In order to boost employment potential and expertise in certain categories of social work, professionals should consider applying for an official credential or certification. Graduate certifications offered by various institutions can provide specialized education in health care practice, child welfare, or diverse communities. This can also be earned through social work associations that gives a boost to state licensure and other potential designations the professional obtains.

What is a social work credential?

Reviewed by Anna Shull, MSW

If you’ve established yourself in your social work career, gaining the insight and understanding that years of field experience can provide, you may feel ready to specialize in a particular area of focus.

Many social workers, having received their master’s degree and gained illuminating on-the-job experience, decide to enhance their careers by focusing on an area of specialization.

This can be an excellent choice for those who wish to rise in the ranks of their workplace, and can ultimately make one qualified for leadership roles that make key decisions in social work organizations.

social worker talking with teen patient

Some social workers are directed naturally toward their area of specialty, having worked with focus on one particular subject or using one specific methodology. For others, certification is an opportunity to redirect your course through the social work profession. Whatever your case may be, obtaining an advanced social work credential is likely to be transformative, opening doors and allowing you to achieve more as a practitioner.

So why pursue a social work credential if you already hold a master’s degree? What types of specializations can a social worker pursue? And what types of job opportunities are available for social workers who have acquired additional certification? This article will answer all those questions and more, providing a complete guide to social work certification opportunities that will benefit any social worker aiming to get a leg up in their career.

To learn all about the different social work credentials out there and determine which educational path is right for you, read on.

What is a social work credential?

A social work credential defines what type of practice the professional has gained expertise in, such as gerontology, health care, and youth and family. Also known as a professional certification or specialty, these credentials are distributed by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).

Holding a credential can give professionals additional recognition beyond the state licensure.

The NASW Credentialing Center gives both Professional Social Work Credentials, which is limited to members of the organization, and Advanced Practice Specialty Credentials that are open to the public. This designation acts as an additional licensure beyond the state level, but does not replace what is required when becoming professionally licensed. NASW has been giving out credentials to social workers for over 50 years.

Professional Social Work Credentials are defined through leadership in two certifications: Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW) and Diplomate in Clinical Social Work (DCSW). Both require the completion of a Master of Social Work degree. Advanced Practice Specialty Credentials, which varies in the MSW or Bachelor of Social Work requirement, will offer one or more certifications in the following categories:

  • Addictions
  • Case Management
  • Clinical
  • Education
  • Gerontology (Aging)
  • Health Care
  • Hospice and Palliative
  • Military
  • Youth and Family
explaining prescription to seniors

Why is a social work credential important?

Professionals that hold a specialization in social work will be able to showcase their advanced skills beyond the designation of a state license. This shows that the social worker has the leadership capability to operate an organization or advocacy group to influence policy change that improves the community. It also recognizes the work experience and commitment the professional has in their line of work, which could be clinical practice or administration duties.

Holding credentials establishes the professional as not only having the capability to do various activities, but having a depth of knowledge in their area of specialty. They understand both history and theory, and are focused on improving their particular sector through data-driven and evidence-based decision making.

Having a credential can give professionals better opportunities at landing social work jobs or improving their position.

Leadership positions at an agency are more likely to recognize professionals that have made a commitment to fighting social injustice or improving the health and mental health of various age groups and demographics.

What is the NASW Credentialing Center?

The NASW Credentialing Center manages and distributes the credentials and certifications to social work professionals. In order to create credentials, they determine what needs are currently in demand within the field to specialize practice, such as working with youth and family members or improving the education process with struggling students.

The credentialing center also reviews and processes applications to determine if the social worker has met the criteria and requirements set by the organization. They also verify the completion of continuing education required to renew these credentials.

Where can you get social work credentials?

Anybody that qualifies for NASW credentials or specialty certifications can get them regardless of location. Individuals can select and apply for any certification on the organization's website. For example, the Qualified Clinical Social Worker (QCSW) is geared towards individuals that are looking to work directly with clients and evaluate potential treatment plans, or utilize psychotherapy or counseling to determine diagnosis.

Potential applicants should download and review the booklet offered on the website for a particular specialty certification, which explores who this certification is for, what criteria needs to be met in order to gain the designation, how to maintain the certification, and all the application forms required.

For the QCSW, applicants must submit an application checklist that shows the completion of everything required for the credential. This includes the verification of professional supervision hours and continuing education, any current licenses and official transcripts of degrees earned, and all fees required. There are different requirements depending on the credential selected.

Social work credential requirements

All credentials and specialty certifications through the NASW will have different requirements set for applicants interested in gaining the designation. This includes varying education levels, such as needing a Bachelor's degree or Master's degree in social work, and certain supervision hours of post-education experience. Potential candidates should review and complete all forms given by the organization on their website when applying.

Be sure to look into the requirements for the precise credential you’re looking for, as they can vary greatly by field.

Requirements will be listed on the page of each specialty certification and in the PDF file including the application forms. Here are some examples of what to expect when reviewing these credentials.

Qualified Clinical Social Worker

A Master's degree is needed within the social work discipline and is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). After graduation, at least three years of employment is required that emphasizes work in mental health and treatment planning, and 30 hours of continuing education was gained over the last two years. All other requirements for state licensure is also needed to gain the certification.

Military Service Members, Veterans, and their Families - Social Worker

Of the three different levels of military social work, the initial certification only requires an accredited Bachelor's degree in social work. State licensure is needed unless the candidate lives in one of the few states that does not require it at the undergraduate level. At least two years of similar work experience must be supervised, and 10 of the 20 continuing education hours must feature military social work content.

Certified Social Worker in Health Care

The Master of Social Work must be completed and accredited by the CSWE in order to meet the academic needs for a health care social worker designation. In addition, at least 3,000 hours of post-graduate work experience that was supervised must be documented and verified. Either Master's degree-level examination through the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) or state licensure is also needed.

Certified Social Worker Case Study: Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco & Other Drugs Social Worker

Beyond the boost in title and potential salary increase, what do the increased responsibilities of a certified social worker look like? In the case of clinical addiction specialists, this can mean two things: enhanced generalist responsibilities or enhanced specialist responsibilities.

For a generalist in addiction services, this means overseeing services at the macro level, such as designing a clinic’s implementation strategy or developing its support services. These can be positions of great responsibility, with the power to impact many.

A specialist in addiction services, meanwhile, will be able to deliver targeted clinical care to individuals facing a particular problem. One might specialize, for example, in treatment methods for those dependent on pharmaceuticals. This means mastering the intake, assessment, and intervention process as well as building up an extensive knowledge of the considerations surrounding this issue, from the physiology of drug dependence to the legal status of various drugs.

Social worker salary range and job outlook

Social workers perform duties that aid and alleviate major societal problems impacting individuals, families, and communities alike. This means that their skills are in high demand. Indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports high job outlook estimates for social workers, with an overall projected job growth rate of 9% by 2031 – well above the average for other professions. For community and social service specialists, this number is even higher at an impressive 12%, making clear that receiving an advanced credential can pay off.

The salary range for social workers can vary considerably depending on their ranking and the arena of social work in which they work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those in the mental health and substance abuse sector earn a median annual wage of $49,130 per year. Those in the top 90th percentile of the sector, however, earn $97,300 or more. Meanwhile, healthcare social workers earn a mean annual wage of $62,310, with the top 90th percentile earning $86,820 or more. This also helps to show why getting advanced certification can be a tremendous boon for social workers looking to get more from their professional lives.

comforting soldier

Social Work Credentials and Certifications FAQs

Does NASW offer credentials and specialty certifications for both BSW and MSW level social workers?

There are specific certifications offered for professionals that hold either the Bachelor of Social Work or Master of Social Work degree. Gaining the ACSW and DCSW both require the MSW degree and membership into the NASW organization. The MSW degree is needed to gain certification in one of the nine categories recognized by the NASW, which can be earned by without NASW membership.

Five certifications can be earned with the completion of a BSW program in case management, aging, hospital care, military veterans, and children and family. All of these certifications can be advanced upon with a graduate-level degree.

  • Certified Social Work Case Manager
  • Social Worker in Gerontology
  • Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Social Worker
  • Military Service Members, Veterans, and their Families - Social Worker
  • Certified Children, Youth, and Family Social Worker

An MSW is required gain certification in substance abuse and addictions with alcohol or drugs. This is also required for specializations in school work, the health care sector, and overall clinical work. There are specific designations of clinical gerontology, substance abuse, and military veterans recognized by the NASW.

