LMSW vs. LCSW: What’s the Difference?

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By Marisa Upson

Reviewed by Melissa Russiano, LCSW, LISW

Published on August 23, 2021

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Licensed master social worker (LMSW) and licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) are social work licenses, representing two social work career paths available for professionals in this field. Each role varies in its scope of practice and licensure requirements. However, both can lead to fulfilling careers in a field that helps individuals and groups undergoing unique challenges.

The social work field is currently in high demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 13% job growth for social workers between 2019 and 2029, much faster than the projected growth rate for all occupations.

What's the Difference Between an LMSW and an LCSW?

LMSWs and LCSWs both need a master's degree in social work from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Licensure requirements include passing an Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exam.

These two licenses differ in terms of required clinical experience and the type of services license-holders may provide. The LCSW credential requires about 3,000-4,000 hours of supervised clinical work experience. These professionals can offer clinical psychotherapeutic services, while an LMSW may only provide these services under supervision. Many LMSWs are in the process of working toward their LCSW credential, transferring into a new role once they complete their supervised clinical hours.

Keep in mind that recognized social work positions and social work licensure requirements vary by state. Therefore, check with your state before deciding what kind of license to pursue.

Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

What Is an LMSW?

An LMSW is a master's-level license that enables you to practice as a nonclinical social worker. These professionals may provide services like case management, aligning individuals and groups with needed community resources. They may also work on a macro social work scale, advocating for groups and evaluating programs and services.

LMSW Requirements

The first step in becoming an LMSW involves earning a master's degree in social work from a CSWE-accredited program. Students seeking admission into a master's program need a bachelor's in social work or a related field from an accredited university or college.

Most states also require LMSW applicants to earn a passing score on an ASWB exam . Some also require state-specific exams, such as tests covering jurisprudence or law and ethics. Most states do not require supervised work experience for this position. Additionally, not all states offer the LMSW credential.

Career Outlook for LMSWs

LMSWs may work directly with clients in case management and provide psychotherapy under the supervision of an LCSW. On a broader scale, LMSWs can improve social services and the well-being of individuals and groups in administrative or government roles.

Social workers in many roles experience high demand. For example, the BLS projects 17% job growth for community service managers between 2019 and 2029. These managers earned a median annual salary of $69,600, as of May 2020. Additionally, according to PayScale data from August 2021, LMSWs earned an average yearly salary of about $52,000.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

LCSW Requirements

An LCSW credential requires a master's degree in social work from a CSWE-accredited program. In addition, these professionals need an average of 3,000-4,000 hours of supervised clinical work experience after graduation. The number of required hours varies significantly between states, with some mandating 1,500 hours and others requiring nearly 6,000 hours.

To become an LCSW, states also require applicants to take the ASWB Clinical exam. The test consists of 170 questions and takes up to four hours to complete. Professionals in some areas may also need to pass state-specific exams.

Career Outlook for LCSWs

An LCSW can provide general counseling services and crisis intervention. Some work with specific groups, such as veterans, senior citizens, or people living with an illness. While some LCSWs maintain a private practice, others work in community service organizations, hospitals, government agencies, and mental health facilities.

Between 2019 and 2029, the BLS projects significant growth for many social work roles, including clinical social workers. These professionals may experience particularly high demand due to the growth of healthcare spending and treatment. According to PayScale, LCSWs earned an average annual salary of $59,260 as of August 2021, with the top 10% making more than $79,000 per year.

LMSW vs. LCSW: Which Path Is Right for You?

An LMSW may work in case management at government agencies and nonprofit organizations that provide social services. In comparison, an LCSW may work in private practice, mental health institutions, and hospitals providing psychotherapy.

Both of these practitioners may also work on the macro level, advocating for social change, addressing public policies, and overseeing social programs. Success in both professions demands empathy, patience, strong communication skills, and the desire to address social injustice and empower clients and communities.

Students should consider which type of social work appeals to them when choosing a licensure path.

Frequently Asked Questions About LMSW vs. LCSW

true How long does it take to get an LMSW?

Because an LMSW does not require any postgraduate clinical work experience, you can take the LMSW exam right after graduation. However, the ASWB approval and registration process may take a few weeks to several months. In addition, both LMSWs and LCSWs require a master's. It usually takes about two years to earn this degree after you've earned your bachelor's.

true How long does it take to get an LCSW?

An LCSW requires the same academic criteria as an LMSW. Additionally, an applicant must complete an average of 3,000-4,000 hours of clinical work experience after graduating. This requirement typically takes an additional 2-3 years. After completion, you may sit for the ASWB Clinical exam.

true Is an LCSW better than a psychologist?

It depends on your career goals. LCSWs and clinical psychologists both assess, diagnose, and treat people experiencing mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. An LCSW may pay particular attention to socioeconomic and cultural influences and help clients connect with community resources. Most clinical psychologists need a doctoral degree in psychology.

true Is the LMSW exam hard?

In 2020, 16,698 individuals took the ASWB Master's test, and 75.4% passed it the first time. Individuals who don't pass the LMSW exam must wait for 90 days before retaking the test. Each state determines the number of retakes allowed. Several sources provide practice tests and ASWB test preparation study guides.

true Is the LCSW exam hard?

Of the 16,776 people who took the ASWB Clinical exam in 2020, 74.8% passed. Proper preparation is the key to passing the LCSW exam. The test consists of 170 multiple-choice questions, 150 of which apply to your final score.

true Is it better to get an LMSW or LCSW?

It depends on your career goals. For example, if you're drawn to helping individuals or groups through psychotherapeutic measures, the LCSW may be the best choice. On the other hand, if you'd like to work as a case manager or at the macro level, the LMSW may be a better option.

Reviewed by:

Melissa Russiano is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice that has organically developed into a specialty helping working professionals. Russiano has a proven track record helping professionals avoid burnout in a unique way that holds clinicians accountable through laughter, tears, blunt (yet very supportive) feedback and quirky analogies that are grounded in solid theoretical research. Russiano practices solely in a virtual setting in the states of California, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. In addition, Russiano is a professor at Simmons University online, imparting her experiences and knowledge in the field to graduate social work students.

Learn about scholarships and financial aid available for social work students. Social workers strive for social change and development. They help empower the people they work with to build stronger communities. They often work with individuals who are vulnerable, including those living in poverty. Social workers can make an impact by advocating for civil and disability rights, providing mental health support, and preventing child abuse. According […]

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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