MSW vs. LCSW: What’s the Difference?

Interested in learning about the differences between an MSW and an LCSW? Here, we outline the requirements for both so you can discover which is right for you.
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Michelle Kelley
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Michelle Kelley, Ph.D., is a writer and editor who has also taught at colleges and universities across the U.S. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Balance, Film Quarterly, and other websites and publications. Michelle earned her Ph.D. ...
Updated on September 7, 2023
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Melissa Russiano, LCSW, LISW
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Melissa Russiano is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice, which has developed into a specialty helping working professionals. She is also a professor of graduate social work studies at Simmons University online. Russiano has a pro...
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  • Earning a master of social work (MSW) can prepare you for specialized and supervisory roles.
  • A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) can provide psychotherapy and other mental health services.
  • To become an LCSW, you typically need to earn your MSW first.
  • LCSW licensure requirements vary by state and jurisdiction.

Since Columbia University offered the first social work class in 1898, individuals committed to social service have sought formal education and training in the field. Today, there are many different social work degrees and licenses — so many, in fact, that prospective students are sometimes unsure which degree or license they should pursue.

Many social workers earn their master of social work (MSW) degree. Some of them also go on to become licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs). Although these two credentials are related, they're not the same. Read on to find out how they're different and which option is right for you.

What's the Difference Between an MSW and LCSW?

The primary difference between an MSW and an LCSW is that an MSW is a degree, whereas an LCSW is both a license and the job title of a social worker who is approved to provide clinical services. Although licensure requirements vary by state, individuals must earn an MSW or complete equivalent coursework before becoming an LCSW.

Also bear in mind that an MSW is not the same as an LMSW, or licensed master of social work. Earning your MSW doesn't make you a licensed social worker, but it's an essential step if you plan to become one.

Master of Social Work (MSW) Degree

What Is an MSW?

An MSW is an advanced degree that accredited colleges and universities award to students who complete a master of social work program. MSW programs offer more specialized training than bachelor's in social work (BSW) programs. MSW degree-holders can conduct assessments, handle large caseloads, and take on supervisory or managerial positions at work.

MSW Program Requirements

Although curricula vary, most accredited MSW programs include approximately 60 credits of coursework and around 900 hours of supervised training in the field. Some online MSW programs allow students to complete part of their required fieldwork virtually.

MSW programs include courses on social work ethics, social welfare policies and services, and diversity and social justice. Some schools award advanced standing to students who earned a bachelor's degree in social work, reducing the amount of time it takes for students to earn their MSW. Full-time students without advanced standing usually earn their master of social work in about two years.

What Can You Do With a Master of Social Work (MSW) Degree?

Social work jobs can be rewarding, and there are many social work subfields for students to choose from. Some MSW graduates become child, family, or school social workers. Others become mental health social workers or substance misuse social workers. These professionals can also work in healthcare settings.

Many MSW jobs require a license, but some do not. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) only 23% of child, family, and school social worker positions required a license, as of 2017. Additionally, the BLS projects that many social work subfields will be in demand in the coming years. For example, child, family, and school social worker positions are projected to grow 12% between 2019 and 2029, which is significantly faster than the average projected growth rate across all industries.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

What Is an LCSW?

An LCSW is a title and credential conferred by state social work boards to social workers who meet requirements for clinical licensure. Candidates for licensure usually hold MSWs and have completed a certain number of hours of post-MSW supervised fieldwork. Individuals must also pass the LCSW exam offered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB).

LCSW Licensure Requirements

State social work boards issue licenses — including the license to become a clinical social worker — to ensure social workers are qualified to provide certain services. In the United States, each state maintains its own set of requirements for licensure.

For example, in Texas, candidates must earn an MSW or doctoral degree in social work. They also need at least 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience obtained over a period of 24-48 months. In addition, all prospective LCSWs must pass the ASWB licensing exam.

New York's requirements for clinical licensure are similar. However, in New York, as well as various other states, candidates must also complete training related to identifying and reporting child abuse and suicide prevention.

What Can You Do as an LCSW?

LCSWs can diagnose mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. They can also provide psychotherapy and create assessment-based treatment plans for individuals, families, and groups. According to a 2017 report, there are an estimated 352,000 licensed social workers in the U.S. However, not all licensed social workers are LCSWs.

Many LCSW jobs are in the healthcare industry and the mental health and substance misuse fields. The BLS reports that as of 2017, 90% of healthcare social workers held some form of licensure. The BLS also projects a 14% increase in healthcare social worker jobs between 2019 and 2029, which would add 26,700 new positions. Additionally, jobs for mental health and substance misuse social workers are projected to increase by 17% between 2019 and 2029, which would add more than 20,000 new positions.


Is it worth getting an MSW?

Earning your MSW may be worth it if you want to work in a supervisory position at an agency or other social work setting. If you plan to become an LCSW, earning your MSW is a critical step in the process. MSW salaries are often higher than those earned by social workers without a graduate degree, which may also make earning your MSW worthwhile. In addition, MSW coursework teaches you the advanced clinical skills needed to intervene on a therapeutic level, whereas BSW-holders operate more on a case management level.

Is earning an MSW hard?

MSW programs are often demanding. Most require students to complete approximately 60 credits of coursework and 900 hours of training under the supervision of a qualified social worker. However, graduate programs want students to succeed. Your teachers and program administrators are there to help you manage the challenges you may face while earning your degree.

How long does it take to obtain an LCSW license after earning an MSW?

While requirements vary by state, you will likely need at least two years of supervised clinical experience before you can apply for your clinical license. Consult the ASWB's website to find out specific requirements in your state.

Is being an LCSW worth it?

If you want to be a mental health social worker, getting your clinical license is essential. Only licensed clinical social workers can offer psychotherapy and other mental health services to clients. Becoming an LCSW may also be a smart financial move. According to PayScale, as of August 2021, social workers with MSWs earned an average annual salary of $48,860, while LCSWs earned an average yearly income of $59,260.

Is an LCSW better than a psychologist?

Most clinical psychologists hold doctoral degrees in psychology. They tend to spend more time in school than LCSWs, who usually only hold a master's degree. However, clinical psychologists (who hold a doctorate) often earn higher salaries than LCSWs. For example, PayScale reports that clinical psychologists earned an average salary of $82,070 per year, as of August 2021 — significantly more than the average LCSW salary.

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