As a prospective student considering a career in the mental health field, you’re probably grappling with a key decision: whether to pursue a Master’s in Social Work (MSW) or a Master’s in Counseling. To make an informed decision, it’s crucial to understand the differences between the two paths.

This article will explore the nuances of becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) versus a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), as well as the details of studying social work versus clinical mental health counseling.

LCSW vs LPC: An Overview

An LCSW and LPC are professional credentials that represent advanced practice in the mental health field. Both involve providing mental health services, but their roles, methodologies, and focuses differ.

LCSW: Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) are mental health professionals trained to provide a range of services, including psychotherapy, crisis intervention, case management, and advocacy. LCSWs are uniquely poised to understand and work with complex social conditions due to their social work background.

An LCSW’s training typically includes a Master’s Degree in Social Work (MSW) from an accredited school. In addition to coursework, this degree usually includes supervised fieldwork or internships. After earning their degree, aspiring LCSWs must complete postgraduate clinical work experience under supervision and pass a social work licensure exam.

LCSWs are known for their “person-in-environment” perspective, which involves examining an individual’s interactions with their surroundings and how social issues affect their mental health. This perspective allows LCSWs to work on the macro level, advocating for societal change that can help groups of people, in addition to providing individual therapy. In addition to working for social change on a large level, LCSWs often connect their clients with community services that can help them thrive.

LPC: Licensed Professional Counselor

Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs), also known as Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHCs) in some states, are professionals trained to help individuals, families, and groups address and treat mental health disorders and associated behavioral problems.

LPCs typically hold a master’s degree in counseling or a closely related mental health discipline. Like LCSWs, LPCs also need to accrue a specific number of supervised clinical hours post-degree and pass a state licensure exam.

LPCs use various therapeutic techniques to assist clients with issues like stress management, self-esteem issues, interpersonal relationships, and more severe mental health disorders.

LPCs, as compared to LCSWs, often focus more on individuals’ inner experiences and work on the micro level to bring about personal change in their clients. While LPCs are also concerned with the impact of societal factors, their training tends to emphasize therapeutic skills for working directly with clients in a counseling setting.

LCSW vs LPC Similarities

Both LCSWs and LPCs can provide mental health services, diagnose, and treat mental health disorders. They both require a master’s degree and post-graduate supervised clinical experience. Both LCSWs and LPCs need to pass a licensure examination and adhere to ethical and professional standards set by their respective professional organizations.

LCSW vs LPC Differences

While LCSWs and LPCs both provide mental health services, they approach them from different perspectives. LCSWs have a broad, holistic view, often considering clients’ social environments, and they may focus on social justice issues or policy work. LPCs, on the other hand, focus primarily on mental health counseling, often emphasizing individual wellness and development.

Both professions, LCSWs and LPCs, play critical roles in mental health and wellbeing, and choosing between the two often comes down to one’s interests, career goals, and the types of challenges one prefers to tackle in their professional life.

Work as an LCSW can involve working with individuals and their families, other mental health care providers, and care or service providers in the community who support your clients. Counselors typically work in a one-on-one fashion, and rarely meet anyone other than their clients.

LCSW vs LPC Salary Differences

The salaries for LCSWs (Licensed Clinical Social Workers) and LPCs (Licensed Professional Counselors) can vary significantly depending on numerous factors, including location, years of experience, area of specialization, and the type of practice or setting.

As a general rule, salaries can vary widely across the United States due to cost of living differences and state budget allocations for social services. Major cities or areas with higher costs of living often offer higher salaries compared to rural areas or regions with lower living costs.

LCSW Salary

As of 2023, the average annual salary for an LCSW in the United States exceeded $60,000, according to Payscale. However, salaries can extend beyond this range in either direction. LCSWs with many years of experience, or those in managerial or administrative roles, can earn over $90,000 per year.

LPC Salary

As of 2023, the average annual salary in the United States for LPCs exceeded $50,000, according to Payscale. However, similar to LCSWs, experienced LPCs, especially those in private practice or those who specialize in high-demand areas, could potentially earn more than $80,000 annually.

LCSW vs LPC Salary Comparison

It’s crucial to consider which profession aligns best with your career goals, passion, and the type of work you envision yourself doing in the mental health field. Both LCSWs and LPCs play vital roles in providing mental health services, and both careers can be deeply rewarding.

MSW vs Master’s in Counseling Programs: Studying Social Work and Clinical Mental Health Counseling

When choosing between an MSW program and a Master’s in Counseling program, understanding the curriculum, accreditation, field education requirements, and study areas is essential.

MSW Programs

The first year is usually focused on foundational or generalist knowledge and skills. This may include courses in areas such as:

  • Human behavior and the social environment: This examines the interplay between human behavior, social systems, and social institutions, with particular emphasis on understanding how these factors can impact a person’s well-being.
  • Social welfare policy: This explores the history and current structure of social welfare programs and services.
  • Research methods: Students learn quantitative and qualitative research methods relevant to social work practice.

The second year of an MSW program usually involves specialized or advanced study in a particular area of social work, such as mental health, substance abuse, family and children’s services, gerontology, or policy and administration.

Field education, also known as a practicum or internship, is an integral part of MSW programs. Students complete a certain number of hours (typically 900 to 1,200) of supervised practice at a social service agency. This provides hands-on experience and allows students to apply their classroom learning to real-world scenarios.

Master’s in Counseling Programs

The curriculum may include courses on:

  • Counseling theories: Students study various theoretical approaches to counseling, including cognitive-behavioral, psychodynamic, humanistic, and existential theories.
  • Counseling techniques: This includes learning practical skills such as how to conduct an intake interview, establish therapeutic relationships, facilitate therapeutic change, and terminate counseling relationships.
  • Human growth and development: Students learn about human development across the lifespan, and how developmental stages impact mental and emotional health.
  • Group counseling: This explores the dynamics of group therapy and the specific skills needed to facilitate therapeutic groups.

Master’s in Counseling programs also require a significant amount of supervised clinical experience. This often involves a practicum, where students observe and conduct counseling sessions under supervision, and an internship, where they provide counseling services to clients in a clinical setting. The required hours can range from 700 to 1,000, depending on the program and state requirements.

Differences Between MSW and Master’s of Counseling Programs

While there are many overlaps, MSW and Master’s in Counseling programs differ in several key areas:


The credit requirements for both programs may vary depending on the institution. MSW programs often require between 60 and 64 credits for completion. This can involve a mix of classroom instruction, research projects, and field education.

Master’s in Counseling programs, on the other hand, typically require fewer credits, usually ranging from 48 to 60. However, certain specialties or concentrations within counseling may require additional coursework.

Field Education/Clinical Hours

Both MSW and Master’s in Counseling programs necessitate field education or clinical hours to provide students with real-world experience. However, the specific requirements can differ.

In MSW programs, students typically must complete between 900 and 1,200 hours of field education. These hours are usually split over two years, with the first year focused on generalist social work practice and the second year on a specialized area of practice.

In contrast, Master’s in Counseling programs usually require around 700 to 1,000 hours of supervised experience. This involves a practicum where students observe and conduct counseling sessions under supervision, and an internship where they provide counseling services to clients in a clinical setting.

Accrediting Body

Accreditation ensures that the program meets the minimum standards for professional education in the field. MSW programs are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), while Master’s in Counseling programs are accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

Core Courses

Core courses in MSW programs often cover social work practice, human behavior in the social environment, social welfare policy, and research methods in social work.

Core courses in Master’s in Counseling programs usually focus on counseling theories, counseling techniques, human growth and development, group counseling, and psychological assessment.

Time to Completion

Both MSW and Master’s in Counseling programs typically take about two years to complete for full-time students, although this can vary depending on the program and whether you’re studying part-time. Some programs offer accelerated options or part-time tracks that can extend the program’s length.

Core Careers

LCSWs often work in settings like hospitals, schools, government agencies, and non-profit organizations, where they may provide counseling, case management, crisis intervention, and advocacy.

LPCs often work in private practice, mental health centers, substance abuse treatment centers, schools, and hospitals. They provide therapeutic counseling to individuals, couples, families, and groups.

Advanced Standing Opportunities

MSW programs often provide advanced standing opportunities for students who already hold a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work from an accredited program. This allows them to complete the advanced standing MSW program in a shorter time, usually by waiving the first year of the two-year program.

In conclusion, while both MSW and online Master’s degree in Counseling programs prepare students for careers in helping professions, they differ in focus, requirements, and potential career paths. Your choice would depend on your career aspirations, areas of interest, and preferred working style.

Both MSW and Master’s in Counseling programs offer a robust combination of academic study and field education. The choice between the two often depends on your career goals and interests.

Licensure for Clinical Social Workers and Clinical Mental Health Workers

Licensure for Clinical Social Worker

The process to become an LCSW varies by state, but it generally follows these steps:

1. Earn a Master’s Degree in Social Work (MSW):

An MSW from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is typically required. The CSWE accredited online MSW program usually takes two years to complete and includes a combination of academic study and field work.

2. Complete Supervised Clinical Experience:

After earning the MSW, aspiring LCSWs must complete a specific number of supervised clinical hours. The requirement varies by state, but typically ranges from 2,000 to 3,000 hours over a period of 2–3 years.

3. Pass a Licensing Exam:

Once the required clinical experience has been completed, the next step is to pass the Clinical Level Examination administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). The exam tests a candidate’s understanding of social work methods, professional ethics, and other related topics.

4. Apply for State Licensure:

After successfully passing the exam, you can apply for licensure in your state. This typically involves submitting an application, proof of degree, verification of supervised experience, and the passing exam score.

5. Maintain the License:

After becoming an LCSW, you must fulfill continuing education requirements to maintain your license. The specific requirements vary by state.

Licensure for Clinical Mental Health Counselors

To become an LPC, the process is slightly different but follows similar overall steps:

1. Earn a Master’s Degree in Counseling or a Related Field:

Most states require a master’s degree in counseling, mental health counseling, or a related field from a program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). These programs typically take 2–3 years and combine academic coursework with a supervised practicum or internship.

2. Complete Supervised Postgraduate Work:

After obtaining a Master’s degree, you will need to complete a certain amount of supervised work experience. The required number of hours varies by state, but it generally ranges from 2,000 to 4,000 hours and must be completed within 2 years.

3. Pass a Licensing Exam:

After completing the postgraduate work experience, candidates must pass a state-recognized exam. The most common are the National Counselor Examination (NCE) and the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE), both administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC).

These exams test your knowledge of counseling practices and theories, assessment techniques, ethical practices, and more.

4. Apply for State Licensure:

Upon passing the exam, you can apply for licensure through your state’s board. Similar to the LCSW process, this usually involves submitting an application along with proof of your degree, supervised experience, and passing exam score.

5. Maintain the License:

Once licensed, LPCs must meet continuing education requirements to maintain their licensure. The specific number of hours and content areas vary by state.

Overall, both licensure paths involve rigorous education and supervised experience requirements, as well as the successful completion of a comprehensive examination. These stringent requirements ensure that both LCSWs and LPCs are well-equipped to provide high-quality mental health services to their clients.

Resources for LCSWs and LPCs

Several resources can help both LCSWs and LPCs in their professional journey:

For LCSWs:

For LPCs:

Ultimately, the decision between pursuing an LCSW or LPC will depend on your professional goals, interests, and personal circumstances. Both paths offer rewarding opportunities to make a significant impact in the mental health field.

As you make your decision, consider which program and profession aligns best with your vision for your future career.

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