Here is a full list of all 11 different specialty certifications offered by the NASW that require the MSW degree:

  • Certified Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs Social Worker
  • Certified Advanced Social Work Case Manager
  • Qualified Clinical Social Worker
  • Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology
  • Advanced Social Worker in Gerontology
  • Certified School Social Work Specialist
  • Certified Social Worker in Health Care
  • Advanced Certified Hospice and Palliative Social Worker
  • Military Service Members, Veterans, and their Families - Advanced Social Worker
  • Military Service Members, Veterans, and their Families - Clinical Social Worker
  • Certified Advanced Children, Youth, and Family Social Worker

How are NASW credentials and specialty certifications developed?

Specialty certifications were developed over 20 years ago due to the expansion of the social work field from growing substance abuse addiction cases and former military members suffering through trauma. These are just a few examples of what needs further advocacy in order to improve communities and overall mental health in society.

Gaining this designation allows the professional to focus their studies and show employers and clients that they have full understanding of the type of work they represent. The Master of Social Work is a program that often has different specializations that students can explore, and opportunities do vary based on the institution selected by the student.

Does NASW membership automatically give you a credential or specialty certification?

Having a membership with the NASW offers various discounts on services, networking opportunity with other professionals, and is a requirement for some credentials in social work. However, simply having this membership does not give an individual any credentials or specialty certifications. There are different requirements set for gaining a membership and certifications.

There are different types of memberships available for social work professionals. Regular memberships and student memberships require members to hold an accredited degree, or are at least pursuing a program at the time. Associate members will have limitations on their capability, such as the inability to vote for elective office (at least initially) and they cannot hold these office positions.

Do I need a social work degree to qualify for an NASW credential or specialty certification?

All credentials and specialty certifications offered by the NASW require the completion of a Bachelor of Social Work or Master of Social Work degree. These degrees should have certification from the CSWE, which designates that the program has gone through rigorous review and verified to provide the best skills and academics needed to prepare students for their social work career.

Are the NASW credentials and specialty certifications the same as a state license?

Whether you’re getting your start in the field as a Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW) or considering your post-MSW options as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), having credentials from the NASW does not replace any of the state licenses required to become a social worker. These types of licenses are required to work directly with clients, and only those who hold advanced licenses are permitted to work independently and establish private practices of their own. Having a specialty certification shows competence in a particular category of social work, such as gerontology or health care, but still doesn’t replace the need for a state-issued license.

Find Schools
Sponsored Content

All states have different requirements in terms of post-graduate supervision hours to gain licensure and the amount of continuing education needed to renew the license. Students can look for undergraduate and graduate programs that have particular specializations, such as working with health care or youth, then pursue a similar credential after gaining state licensure. Credentials act as a badge on top of state licensures.

social worker here to help

What are the benefits of having an NASW credential or specialty certification?

By obtaining a specialty certification, social work professionals can showcase their skills and experience. In addition to having the academics and general skills overall to succeed in the field, these designations will show competence in a particular area, whether that is developing successful and evidence-based treatment plans or helping youth overcome difficult situations at home and advancing in school.

Professionals with NASW credentials will have agreed to and adhere to the Code of Ethics created by the organization. Many different principles must be followed by all professionals that are members of the association or have received credentials from them, with the bulk of these requirements in social diversity, competence in what they practice, and supervision and consultation regulations.

Examples of the principles and standards they must follow include treating everybody respectfully and being mindful of different cultural views or backgrounds. They must look to continuing enhancing and improving relationships with clients, and within groups and communities when necessary. Also, they have an ethical responsibility to respect privacy and confidentiality of vulnerable and personal information.

How do I apply for an NASW credential or specialty certification?

Social work professionals can apply for the association’s credentials or specialty certifications by applying specifically for the certification through filling documentation and mailing it to NASW. Documentation can be found directly on the “Credentials and Certifications” page when looking to apply for these programs. Payment is needed for the application process along with the document submissions.

PDF files can be downloaded, which include what the certification is geared toward, the criteria that makes an individual social worker eligible, and all the forms necessary to verify the professional. Many certifications will have similar requirements, such as having an undergraduate or graduate degree and multiple years of entry-level experience in social work, but some specific needs will differ based on the category.

How long does it take to obtain an NASW credential or specialty certification?

The process of receiving the specialty designation or credential is approximately 15 business days, or three weeks. In some cases, the organization may request further information or validation of specific documents. This situation will extend the process to up to 30 business days, or six weeks.

All certifications will require some form of renewal process, and all holders will receive a reminder for their renewal 60 days prior to expiration. The ACSW must be renewed on an annual basis, but the majority of credentials will need to be reviewed every two years. 20 credit hours of continuing education is needed to meet renewal needs, and professionals must be in good standing.

What are the criteria for NASW credentials and specialty certifications?

Admission requirements will change depending on what credentials or specialty certifications are being considered by the applicant. Some certifications will need at least a Bachelor’s degree or Master’s degree in social work, and all require adherence to the NASW Code of Ethics.

Professionals should review information such as continuing education hours, post-graduation hours, and if they need state licensure or specific entrance examination. Here are examples of specific requirements in a handful of specialty certifications:

Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology

In addition to a Master’s degree in social work that is accredited by the CSWE, applicants for the gerontology certification should have at least two years of supervised work beyond the academics, which is equivalent to 3,000 clock hours. 30 hours must be in direct contact of clients that are dealing with aging issues and conflicts. They must also hold state licensure as a clinical professional.

Certified Hospice and Palliative Social Worker

For the standard certification within hospice and palliative work, professionals must hold a Bachelor of Social Work accredited from the CSWE and at least 20 credit hours of continuing education in a related discipline. At least three years of supervised work beyond the Bachelor’s degree is needed. State licensure must also be obtained where locations require it.

Certified Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs Social Worker

3,000 clock hours of supervised work is needed after obtaining a Master’s degree that is accredited by the CSWE, which equates to two additional years of experience. This opportunity should also have 180 contact hours when working with others that are dealing with substance abuse and alcohol or drug addiction. Professionals looking for this credential should also hold state licensure and adhere to the Code of Ethics.

talking with senior at home

Do I need to be a current member of NASW to apply for the NASW credentials and specialty certifications?

For some credentials, including the two offered as Professional Social Work Credentials, a membership is needed to obtain these designations. However, most of the specialty certifications only require the completion of various undergraduate and graduate programs in social work. Having a membership with the NASW can help in other ways, such as preparing for examination and meeting with other professionals.

There are different types of memberships available for social work professionals. Regular memberships and student memberships require members to hold an accredited degree, or are at least pursuing a program at the time. Associate members will have limitations on their capability, such as the inability to vote for elective office (at least initially) and they cannot hold these office positions.

Can supervision by any mental health professional be used to qualify for NASW credentials and specialty certifications?

In general, supervision can be completed by established social work professionals for specialty certifications. Specific requirements should be reviewed by the applicant where criteria is listed for certain credentials. When completing state licensure, individuals that are looking to become a licensed social worker will need to be supervised by a similar professional.

Contracted supervision is accepted as long as it is formally recognized by an employer or the organization representing the applicant. The contractor should be able to detail the situation and submit documentation along with the application.

If the supervisor has passed away or is unavailable to sign off on clock hours, or the employer that supervision took place no longer exists, professionals will need to write a letter and fully explain these details to NASW. As an alternative, a trusted professional colleague that can vouch for the supervision and clock hours can sign off on this requirement.

What are the benefits of a Case Management Certification?

There are two different credentials that can be gained in case management, one for each of the Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees within social work. Regardless of education level, case management is important to evaluate clients and determine what treatment or services is needed to improve their situation. Professionals representing this type of work will make important decisions based on the resources available.

Many benefits exist when it comes to obtaining a certification in case management. Potential clients will be comfortable with certified case mangers as they hold proper experience and will have the leadership capability to decide the next best steps and will understand any issues that take place. This is also beneficial to employers and increases the chances of becoming employed in this field.

Find Schools
Sponsored Content

Case management positions can be recognized separately from social workers, with a duty to evaluate and understand what type of care is needed. This type of employment does not emphasize therapy or evidence-based treatment, and it is common for these workers to hold a Bachelor’s degree. There is also no process for these professionals to gain state licensure or any other form of licensure.

What is the NASW / Commission for Case Manager Certification (CCMC) Collaborative?

One of the growing needs in social work are the ability for professionals to perform case management skills. Health care facilities need more social workers that are able to understand and develop a successful system when maintaining cases. These professionals will identify what treatment needs to take place based on successful prior methods and other research has gone into specific cases.

The Commission for Case Manager Certification has a duty to improve this growing need and prepare individuals for success when it comes to case management skills in various industries. Regardless of desired category to explore, social work professionals may be eligible for Case Manager Certification with the completion of an examination.

Testing for the capability is a free process if the professional has received approval for the Certified Social Work Case Manager or Certified Advanced Social Work Case Manager designations. Gaining approval for either of these certifications requires typical needs of other NASW programs within youth and families, gerontology, substance abuse, and more.