
Where do clinical social workers work?
Social work therapists work in the fields of healthcare, social welfare, education, and substance abuse treatment. You'll find social work therapists working in:
- Community organizations
- Government agencies
- Healthcare networks
- Nursing homes and long-term care facilities
- Private practices and group practices
- Public schools
- Social service agencies
- Substance abuse clinics
- US Military
Some employers prefer mental health counselors with a social work background because they're versatile and tend to be less expensive than other types of mental health counselors. That's good news for insurance companies and patients, but it can be bad news for LCSWs looking for a higher social work therapist salary.
How much does a social work therapist earn?
Depending on your earning goals, the MSW salary trends can paint a pretty bleak picture. A 2018 salary study sponsored by the Council on Social Work Education found that clinical MSWs who work with individuals, families and groups earn an average median income of just $42,500. Social work therapists in hospitals and government agencies can make a few thousand dollars more. PayScale reports that the top-earning social work therapists don't even break $60,000. And according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, mental health and substance abuse social workers are paid less than all other types of social worker.
Of course, you don't have to settle for a social work therapist salary. A clinical social worker can fill such roles as mental health counselor, clinical social worker, and clinical therapist—all of which can be more lucrative.
What factors influence social worker therapist salary?
Social worker salaries can vary a lot from practitioner to practitioner. Earning potential is based on many factors, including:
- Educational background
- Geographic area
- Job responsibilities
- Practice specialty
- Workplace setting
- Years of experience
Are social work therapists paid as much as other kinds of therapists?
Because social work therapists can do things like help people enroll in Medicaid, arrange home nursing care, and connect clients to practical financial or professional resources, you might assume that they make more than other types of counselors. They don't. In fact, they don't even make as much. The average clinical psychologist salary is almost $80,000. A clinical mental health counselor with the right certifications can make $56,000 or more. Marriage and family therapists make about $55,000.
These differences in earning potential between different types of therapists can't be chalked up to education level alone. Having "Dr." in front of your name can definitely lead to a higher salary. Still, a master's is the entry-level degree for social work therapists, just as it is for higher-earning marriage and family therapists and mental health counselors. It may be that some types of mental health clinicians are seen as less competent. It may be that social work therapists are victims of their profession's self-reinforcing reputation for low pay. There's really no way to know. Just be sure you go into social work without illusions about how much you'll earn.
How can I make the most money in clinical social work?
The NASW has been pushing two bills to raise Medicare reimbursement rates for clinical social workers. The bills would also prompt the federal government and state governments to invest more in initiatives that would "support recruitment, retention, recognition, and adequate reimbursement of professional social workers." The organization may or may not be successful. Regardless, you can increase the chances that your social work therapist salary will be on the higher end by:
- Working at a hospital: Social workers employed by hospitals make more than social workers in settings like residential or long-term care facilities.
- Move to one of these states: Social workers in DC, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Nevada earn the most, according to the BLS.
- Searching Indeed, Glassdoor, and Salary.com: These sites can be a great resource when you're looking for geographical salary trends or trying to find out what qualifications prompt employers to pay more.
You'll probably still never make as much as a clinical psychologist, but sometimes you'll be able to help your clients in ways they can't. Whether that's worth a pay cut is something you have to decide for yourself.
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