If you’re thinking of earning your Master of Social Work (MSW) degree – one of the highest paying master’s degrees – then you could have the chance to pursue an uncommon career path. By starting your own clinical social work private practice, you have the opportunity to be your own boss and gain more control over your professional life. If you want to set up a private practice, your MSW is just your first of several critical steps you need to take to make this goal a reality. You also need to think about the pros and cons of working in private practice to help you decide whether this career move is right for you.
What You Need to Start a Private Practice as a Social Worker
Generally, only licensed social workers who have a master’s-level education are permitted to start their own private practice in social work. Most states use the Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) credential, but others use the Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) or Licensed Certified Social Worker–Clinical (LCSW-C) credentials, according to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).
The reason licensing is so important for social workers interested in starting a private practice is because the duties a social worker may perform in private practice are typically clinical in nature. Social workers in a private practice setting may offer crisis intervention services, bereavement counseling and a variety of types of therapy, including play therapy for children and therapy for individuals, couples, families and groups, the NASW reported. You might also devote some of your practice to consulting duties.
Getting your license starts with earning your MSW. After you graduate, you need to meet the minimum requirements for post-graduate clinical experience. Most states require at least two years or 3,000 hours of experience, although other states require even more supervised experience, according to the NASW. You also need to submit a license application and pass a licensing exam, like the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) Clinical Social Work Licensing Examination.
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Once you’re qualified to go into private practice, you have to navigate the complexities of starting a business. That means meeting all requirements to set up a business in your state, as well as any requirements that pertain specifically to social work or counseling practices. This process can vary from one state to another. However, it will likely include choosing a business structure and filing the appropriate paperwork to establish or incorporate your practice, getting a tax identification number and a National Provider Identification Number (NPI) and purchasing liability insurance.
Besides operating a solo private practice, social workers can also join group practices, which allow for some of the flexibility and autonomy of an independent private practice but some of the structure of a traditional employment arrangement.
The Benefits of Working in Private Practice
Among the most frequently cited reasons social workers pursue private practice is the advantage of having flexibility. When you start your own private practice in clinical social work, you get to choose where and how you do business, when you work and, to some degree, what your rates are.
In private practice, you can choose whether to work part-time or full-time, during normal business hours or in the evenings. You can schedule as much time off for vacations, personal appointments and family obligations as you wish, without needing to get approval from a supervisor or limit yourself to a set number of days. If you move to a new home, you can choose to relocate your business to minimize your commute, and you can decorate your office as you like. You determine the company culture and avoid the drama of workplace politics. Although you can’t completely escape the paperwork that’s required by health insurance companies or legal agencies, you can avoid having to spend any extra time on redundant documentation, since you’re the one making the policies.
Of course, there are positives and negatives to every career move, including starting a private practice. When you run a solo clinical social work practice, you’re responsible for everything, including marketing the practice and company compliance with business regulations. It’s your responsibility to establish contacts with health insurance companies to be part of their provider networks. Unless you hire employees – in which case, you have to manage them as well as their compensation and benefits – you also have to do the work of scheduling appointments and handling billing. If this all sounds like an overwhelming hassle, a traditional employment relationship working for someone else may be a better fit for your personality.
Social workers in private practice also have the chance to earn more money, although their income isn’t guaranteed. Historically, solo practice social workers have reported one of the highest salaries in the field among earners in the 75th percentile, the NASW reported.