What Is a Certified Social Worker?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on April 09, 2022
5 min read

Social workers are people who are dedicated to helping others. They help vulnerable groups of people to overcome challenges and meet their goals while providing important services to their community. There are many specialties within social work, along with specific certifications. A certified social worker is trained to help people while being compassionate and understanding of their needs.

Social workers are advocates for people in their community and help them to solve problems. They help both individuals and families work through challenging situations like poverty, addiction, and unemployment. They help to raise awareness both for and with the people that they represent on local, state, and national levels.

Being a social worker requires knowledge of several different areas, including:

  • Human development
  • Behavior
  • Social, economic, and cultural institutions
  • How all of these things work together

This knowledge helps social workers to apply techniques in order to help people get things like counseling or psychotherapy or to improve social and health services in a community. Social workers may also be a part of the legislative process when calling for different types of reform.

A certified social worker (CSW) helps individuals, families, or groups of people work through difficult circumstances to better themselves and their situations. There are two different categories of CSWs: direct-service and clinical. Direct-service CSWs deal with helping people get access to community resources and clinical CSWs deal more with the medical side of social work. This includes treating people for behavioral, mental, or emotional illness, or helping them to find strategies to deal with life situations.

Both types of certified social workers usually need to have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in social work. After that, social work licensing varies depending on the state that you live in. There are several steps involved, especially depending on what field of social work interests you the most. There are different types of social work certifications for positions like:

  • Child and family social workers. They intervene when they think that children are in danger of abuse or neglect. These social workers may also help families find housing, apply for social benefits, or arrange for childcare. They may also work with families to place children with foster families, arrange adoptions, or reunite families after a period of separation.
  • School social workers. These social workers team up with teachers and staff to help improve the academic performance and social development of the school’s students. Some issues that they may deal with include aggressive behavior, bullying, or excessive absences.
  • Mental health and substance abuse social workers. They help people who are struggling with addiction or mental health issues. Some things they do include finding information and services, support groups, and 12-step programs.
  • Healthcare social workers. These social workers help people understand their diagnosis and make life adjustments. They can help find support from support groups and information about specific illnesses. Many of these CSWs work in geriatric, hospice, or medical social work.

Just as there are different areas of social work, there are several different types of social work licenses. Some states require that certified social workers become licensed while others don’t, so this is important information to know before you start on your journey towards becoming a CSW. Even if your state doesn’t require a license, you may find it difficult to find a good position without one.

Education. As mentioned, most CSWs have bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Here’s a look at the education requirements that you’ll need for licensure:

  • Bachelor’s: This covers the most fundamental parts of social work and prepares you for entry-level positions. You can work as a medical assistant, caseworker, or low-level manager.
  • Master’s: All clinical social work positions require a master’s degree. This is where you focus on your area of interest, such as addiction counseling, program management, or clinical practice.
  • Doctorate: This degree prepares you for creating your own social work research and for building highly-specialized knowledge. At this level, candidates usually go into academia, research, and advanced management.

There are several types of licenses that you can work towards, depending on the field that you’re interested in. In general, the first steps in social work licensing are to earn your degree from an accredited program and then to complete an internship or practicum to get some hands-on experience. After that, you’re ready to take a licensure exam through the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). The board determines if you are eligible to sit the exam and if you have fulfilled all of the necessary requirements of your state. The licensure exam costs around $200, plus additional licensing fees. You typically have to renew this license every year or two. 

Having a license lets the public know that you have the proper education and training to provide high-quality, ethical services to your community. Here are some of the most common types of licensures that a CSW may apply for:

  • Licensed Baccalaureate of Social Work (LBSW). This is the first step to becoming a practicing social worker. You have to get a bachelor’s from an accredited program and then pass the ASWB exam. You typically have to complete between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of supervised practice and fulfill all of your state’s specific requirements.
  • Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW). This is a step toward clinical practice and allows you to begin working as a non-clinical social worker. LMSWs usually don’t do two years of clinical practice but usually need to complete up to 4,000 hours of generalized social work practice after completing a master’s degree. At this level, you can work in roles like case management or community development.
  • Licensed Master Social Worker - Advanced Generalist (LMSW - AG). This license shows that you have advanced experience in non-clinical social work and is the most notable non-clinical license. These candidates complete two years of non-clinical supervised practice plus the hours required to obtain the LMSW license. Many states require additional practice hours and exams to get this license. Roles include working toward policy development, research, and improving community health.
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). Clinical social workers provide clinical assessments, diagnose mental health problems, and practice psychotherapy. You must have a master’s or doctorate plus 4,000 hours of practice. This is usually the only license that most states allow social workers to provide clinical services.