Many students who earn a master’s in social work (MSW) degree opt to pursue a clinical path, which means they work directly with clients. Every state in the U.S. requires clinical social workers to be licensed—and in most states, that license is an LCSW.

LCSW Meaning: What Is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker?

A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) is a professional licensed by their state to counsel people experiencing psychological, emotional, environmental, or family-related challenges. “LCSW” refers both to the license itself and the job title of a person who has earned it.

How to Get an LCSW in Your State

States offer a variety of social work licensure options, but LCSW is the primary license for social work clinical practitioners. To obtain this license, no matter what state you live in, you need to earn a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree, put in a specified number of supervised work hours, and get a passing score on a national exam.

While earning a MSW degree, individuals have the option to attend a traditional on-campus or online master of social work program.

Refer to the How to Become a Licensed Social Worker section below for more information.

What Is an LCSW Degree?

You won’t be able to find a degree program that offers an LCSW. Instead, you must enroll in a MSW degree program to earn a graduate degree in the field. Once you receive this degree, you may be qualified to become certified in your state. Earning an MSW degree isn’t the same as becoming certified as an LCSW, but it is part of the journey.

Variants of the LCSW: LCSW-C and More

While some states don’t offer LCSW licensure specifically, they have licenses that are analogous to the LCSW—meaning, they are meant for social workers who want to practice as clinicians—and they have the same primary requirements.

  • LICSW: Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
  • LISW: Licensed Independent Social Worker
  • LSCSW: Licensed Specialist Clinical Social Worker
  • CMSW: Certified Master Social Worker
  • LMSW-C: Licensed Master Social Worker – Clinical
  • LCSW: Licensed Certified Social Worker
  • LCSW-C: Licensed Certified Social Worker – Clinical
  • CSW: Clinical Social Worker
  • CSW-PIP: Certified Social Worker – Private Independent Practice

You can find out the terminology your state uses in our state-by-state licensure table.

LPC vs. LCSW – Understanding the Difference

A role related to LCSWs is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC). Both licensed roles require graduate-level training and hands-on experience to prepare to work with behavioral disorders, mental health issues, and other community needs.

A major difference, however, is that most LCSWs earn an MSW degree while many LPCs earn a graduate degree in counseling. The focus of LPC training is on psychology, so LPC training may not put as much emphasis on the social environment and context of a particular experience.

LISW vs. LCSW – How They Compare

Another role with similarities and differences is a Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW). In some states, an LISW is expected to work on the policy level to create or redefine a public health strategy. They typically work closely with governmental or organizational leadership rather than working exclusively with individuals and communities.

In other states, the two terms are virtually interchangeable. Some states don’t describe any differences in licensing or responsibilities between LISW vs. LCSW professionals.

MSW vs. LCSW – What’s the Difference?

MSW (Master of Social Work) is a degree earned at a college or university, while LCSW is a type of license—and a job title. To get this license you need to have an MSW degree (or higher) and fulfill training and assessment requirements as outlined by your state board.

Not everyone who earns an MSW becomes an LCSW. An LCSW is a specialized type of social worker who is authorized to work in a clinical setting. There are many other MSW careers, some that require a license and some that don’t. MSW degree holders can also pursue a Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) degree for more advanced research or teaching opportunities.

Whether you’re considering a career as an LCSW or a related career in social work, earning an MSW is a typical step in the process. Depending on your jurisdiction and state, there may be alternative graduate degrees that can allow you to earn the licensed clinical social worker certification.

What Does an LCSW Do?

Licensed clinical social workers use a strength-based therapeutic approach to help people deal with mental and emotional issues. They seek to uncover a client’s inner strengths and use a variety of therapeutic models to help that person capitalize on those strengths.

LCSWs also look at their client’s environment to identify whether there are any negative factors impacting their client’s well-being. They might connect a client with outside resources that can help alleviate these factors.

Often, an LCSW will specialize in a particular population, such as juveniles, the elderly, convicted offenders, or children who are in foster care. Many of them work with disadvantaged populations who need more than just therapy. In fact, social work is guided by a code of ethics that stresses the importance of serving such populations.

LCSW Job Description

A licensed clinical social worker is a professional who assists groups, families, and individuals with issues that affect their daily life. Often, these professionals work to diagnose and treat emotional, mental, and/or behavioral issues.

LCSWs work in healthcare facilities, schools, correctional facilities, adoption centers, nursing homes, and many other settings. Many also have private practices.

Can an LCSW Diagnose?

In most cases, clinical social workers can diagnose and treat mental, social, and emotional issues. The ability to diagnose and recommend treatment plans is one of the key differences between an LCSW and a licensed social worker who doesn’t have a clinical certification.

Check with your state and area first, however, as the definitions of an LCSW can vary. There are states that don’t use the title LCSW and use a different form of certification to allow social workers to diagnose patients.

LCSW vs. LMHC (Licensed Mental Health Counselor)

You might be wondering how LCSWs and licensed mental health counselors (LMHCs) are different. They both provide counseling, work with a variety of populations, and work in a range of settings. Our experts weigh in:

I think the difference between LCSW and LMHC for counseling may come down to a difference of ethics and perspective. Social workers are trained to look at social determinants of health…and recognize that racial disparities have a psychological impact, for example.

