What is the Difference Between Clinical and Non-Clinical Social Work?

Non-clinical social workers and clinical social workers are two different things and their roles in working with people vary significantly. Depending on previous experience, personality, in addition to personal preference, one may be better suited for working in clinical or non-clinical social work settings. After proficiently understanding the differences between the two, you should decide which would be the most appropriate fit before getting licensed in social work. The two have fairly explicit career paths and depending on what you’re trying to accomplish, you might be better suited for one route or another. Jump to a section with the links below:

Non-Clinical Social Work

A non-clinical social worker can practice with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, but many return for their master’s to provide more comprehensive experience to those they’re working for. Non-clinical work may incorporate therapy, public or private organizations, case management, administration, and more. Many times non-clinical social workers will work on counseling and helping their clients with whatever issues they may be having. This can range from working with individuals to secure a new job, to coordinating rehabilitation programs, and more. This typically will have you working with clients on more of a consulting basis, compared to a clinical setting, which will be more comprehensive in services.

Licensure varies depending on states. Some of these may include:

  • Licensed Social Work Associate (LSWA): You must have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in social work, or a field closely related such as psychology, for this licensure. The LSWA is for entry-level social work employees wanting to work at non-clinical level. With this certification you must be supervised by a LSW, LCSW, or a LICSW professional.
  • Licensed Social Worker (LSW): In order to gain this licensure you must have a bachelor degree in social work. If you have a degree in another field than you can have a certain number of work experience under the supervision of a licensed social worker. This licensure allows you to provide non-clinical social work services, such as case management and administrative supervision.
  • Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW): This is the most advanced non-clinical licensure you can receive. Though this is a licensed non-clinical social work license, you are still permitted to engage in private or independent practice.

Clinical Social Work

As a clinical social worker you’re likely to address individual and family problems such as serious illness, substance abuse, and domestic conflict. A master’s degree in social work is necessary if you want to provide clinical services. Most of your work will be done in a clinical setting and typically encompasses psychotherapy, counseling, therapy, and more.

State licensing requirements vary, but some amount of supervised work experience is necessary for private practice.

  • Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW): This is listed as both clinical and non-clinical, as the LMSW is permitted to perform clinical social work, but only under the direct consultation of a LCSW. A LMSW also can’t engage in private practice.
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW): This is the most advanced social work certification, and those with this licensure must have a master or doctorate level education. Some LCSW may work in socially oriented agencies, hospitals, treatment facilities, or own their own private practice.

The National Association of Social Workers sets guidelines on what clinical social workers should be capable of doing for clients:

■ Establish and maintain a relationship of mutual respect, acceptance, and trust
■ Gather and interpret social, personal,environmental, and health information
■ Evaluate and treat problems within their scope of practice
■ Establish achievable treatment goals with the client
■ Facilitate cognitive, affective, and behavioral changes consistent with treatment goals
■ Evaluate the effectiveness of treatment services provided to the client
■ Identify appropriate resources and assessment instruments, as needed
■ Advocate for client services
■ Collaborate effectively with other social work or allied professionals, when appropriate.

For a complete list of standards needed to practice clinical social work, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has compiled this report.

What are the educational requirements for a social worker?

To become a Licensed Social Worker (LSW), an applicant must have at least a bachelor’s degree in social work and pass the national examination administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB).

When looking for programs, it’s important to keep a few factors in mind:

  • Is the program accredited?
  • Will the program prepare you for licensure and other exams?
  • Does the program offer online or hybrid courses for working and non-traditional students?

Below we’ve listed popular accredited programs in social work that meet these factors:

Our Lady of the Lake University
Our Lady of the Lake University

University of Southern California
University of Southern California

  • WASC
Walden University
Walden University

  • HLC
  • NCA
Boston University
Boston University


Click here to see more online Social Work degrees

Search for online Social Work programs