LMSW vs. LCSW – What’s the difference?

Because of the many practice areas available, the field of social work presents an array of professional opportunities for individuals at all levels. From schools and shelters to hospitals and government agencies, there are many settings where you can work and make an impact. 

In your quest to become a licensed social worker, you may discover the acronyms LMSW and LCSW crop up frequently. But what do they mean? They represent two common social work licenses—the licensed master social worker (LMSW) and the licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

Again, it’s important to note that social work licenses like an LMSW and an LCSW vary from state to state. While many of the 50 states recognize at least one or both of them, some states have different levels of social work licensure available. Each state has its own requirements for licensure. Be sure to check with your state to determine the appropriate steps to become a licensed social worker.

Sponsored Online Social Work Programs

Howard University

info

Master of Social Work (MSW)

The online Master of Social Work program from Howard University School of Social Work prepares students for advanced direct or macro practice in culturally diverse communities. Two concentrations available: Direct Practice and Community, Administration, and Policy Practice. No GRE. Complete in as few as 12 months.

  • Concentrations: Direct Practice and Community, Administration, and Policy Practice
  • Complete at least 777-1,000 hours of agency-based field education
  • Earn your degree in as few as 12 months

University of Denver

info

Master of Social Work (MSW)

The University of Denver’s Online MSW Program is delivered by its top-ranked school of social work and offers two programs. Students can earn their degree in as few as 12 months for the Online Advanced-Standing MSW or 27 months for the Online MSW.

  • Complete the Online Advanced-Standing MSW in as few as 12 months if you have a BSW; if you do not have a BSW, the Online MSW Program may be completed in as few as 27 months.
  • No GRE Required
  • Mental Health and Trauma or Health, Equity and Wellness concentrations

Fordham University

info

Master of Social Work (MSW)

Fordham’s skills-based, online MSW program integrates advanced relevant social work competencies, preparing students to serve individuals and communities while moving the profession forward. This program includes advanced standing and traditional MSW options.

  •  Traditional and advanced standing online MSW options are available.
  • There are four areas of focus: Individuals and Families, Organizations and Community, Evaluation, and Policy Practice and Advocacy.
  • Pursue the degree on a full-time or part-time track.

Simmons University

info

Master of Social Work (MSW)

Aspiring direct practitioners can earn their MSW online from Simmons University in as few as 16 months. GRE scores are not required, and the program offers full-time, part-time, accelerated, and advanced standing tracks.

  • Prepares students to pursue licensure, including LCSW 
  • Full-time, part-time, and accelerated tracks 
  • Minimum completion time: 16 months

University of Southern California

info

Master of Social Work (MSW)

The MSW@USC is the online Master of Social Work from top-ranked USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. The Advanced Standing track can be completed in as little as 1 year. USC offers virtual and in-person field education, and students focus on adults, youth or social change.

  •  Minimum completion time: 12 months with a BSW 
  • Online classes taught by USC faculty 
  • Virtual field training to build skills and confidence

Syracuse University

info

Master of Social Work (MSW)

Syracuse University’s online Master of Social Work program does not require GRE scores to apply and is focused on preparing social workers who embrace technology as an important part of the future of the profession. Traditional and Advanced Standing tracks are available. 

  • Traditional and Advanced Standing tracks
  • No GRE required
  • Concentrate your degree in integrated practice or clinical practice

Baylor University

info

Master of Social Work (MSW)

Complete the Master of Social Work online program at Baylor University in as few as 12 months. Serve populations in Texas and around the world while ethically integrating faith and social work practice. No GRE required.

  • Address injustice from a strengths-based perspective
  • Ethically integrates faith and social work practice
  • Serve as a trusted resource for clients, no matter their personal background
  • Complete the MSW online program in as few as 12 months

Case Western Reserve University

info

Master of Social Work (MSW)

In as few as a year and a half, you can prepare for social work leadership by earning your Master of Social Work online from Case Western Reserve University’s school of social work.

  • CSWE-accredited
  • No GRE requirement
  • Complete in as few as one and a half years

info SPONSORED

LMSW or LCSW – Which Path is Best for Me? 

Neither social work license is better or worse than the other—LMSW and LCSW designations can each potentially lead to a fulfilling social work career. Both of these credentials require an on-campus or Online Master of Social Work from a school of social work that’s been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). 

The main difference between someone with an LCSW and someone with an LMSW is that the latter works professionally to coordinate services and therapy for individuals, groups, families and communities. An LMSW can also provide certain types of therapy (like psychotherapy) under the supervision of a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist. An LCSW has similar responsibilities, but they hold specialized knowledge about social work in a clinical application. This allows them to provide therapy independently or supervise an LMSW.

Generally, the LMSW and LCSW are highly regarded in social work practice as both indicate deep expertise and commitment to the field. But completing a master’s program and earning either license is not the only way to expand your knowledge. You can enroll in a Doctorate of Social Work program to further your research and expertise. Some states do require a master’s and doctoral degree to get your license. Check with your state licensing board to learn about the requirements.

Similarities and Differences Between an LMSW vs. an LCSW

When comparing the LMSW and LCSW licenses, it’s important to consider that both have some similarities as well as key differences. Either license enables you to work in the social work profession. In this section, we’ll cover the major shared responsibilities and different roles of the LMSW vs. LCSW licenses.

Similarities

Either social work license can provide social workers with many career possibilities. Both LMSWs and LCSWs work professionally to help people or groups through tough situations such as domestic conflicts, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and medical or mental illnesses. They may choose to focus on helping specific populations like women, the elderly, children, or minorities. Since the field encompasses a lot of different specialties, LCSWs and LMSWs may start off working in a clinical setting and later decide to switch into macro practice and vice versa.  

State regulatory boards all lead back to the Association for Social Work Boards (ASWB), a hub for licensing information. Generally, states require that candidates for either license pass an exam that will be specific to either the LMSW or LCSW. 

Under the domain of the social work profession, both LMSWs and LCSWs must abide by social work ethics and strive for the health and safety of all their clients. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the leading professional organization for those in social work, has a code of ethics and standards of conduct that are widely recognized by social workers of all levels and in all practice settings. 

The NASW ethical values include:

  • Social Justice
  • Dignity and Worth of the Person
  • Importance of Human Relationships
  • Integrity
  • Competence

These values emphasize that social workers serve to protect the people they work with, empower those who face adversity, and always act with care and compassion toward clients. 

The NASW ethical standards include a social worker’s responsibilities: 

  • To Clients
  • To Colleagues
  • In Practice Settings
  • As Professionals
  • To the Social Work Profession
  • To the Broader Society

Differences

As mentioned, becoming a licensed clinical social worker or licensed master social worker comes with some major differences that determine what services social workers are allowed to provide.

An LMSW must operate under the supervision of a licensed psychologist, psychiatrist or LCSW to provide clinical therapy or mental health services. An LCSW can independently provide these services. While an LMSW license is not a requirement for getting an LCSW license, in many U.S. states, a social worker needs a minimum amount of supervised clinical hours to qualify for the LCSW license. State LCSW requirements range from 1,500 to nearly 6,000 clinical hours under supervision, so a candidate would first need to become an LMSW to gain that experience.

Individuals with an LMSW license may work on a macro (or big-picture) level to help people, groups and societies push for reform, champion human rights, and support vulnerable populations. Rather than working in a clinical setting, LMSWs will commonly work for local, state or national government or nonprofits to assist communities or shape public policy.

LMSWs do work in clinical settings. In this type of role, LMSWs might hold more administrative and support responsibilities on a daily basis, including:

  • Conducting Intake For New Clients
  • Updating Case Files
  • Completing Billing (If Applicable)
  • Providing Supervised Psychotherapy Services 
  • Assisting With Treatment Plan Design
  • Providing Consultations

An LCSW may take on a leadership role and spend more time providing direct care. Responsibilities might include:

  • Performing Client/Patient Assessments
  • Providing Direct Client/Patient Therapies 
  • Supervising LMSW Psychotherapy Services
  • Building Treatment Plans

Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

In some states, according to the ASWB Social Work Regulation database, the LMSW is the first master’s-level licensure one may attain without post-graduate hours. This credential equips social workers to practice non-clinical or clinical social work, although many social workers with an LMSW work in nonclinical roles. LMSWs may provide therapeutic services in a clinical setting under the supervision of an LCSW, a psychologist or a psychiatrist.

What is an LMSW?

A licensed master social worker (LMSW) is a professional license that enables you to practice social work in most states. An LMSW may work in a variety of care or agency settings to deliver therapy, counseling and life-betterment services to people who need them.

LMSW Requirements

To become an LMSW you must earn an MSW degree. To get into a master’s program, you will likely need a Bachelor of Social Work or a social service degree in a related discipline such as sociology or psychology.

