How to Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in North Carolina

Written by Jack Levinson

social worker helping patient

Many who enter the social work profession aspire to ultimately provide counseling and other therapeutic services for individuals and families in need. Indeed, when we think of social work, these types of one-on-one services are often what come to mind. However, not every social worker is authorized to take on the delicate responsibilities of a counselor or therapist. In order to take on such roles, one must become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), an advanced level within the field.

Helping others directly can be one of the most rewarding forms of work there is. To be effective in such a role, one must prepare thoroughly.

This is why the eligibility requirements for LCSWs are higher than those who perform other roles in the world of social work. The good news is that the additional work needed to become an LCSW will provide hands-on work experience that will relate directly to your intended career path. This means you’ll be setting the wheels in motion even before you receive your credential.

This article will provide a primer on how to become an LCSW in North Carolina in a step-by-step guide. Whether you are just beginning your academic journey or on the verge of completing your MSW, this resource will give you a detailed idea of what’s to come.

1. Complete your social work education

For those who wish to know how to become an LCSW in North Carolina, your first step will be the same as anywhere else: receiving a social work education.

In order to become an LCSW in North Carolina and nationwide, one must hold a Master of Social Work degree. 

Those who do not yet hold bachelor’s degrees can expedite their educational journey by pursuing a Bachelor of Social Work degree. It is important to note, however, that a BSW on its own will not be enough to qualify you for LCSW accreditation.

Bachelor of Social Work (BSW)

Typical program duration: 4 years

Those who have made up their minds that they would like to become LCSWs at the outset of their undergraduate experience can benefit from pursuing a Bachelor of Social Work degree. Though by no means required to qualify for an MSW program (for that, any bachelor’s degree is suitable), a BSW contains shared coursework with the first year of an MSW program, allowing graduate students with BSWs to bypass their first year of their master’s. For those eager to get their careers started as quickly as possible, this is an excellent option.

talking with client

Master of Social Work (MSW)

Typical program duration: 2 years
For those with BSWs: 1 year

A Master of Social Work is the required degree level for most high-ranking social work job titles. It is the degree you will need to hold in order to be eligible for the ASWB (Association of Social Work Boards) exam, meaning it is a necessary step in becoming an LCSW.

An MSW provides the grounding for you to understand the discipline of social work as a whole, as well as find your own place in it.

MSW course work

In your master’s program, you will study general approaches to social work as well as develop an understanding of the different branches of social work and the skills they require. While some students know their intended social work focus area before starting graduate school, these introductory MSW classes help many students determine where they’d like to specialize.

MSW fieldwork / internship experience

In most MSW programs, students are expected to complete an internship or practicum in their second year of school. These provide on-the-ground work experience, allowing students to see firsthand the responsibilities of social workers in their chosen area. In some cases, students can continue these internships through their LCSW mandatory work hours.

Become a Licensed Social Worker Online

If you are juggling your education with other responsibilities – or if there is no Master of Social Work program near you – there are excellent online master’s programs that will allow you to complete your education at your convenience. Online MSWs in North Carolina provide as rigorous and respected an education as traditional in-person schools, and are an option that makes a degree program feasible for those who might otherwise not be able to complete them.

It is worth noting that online Master of Social Work programs in North Carolina will still include mandatory fieldwork or internship hours, which will typically still be held in person. However, you should be able to make plans that suit your specific needs. If you had ruled out pursuing your MSW due to scheduling conflicts, good news: online MSW programs mean you can put those plans back on the table.

2. Apply for LCSW Associate status

After you have completed your MSW, you are eligible to become an LCSW Associate. This is not the same as a full-fledged LCSW. Rather, as an LCSW Associate you are authorized to begin accumulating your supervised work hours. You can apply for this with the North Carolina State Licensing Board.

It’s important to note that you will not be able to submit any work experience retroactively, which means you must sign up before beginning your new job. There’s a great deal of work required to qualify for LCSW certification, and you won’t want any of your time to be off the books.

3. Complete your LCSW work hours

The meat of your LCSW credentialing process will be your mandatory work hours.

In order to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in North Carolina, you are expected to complete 3,000 hours of post-graduate work, with at least 100 of them supervised.

These will need to be documented and submitted regularly to the Board throughout this period. In North Carolina, LCSWs are expected to complete these hours within six years of initiating the process.

Your work hours will give you deep field experience, in many cases allowing you to take on the responsibilities of a clinical social worker (though under supervision). For those who are eager to get their clinical practices started, this will be an exciting opportunity to begin working directly with patients.

In addition to direct counseling and therapy, your LCSW work hours may involve administrative and macro-level tasks such as case management, treatment planning, and more.

4. Pass the ASWB exam

Once you have completed your mandatory LCSW work hours, the next step is taking the ASWB exam. The ASWB offers several exams for social workers; for LCSWs, this exam is the ASWB Clinical Exam. It is a four-hour, multiple-choice exam that will evaluate your knowledge of social work best practices as well as your decision-making skills in difficult situations in the field.

To take the test, you will need to first apply with the Social Work Certification and Licensure Board to take the ASWB (Association of Social Work Boards) exam. You will be expected to provide:

As your exam date approaches, it’s important to save time to prepare thoroughly. Many find it helpful to form regular study groups that begin convening months before the exam date. After all, by the time of your ASWB exam, the foundational coursework of your MSW will be many years behind you, so it is imperative to review this information.

smiling social worker and client

5. Apply for clinical licensure

Now that you have passed the ASWB exam, you are ready to apply for your licensure! You will need to submit your completed hours and receipt of the passed test to the state licensing board. Once you have sent it, you should receive your certification quickly and will be ready to start your clinical practice.

6. Maintain licensure

As an LCSW, you’ll periodically be expected to renew your license. This process can include taking continuing education classes to learn about developments in the field and potentially gain new areas of specialization in your clinical practice.


Do you need an MSW to become an LCSW?

Yes. An MSW is a requirement in order to qualify for LCSW credentialing. This is because the main component of an LCSW program is fieldwork experience, meaning you will need the coursework of an MSW under your belt before you get started. Many if not most LCSWs choose to complete their LCSW hours directly after their MSW program is finished. However, you don’t necessarily have to become a licensed clinical social worker right out of your MSW program; some choose to gain experience in the field before taking on their LCSW credentials.

How long does it take to become an LCSW in North Carolina?

In order to gain their licensing in North Carolina, LCSWs are expected to complete 3,000 fieldwork hours, with a minimum of 100 of those hours under supervision. This typically takes aspiring LCSWs two years to complete, and it is required to complete these hours within 6 years of commencing the program. On top of the two years of completing an MSW, those who follow a traditional schedule can expect to become an LCSW after four years.

Can I put my MSW internship hours toward my LCSW hours?

No. You will not be eligible to become an LCSW Associate until you have completed your MSW program. Only upon becoming an associate will you be able to submit your field hours toward your LCSW credential. This means the internship hours from the practicum component of your MSW cannot count toward your LCSW, though they will have already helped you get there.

What is the difference between an LCSW and a CMSW?

An LCSW, having completed 3,000 hours of work experience, is licensed to have a clinical practice offering direct counseling and therapeutic services. A Certified Master of Social Work (CMSW) is not licensed to practice direct counseling. However, those who complete their MSW and do not wish to hold clinical status can still obtain a credential from the ASWB by taking the Master’s level exam. This will qualify you for higher-ranking non-clinical positions in social work organizations.