Learn about North Carolina Licensure

Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Written by Jack Levinson

family session

Are you drawn to the field of social work so that you can provide one-on-one counseling or therapy to individuals in need? If the answer is yes, you’ll need to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) to do so.

LCSWs hold the responsibilities that most people think of when they imagine the social work profession, working directly with clients to help them through times of struggle.

Because these are advanced responsibilities that require extensive training, there is work involved in becoming an LCSW that goes beyond completing an MSW program.

But beyond the enhanced role of an LCSW, there are many good reasons to pursue licensing as a clinician – in particular, the opportunity to take on more advanced roles, and therefore earn a higher salary, than social workers who don’t hold clinical licensing.

This article will explain how to become an LCSW in North Carolina, with information about the duties and responsibilities of an LCSW, job titles for LCSWs, and the salary range you can expect if you pursue a clinical practice. If you’ve been thinking of becoming an LCSW but haven’t been sure how to proceed, read on.

What Does a Licensed Clinical Social Worker Do?

A Licensed Clinical Social Worker has the training and expertise to provide therapy to clients facing a range of problems, from addiction and mental health struggles to domestic violence to those who have been through the criminal justice system. Different LCSWs focus on different types of therapeutic services, with a wide range of options to choose from.

As an LCSW, you can provide direct support to help people in need get their lives back on track.

Because the responsibilities of an LCSW are so great, those who do not hold clinical licensing are not eligible to perform direct counseling or related services. In other words, obtaining your LCSW certification is a requirement if this is the type of work you hope to do.

Job Titles for LCSWs

LCSWs are employed by a variety of social work organizations and are engaged in a huge range of social work causes. Below are just a few of the top job titles for LCSWs:

While not an exhaustive list, these job titles show the diversity of employment options, contexts, and roles for LCSWs. If you are passionate about a particular field of social work, you are likely to find a position that fulfills your goals.

Licensed Master Social Worker vs. Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Social workers who complete their MSW programs who do not wish to become counselors or therapists are still advised to pursue licensing, as this is a requirement for many if not most social work occupations, even outside of those services. However, if this applies to you, you need not become an LCSW, but rather can pursue licensure as a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) instead.

Those who complete MSW programs are automatically eligible to take the ASWB exam for LMSWs, forgoing the additional years of training required to have a clinical practice. Upon passing the exam, you will receive your state licensing.

So what does a Licensed Master Social Worker do? In short, LMSWs can take on any social work responsibilities outside of clinical practice. Those who wish to hold high-ranking administrative or coordinator roles in organizations, or those who are interested in macro-level social work that deals with communities as a whole, may be better served by an LMSW than an LCSW license.

How to Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in North Carolina

The steps to becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker are fairly straightforward, but it’s helpful to have a sense of your timeline if you’re at the beginning of your educational journey.

It’s not necessary to obtain your clinical licensing directly after your MSW program, but those who know they wish to provide counseling to others tend to choose to complete their LCSW training just after they graduate.

In other words, it’s always possible to pursue LCSW standing if you hold an MSW, and those who decide to pivot to a clinical practice can always do so after working in another social work capacity.

The guide below assumes that MSW students will want to receive their LCSW license directly after graduate school, but if you already hold a Master of Social Work degree, you can skip the first step of these instructions.

Obtain Your MSW Degree

One cannot become an LCSW without already holding their MSW degree. This is an unavoidable part of becoming a licensed social worker in North Carolina. However, your Master of Social Work program will equip you with the foundational knowledge and skills you need to thrive in the high-pressure job of a social worker.

An MSW program typically takes two years to complete, assuming you are in school full-time. In your second year, you are expected to complete field work hours. While the hours you put toward your MSW certificate will not apply to your LCSW field work hours, in some cases it is possible to continue working for the same social work organization as you work toward your clinical licensing.

With so many terrific Master of Social Work programs now available online, it is easier than ever to pursue your social work education at your own pace. This also means that you can complete one of the most significant steps of becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker online, though your field work hours are likely to require an in-person component.

Apply for LCSW Associate Status

In order to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in North Carolina, you must first apply to become an LCSW-A (Associate). This is an interim designation that allows you to begin logging your work hours. Without this standing, you will not be eligible to receive credit for your supervised field work credits. You cannot register your hours retroactively, so be sure not to miss this step as you prepare to become an LCSW.

