MSW vs LCSW: What’s the Difference?

As you research more into social work careers, you may be confused by the different certifications, specialties, degrees, and licenses required to practice in your field of choice. The two most common advanced practices for social workers that often come up are MSW (Master of Social Work) and LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker). Do you have questions about the difference between qualifications and salary ranges? This article will help you decide which one suits you best, LCSW vs MSW.

LCSW vs MSW: In-Depth Definitions

MSW: Master of Social Work

An MSW, or Master of Social Work, is an advanced level of education in social work that offers more specialized knowledge and skills in social work. MSW programs generally take about two years of full-time study to complete and require you to have completed a bachelor’s degree. Students with a bachelor’s degree in social work may qualify for an advanced standing program. This takes a shorter time as it builds on the skills and knowledge acquired from the bachelor’s degree.

MSW programs are comprehensive, covering a variety of subjects within social work, such as social policy, human behavior, research methods, and specific fields of practice like child and family services, mental health, or school social work. MSW programs involve fieldwork, which gives students hands-on experience. This is under supervision by a seasoned social worker.

Most schools provide on-campus and online study options. The choice between online and on-campus often depends on the individual.

LCSW: Licensed Clinical Social Worker

LCSW stands for Licensed Clinical Social Worker. You can get this additional state licensure after completing your MSW degree. LCSW social workers are licensed to provide mental health services such as diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders. This involves counseling, psychotherapy, crisis intervention, and more.

The LCSW title is recognized in all states in the U.S., but the specific requirements to earn this title can vary from state to state. Despite these variations, the LCSW always represents expertise and professional recognition that goes beyond what an MSW alone can provide.

In conclusion, the MSW is an academic degree that opens the door to various career possibilities in social work. The LCSW is a licensure that allows social workers to practice independently in clinical settings.

Similarities and Differences between MSW and LCSW


MSW holders and LCSWs are deeply committed to helping others, improving lives, and addressing societal challenges. The core ethos of social work – empathy, social justice, and a person-in-environment perspective – forms the bedrock for both roles.

MSW and LCSW programs prepare individuals for careers in social work, including roles involving direct practice, community organizing, policy development, and research.

Another shared element is the requirement for fieldwork or practical experience. Whether you’re working towards an MSW degree or LCSW licensure, hands-on experience in real-world settings is essential to your professional development.


Despite these similarities, there are some differences between MSW and LCSW, mainly related to the level of practice, specialization, and career pathways.

  1. Level of Practice: An MSW provides a broad education in social work and opens up various career opportunities. It’s a stepping stone toward professional social work practice. On the other hand, LCSW is a licensure that allows for independent clinical practice for the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders.
  2. Specialization: MSW programs usually offer a range of concentrations, from children, youth, and families to health and aging, allowing students to tailor their education to their interests and career goals. LCSWs, however, focus specifically on clinical practice. This involves specialized knowledge and skills in assessment, psychotherapy, and crisis intervention.
  3. Career Pathways: With an MSW, individuals can take on various roles in diverse settings – they might work as case managers, policy analysts, or community outreach workers, among others. LCSWs, with their clinical training and licensure, can provide therapy and counseling services, either in agencies or in private practice.
  4. Education and Licensure Requirements: While an MSW is a degree obtained after a 1-2 year program (depending on if you qualify for advanced standing), an LCSW requires not only an MSW degree but also additional supervised clinical experience (typically two to three years) and passing a licensure examination.

An MSW provides a broad foundation for social work practice, while an LCSW offers a more focused, clinically oriented pathway.

MSW vs LCSW Salary: A Comparative Analysis

Salary in social work, like in many fields, varies depending on factors such as geographical location, years of experience, area of specialization, type of employer (public sector, private sector, non-profit), and of course, level of education and licensure.

MSW Salary

Individuals with an MSW have access to a broader range of job opportunities and higher earning potential than those with a BSW degree. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for social workers in 2021 was $61,190, Healthcare social workers $60,840 and Child, family, and school social workers $49,150. The highest 10% earned more than $82,840, including social workers of all educational levels and licensures, not just MSWs.

MSW-degree holders often occupy roles such as medical social workers, school social workers, and child and family social workers. They may also advance into administrative roles or work in policy development or research, which can offer higher salary potential.

LCSW Salary

LCSWs work in clinical settings, providing therapeutic services, including mental health assessments, individual and group therapy, and crisis intervention. They may have opportunities for increased income due to advanced clinical skills, supervised experience, and licensure. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for mental health and substance abuse social workers, which includes LCSWs, was $49,130 as of 2021.

It is important to remember that although LCSW may provide for higher salaries, the right path depends on your interests, career goals, and the population or issues you’re most passionate about.

