Master’s in Social Work (MSW) vs. Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

In the social work world, initialisms are common. They may designate degrees, licenses, specialties and certifications. Two common ones are MSW and LCSW. Those who are interested in a career in social work may be wondering about the difference between an MSW vs. LCSW.

An MSW is a social work degree, standing for Master of Social Work or master’s in social work. LCSW stands for licensed clinical social worker. Earning an MSW degree may be a requirement to become an LCSW.

Not all MSW holders are LCSWs. But practicing clinical social work typically requires an MSW. Learn more about the differences between an MSW vs. LCSW so you know what to expect regarding social work career paths. 

Master’s in Social Work (MSW) Degree

What is an MSW degree? A master’s in social work degree is a graduate-level degree in the field of social work. Typically, to be accepted into an MSW program, a student must have a bachelor’s degree. Students who have a bachelor’s in social work (BSW) from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) may be able to enter an advanced standing MSW program. Advanced standing MSW programs build upon what bachelor’s in social work graduates have already learned, so these advanced standing MSW programs may take less time to complete than a traditional MSW program. Students who have a bachelor’s degree in a non-social-work field may be able to pursue an MSW in a traditional program, which may take around two years to complete.

There are on-campus MSW programs and online MSW programs. Both types of programs have similar curricula and instructors. Online programs may provide more flexibility because you’re able to learn from wherever you are. MSW programs include both classroom learning and fieldwork that’s completed under the supervision of a licensed social worker, such as an LCSW. 

Upon graduating with an MSW, graduates may pursue social work licensure to become an LCSW in the state where they want to work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), all states require clinical social workers to be licensed.

What can you do with a master’s in social work degree?

MSW degree holders can work in a variety of settings with different populations (e.g., community health worker, case manager). If you want to help people as a social worker but aren’t interested in working in a clinical setting, you still may be able to find a fulfilling career with an MSW. 

Social workers work in many different settings, including schools, child welfare organizations, hospitals, private practices, community organizations, human service agencies and hospitals. MSW salaries vary based on your social work career.

Some common duties found in social work careers include:

  • Advocating for community resources, like food stamps and health care, that help people in need.
  • Offering well-being support for children and families who have experienced trauma or physical illness.
  • Monitoring cases for vulnerable populations, such as foster children in child welfare organizations.
  • Providing social services in medical and health care settings, such as resources and referrals to individuals and families experiencing hardship.
  • Responding to crisis situations, like child abuse.
  • Creating programs that ensure clients’ needs are met.
  • Offering support for military deployment and reintegration into civilian life

Some MSW degree holders may pursue a Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) through in-person and online DSW programs. A DSW is the highest graduate degree someone can obtain in social work. DSW degrees may open doors to leadership positions in social work or to careers in social work research.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

An LCSW is a license that may permit social workers to provide mental health services and psychotherapy without supervision, including diagnosis and treatment of mental, behavioral and emotional disorders, according to the BLS report on social workers. LCSWs may work with individuals and families who seek counseling or therapy.

An important distinction between an LCSW vs. MSW is that to become an LCSW, a social worker must obtain an MSW, which will require first completing a bachelor’s degree. After graduating with an MSW, a social worker must complete additional post-MSW clinical hours to become licensed—typically two years, according to the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). The number of required hours may vary depending on the state or jurisdiction. Those who are hoping to become a clinical social worker may also complete an on-campus or online LCSW Program that may provide a more specialized curriculum needed to succeed in clinical work.  

Social work licensure also typically requires passing the ASWB clinical exam and meeting any other state requirements. These may include requirements like paying a fee, completing certain classes and providing a fingerprint card.

With an LCSW license, a social worker is able to apply for clinical social work positions. LCSWs may choose to open up their own practices. In terms of MSW vs. LCSW careers, an LCSW can also generally work in any role mentioned above that an MSW may work in. They may also supervise lower-level social workers, including those who are completing fieldwork for an MSW program. 

MSW Licensing Requirement

As mentioned above, an MSW, two years of post-MSW clinical experience and passing the ASWB clinical exam are common licensing requirements for an LCSW. If you’re considering an LCSW license, make sure to research the requirements of the state or jurisdiction in which you want to work, since these requirements often vary by location. 

Some states may also have a different license name than LCSW for a licensed clinical social worker. For example, the Minnesota Board of Social Work and the Washington, D.C., Department of Health refer to their clinical social work license as licensed independent clinical social worker (LICSW). Some states also have social work licensure options available to non-clinical social workers. This may include licensed master social worker (LMSW) and licensed baccalaureate social worker (LBSW).

Requirements by State

To become an LCSW or any other type of licensed social worker, it’s important to check social worker licensure requirements by state. Below you can click on any state you’re interested in working in to see the available licenses and an overview of licensure requirements in that state.

Note: Since social work regulations may change, check your state’s social work licensing board for the most up-to-date information.

Additional Social Work Licenses

Getting licensed may be a requirement for certain social work positions. Even if you don’t plan on working in a clinical role, licensure may be a beneficial way to demonstrate your social work knowledge and experience. Below are some types of social work licensure you might consider with an MSW.

  • LMSW: LMSWs are licensed master social workers who provide social work services outside of therapy or counseling, like direct services such as case management. When comparing an LMSW vs. LCSW, an LCSW can provide psychotherapy; LMSWs are not able to without clinical licensure.
  • LGSW: LGSW stands for licensed graduate social worker. Some states offer this license for social workers who have an MSW or higher degree in social work but have not completed post-MSW fieldwork.
  • LICSW: LICSW stands for licensed independent clinical social worker and is similar to an LCSW. If a state does not offer an LCSW license, it may offer the LICSW license. Both of these types of licenses enable a social worker to provide psychotherapy services and diagnose mental health disorders in a clinical setting.

Some states may also offer social worker licenses for those who have a bachelor’s in social work, which may be known as an LBSW, or licensed baccalaureate social worker.


A career in social work may be fulfilling and meaningful, since you’re able to affect the lives of others on a daily basis. Below are some frequently asked questions to help you as you consider your social work career path.

What’s the difference between an MSW and LCSW?

An MSW is a master’s in social work degree that is a graduate degree in social work. An LCSW is a license that stands for licensed clinical social worker. LCSWs may be able to provide direct mental health services to clients in private practice and other settings. 

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

It may take about two years to obtain an LCSW license after earning an MSW, since the Association of Social Work Boards states that clinical social work licensure requires two years of post-MSW experience. However, this requirement may vary by jurisdiction or state.

Is getting an MSW worth it?

An MSW may prepare graduates to advance a career in social work, obtain a DSW and/or become an LCSW. If you want to work in a clinical setting as a social worker or obtain a leadership position in social work, getting your MSW may be helpful in putting you on that path. Some MSW degree holders pursue careers in other fields as health educators, juvenile court liaisons, community outreach organizers and human resources professionals. If these careers interest you, then an MSW may be worth it

Information on this page was last retrieved in October 2020.