Complete Your Supervised Work Hours

The bulk of the work required to become a licensed clinical social worker is supervised field work. In some cases, this will look a lot like the job you will eventually hold when you have your licensing, though you will not be granted the full responsibilities of a clinical social worker until you have received your license.

Licensed Clinical Social Workers in North Carolina are expected to complete 3,000 hours of clinical work after obtaining their MSW degree.

This translates to about two years of work, assuming you are on a full-time schedule. It is required in the state of North Carolina to complete these hours within six years of obtaining your LCSW-A certification.

Your LCSW field work hours are likely to include clinical responsibilities that will give you training in your eventual social work role. However, it is also possible that you will perform administrative duties, case management, and similar tasks to help support the social work organization where you are working.

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Pass the ASWB Exam

Upon completing your field work hours, you will be eligible to take the ASWB Clinical level exam. This exam – which is a four hour, multiple choice test – will cover information from your MSW program as well as test your on-the-ground judgment and competency as a social worker. It is a challenging exam requiring thoughtful preparation, so be sure to find a study group well ahead of the exam date in order to prepare.

The ASWB exam is administered by the Association of Social Work Exam Boards, who will require your MSW transcript, three academic or professional references, and a $115 registration fee. Be diligent in providing these materials so that you can take your exam.

Apply for Your License

With a passed ASWB Clinical exam under your belt, you have reached the end of the process of becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Congratulations! All you need to do now is apply to the North Carolina State Licensing Board. You will soon receive your official certificate in the mail, allowing you to launch a thriving career as an LCSW.

Maintaining Your LCSW License

Once you have become an LCSW, you may expect that your obligations to the licensing board are complete. However, beyond the requirements to become an LCSW, there are also requirements to keep your license active.

Typically, this involves taking continuing education courses to ensure that your knowledge of the social work field is up to date. These are designed for working social workers, so they should not interfere significantly with your schedule. You are likely to have several options of classes to choose from, so you can use this requirement as an opportunity to build new skills and areas of expertise, potentially helping you develop a new area of specialization.

LCSW Salary Range

If you have gone through the time- and work-intensive process of becoming an LCSW, it’s likely to pay off. LCSWs are often among the higher-paid social workers, as their duties are advanced. This is one reason why some social workers choose to pursue this advanced form of licensing.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that social workers in the state of North Carolina earn the following salaries on average (numbers reflecting mean annual income):

These numbers are quite close to the mean annual incomes of social workers nationwide. Their reports for social workers earning in the 90th percentile are considerably higher:

Why are these numbers relevant to LCSWs? They are useful because while the BLS does not report earnings of clinical social workers specifically, LCSWs are likely to have higher-ranking roles in social work organizations than those without clinical licensing, with salaries to match. This is not to say that you will start earning among the top 90th percentile of social workers overnight, but it provides a motivating benchmark to work toward in your social work career.


What does holding an LCSW allow you to do?

Licensed Clinical Social Workers are able to provide clinical duties for individuals, couples and families – namely counseling and other therapeutic services. These roles can be in settings ranging from schools to inpatient treatment centers to prisons and more. One cannot perform these responsibilities unless they are licensed to practice clinical social work.

Do you need an MSW to become an LCSW?

Yes. Without an MSW, you will not be able to become an LCSW-A, the category of social worker that is eligible to log field work hours toward their eventual licensure. This is a strict rule overseen by the North Carolina State Licensing Board. In short, you should definitely plan on completing a Master of Social Work program before pursuing clinical licensing.

How long does it take to become an LCSW?

If you are deciding to pursue clinical licensing immediately after your MSW program, you should expect to complete approximately two additional years of supervised field work hours. Since an MSW program typically takes two years to complete, this will be a four year endeavor overall.

What is the difference between an LCSW and an LMSW?

While an LCSW performs clinical services like counseling and therapy, an LMSW is not certified to hold clinical responsibilities. However, LMSW licensing asserts that you have completed your MSW and passed a proficiency exam that makes you capable of holding all other social work responsibilities. This is an excellent choice for those who wish to pursue administrative or macro-scale roles in social work organizations. Since some form of licensing is a requirement to practice social work in North Carolina, you will most likely need to pick between these two types of license.