Top Online Licensed Clinical Social Work (LCSW) Programs for 2024

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 an 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 or the “How To Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker” section in this article 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 an MSW degree program to earn a graduate degree in the field. Once you earn this degree, you have completed the necessary first step to eventually becoming licensed in your state. Earning an MSW degree isn’t the same as becoming certified as an LCSW, but it is part of the journey.

Online MSW Programs for Those Interested in Becoming an LCSW

Knowing about these LCSW degree online programs will give you a clear clinical path to a profession in clinical social work.

Albany State University

The online MSW program at Albany State University is created to prepare students for ethical, professional social work practice with children, families, and people of all ages. The MSW program lasts two years and entails 64 credits at $300 per credit hour. The MSW Application Packet has various forms that must be completed before the Admissions Committee reviews the file. These documents include the following:

  • An authentic transcript from each regionally accredited college or university attended.
  • Three professional letters of recommendation from people who can speak to the applicant’s competence and prospects for success in graduate school and professional social work practice.
  • Personal Narrative Statement completion.
  • A professional résumé.
  • Personal interview.

Appalachian State University

The Master of Social Work degree at Appalachian State University offers a springboard to assist you in making an actual difference in your community. Duration: one year full-time, two years part-time with 33 credits at $304 per credit hour. Advanced Standing students must pass the Advanced Standing Transitional seminar with a B or above in order to continue in the program during their first semester.

Application requirements include:

  • Any degrees and courses completed should be listed on unofficial transcripts (or evaluated transcripts.
  • A personal statement
  • Resume
  • Three references
  • Program selection form.

Arkansas State University

Your ability to lead in an ethical and compassionate clinical practice that improves the well-being and quality of life for people as individuals, families, groups, and communities is made possible by this revolutionary online Master of Social Work – Standard program offered by an Arkansas state university. The program runs for 25 months with 63 credit hours.

All U.S. citizens can enroll in the Master of Social Work – Standard online program for the same affordable, per-course price. The entire charge amount is reflected in the tuition. The total tuition is $20,853, while the tuition per credit hour is $331. The application requirements include:

  • Request that the registrar of the college or university you attended send your official transcript(s)
  • Have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited organization with a minimum cumulative G.P.A. of 3.0.

Boise State University

The Master of Social Work (MSW) The Boise State online program is developed to prepare students for more advanced social work practice with people and families. The tuition has 61 total credits for the online Master of Social Work (for $495 each). The tuition total ranges between $32,030-$32,330. If enrolled full-time, it will take two years to finish these 61 credits. The program can be finished in three years by the average part-time student.

Application requirements include:

  • Undergraduate degree.
  • 3.0 minimum G.P.A.
  • Official transcripts.
  • Statement for your education and career goals.
  • Resume.
  • Three recommendation letters.
  • Proof of 240 hours of volunteer work or employment in social services over the previous five years for a period of six months.
  • English proficiency certification.

Campbellsville University

With the help of Campbellsville University’s online Master of Social Work program, you can progress your career and leave behind entry-level jobs in the industry. The 60–63 credit hour online MSW program can be finished in two years or less. The tuition cost per credit is $603.

Application requirements include:

  • For candidates with advanced standing, a bachelor’s degree in social work from an authorized university.
  • Transcripts from recognized colleges and a degree with 15 credits in liberal arts.
  • A 3.0 GPA
  • Three recommendation letters
  • A written statement.

Case Western Reserve University

Case Western Reserve University is ranked the ninth top social work school in the nation. The online MSW program lasts two and a half years and comprises 60 credits, and the cost per credit is $1650.

Application requirements include:

  • Transcripts showing fulfillment of a bachelor’s degree in any subject of study from a regionally accredited college or university are acknowledged by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
  • Two-part essay.
  • Current resume emphasizing volunteer and paid work.
  • Two letters of recommendation, preferably from professors, direct managers, or volunteer coordinators.

Florida State University

You can get to meet your classmates, professors, and professional staff in an online setting designed with the reputation and expertise of Florida State University. They provide a conventional 61-credit online MSW program and a 39-credit advanced standing MSW program for at least two years. The tuition range is between $479-$1110 per credit hour.

Application requirements include:

  • A regionally accredited institution’s bachelor’s degree
  • For applicants with advanced standing, a bachelor’s degree in social work from a CSWE-accredited program
  • Human biology or anatomy and physiology coursework
  • A minimum of 21 liberal arts undergraduate credits
  • Minimum G.P.A. of 2.8
  • GRE scores are necessary for G.P.A.s under 2.8
  • Resume
  • Two references
  • Personal statement

Fordham University

From everywhere you have an internet connection, Fordham University’s online MSW program connects you to a community that understands your values and provides a rewarding, transforming academic experience. To get a standard online MSW, you must complete 62 credits in generalist and advanced direct practice courses. This coursework can be finished in as little as 16 months at full-time, 24 months at part-time, or 32 months at part-time. The Online MSW Fordham program costs $1,045 per credit hour in tuition for the 2023–2024 academic year, without including fees.

Application requirements:

  • Personal statement.
  • Undergraduate and graduate official transcripts.
  • Letter of recommendation
  • Current resume/CV
  • The BSW program director or your faculty adviser must present your final or mid-year field evaluation if you have already obtained or are in the process of earning a BSW for advanced standing applicants.

Loyola University Chicago

The online MSW Program at the Loyola University Chicago School of Social Work offers transformative education for social work influenced by practice. The MSW program requires 49 credit hours plus two internships totaling 1,000 hours. The program takes two years to finish for full-time scholars and four years for part-time students (two classes per semester). The cost per credit is $1045.

Application requirements:

  • Two references.
  • Personal statement.
  • Resume/CV.
  • 3.0 minimum G.P.A.

Louisiana State University

The Louisiana State University School of Social Work has offered graduate education since 1937 and is recognized by the CSWE. The MSW online program uses an intensive 7-week module approach rather than the standard semester format, providing students with six start dates while completing the degree in about two years of full-time school or three to a half to four years of part-time study. In-state or out-of-state tuition is $599 per credit hour and 33+ credit hours.

Application requirements:

  • A bachelor’s degree from an acknowledged college or university
  • A Bachelor of Social Work degree from a CSWE-accredited institution achieved within the last five years is required for advanced-standing applicants.
  • Undergraduate preparation in the liberal arts, with at least 12 courses in social and behavioral sciences
  • ”C” or higher in an introductory statistics course
  • A minimum G.P.A. of 3.0 is required.
  • Letter of intent
  • Resume
  • Official transcripts
  • Three recommendation letters

Ohio State University

The Ohio State University, online MSW program, provides two entry points to the master’s degree, the traditional MSW pathway and MSW advanced standing alternative program. The 63-credit traditional curriculum takes four semesters (2 years) for full-time students and 8-11 semesters (3-4 years) for part-time students to complete. Full-time students normally finish the 43-credit Advanced Standing Alternative program in three semesters (1 year, including the summer semester) and part-time students in six semesters (2 years, including the summer semester). The tuition fee is approximately $764 per credit hour.

Application requirements:

  • Any degree from an accredited college or university.
  • G.P.A. of 3.0 or higher based on the system
  • At least 15 quarters or 10 semester credit hours of coursework in the social sciences.
  • Bachelor of Social Work from a recognized college or university for the advanced standing program within the last five years.
  • A “B” or higher in all essential social work courses.
  • Completion of their undergraduate program’s field evaluation/learning agreement.

Samford University

The Master of Social Work (MSW) program at Samford University strives to provide a distinctly Christian learning community that equips graduates for careers as experienced social worker practitioners. The program includes 60 credits at a cost of $382 per credit. The online MSW program takes 2-4 years.

Application requirements:

  • A bachelor’s degree from a recognized undergraduate institution is required.
  • A bachelor’s degree in social work from a CSWE-accredited institution is required for advanced-standing applicants.
  • Evaluation of undergraduate field placement for advanced standing applicants
  • Minimum G.P.A. of 3.0
  • Exposure to social work is recommended but not essential.
  • Statistics introductory course
  • Transcripts of official proceedings
  • Three recommendation letters
  • Personal statement
  • Resume

Virginia Commonwealth University

The V.C.U. School of Social Work’s mission is to train professional social workers as practitioners, scholars, and leaders. You can select from any available online alternatives, including the accelerated one-year advanced standing option for BSW degree holders and the full-time 16-month or two-year track. The program has 60 credits costing $700-800 per credit.

Application requirements.

  • Undergraduate degree of at least four years in any major.
  • 3.0 or higher cumulative G.P.A. for undergraduate studies.
  • All applicants must have completed at least one three-credit course in the behavioral sciences and one in the social sciences with a “C” or higher grade.
  • BSW degree from an approved university.
  • Received a “B” or higher in senior field placement or passed.

Standard for Master’s in Clinical Social Work

Social workers must exhibit the fundamental principles of service, social justice, respect for the person’s worth and dignity, the value of interpersonal connections, competence, and integrity. Social workers must also follow the guidelines for professional ethics outlined in the NASW Code of Ethics. They must hold a graduate social work degree from a university or college accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. An MSW degree is a suggested educational requirement for a social worker to provide clinical services.

What Is Required for Social Work Licensure?

Pursuing the necessary educational degree is the first step to licensure for interested applicants. While a BSW is sufficient for some lower-level licenses, an MSW is necessary for advanced social work careers, including LCSW licensure, for those wanting to independently practice social work in private practice.

The process, paperwork, requirements, and timeline for becoming an LCSW varies from state to state, so you’ll need to research the requirements for the state in which you plan to practice.  We’ll use the state of Texas. After earning an accredited MSW or MSSW degree, applicants submit their transcript to the Association of Social Work Board (ASWB) demonstrating that a practicum placement was completed as part of the degree.

The applicant must take and pass the jurisprudence exam. The next requirement is to pass the Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) exam. At this point, the individual can apply for the LMSW license online.

After the LMSW license has been granted, there is a requirement of accumulating 3,000–4,000 hours of supervised experience over the course of two years. After completion, social workers take the advanced clinical exam through ASWB. Once the exam has been passed and supplemental application materials have been reviewed, including professional references, the State Licensing Board can grant the LCSW license.

What Can You Do with an LCSW?

As a licensed clinical social worker, you have a variety of career options. The majority of LCSWs are counselors in both private and public professions. Many people are experts in a certain field. You could, for instance, concentrate on marital and family counseling, substance misuse counseling, or any other areas. Additionally, LCSWs are competent in various social work specialties.

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.

What Does an LCSW Do?

Licensed clinical social workers use a strengths based therapeutic approach to help people address mental and emotional challenges. 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.

What’s the Difference Between an LCSW and a Social Worker Without a Clinical License?

Understanding the difference between a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and a social worker without a clinical license is crucial for prospective students contemplating a career in social work. These roles differ significantly in terms of education requirements, licensure, scope of practice, and the settings in which they typically work.

Education and Licensure

  • LCSW: An LCSW must hold a Master’s degree in Social Work (MSW) from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Post-graduation, they must complete a state-mandated number of supervised clinical hours and pass a clinical licensure exam. This rigorous process equips them with the skills needed for clinical practice.
  • Non-Clinical Social Worker: These social workers may have a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or an MSW but without clinical licensure. While they have solid training in social work principles and practices, they do not undergo the additional clinical training and licensure process required for LCSWs.

Scope of Practice

  • LCSW: LCSWs are qualified to provide a wide range of mental health services. They can diagnose and treat mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders, and their training allows them to apply various therapeutic techniques.
  • Non-Clinical Social Worker: Their work often centers around case management, advocacy, community organization, and connecting clients with resources and services. While they play a crucial role in supporting clients, they typically do not provide clinical mental health services.

Work Settings

  • LCSW: They often work in settings that require specialized clinical skills, such as hospitals, mental health clinics, private practice, and schools (for school-based therapy).
  • Non-Clinical Social Worker: They may be found in a variety of settings including government agencies, non-profits, schools (for educational support and advocacy), and healthcare facilities, focusing more on social and community aspects of client support. They may also conduct social and behavioral research or evaluate the effectiveness of community programs and approaches to relieve strain on various vulnerable populations.

Career Prospects and Advancement

  • LCSW: With their advanced clinical training, LCSWs often have access to a wider range of job opportunities, especially in mental health and healthcare settings. They also tend to have higher earning potential due to their specialized skills, particularly if they enter private practice.
  • Non-Clinical Social Worker: They have opportunities for career growth in areas like social service administration, policy making, and community program development. Additional certifications and degrees can further expand their career prospects.

For prospective students, choosing between these paths depends on their career goals, interests in specific aspects of social work, and commitment to the educational and licensure requirements of each role. Both paths offer rewarding opportunities to make a significant impact in the lives of individuals and communities, albeit in different capacities.

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 2022 median annual salary of $55,350. The number of social workers is expected to increase 7% between 2022 and 2032, which is faster than the average job outlook. This median accounts for a broad range of salaries. For example, the top 10% of social workers earn more than $87,000, according to the BLS

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: $49,710
  • Social and human service assistants: $38,520
  • School and career counselors and advisors $60,140
  • Rehabilitation counselors: $39,990
  • Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists $59,860
  • Marriage and family therapists: $56,570
  • Health education specialists: $59,990

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.

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.

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.

Are the Requirements to Become an LCSW the Same in Every State? 

No. The requirements to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) vary between states in the United States. Here are some examples of differences in requirements among California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Colorado:


  • Education: A Master’s degree in Social Work from an accredited school is required. 
  • Supervised Experience: 3,000 total supervised hours are needed over a minimum of 104 weeks.
  • Examination: Candidates must pass the California Law & Ethics Exam and the ASWB Clinical Exam.

Learn More: Online MSW Programs in California

New York:

  • Education: An MSW degree with at least 12 semester hours of clinical coursework is necessary. 
  • Supervised Experience: 3 years of post-MSW experience in diagnosis, psychotherapy, and assessment-based treatment planning.
  • Examination: Successful completion of the ASWB Clinical Exam is required.


  • Education: A master’s degree in social work from a CSWE accredited school, including specified coursework. 
  • Supervised Experience: Two years of post-master’s experience under the supervision of a licensed clinical social worker, with specific hour requirements. 
  • Examination: Passage of the ASWB Clinical Exam.


  • Education: A Master of Social Work (MSW) or a doctoral degree in social work.
  • Supervised Experience: 3,000 hours of supervised experience.
  • Examination: Candidates must take the Jurisprudence Exam and pass the ASWB Clinical Exam.

Learn More: Online MSW Programs in Texas


  • Education: A master’s degree in social work.
  • Supervised Experience: Completion and documentation of 3,360 hours of experience over a minimum of 24 months, including 96 hours of supervision, 48 of which must be face-to-face individual supervision.
  • Examination: Passage of the ASWB Advanced or Clinical examination and the Colorado Mental Health Professions online Jurisprudence Examination.

LCSW licensing requirements vary significantly among states in terms of supervised experience hours, additional state-specific exams, and other specific criteria. To become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, it is essential for candidates to understand and fulfill the specific requirements set by the state where they intend to practice.

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.

LCSW vs. LMHC (Licensed Mental Health Counselor)

You might be wondering how LCSWs and licensed mental health counselors (LMHC) 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

Learn More: LCSW vs LMHC

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 a variety of settings, including private practice in individual and family services organizations, local governments, and state governments. 

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.

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 or a PhD 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 first step in the process.


When exploring the fields of counseling and social work, it’s essential to understand the differences between Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW) and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFT):

  • LCSWs focus on:
    • Addressing mental health issues with consideration to social and environmental factors.
    • Offering services such as crisis intervention, individual and group therapy.
    • Advocating for systemic change and connecting clients with community resources.
    • Working across a broad demographic, aiming to improve individual and community well-being.
  • LMFTs specialize in:
    • Understanding and treating mental and emotional disorders through the dynamics of relationships.
    • Improving communication and resolving conflicts within families and couples.
    • Focusing on relationship patterns rather than individual pathologies.
    • Promoting healthier interactions and emotional well-being within interpersonal relationships.

Choosing Your Path:

  • Opt for LCSW if you’re drawn to systemic advocacy and wish to impact individuals and communities broadly.
  • Consider LMFT if you’re fascinated by the intricacies of interpersonal relationships and desire to work specifically with families and couples.

Both LCSWs and LMFTs play critical roles in mental health and well-being, offering unique approaches to supporting individuals through life’s challenges.

Learn more: LCSW vs LMFT

Additional LCSW Licensure Comparisons

Understanding the nuances between different mental health professions is crucial, especially for students considering a career in this field. This expanded section provides a comparison between a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and several other roles, including LCSW-C, LCSW-R, Psychologist, and LMSW.

LCSW vs. LCSW-C (Licensed Certified Social Worker – Clinical)


The LCSW-C, or Licensed Certified Social Worker – Clinical, is a designation that indicates a higher level of clinical specialization in social work. This title is used in certain states, such as Maryland, where the designation highlights specific competencies in psychotherapy and mental health treatment. To obtain the LCSW-C certification, a social worker must hold a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree, complete a specified number of hours in supervised clinical training, and pass a clinical level examination. The additional training for LCSW-C focuses extensively on therapeutic techniques and diagnostic skills, preparing social workers to engage in complex clinical assessments and interventions.


The Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) designation is widely recognized across various states and also requires an MSW degree. Like the LCSW-C, LCSWs must complete substantial postgraduate supervised clinical experience and pass a clinical exam. However, the LCSW title generally encompasses a broad range of clinical social work practices, not exclusively limited to psychotherapy. This can include case management, group therapy, and other direct services that involve diagnosing and treating mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. The specific requirements for obtaining an LCSW can vary significantly by state in terms of the number of supervised hours and the nature of the clinical examination.

Do LCSWs and LCSW-Cs Have the Same Salary?

Salaries for LCSWs and LCSW-Cs can vary more significantly due to geographic location rather than the specific designation itself. The designation of LCSW-C is specific to certain states and represents a level of clinical specialization similar to that of the LCSW in states that do not use the LCSW-C title. Here are key factors affecting their salaries:

Regional Demand and Cost of Living: In regions where the cost of living is higher, or where there is a greater demand for mental health services, salaries for both LCSWs and LCSW-Cs tend to be higher. Urban areas, in particular, often offer higher salaries to account for the increased cost of living and competitive job markets.

Local Market Conditions: The local economic climate and funding for social services can significantly impact salary levels. States with more developed healthcare infrastructures or higher spending on public health services might offer better compensation for social work professionals.

State-Specific Designations: While the LCSW-C designation might suggest a higher qualification in states like Maryland, it essentially aligns with what is considered an LCSW in other states regarding clinical responsibilities and qualifications. Therefore, the difference in salary between LCSWs and LCSW-Cs within the same geographic region is often minimal.

Salary Expectations

Both LCSWs and LCSW-Cs are critical to providing essential mental health services. Their salaries are primarily influenced by local economic factors rather than the distinction between these designations. Prospective social workers should consider regional employment conditions and state-specific licensure requirements more heavily when evaluating potential earnings rather than focusing solely on these titles.

LCSW vs. LCSW-R (Registered Licensed Clinical Social Worker)

  • LCSW-R: This designation, used in states like New York, indicates an LCSW who has met additional requirements for registration, often involving more clinical experience. The “-R” often denotes eligibility for insurance reimbursement.
  • LCSW: An LCSW without the “-R” may not have met these additional criteria but still holds the qualifications to provide clinical social work services. The distinction mainly lies in insurance billing privileges.

LCSW vs. Psychologist

  • Psychologist: Psychologists typically hold a doctoral degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) in psychology. They are trained in psychological testing and assessment, research, and providing therapy. Psychologists often work in more specialized clinical settings and may engage in academic research or teaching.
  • LCSW: LCSWs provide therapy and counseling but do not conduct psychological testing. Their training emphasizes a holistic approach to social and environmental factors in mental health. LCSWs often work in more diverse settings, including community agencies and healthcare systems.

Find out the difference between MSW vs PsyD

LCSW vs. LMSW (Licensed Master Social Worker)

  • LMSW: An LMSW holds a Master’s degree in Social Work but has not completed the additional clinical training and supervision required for LCSW licensure. LMSWs can perform non-clinical roles like case management, advocacy, and community organization.
  • LCSW: In addition to holding an MSW, an LCSW has completed the necessary clinical hours and supervision for licensure. This allows them to provide psychotherapy and other clinical services, a key distinction from the LMSW.

Each of these roles, while interconnected in the field of social work and mental health, offers distinct pathways and opportunities. The choice between them depends on one’s professional interests, desired scope of practice, and commitment to the requisite education and licensure process.

Planning Your Future as an LCSW

You have a scope of choices with a master’s in a clinical social worker with a license. The majority of LCSWs work as counselors in the public and private sectors. LCSWs are qualified for a range of social work specialties. Being a clinical social worker involves developing connections with clients and gaining their trust, which calls for remarkable devotion and commitment. The online LCSW programs include all the necessary curriculum, instruction, and fieldwork to prepare you for a career in clinical social work.


This section answers frequently asked questions regarding the Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) credential, its requirements, and how it compares to other degrees in the field of social work.

What’s the Difference Between an Online LCSW Degree and a MSW?

Answer: There is no specific “online LCSW degree.” LCSW is a licensure obtained after completing educational and field requirements, typically starting with a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. An online MSW program offers the necessary coursework in a flexible format, which can then lead to pursuing LCSW licensure through additional post-graduate clinical experience and a licensing exam.

Does an MSW Mean I Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker?

Answer: No, earning an MSW is the first step. Becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) requires additional steps including accumulating supervised clinical hours and passing a clinical exam.

Can I Become an LCSW Without a MSW?

Answer: Generally, no. Most states require a Master of Social Work (MSW) from a CSWE-accredited program as a prerequisite for becoming an LCSW. There are rare exceptions where extensive related experience and other educational qualifications may be considered, but these are not the norm.

Do I Need a DSW Degree to Become an LCSW?

Answer: No, a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) is not required to become an LCSW. The LCSW credential requires an MSW, supervised clinical experience, and passing a licensing exam. A DSW is geared more towards advanced practice, leadership, or academic roles in social work.

How Long Will It Take Me to Become an LCSW?

Answer: The time it takes can vary depending on the state and your educational path. Typically, it involves earning an MSW (2 years full-time), followed by two to three years of supervised clinical experience, so it can take approximately 4-5 years after completing a bachelor’s degree.

Is an LCSW the Highest Social Worker Credential?

Answer: The LCSW is one of the highest credentials for clinical social work practice, allowing for independent practice and advanced clinical responsibilities. However, in terms of educational qualifications, a PhD or DSW would represent higher academic achievements within the social work field.

Do LCSWs Make More Money Than MSW Degree Holders?

Answer: Typically, yes. LCSWs generally earn more than those with only an MSW degree due to their advanced licensure, which qualifies them for higher-level clinical roles and private practice. However, salaries can vary widely based on location, type of service, and experience.

Which States Use the LCSW-C Designation?

Answer: The LCSW-C (Licensed Certified Social Worker-Clinical) designation is specific and might vary by state regulations. Primarily, Maryland is known for distinctly using the LCSW-C title to specify that a licensed social worker has met the requirements for clinical practice. However, variations in titles and similar clinical licensure designations might be found in other states but under different acronyms or names. For example, states often use LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) or LICSW (Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker) to denote similar clinical qualifications. If you need information on specific state regulations regarding clinical social worker licensure, it’s best to consult the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) or the social work licensing board for each state, as they provide the most accurate and updated information on licensure titles and requirements. 

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