CSWE Accreditation: Why It Matters for MSW and LCSW

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is an association that represents social work education in the United States. They ensure the enhancement of the quality of social work education for professional practice.

CSWE achieves this through its accreditation process. CSWE-accredited programs have undergone a rigorous process to ensure they meet the national professional social work education standards.

For MSW Students

Getting a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree from a CSWE-accredited program is crucial for several reasons. It assures the quality of your education, as the accreditation process evaluates everything from the curriculum to faculty qualifications, field education, administrative structure, and resources. Many employers specifically require a degree from a CSWE-accredited program. They trust that graduates from these programs have met the rigorous academic standards necessary for professional practice.

For LCSW Candidates

For aspiring Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs), earning a CSWE-accredited MSW is usually the first step towards licensure. The LCSW licensure process requires candidates to have an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program.

This is because the LCSW licensure assesses your clinical experience and knowledge through supervised practice and a licensure exam and considers the quality of your foundational social work education. By requiring an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program, the licensure boards ensure that LCSW candidates have received an education meeting the national professional social work practice standards.

Overall, CSWE accreditation is more than just a seal of approval – it is a critical element that ensures the quality of your social work education, opens up job opportunities, and paves the way for licensure.

What Can You Do with a Master’s of Social Work (MSW) Degree?

An MSW is a versatile degree that prepares graduates for various roles in diverse settings. MSW degree holders are well-equipped to serve individuals, families, groups, and communities, from healthcare and schools to government and non-profit organizations. The degree combines academic coursework with hands-on field experience, allowing students to apply classroom learning to real-world situations.

Common Duties

MSW degree holders often work directly with clients, providing case management, advocacy, counseling, and crisis intervention services. They might develop and implement intervention plans, connect clients with resources, or advocate for client rights at the individual or community level. They might also work in administration, policy, research, or education.

MSWs are often employed in roles such as:

  1. Medical Social Workers: They work in hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare settings, providing support to patients and families dealing with a range of health-related challenges.
  2. School Social Workers: In educational settings, they help students address issues affecting their academic success, such as behavioral problems, family issues, or mental health concerns.
  3. Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers: These professionals serve individuals struggling with mental health disorders or substance abuse, often working in outpatient or inpatient facilities.
  4. Child and Family Social Workers: They work to protect children and families in need of assistance, often collaborating with various agencies to ensure the safety and well-being of children.
  5. Community Social Workers: They focus on community organizing, social justice advocacy, and community development initiatives.
  6. Social Work Administrators, Researchers, and Policy Makers: Some MSWs use their knowledge and skills in administrative or leadership roles or in policy and research positions that allow them to address social issues at a systemic level.

Remember, these are just a few examples, and many other potential roles exist for MSW degree holders.

What Can You Do With a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) Degree?


A Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) is a professional title signifying a high level of social work licensure, emphasizing clinical experience. LCSWs provide mental health services to individuals, families, and groups, helping them address and overcome various life challenges. LCSWs have an advanced skill set that includes assessing, diagnosing, treating, and preventing mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders.

Key Duties or Jobs

LCSWs have a wide range of career opportunities as their advanced clinical training and licensure allow them to work in many settings, providing essential mental health services and making a significant impact on the lives of their clients.

Here are some of the common roles and duties of LCSWs:

  1. Clinical Social Worker: LCSWs often work in clinical roles where they assess, diagnose, and treat mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. They provide individual, family, and group therapy.
  2. Private Practice: LCSWs can open a private practice with their clinical licensure. This allows them to work independently, directly providing psychotherapy and counseling services to clients. They might specialize in specific populations or issues, such as children and families, trauma, or substance abuse.
  3. Hospital Social Worker: LCSWs in hospital settings assist patients and their families in managing challenges associated with serious illness or injury. They may provide therapeutic support, coordinate care, and connect patients with needed resources.
  4. Mental Health and Substance Abuse Counselor: LCSWs often work in mental health centers, outpatient clinics, and inpatient treatment facilities, providing services to individuals with mental health disorders or substance abuse.
  5. School Social Worker: LCSWs in school settings provide various services to help students succeed. This may include providing mental health support, addressing behavioral issues, and working with families and teachers to create supportive learning environments.
  6. Program Director or Manager: LCSWs are well-suited for social service agency or program leadership roles. They may oversee staff, manage budgets, develop programs, and ensure the quality of services.
  7. Policy Advocate or Analyst: Some LCSWs use their expertise to influence local, state, or national policy. They may advocate for policies that support mental health services.

LCSWs have a wide range of career opportunities as their advanced clinical training, and licensure allow them to work in many settings, providing essential mental health services and making a significant impact on the lives of their clients.

LCSW Licensing Requirements

It’s important to note that each state in the U.S. has its own specific requirements for a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). Therefore, it’s always important to verify the specific details with the local social work licensing board in the state where you plan to practice.

However, there are common requirements across most states that provide a general pathway toward achieving LCSW status:


In nearly all states, the first requirement for becoming an LCSW is earning a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. It should be from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). This ensures you have received a comprehensive social work education meeting established national standards.

Supervised Experience

After obtaining an MSW, you’ll need to complete several hours of supervised clinical experience. The specifics vary by state, but it typically involves two to three years (or about 2,000 to 3,000 hours) of post-graduate, supervised clinical practice under a currently licensed LCSW or similar professional.

During this period, you’ll be applying your education in real-world scenarios, developing your clinical skills under supervision, and learning about professional ethics, standards of practice, and state laws that govern clinical social work.


Once the educational and experiential requirements have been met, prospective LCSWs must pass a clinical exam. It is offered by The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) and is widely accepted across U.S. states. This exam tests the candidate’s knowledge and understanding of clinical assessment and diagnosis, psychotherapy, case management, human development, and ethical standards.

Application for Licensure

You can apply for licensure through your state’s social work board after successfully passing the clinical exam and fulfilling the supervised experience requirements. You are required to submit an application, pay a fee, and provide education documentation, supervised experience, and exam results.

Remember, each state might have additional or differing requirements for LCSW licensure. It’s important to research and understand the exact requirements for the state in which you plan to practice.


1. Is a MSW the Same as a LCSW?

While MSW and LCSW are rooted in social work, they are not the same. An MSW refers to a Master’s of Social Work degree, an educational credential earned from a university program, typically taking two years to complete. An LCSW, on the other hand, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. This professional title indicates you have met the additional requirements of post-graduate supervised experience, passing a clinical examination, and holding an MSW degree.

2. Does Having a MSW Degree Mean you are a Licensed Clinical Social Worker?

No, having an MSW degree does not automatically make you a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. While an MSW is an essential prerequisite for becoming an LCSW, additional steps are required, including accumulating a specific number of supervised clinical hours (which varies by state) and passing a clinical examination. The LCSW title signifies that a social worker has met these additional licensure requirements and is authorized to provide clinical social work services.

3. How Long Does it Take to Earn a LCSW After an MSW?

The timeline for earning an LCSW after an MSW can vary based on state requirements and the individual’s circumstances, but generally, it takes about two to three years of supervised clinical work after obtaining your MSW degree. This typically translates into approximately 2,000 to 3,000 hours of post-MSW supervised experience. After completing these hours and successfully passing the clinical exam, you can apply for LCSW licensure.

4. What Are the Key Differences Between a MSW and a LCSW?

The key differences between an MSW and LCSW primarily come from education, licensure, and scope of practice. An MSW is a master’s degree in social work, providing a broad foundation in advanced social work concepts and practices. At the same time, an LCSW is a licensed professional who has met additional requirements beyond the MSW.

MSWs can work in various roles, including non-clinical positions, and their practice can range from case management to community organizing to policy advocacy. LCSWs, however, are qualified to provide clinical social work services, including assessment, diagnosis, and psychotherapy. LCSWs often work in mental health and healthcare settings and may also open private practices – something MSWs without clinical licensure cannot typically do.

Additional Social Work Licenses

In addition to the LCSW, other types of social work licenses vary based on education level, experience, and the specifics of each state’s licensing regulations. Here are a few examples:

  1. Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW): This is the first level of licensure that MSW graduates can pursue. The LMSW signifies that the social worker has an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program and has passed the ASWB master’s level exam.
  2. Licensed Bachelor Social Worker (LBSW): In some states, social workers with a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work (BSW) can obtain licensure as an LBSW. This license allows BSWs to practice general, non-clinical social work.
  3. Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW): In some states, this is the highest level of clinical social work licensure, requiring an MSW, extensive post-graduate supervised clinical experience, and successful completion of the ASWB clinical exam. LICSWs can provide independent clinical services, including assessment, diagnosis, and psychotherapy.
  4. Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW): Some states offer this intermediate level of licensure for MSW graduates who have completed a period of supervised practice. The LAPSW license allows social workers to practice independently but non-clinically or clinical social work under supervision.

These are just a few examples of the licenses available to social workers, and the exact titles, requirements, and scopes of practice can vary by state. Licensure signifies that the social worker has met specific educational and experiential requirements and passed a comprehensive exam, demonstrating competence and readiness to provide professional social work services.


Your career goals will guide you in pursuing an MSW or advancing to an LCSW licensure. An MSW provides a broad foundation for various social work roles, while LCSW allows for a more specific, clinically-focused career path. With either, you’ll significantly impact the lives of individuals and communities.

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