Be a Certified Social Worker: Certification and Career Information

Learn how to become a certified social worker. Research the education requirements, licensure information and experience required for starting a career in social work.

Do I Want to Be a Certified Social Worker?

A certified social worker (CSW) provides support to individuals, families and groups in need of help with family problems, disabilities, unemployment, substance abuse, and physical or mental illness. CSWs generally function in one of two categories. Direct-service CSWs focus on helping clients access community resources, while clinical CSWs are more medically oriented, treating clients for behavioral, mental or emotional illnesses, and/or helping them cope with life events. This profession may prove to be stressful because of large caseloads and understaffing. Evening, weekend and holiday appointments might be necessary in order to meet clients' scheduling needs.

Job Requirements

Certification and employment typically require at least a bachelor's degree for a direct-service CSW and a master's degree for a clinical CSW, along with a significant amount of supervised practice. The following table lists the main qualifications and requirements needed to become a certified social worker, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Common Requirements
Degree LevelBachelor's or master's
Degree FieldSocial work
LicensureLicense or certification is required by all states; specifics vary by state
ExperienceSupervised experience, typically about 3,000 hours, is required by all states
Key SkillsCompassion, problem-solving, communication, interpersonal, time-management, organization

Step 1: Earn a Degree

The most common educational requirement for beginning social workers is a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). A BSW degree program prepares students to work in a variety of settings, including schools and hospitals, and with different populations. Students can expect to take courses such as anthropology, human behavior, social welfare, psychopharmacology and psychology across the life span. Fieldwork is a required part of these programs.

A Master of Social Work (MSW) degree is required for clinical CSWs in all states, and may be required for some schools and healthcare positions as well. A bachelor's degree is needed for admission, but some schools don't require a BSW. Students learn advanced assessment, counseling and leadership skills which could also help them advance to community organizer or agency management positions. Most programs take two years to complete and require a prescribed number of supervised fieldwork hours.

Success Tips:

  • Look for a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. Most state licensing boards call for social work degrees to be obtained through programs accredited by this organization, which develops and institutes bachelor's and master's level training standards.
  • Research your state's licensing requirements while still in school. Since every state has different licensing requirements, students must be sure they are getting exactly the training they'll need to practice in their state.

Step 2: Obtain a License

Each state has its own licensing requirements and professional titles for social workers. Clinical CSWs in all states must have a license, although some states make exceptions for those employed by the government. Once candidates have met the education and experience requirements for their state, they need to pass the Association of Social Work Boards exam.

Step 3: Develop a Specialization

CSWs can specialize if they're drawn to a particular client population or type of service. Family and school social workers work with both adults and children, finding foster homes, dealing with bullying or helping families through a divorce. Medical and public health CSWs may provide counseling to those dealing with illness, as well as arranging in-home care services. Mental health and substance abuse CSWs treat and counsel individuals with mental illness and addictions.

Step 4: Become Certified

While not required for state licensure, voluntary certification is available through professional social work organizations. For example, the National Association of Social Work (NASW) offers certifications in several areas, including addiction, gerontology or healthcare. Social work certification may be beneficial for those hoping to enter into a social service agency handling mental health, child welfare and other family services.

Candidates must be licensed to practice social work before pursuing certification. They must have some experience in the related area and adhere to the NASW code of ethics and standards. Credentials can be renewed by fulfilling continuing education requirements and maintaining licensure.

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