A Look Into Clinical Social Work Careers

In a recent blog article,1 I discussed the place of clinical social work within the broader social work profession and I highlighted Widener’s trauma-informed clinical MSW program.2  As you formulate your ideas about a career in clinical social work, here are some key themes for you to consider:

Purpose, Function, and Settings

  • Clinical social workers address concerns “related to life transitions, mental/behavioral health, medical issues, as well as relationship difficulties…within the social, economic, cultural, and physical environment.”3   
  • Some crucial functions of clinical practice include, “crisis intervention, brief and long-term psychotherapy and counseling, client-centered advocacy, consultation, and evaluation.”4  
  • Common settings for clinical practice include community-based organizations, hospitals and/or clinics, substance use treatment and recovery programs, schools, child welfare agencies, private practices, and for-profit companies. 

Knowledge, Skills, and Competency

  • The main differences between clinical social work and generalist practice are the theories through which client problems are understood and the methods and/or techniques by which they are addressed. In addition to theories of human behavior and knowledge of mental health diagnoses and disabilities, psychodynamic, cognitive, behavioral, narrative, and postmodern theories, among others, provide the focus and direction for clinical practice. 
  • Clinical social workers have drawn heavily upon the recent proliferation of neuroscience knowledge and research about the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).5 
  • Like all social work practice, having compassion and empathy are critical. A keen understanding of person-in-environment and bio-psychosocial frameworks, as well as professional values, principles, and ethics, are equally significant.
  • Competent clinical practice requires knowledge of social and economic justice, human rights, empowerment, strengths, resiliency, and prevention.

Practice Experience and Licensure

  • A significant aspect of all accredited MSW programs is a supervised internship experience, viewed by the Council on Social Work Education as the “signature pedagogy.”6  This is often the first opportunity for students to get their feet wet in a clinical setting and to begin to set their sights on a clinical career path.
  • Clinical social work is regulated by state laws and regulations, and a master’s degree from an accredited social work program is required. Those seeking to reach the highest level of licensure within the state where they are practicing must have a minimum of two years or 3,000 hours of supervised post-master’s degree experience.7 

Salary Projections and Career Path

If making a difference in the world is what first attracted you to social work, a robust job market for social workers may very well be another powerful draw. One important statistic for prospective students and job applicants to be aware of is that clinical social workers represent the largest group of mental health practitioners in the U.S.8  While employment of social workers is expected to grow by 19 percent within the next 7 years, there are even larger increases projected for positions where clinical social workers are in high demand, such as healthcare, mental health, and substance abuse. This means that those with an MSW degree should find employment opportunities right out of school. As well, the median salary for clinical social workers in 2015 was $52,380 with the highest salary reported upwards of $75,000.9  Some of the most lucrative jobs for clinical social workers are in Veteran’s Affairs settings and other governmental positions, with some opportunities in international work.

In the final estimate, clinical social work offers a wide ranging and rewarding career path. With possibilities including work with mental health issues, substance use problems, public health, school social work, medical social work, and couples, marriage, or family therapy, in addition to research, policy-making or leadership/administrative roles, one can certainly find a good fit among a wealth of opportunities. 

If you have an interest in clinical social work, Widener University’s Online Master of Social Work program will help prepare you to be the future of social services. You’ll graduate qualified and prepared to sit for the Licensed Social Worker (LSW) exam and, after completing your state’s requirement for supervised clinical practice, you will also be eligible to take the Licensed Clinical Social Work (LCSW) exam.


1 Widener University Online Programs. Accessed on January 27, 2017, https://socialworkonline.widener.edu/msw/resource/why-earn-a-clinical-social-work-degree

2 Widener University, “Master of Social Work.” Accessed October 1, 2016, https://www.widener.edu/academics/graduate-studies/social-work-msw

3 Widener University Online Programs. Accessed on January 27, 2017, https://socialworkonline.widener.edu/msw/resource/why-earn-a-clinical-social-work-degree

4 Council on Social Work Education, “Advanced social work practice in clinical social work,” (p. 2), Accessed September 30, 2016, http://www.cswe.org/File.aspx?id=26685

5 Centers for Disease Control, “Adverse childhood experiences: ACEs,” Accessed September 30, 2016, https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/

6 Council on Social Work Education, “Council on Field Education,” Accessed March 10, 2017, http://www.cswe.org/About-CSWE/Governance/Commissions-and-Councils/Council-on-Field-Education

7 Socialworklicensure.org, “Educational Requirements,” Accessed October 1, 2016, http://www.socialworklicensure.org/articles/social-work-license-requirements.html

8 National Association of Social Workers, “Choices: Careers in social work,” Accessed September 29, 2016, https://www.socialworkers.org/Careers/Career-Center/Explore-Social-Work/Why-Choose-the-Social-Work-Profession

9 Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Outlook Handbook.” Accessed September 30, 2016, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm