Skip to content
The College of St. Scholastica

Social workers are the unsung heroes in our communities. They work in our hospitals, schools, criminal justice system and elsewhere to preserve the quality of life for those around them. Many people would agree they do so without receiving enough recognition for their tireless efforts.

Our communities are slowly beginning to view social workers as the superheroes they are, but there’s so much more to this dynamic field than many realize. For example, did you know there are three main types of professionals under the umbrella of social work? There are macro social workers (those providing indirect service), direct service social workers and clinical social workers.

Macro social workers work behind the scenes to indirectly benefit individuals at the institutional or policy level. These are the social workers fighting for improvements, support and change across the industry.

Direct service and clinical social workers stand firmly on the front lines, working face-to-face with individuals and families in need. The former requires a bachelor’s degree, while the latter requires a master’s—but do their differences span further than just degree disparity?

We spoke with a handful of social work experts to help us understand the nuances of clinical social work so that you can determine your path in the field. Take a look at what they had to say.

What sets clinical social work apart?

Clinical social work was named one of U.S. News & World Report’s Best Healthcare Jobs and 100 Best Jobs overall for 2015. All clinical social workers are required to earn a master’s degree in the field as well as state-specific licensure, and they earn a median annual salary of $50,820.* Add that to the 19 percent projected growth of the field, and the decision to pursue this meaningful career becomes more and more clear.

But you’re likely wondering what differentiates clinical social work from other specialties in the field. “What sets clinical social workers apart from other disciplines is our educational training regarding the person in the context of their families and communities,” explains Karen Koenig, author and licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

Clinical social workers operate from a “person-in-environment” perspective, considering not only their individual client, but also the communities to which they belong, from family to vocational environments, and everything in between. That is to say, clinical social workers are trained to recognize that individual clients are not “islands unto themselves,” but are integral to a much larger system, according to Carolyn Esparza, who worked for years as a LCSW and now practices within her local criminal justice system.

This integrated treatment model and increased educational requirement inevitably expands the scope of work for clinical social workers. Unlike bachelor-level professionals in the field, they can do the following:

  • Provide clients with relevant therapy and psychotherapy
  • Assess and diagnose clients with psychological conditions
  • Administer interventions and evidence-based treatment
  • Oversee case management  

“Clinical social workers…possess both a generalist social work foundation, as well as advanced knowledge of theory and practice related to prevention and treatment of psychological and behavioral disorders,” explains Michelle Comtois, LCSW and vice president of programs at First Call Alcohol/Drug Prevention & Recovery.  

What to expect as a clinical social worker

The increased assessment and treatment capability of clinical social workers is bound to add more to the plates of these impactful professionals. So what does a day in the life of a clinical social worker actually look like?

Well, that answer is more complicated than you might think, because—you guessed it—it’s different for everyone.

“Nothing prepared me for the fact that, as a social worker, no two days would ever be the same,” says Esparza. “Therefore, to be most effective, students must become exceptionally comfortable with being flexible.”

Your daily duties will be wholly dependent on the setting in which you work—and there are a lot of options for clinical social workers, ranging from hospitals and private practices to public schools and rehabilitation facilities. But there are a few things you can expect regardless of where you work.

“Typically, being a clinical social worker entails providing some form of therapy or counseling to a person and/or family,” explains Tomanika Witherspoon, a LCSW who works both within her own private practice, as well as at a residential treatment facility. Her daily duties include administering individual, group or family therapy; completing initial and quarterly treatment plans; preparing court reports and sometimes attending or testifying at hearings; and coordinating with multidisciplinary teams regarding client concerns, treatment plans and medication reviews.

Koenig, who operates a private practice in addition to administering volunteer counseling at a local women’s center, completes many of the same tasks in her day-to-day life as a LCSW. “My day consists of sessions with clients, taking notes, emailing with them, billing, fielding phone calls from current and prospective clients to make appointments, speaking with trusted colleagues about how to handle difficult cases and marketing to drive more business my way.”

The best clinical social workers are well-rounded in their skill sets, but also adaptable and able to think quickly on their feet. “Allowing myself to remain exceptionally flexible has afforded me the most fulfilling of all social work experiences,” Esparza says.

Make a difference as a clinical social worker

The flexible and skillful application of knowledge, theories, values and methods in a biopsychosocial approach is the hallmark of clinical social work, according to the American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work (ABECSW).

In addition to adhering to a code of ethics within their practices, it is always important for clinical social workers to remember what drew them to the field in the first place. Revisiting the purpose behind one’s practice is a highly-recommended tactic to avoid social work burnout. “Clinical social work presents amazing opportunities to learn, to support people who are struggling and to witness the incredible strength and resilience of those pursuing recovery and wellness,” Comtois says.

If you’re interested in learning more about restoring the health, wellness and quality of life for those around you with a career in clinical social work, visit The College of St. Scholastica’s master of social work (MSW) program page to request more information.


*Salary data represents national, averaged earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries and employment conditions in your area may vary.