Social Work Generalists, Specialists and All of the Above

The signature pedagogy of the MSW degree is versatility and comprehensive development of a broad range of skills.

The learning experience is geared towards building expertise across many societal issues and woes. MSWs are qualified to help individuals who are in emotional distress, experiencing marital conflict, struggling with PTSD, confronting addiction, or facing terminal illness – to name a few examples. If there is an emotional, mental, social, situational, or behavioral problem that needs addressing, then there is a social worker who can be called upon to make a supportive intervention. MSWs also help change the world through advocacy and public policy. They are as proficient in being generalists as they are in being specialists.

Unlike graduate study in the related fields of psychology or psychiatry, MSWs are trained to work at both the macro (institutional, organizational) and micro (individuals, groups) levels. This is one of the reasons MSWs are so in demand.

However, one need not work as a generalist. Building a more narrow expertise as a clinician is entirely possible. In fact, this is one of the most popular tracks for aspiring degree holders. Focusing on providing mental health services is a common and rewarding career path.

In order to go into private practice or deliver psychotherapeutic services and counseling, it’s important to invest in a program with a strong clinical practice track. This will allow you to specialize in clinical social work and psychotherapy.

Social Work Licensure: The Basics

Social work is a regulated profession. This ensures professional standards, competency and a code of ethics that protects both clients and practitioners. A majority of states require you have an MSW to become licensed to practice. Some states allow for licensure with the Bachelors of Social Work (BSW).

Licensure and certification requirements vary by state and require you pass the appropriate state certification boards. The knowledge and skills you obtain as a student typically prepare you for these exams.

Note that to put a shingle on your door, or to deliver clinical services in an organizational setting, you will need additional certification and licensing. To serve in this capacity, an MSW degree holder must eventually become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW).

Becoming an LMSW

In most states, after you have earned your MSW degree, you can progress to becoming a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW). This is the lower level, or first-tier of clinical licensure. In states where the LMSW is available, many employers will require this certification. The LMSW may be seen as more of an entry level social work license. With this license, you will be able to work in a mental health setting under the supervision of a licensed clinical social worker or other health professional.

To be eligible for the LMSW, you must provide proof you have earned your degree (MSW). You must also pass state board exams provided by the Association of Social Work Boards, (ASWB). Note that degree availability and requirements will vary state-by-state.

Becoming An LCSW

After the MSW or LMSW, the next tier of licensing is to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). This higher level allows you to progress to more advanced social work practice. The LCSW allows the MSW degree holder to provide mental health services and to go into private practice work.

Some LCSWs choose to enter different areas of practice, including policy and organization work. The license does not limit where or what you practice; it confers regulatory certification on your status and on your experience as a professional.

Obtaining this license requires you be supervised in clinical work as a post-graduate for a few years. However, with an MSW, you can be employed full-time and earning a salary as you pursue this ultimate credential.

Nedda Gilbert

Ms. Gilbert is a certified social worker and 30 year educational consultant with an interest in helping college-bound and graduate school students manage the process and stress of admissions effectively. She is one of the senior founding managers of the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company, and the author of The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and another book, Business School Essays that Made a Difference (Random House). She is a guest contributor to Forbes Magazine on college and college life. Ms. Gilbert is also certified as a collaborative family law professional in New Jersey. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MS from Columbia University.