Candidates for licensure must also typically take an ASWB master’s or advanced generalist  exam to demonstrate their competence in the field. Some states require supervised experience hours following the completion of your degree to become licensed.

LMSW Salary

LMSW salaries will vary depending on a host of factors, such as geographical location, specialty, and more. But if you want an idea of how much social workers across the country are making, the median annual salary for social workers in 2020 was $51,760, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

LMSW Careers

The BLS projects social worker employment will increase 12 percent from 2020 to 2030. The LMSW license may provide social workers the chance to practice in a number of areas. If you choose to go the public health route, you could work in a school as a public health educator or policy analyst, or as a community organizer.

For these roles, there may be additional education requirements. On the clinical side, you can pursue more therapeutic roles at private practices, clinics and hospitals. In nearly any of these roles, you could be working with children, adults or the elderly.

Sponsored Online Social Work Programs

Howard University

info

Master of Social Work (MSW)

The online Master of Social Work program from Howard University School of Social Work prepares students for advanced direct or macro practice in culturally diverse communities. Two concentrations available: Direct Practice and Community, Administration, and Policy Practice. No GRE. Complete in as few as 12 months.

  • Concentrations: Direct Practice and Community, Administration, and Policy Practice
  • Complete at least 777-1,000 hours of agency-based field education
  • Earn your degree in as few as 12 months

University of Denver

info

Master of Social Work (MSW)

The University of Denver’s Online MSW Program is delivered by its top-ranked school of social work and offers two programs. Students can earn their degree in as few as 12 months for the Online Advanced-Standing MSW or 27 months for the Online MSW.

  • Complete the Online Advanced-Standing MSW in as few as 12 months if you have a BSW; if you do not have a BSW, the Online MSW Program may be completed in as few as 27 months.
  • No GRE Required
  • Mental Health and Trauma or Health, Equity and Wellness concentrations

Fordham University

info

Master of Social Work (MSW)

Fordham’s skills-based, online MSW program integrates advanced relevant social work competencies, preparing students to serve individuals and communities while moving the profession forward. This program includes advanced standing and traditional MSW options.

  •  Traditional and advanced standing online MSW options are available.
  • There are four areas of focus: Individuals and Families, Organizations and Community, Evaluation, and Policy Practice and Advocacy.
  • Pursue the degree on a full-time or part-time track.

Simmons University

info

Master of Social Work (MSW)

Aspiring direct practitioners can earn their MSW online from Simmons University in as few as 16 months. GRE scores are not required, and the program offers full-time, part-time, accelerated, and advanced standing tracks.

  • Prepares students to pursue licensure, including LCSW 
  • Full-time, part-time, and accelerated tracks 
  • Minimum completion time: 16 months

University of Southern California

info

Master of Social Work (MSW)

The MSW@USC is the online Master of Social Work from top-ranked USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. The Advanced Standing track can be completed in as little as 1 year. USC offers virtual and in-person field education, and students focus on adults, youth or social change.

  •  Minimum completion time: 12 months with a BSW 
  • Online classes taught by USC faculty 
  • Virtual field training to build skills and confidence

Syracuse University

info

Master of Social Work (MSW)

Syracuse University’s online Master of Social Work program does not require GRE scores to apply and is focused on preparing social workers who embrace technology as an important part of the future of the profession. Traditional and Advanced Standing tracks are available. 

  • Traditional and Advanced Standing tracks
  • No GRE required
  • Concentrate your degree in integrated practice or clinical practice

Baylor University

info

Master of Social Work (MSW)

Complete the Master of Social Work online program at Baylor University in as few as 12 months. Serve populations in Texas and around the world while ethically integrating faith and social work practice. No GRE required.

  • Address injustice from a strengths-based perspective
  • Ethically integrates faith and social work practice
  • Serve as a trusted resource for clients, no matter their personal background
  • Complete the MSW online program in as few as 12 months

Case Western Reserve University

info

Master of Social Work (MSW)

In as few as a year and a half, you can prepare for social work leadership by earning your Master of Social Work online from Case Western Reserve University’s school of social work.

  • CSWE-accredited
  • No GRE requirement
  • Complete in as few as one and a half years

info SPONSORED

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

licensed clinical social worker may be a fit for someone looking to help people work through mental, emotional and/or behavioral concerns. This license may enable LCSWs to diagnose clients and provide therapies or treatments independently. LCSWs may help clients accomplish goals like living with mental health disorders, working through trauma or overcoming substance abuse.

What is an LCSW?

