MSW vs LCSW - What is the Difference?
March 10, 2021
Getting a Masters Degree in Social Work opens the door to many exciting career paths. But the degree has some limitations; it will not open all doors.
What is the difference between the MSW and the LCSW?
Some social work positions require additional credentialing and licensing, as well as an additional two years of professional post-graduate work. These positions tend to be in the mental health field.
The acronym "MSW" stands for Master of Social Work. It is a master's-level graduate degree; an MSW program typically takes two years to complete as a full-time student.
LCSW stands for licensed clinical social worker. This is a higher-tiered social work credential. Depending on your career goals, this credential may benefit you, especially if you are interested in clinical social work. However, it is not required for all social work practices.
An LCSW is an individual who has earned the MSW and then continued to pursue additional coursework and training, and, finally, passed specialized social work licensing exams. To become an LCSW, a graduate must gain an additional two years of professional experience in a relevant social work practice field. This experience can be in the form of a full-time salaried position. Any MSW who has completed 3,000 hours or two years or more of professional experience is eligible to take appropriate licensure exams and become an LCSW and work as a clinical social worker.
Becoming an LCSW requires a significant investment of time and training. Most LCSWs will have to pass several exams to ensure standards of competency. Because the LCSW is a regulated profession, you should learn of the requirements for the LCSW in your intended area of practice and your state.
As we said, the LCSW is not for everyone, nor is it necessary. The MSW is a broad-based and in-demand degree. You will likely find an overwhelming majority of employers and health-care institutions eager to hire you. There are many social worker positions and career paths one might pursue that do not require becoming a LCSW. This is the case if you intend to pursue a position in:
- policy and planning
- program administration
- fund raising
- grant writing
- discharge planning
- working with the aged
- criminal justice
or in any number of other non-clinical fields. It is also possible to find employment as a counselor with just the MSW; requirements for counselor positions vary by job and setting. It is possible that counselor position may set you up to earn the LCSW after a few years in the job.
For these reasons, it's worthwhile to think about to the kind of work you hope to pursue as an MSW. There are many opportunities to specialize during the period you attend school, and to earn a unique certificate in a focused area such as disaster mental health and trauma, or family and marital counseling. Your MSW studies and training can position you for a LCSW, or allow you to pursue an equally viable career track with just the MSW.
If you have a strong interest in delivering mental health counseling and psychotherapy in a clinical setting, and becoming third-party reimbursable, (this means insurance providers will pay you or your employer for the counseling services you provide), the LCSW will be required.