Clinical Social Worker Careers: Job Description & Salary Info

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A clinical social worker's median annual salary is around $59,000. Is it worth the education and licensure requirements? See real job descriptions and get the truth about career prospects to find out if becoming a clinical social worker is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Clinical Social Worker Career

Clinical social workers diagnose and treat people who have emotional, mental and/or behavioral problems. While becoming a clinical social worker might be a solid option, consider all the pros and cons before making a career decision.

Pros of a Clinical Social Worker Career
Can be personally satisfying*
Pays well ($59,000 median annual salary as of May 2014)*
High job-growth field (19% increase forecast from 2012-2022)*
Can work in many settings (hospitals, hospices, schools)*

Cons of a Clinical Social Worker Career
Must have a master's degree*
Must obtain a state license*
Can be stressful*
May have to work evenings and weekends*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Essential Career Information

Job Description

Clinical social workers diagnose and treat people who have emotional, mental and/or behavioral problems. In this position, you would work with clients, physicians and other healthcare professionals to determine the best course of action. You might provide therapy to groups, individuals or couples and encourage clients to talk about their situation and emotions. Oftentimes, you'll refer clients to mental health professionals or social services agencies.

Clinical social workers sometimes focus on a specific population, such as families, the elderly or clients who need end-of-life care. You might find work in a number of settings, including schools, hospices, hospitals and military bases, or you might work in private practice, either alone or as part of a group. In private practice, your work likely will include insurance issues and administrative tasks. Promoting your practice and networking with other professionals are also part of the job.

Career Prospects

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted that employment of all types of social workers could grow by 19% from 2012-2022, which was faster than the average for all occupations. School, child and family social workers could see employment rise by about 15% during that period, while healthcare social workers might see job growth of 27%. Jobs for mental health and substance abuse social workers could increase by 23%, the BLS projected.

Salary Information

The median annual salary for a social worker was about $59,000 as of May 2014, the BLS reported, with half of all social workers making between roughly $42,000 and $74,000. The top-paid ten percent made a salary of almost $85,000 or more annually, and the lowest-paid ten percent made around $33,000 or less.

Education Requirements and Skills

To become a clinical social worker, you first need a bachelor's degree in social work or a related subject, such as sociology or psychology. You then must earn a Master of Social Work (MSW) to become a clinical social worker. As of February 2012, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) had accredited 215 MSW programs across the U.S. It usually takes two years to earn an MSW, but some colleges allow students with a Bachelor of Social Work to earn their master's in one year. Master's programs consist of several classroom courses, along with multiple community projects and field experience.

Clinical social workers need to be compassionate problem-solvers. As a social worker, you'll need to be able to identify with your clients' issues as well as understand the obstacles they face. You must have strong people skills in order to build solid relationships with your clients. Because you'll be dealing with personal matters, you must be discrete and trustworthy.

Licensure

Every state requires licensing for clinical social workers, although regulations differ by state; additionally, some states will waive licensure requirements if you work for a government agency. To earn a license, you typically must hold a master's degree and have two years or 3,000 hours of clinical experience after graduation. You also may be required to pass the Association of Social Work Boards' examination for clinical social workers, a 170-question test.

Job Postings from Real Employers

Job postings for clinical social workers show the diversity of work environments, ranging from military bases to hospitals. These postings often call for licensed clinical social workers with master's degrees and several years of experience. Here's a sampling of what employers were seeking in April 2012:

  • An acute care facility in California was looking for a clinical social worker with three or more years of supervisory experience. The ideal candidate would be familiar with state regulations involving community care facilities.
  • A behavioral health service provider was looking for a part-time clinical social worker for a facility in Florida. This person would conduct individual and family psychotherapy and work with the staff to plan and carry out treatment. The person hired needed a computer with Windows 2003 or higher and Internet access.
  • In Massachusetts, a military base needed someone to help service members with problems, including mental health issues and family difficulties. The person needed to be a U.S. citizen with a master's degree and a license.
  • In Pennsylvania, a program for developmentally delayed infants and young children needed a clinical social worker with at least a year of experience working with children, preferably from low-income urban families. The job involved leading group, family and individual therapy sessions.

How to Stand Out in the Field

Earn Professional Credentials

You can show your dedication to your career by earning recognition from a professional organization. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers two professional credentials to social workers who hold master's degrees. The Diplomate of Clinical Social Work is offered to clinical social workers who have pursued continuing education or professional development after earning their degrees. Members of the Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW) have met education and experience requirements. NASW reported that social workers who earn these credentials exemplify the highest level of commitment and achievement.

Get Specialized

Demonstrating specialized knowledge in a certain area of clinical social work may catch the eye of potential clients and employers. The NASW offers Advanced Practice Specialty Credentials to clinical social workers who meet experience and education requirements in several specialty areas. Credentials in gerontology and drug and alcohol addiction are available. The Qualified Clinical Social Worker (QCSW) designation goes to individuals who have at least 30 hours of post-degree education and at least three years of employment with an agency that provides mental health assessment and treatment.

Other Career Paths

Probation Officer

If the educational and experience requirements to become a clinical social worker are discouraging, you might consider a career as a probation officer. Probation officers supervise the behavior of convicted criminals who are released on probation rather than being incarcerated. The job can be dangerous, and many probation officers are required to carry firearms. You'll need a bachelor's degree in social work, psychology, criminal justice or a similar field.

The BLS predicted that employment for probation officers could grow by 18% from 2010-2020 and that this figure could be even greater as mandatory sentencing laws are examined and possibly relaxed, leading to more people being placed on probation. The BLS said the median annual salary for a probation officer was about $48,000 as of May 2011.

Community or Social Service Manager

Another helping job is the growing occupation of community or social service manager. These managers work for all types of social or human service organizations. They discuss various needs with the targeted population and with staff, then devise and implement programs to improve conditions. In this position, you might supervise staff members, though duties will vary depending on the size of the agency. You'll need at least a bachelor's degree in social work, urban studies or a related field, and many employers prefer someone with a master's degree in social work, public health or public administration.

The BLS forecast that employment for social or community service managers could grow by 27% from 2010-2020, which was faster than the average for all occupations. The median annual salary for this occupation was around $59,000 as of May 2011.

School Counselor

School counselors help students overcome behavior problems, academic issues and sometimes problems at home or in the community. The duties of a counselor vary depending on the age of the students. Younger children may need help with developmental problems, while a counselor to high school students likely will focus on college and career advice. A school counselor must have a master's degree in school counseling or a related field and hold state credentials.

The BLS predicted that employment of school counselors could increase by 19% from 2010-2020, which was as fast as average for all occupations. The median annual salary for this occupation was about $54,000 as of May 2011.

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