—Laura Vanderhill, Licensed Social Worker, Credentialed Professional Gerontologist

Clinical social workers embrace a person-in-environment theoretical foundation which suggests a person’s individual behavior is largely impacted by their environmental context…. An LCSW will not only use evidence-based therapeutic models to treat mental illness, but they will also address systems, laws, and policies at the local, state, and national level in the therapeutic process.

—Kayla Hines, second-year MSW student on clinical track, University of Houston

LMHC and LCSW Requirements

Both career pathways require a master’s degree to be considered for certification. While the degrees can vary, the coursework of both career tracks includes ethical treatment practices, social understanding, diagnostic courses, and treatment methodologies.

Key differences in education start with the type of graduate degree. Most LMHC professionals receive a master’s degree in counseling or a related psychological field. LCSW professionals, however, typically need to earn an MSW. This difference in degree name translates into different courses.

Work Environments

Compared with an LCSW, an LMHC typically focuses more on counseling techniques and personal ways to address substance abuse, relationship issues, and behavioral disorders. While the goal may be the same, the path to recovery and positive emotional states uses more counseling and psychological approaches.

A larger percentage of LMHCs work in outpatient care centers. LCSWs, however, typically work in individual and family services organizations, local governments, and state governments. 

LCSW Salary

Salary expectations for social workers vary depending on the state, years of experience, type of certification, and areas of employment. Explore the average and high-end salary potentials of an LCSW as compared with other professional social work and counseling careers.

Average LCSW Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social workers earned a 2021 median pay of $50,390. The number of social workers is expected to increase by 89,200 between 2020 and 2030, which is significantly faster than the average job outlook. This median accounts for a broad range of salaries. For example, the 90% percentile of social workers earned $93,540 in 2021.

LCSW vs. LPC Salary

The expected salary of a licensed counselor or social worker depends on the specific career track and specialty. Here are some basic median pay salary estimates, according to BLS, to consider whether you should pursue an LCSW, LPC, or other certification:

  • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors: $48,520
  • Social and human service assistants: $37,610
  • School and career counselors and advisors $60,510
  • Rehabilitation counselors: $38,560
  • Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists $60,250
  • Marriage and family therapists: $49,880
  • Health education specialists and community health workers: $48,860

How To Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Although the process of becoming an LCSW varies somewhat from one state to the next, all states require the following steps. Review each one to work toward your goal of becoming a licensed clinical social worker.

1. Enroll in an Accredited Program

To start the licensure process, you’ll need to earn at least an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program. See our full list of the best CSWE-accredited online msw programs to learn more about earning an accredited social work degree.

You may need to complete a bachelor’s degree in a related field before applying. Check the other MSW requirements, such as a minimum GPA or GRE score.

2. Complete Work Experience Hours

To prepare for the licensing exam, complete a specified number of supervised work experience hours (also called “fieldwork”—the number of hours varies by state) to prepare for the licensing exam. These hours are typically only counted after you earn your MSW.

3. Take the Licensing Exam

You can only take the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) licensing exam (clinical category) after completing both a master’s degree and the fieldwork requirement. When you’re prepared to take this exam, you’ll need to schedule it and be sure you take the clinical category of the licensing exam.

4. Apply To Become an LCSW

Review the state-specific application process. There are generally fees that apply. Check with your state to see if you need to complete any continuing education courses for license renewal.

Other state-specific requirements might include completing additional coursework or taking a state exam in addition to the national exam. For example, California requires applicants to pass the California Law and Ethics Examination and complete five additional courses.

The following table shows the licensure terminology and training requirements for each state. There is also a link to your state board, where you can find more detailed information.

State-by-State Licensure Details for Clinical Social Workers

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Educational Requirement: Master’s in Social Work (MSW) Degree Programs

There are many MSW degree programs to choose from, with a wide variety of available specializations. Concentrations might focus on a general area such as mental health or a narrower area such as older adults. Make sure you choose your program carefully to ensure it provides coursework that matches your career goals.

Also, make sure your program is accredited by the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE). Most states will not issue licensure if your master’s program isn’t approved by the CSWE.

To enter a master’s program, you must have a bachelor’s degree—usually with a specified GPA. It’s helpful if you have a bachelor’s in a related field.

In addition to classwork, you will need to do fieldwork—hands-on clinical experiences—and possibly complete a capstone project.

You can learn more about MSW programs on our MSW degree page.

Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) Licensing Exam

No matter where you live, you will need to pass this exam to earn an LCSW. There are five categories of the exam, based on education level and area of practice:

  1. Associate
  2. Bachelor’s
  3. Master’s
  4. Advanced Generalist
  5. Clinical

All states require that you take the clinical exam (several will also accept the advanced generalist exam). The maximum time limit for completing the test is four hours, and it costs $260 to take the test.

The exam contains 170 four-option, multiple-choice questions, only 150 of which are scored. Questions fall into one of four content areas:

  • Human Development, Diversity, and Behavior in the Environment (24%)
  • Assessment, Diagnosis, and Treatment Planning (30%)
  • Psychotherapy, Clinical Interventions, and Case Management (27%)
  • Professional Values and Ethics (19%)

Out-of-State Licensure Applications

Most states have different requirements for out-of-state applicants who are already licensed in their state. Some states call this process “licensure by credential” or “reciprocity.” In most cases, test scores and work experience hours can be transferred from the original state to the new.

However, applicants might have to complete additional work hours if they are short of the number required by the new state. Applicants might also have to take coursework specific to the state—for example, in California they must complete an 18-hour course on California Law and Professional Ethics.

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