LCSW stands for licensed clinical social worker. This license allows you to provide clinical services to clients independent of supervision. You typically need, at minimum, a master’s degree and two years of supervised field experience to become a licensed clinical social worker. Both LMSW and LCSW licenses can lead to an engaging professional career—but the LCSW typically has more rigorous experiential and knowledge requirements.

LCSW Programs

To become an LCSW, you need to enroll in a CSWE-accredited master’s in social work program. If you plan to work in a state where the LCSW license is recognized, exploring on-campus or online LCSW programs that are accredited, known for their rigor, and emphasize your clinical practicum are a great place to start. The clinical hours you accumulate in your master’s program can help lay the foundation for your work in the field—and you’ll know what to expect when completing your post-graduate experience hours.

What Does an LCSW Do? 

An LCSW supports people through various challenges by providing general counseling services, crisis intervention, mental health therapies, substance abuse support, and other key services. LCSWs work to create positive change and impact in the lives of their clients by helping them reach goals. In certain practices, LCSWs may also supervise the work of LMSWs. 

LCSWs may work in schools, hospitals, elderly care facilities, private practices, and even the courtroom—social workers are often called upon as witnesses in court cases. The main thing to remember is that this license gives them freedom and responsibility to make independent decisions about diagnosis and treatment plans. Becoming an LCSW can offer you a variety of career paths to consider.

FAQs

We hope the above overview answered most of your questions about the LMSW vs. LCSW. For more information about either of these licenses, here are answers to some frequently asked questions.

How long is the LMSW exam?

The LMSW exam is one of many offered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), and it is required to become a licensed master social worker in states that recognize this credential. The exam is rigorous and takes up to four hours to complete. The LMSW exam may only be taken online at a registered testing facility. There are 170 questions on the exam, and 150 of these are scored.

In 2020, 75.4 percent of candidates passed the master exam to obtain their social work licensure. Rigorous as it is, the exam is designed to help you succeed as a social worker. If you have completed all the necessary social work education and practical experience, you have the potential to pass the exam and obtain your license.

How can I pass the ASWB exam?

While there is no guaranteed way to pass an ASWB exam, knowing what to expect can help you feel confident and prepared to ace the exam. ASWB exams are designed based on analyses of professional social workers and practices in the field, so the information is relevant and current. The organization uses this information to develop content outlines and provide candidates with an overview of topics to know heading into the exam. The ASWB also recommends taking a practice test to gauge how well you will perform on the actual exam.

According to the ASWB, most candidates need to score correctly on 90 to 107 of the scored questions to pass. Put into perspective, that’s a 60 to 71 percent minimum needed to pass the exam. Even if you miss some of the questions, you may succeed.

How many times can you take the ASWB exam?

If you don’t perform well the first time you take an ASWB exam, you can review the diagnostic report provided following the exam to determine where you will need to improve. Certain states may limit the number of times you can take an ASWB exam—check with your state regulatory board. Regardless, the ASWB requires that all candidates wait 90 days between testing attempts.

Can an LMSW diagnose?

No, an LMSW does not have the ability to diagnose clients with mental illnesses. But they can work in a variety of fields from public health to public policy. If you are passionate about one-on-one care, counseling and therapy, you may consider pursuing an LCSW.

Which states recognize the LMSW license?

Just 23 states recognize the LMSW, including AlaskaMichiganNorth CarolinaNew York and Arizona. The requirements to obtain your LMSW will vary in each jurisdiction. In states that do not offer the LMSW, there are equivalent licenses candidates may pursue.

What is the difference between an LISW vs LMSW?

You now know the differences between an LMSW and an LCSW, but what is an LISW? LISW stands for licensed independent social worker. LISW responsibilities are most similar to that of an LCSW. LISWs need clinical experience hours and are empowered to provide care independently. They may work in a more specialized fashion with a chosen population, such as the elderly. 

This license is only offered in six jurisdictions: the District of ColumbiaIowaMinnesotaNew MexicoOhio and South Carolina.

What is the difference between a licensed vs. unlicensed social worker?

You typically cannot become a social worker without a license. However, the ASWB does recognize some exempt roles and work settings where a license may not be necessary in certain states. For example, in New Hampshire, social workers employed by a mental health clinic can be unlicensed if they perform work under supervision. In Utah, substance abuse educators do not have to be licensed. And in Vermont, hospice workers, foster care workers, and respite caregivers are exempt. Having a license can expand your career options and help you advance and progress in the field.

Information on this page was last retrieved in September 2021.