MSW Vs LCSW vs LMSW Degree Differences

Any social worker who offers clinical services, including diagnostics and psychotherapy, must possess at minimum a master’s of social work, or MSW. Also, the majority of US states require all clinical social workers to have a certification or license.

Once you have earned your MSW and have earned licensure or certification, you can become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) or a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW). Below we provide additional details about the MSW degree, and the LCSW and LMSW designations.

What Is an MSW?

A master’s degree in social work is a graduate degree in social work that generally requires two years of study beyond the bachelor’s level. Some social work students opt for studying part time and may complete their MSW in three or four years.

Many of these students choose to earn their master’s degree in a distance learning program. Completing an online MSW degree allows many working professionals to continue working while attending graduate school.

An MSW program provides students with a comprehensive education in the field of social work. Most programs cover topics such as human behavior, the policy and practice of social work, social work research and more.

For example, Boston University offers the following courses for their MSW degree online:

  • Human Behavior in the Social Environment
  • Social Welfare Policy I and II
  • Introduction to Social Work Research
  • Social Work Ethics
  • Clinical Social Work Practice
  • Clinical Practice with Groups
  • Clinical Practice with Individuals

The majority of accredited MSW programs will require students to finish approximately 60 credit hours to earn their degree. The core curriculum of a master’s in social work program is focused on teaching the student vital social work skills:

  • Patient assessment
  • How to engage with clients to provide the best possible outcomes
  • Social welfare and advocacy
  • Community resources
  • Case management

The second year of an MSW program usually centers on studying any electives the student has chosen, such as alcohol and drug dependency social work, or working with young children. At the same time, the student will usually be working in their supervised clinical internship, which normally consists of 1,000 to 2,000 hours of full time clinical social work.

MSW and Accreditation

When considering an MSW program, most experts strongly advise that you select a MSW program that has been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education or CSWE. This is a highly respected institution that ensures that the master’s program meets high quality standards in social work education.

LMSW Licensure

The initial licensure that one generally can earn is the LMSW, which can be earned after earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work.  Licensure is very important for social workers so that the public is secure in the knowledge that the social worker is licensed to practice.

Most social workers who hold their LMSW license can practice social work services in most states. However, they have to be under the supervision of a qualified LCSW, or a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist. Each state has its own requirements for earning LMSW licensure.

Most LMSWs work on social work cases in child protection agencies or in government organizations.

But to obtain one’s LMSW, it is necessary to provide a certified copy of one’s bachelor’s and/or MSW diploma as well as transcripts. Further, the student must pass the social work licensing exam that is offered by the Association of Social Work Boards or ASWB.

Where LMSWs Work

Most social workers with their LMSW work in social work offices at the local or state level. They work directly with individuals and families who need social worker help and support. Some LMSWs also work in correctional facilities and in employee assistance.

The LMSW is often considered to be the entry-level social worker designation. To advance one’s social work career, it often is necessary to earn the next license – the LCSW. It is with this credential that social workers are able to practice psychotherapy and mental health services.

LCSW Licensure

The LCSW credential is one that is designed for clinical social workers who are working with patients on their mental and emotional well being. There are many specialties that a social worker can concentrate on with an LCSW, including:

  • Mental health
  • Substance abuse
  • Public health
  • Social work in schools
  • Marriage counseling
  • Child and family therapy

This type of licensure is recommended for professionals who desire a social work career where they work with clients in a clinical setting. You must have a master’s degree to practice as an LCSW.

Some LCSWs decide to focus on social work research, while others may select policy making or social work administration. Whichever concentration that is chosen, LCSWs provide vital services to some of the most needy people in the country.

Many LCSWs focus their careers on mental health counseling. With the assistance of a compassionate and competent social worker, the client can gain valuable insight into their mental health and emotions. Many clients find that they can get past traumas from years ago. Some LCSWs eventually work in their own mental health private practice.

A marriage and family counseling social workers may help a family work on issues in the household. The LCSW can use her skills to facilitate better dialogue in the home and ensure that all needs are met in the home. This often leads to stronger marriages that could have ended in divorce. These social workers also may intervene in a family when a child is at risk of abuse or neglect.

An LCSW who focuses on school counseling can assist students with their studies and with their behavior so that the best learning outcomes are achieved. This concentration also assists students in getting a proper assessment so that their learning needs are fully met.

Students and families may be referred to this type of social worker to work out problems related to aggressive or disruptive behavior, bullying and frequent school absences.

Where LCSWs Work

Social workers with their LCSW can be hired into many direct-service clinical roles. Some of the most common places where they work are:

  • Inpatient psychiatric centers
  • Outpatient mental health facilities
  • Hospitals
  • Hospice care facilities

LCSWs and Societal Impact

One of the major benefits of becoming an LCSW is that the professional has the opportunity to benefit both individuals and society. These facts can be seen in government statistics over time that indicate the benefits of what LCSWs do:

  • An increase in high school graduation rates
  • A drop in the juvenile crime rate
  • A decrease in the incidence of domestic violence
  • Better wellbeing for students and teachers

Licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) are actually one of the largest providers of mental health services in the United States. Their impact upon the lives of many people is substantial, and their work helps to provide a better and more equitable society for all.


The social work field is becoming more popular with compassionate professionals who want to help make a difference in society. It also is attracting people who want to enjoy a strong demand for their services. Recent statistics in the US indicate that there will be a 12% increase in demand for all social workers, and 19% increase for clinical social workers.