There’s a lot of variety in the field of social work. Clinical social work refers to the practice of working directly with clients to diagnose mental, emotional and behavioral disorders and treat those disorders through counseling, psychotherapy and other non-pharmaceutical methods. Working in this area of social work encompasses a great deal of responsibility. To prepare for this challenging but rewarding role, you will need a graduate degree.
The Master of Social Work Degree
The education required for non-clinical social worker roles is a bachelor’s degree, but to get your first job in clinical social work, you will need a master’s degree, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The curriculum of a Master of Social Work, or MSW, degree includes graduate-level coursework in the foundations and practice of generalist, specialist and clinical social work. Students may take general social work studies in human behavior as it pertains to the social environment, social and economic justice and social work practice with individuals, families and groups. Studies in clinical social work include learning the models and therapies used in evaluating clients’ problems and developing and carrying out treatment plans.
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While clinical social work is a specialized role in the social work field, it can be applied to many different specialties. Clinical social workers find employment in child and family social work, healthcare social work, mental health and substance abuse social work and other areas. To prepare students for this variety of roles, MSW programs often allow students to choose a combination of elective courses relevant to their area of interest. These specialized courses might emphasize specific topics, like grief, trauma, spirituality and human sexuality, or they may focus on environments and industries, such as medical social work, social work with children and families, social work with older adults and social work in prison settings.
Attaining your MSW can increase your salary considerably and open new opportunities to you. With your MSW and a clinical social worker license, you can open your own private practice.
Earning Your MSW
How long it takes to get your MSW degree depends on several different factors: whether you’re studying part-time or full-time, the requirements of your degree program and what your major was as an undergraduate student. Generally, MSW programs take two years to complete for full-time students, the BLS reported. Some programs allow applicants who have recently earned a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree to qualify for advanced standing. In these programs, which are structured so that the first year of studies covers foundational coursework in social work, students skip right to their second-year graduate courses. Often, students can complete the program in one year or less.
A lot of what’s required to attain your MSW degree is supervised clinical experience that takes place outside the classroom. The minimum experience requirement for approved MSW programs is 900 hours of supervised instruction, the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE) reported. Although graduates of a BSW program are already familiar with fieldwork, having completed at least 400 hours of it during their undergraduate studies, MSW students will gain experience in clinical settings.
Some MSW programs require students to choose a particular track or specialization if they want to prepare for a career in clinical social work. Aspiring clinical social workers should choose tracks in direct service, micro or clinical social work over macro or management and policy specializations, which primarily prepare graduates for advocacy and policy positions.
Some MSW programs may require students to complete a thesis, dissertation or clinical research project, while for other programs, these research-based projects are optional.
Attaining a Clinical Social Worker License
The MSW may fulfill the education requirements needed to become a clinical social worker, but there are still other requirements you must meet. In every state, you need a license to practice as a clinical social worker. While exact requirements differ from state to state, the BLS reported that aspiring clinical social workers generally need an additional two or more years of post-graduate supervised experience in a clinical setting before they are eligible to take an exam and acquire a license.
Becoming a licensed clinical social worker isn’t quick. Even for students who take advantage of advanced standing programs, it requires a minimum of five years of college plus at least two more years of supervised experience.