MSW vs. LCSW: Understanding the Distinction

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A social worker meets with a teenage student. Individuals who have a desire to make a meaningful contribution to society may want to consider a career in social work. International aid organization UNICEF has commended social workers for:

  • Supporting marginalized and vulnerable populations
  • Helping to ensure social justice
  • Addressing the causes of inequality
  • Mitigating the effects of poverty

Those pursuing a career path in social work need to become familiar with some of the profession’s terminology. Crucially, they need to know the difference between a Master of Social Work (MSW), which is a graduate academic degree, and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), which is one of the many rewarding career paths that an individual who earns an MSW degree can pursue.

Exploring the MSW vs. LCSW distinction — as well as how the two relate — is beneficial for those considering enrolling in an online MSW degree program. Knowing more about the MSW degree and related career options (including working as an LCSW) can also help refine their professional goals.

What Is an MSW?

Acquiring some basic information about MSW programs can help aspiring social workers decide whether to pursue the degree. Exactly what is an MSW degree program?

MSW Credit Hours

MSW programs typically require students who don’t already have a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) from an accredited program to complete 60 credit hours — 30 of which are in foundational courses.

The credit hour requirement differs for students who already have a BSW from an accredited program. According to the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), those students are considered to have advanced standing and, therefore, do not need to repeat generalist courses that they have already taken. Students with advanced standing usually complete 30 credit hours to earn an MSW.

MSW Curriculum

MSW students who don’t have advanced standing take foundational courses in subjects such as:

  • Social work methods
  • The history of social work policies and social welfare
  • Human behavior
  • Evidence-informed practice (the process of accessing, evaluating and synthesizing evidence to inform decision-making)

Regardless of their advanced standing status, all MSW students take courses in subjects such as:

  • Advanced assessment
  • Therapeutic interventions
  • Social work administration
  • Practice and program evaluation

Another important element of an MSW curriculum is practicums. Completing practicums enables students to apply their expertise by working in the field at a practicum site, such as a community agency. While fulfilling their practicum requirements, students receive supervision from social work professionals.

MSW Core Competencies

According to CSWE, an MSW program can help students build core competencies in areas such as:

  • Advancing human rights and social justice
  • Incorporating anti-racism, diversity, equity and inclusion into social work practice
  • Performing practice-informed research and conducting research-informed social work practice
  • Analyzing social work policy
  • Engaging with, assessing and intervening with individuals, groups, organizations and communities
  • Evaluating processes to improve service delivery effectiveness

Careers With an MSW

One clear way to distinguish between an MSW and an LCSW is by examining the potential career paths associated with each. An MSW can lead to various rewarding careers, not solely to a career as an LCSW. As a 2022 report in Forbes Advisor noted, individuals with an MSW can become:

  • Child and family social workers, who focus on assisting children and families with issues such as domestic violence or finding housing
  • Forensic social workers, who work at the intersection of social work and the legal system on issues such as child custody and other civil disputes
  • Health care social workers, who assist clients in understanding and managing health challenges or medical conditions

The National Association of Social Workers suggests additional career options such as:

  • School social workers, who help address the emotional, developmental and educational needs of students
  • Community organizers, who advocate for the rights of individuals to achieve social justice
  • Social work administrators, who lead private and public organizations that serve social work clients

Earning an MSW can also enable individuals to work in alternative fields outside of social work. For example, employment website Indeed notes that social work expertise can translate to careers in:

  • Career counseling
  • Teaching
  • Mediation
  • Human resources management
  • Educational consulting

Of course, earning an MSW can also lead to a rewarding career as an LCSW performing clinical social work.

What Is an LCSW?

If an MSW is an academic degree, then what is an LCSW? Simply put, an LCSW is a social worker who has earned an MSW and has a license to perform clinical social work.

The primary responsibilities of an LCSW often include the following:

  • Assessing clients for mental health conditions, addiction or emotional disorders
  • Developing treatment plans to address clients’ issues
  • Providing counseling services to individuals and groups
  • Working with clients to promote coping strategies and strengthen their well-being
  • Coordinating with social service organizations to identify resources that can benefit clients

How to Become an LCSW

To become an LCSW, an individual needs to:

  • Earn a bachelor’s degree, ideally in an academic area such as social work, sociology, psychology or a related field
  • Earn an MSW from a college or university accredited by the CSWE
  • Meet state requirements for clinical experience (requirements vary across states, but the minimum is typically about two years of practice experience under the supervision of an LCSW)
  • Apply to the state licensing board for approval to begin the licensing process
  • Pass the Association of Social Work Boards clinical exam
  • Obtain licensure from the state licensing board

LCSW Salary Information and Job Outlook

In distinguishing between an LCSW and an MSW, comparing LCSW salary and MSW salary figures is also beneficial and can help inform your career choices. According to Payscale, as of October 2022:

  • The median annual salary for an LCSW was about $60,500.
  • The median annual salary for individuals who had earned an MSW (regardless of their specific profession) was approximately $57,000.

Salaries can vary based on several factors, including the level of experience and geographic location. The sector in which an LCSW is employed can also influence salary, such as whether they work in private practice or for a public agency.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment growth of 9% for social workers from 2021 to 2031, adding approximately 64,000 new jobs. That projection exceeds the bureau’s 5% growth projection for positions in all occupations.

Social Work: The Chance to Make a Difference

The social work profession offers a tremendous opportunity to make a lasting contribution to society, and earning an MSW enables individuals to enter a variety of rewarding careers. Whether working as a child and family social worker, a social work administrator, or an LCSW, the MSW degree can serve as the foundation for a fulfilling career that improves the lives of others.

If you’re interested in social work, explore the University of Nevada, Reno’s online MSW degree program to learn how it can help you pursue your professional ambitions — and you don’t need a BSW to apply. Start working to achieve your career goals today.

Recommended Readings

11 Important Social Work Theories and Methods

How to Become a Social Worker

Role of Social Workers in Mental Health


Association of Social Work Boards, Examination Guidebook

Council on Social Work Education, 2022 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards

Forbes, “What Are the Different Types of Social Workers?”

Indeed, 6 Steps for How to Become a Clinical Social Worker

Indeed, Definitive Guide to Alternative Careers for Social Workers

Indeed, LMSW vs. LCSW: Differences in Social Work Licensure

National Association of Social Workers, Clinical Social Work

National Association of Social Workers, Types of Social Work

Payscale, Average Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) Salary

Payscale, Master of Social Work (MSW) Degree

UNICEF, Let’s Stand Together for Social Workers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers