MSW vs. LCSW: What’s the Difference?

Social workers help vulnerable individuals meet their needs, create treatment programs, and provide therapy. However, they need an MSW to demonstrate competency and a license to offer independent services.

Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) have thousands of hours of hands-on experience and state recognition as clinical social workers. This allows them to work independently and earn a higher salary.

If you’re wondering what steps to take to become a social worker, this MSW vs. LCSW guide will help.

Overview of the Field Of Social Work and the Importance of Professional Credentials.

Social workers assist individuals facing life’s challenges and provide long-term support to vulnerable populations. To perform these duties, they must demonstrate sufficient knowledge and experience in social work by earning a Master of Science in social work (MSW).

An MSW provides them with the foundation necessary to serve the public, but they cannot work independently without a license. MSW holders who want to work without supervision must apply for a license to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). LCSWs are recognized by the state as experts in clinical social work.

Clarification of the MSW Degree And LCSW Licensure and Their Roles in the Career Advancement Of Social Workers.

MSW and LCSW are terms often mentioned together, though they aren’t the same. An MSW is a master of social work from an accredited college or university. This four-year degree lays the foundation of social work, allowing graduates to assist needy individuals. On the other hand, an LCSW is a license awarded by the state to those with MSW degrees and several supervised clinical hours.

Services MSW holders can provide without a professional license include:

  • Participating in support sessions.
  • Conducting assessments of a client’s needs.
  • Helping people find services.
  • Crisis intervention.
  • Helping licensed social workers manage their cases.

Unlike an LCSW, MSW workers cannot diagnose or treat mental illness. However, with a license to practice, MSW holders can provide the following services:

  • General counseling services.
  • Holistic approaches to care.
  • Assist with substance abuse.
  • Diagnose and treat mental health conditions.
  • Offer mental health therapies.

The Article’s Objective Is to Explore The Journey From an MSW to An LCSW and the Value Each Brings to the Profession.

The path from an MSW to an LCSW is paved with years of education, dedication, and experience. With the proper guidance, an MSW holder can become a dynamic case worker, providing much-needed resources to those in need while ascending the ladder to an LCSW career.

In this article, you’ll learn the differences between an MSW and an LCSW, their salary potentials, and when choosing one path over the other makes sense.

Understanding an MSW vs. LCSW

If you’re embarking on a career in social work, you should weigh the pros and cons of holding an MSW alone or applying for an LCSW license. Though both open the door to social work opportunities, only one provides a path to advancement.

Definition and Scope of a Master of Social Work (MSW) Degree.

This two-year program prepares students for careers in social work. Coursework includes human behavior, social welfare, and diversity and oppression. For licensure after graduation, the MSW degree must come from a school accredited by the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE). Aspiring LCSWs with full-time employment or disabilities can earn their MSW degree online, though it must be a CSWE-accredited online MSW program.

Overview of the Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) Licensure.

The LCSW licensure exam is provided by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). It covers topics such as clinical practice with individuals, families, and groups, and research methods for social workers. In short, this exam covers everything you’ll need to know to work with clients in a clinical setting.

The Path from an MSW to LCSW

The path from a master’s degree to an LCSW can take five to nine years. Although this seems like a long time, the experience gained during the period prepares you to work in any environment and with different groups of people.

Educational Requirements for an MSW.

A bachelor’s degree in social work or related fields, such as psychology or sociology, is required before applying for an MSW. This process takes roughly four years of full-time study unless the school offers a standing MSW program. There’s also an option to take an online MSW program without a GRE requirement.

The MSW program allows BSW graduates to complete their degrees in one year by removing the required foundational social work course. Graduates must have a 2.5 GPA and complete undergraduate prerequisites before applying.

Post-MSW Requirements for LCSW Licensure.

MSW holders are typically required to fulfill approximately 3000 hours of supervised clinical experience to apply for an LCSW license. During these hours, MSW holders receive mentorship and hands-on experience practicing what they learned in their degree programs.

After fulfilling the supervised clinical hours, MSW graduates can take the exam. The LCSW examination consists of 150 multiple-choice scored questions involving five core topics:

  • Clinical practice with families, individuals, and groups
  • Social work, values, ethics, and professional issues
  • Diversity and Human Behavior and Society
  • Research methods of social workers
  • Foundations of public policy relevant to individual problems

This exam takes approximately four hours to complete. After passing the exam, they will receive their license in the mail.

MSW vs. LCSW: Clarifying the Progression Rather Than Comparison.

An MSW requires four years of study and thousands of clinical hours working with people of various backgrounds and conditions. An LCSW offers MSW holders more career opportunities since the license demonstrates experience working with the public.

MSW and LCSW: Scope of Practice and Opportunities

MSW holders and licensed clinical social workers all play an essential role in helping people through vulnerable times. To understand the responsibilities of each role, it is essential to know their scope of practice and the opportunities available to them.

Scope of Practice With an MSW.

Individuals with a Master of Social Work (MSW) can provide crisis intervention, client advocacy, and case management services. They can also work with the public to help them deal with global issues such as natural disasters and pandemics. These services are provided in person or virtually through telehealth services.

Expanded Scope of Practice as an LCSW.

Practicing with an LCSW opens up more career advancement opportunities, including working in private practices or alongside others.

The general scope of practice for LCSWs includes:

  • Offering mentorship.
  • Providing therapy.
  • Developing treatment plans.
  • Identifying, diagnosing, and treating addictive disorders, behavioral issues, and other mental health conditions.
  • Testing an individual’s psychosocial functioning.

Career Opportunities and Settings for MSW and LCSW Professionals.

MSW holders are equipped to work in various settings, including schools, human rights and advocacy organizations, and long-term care facilities. They also work with the public to help them through global issues such as natural disasters and pandemics.

Although LCSWs work in various environments, they are often employed by hospitals, addiction centers, government organizations, and halfway houses. Some even own their practices or work in a group practice.

LCSW vs. MSW Salary: Economic Benefits of Licensure

Regarding earnings, there’s quite a difference between an LCSW and an MSW holder. The salary of an unlicensed social worker is capped due to their inability to take on specific roles. On the other hand, an LCSW has a license to work independently and in higher-paying positions. This makes having a license to practice so advantageous to MSW holders.

Overview of Salary Ranges for MSW Holders.

According to BLS, social workers earned an average annual salary of $55,350 in 2022. The lower 10% of earners in this field make less than $36,600 annually, while the top 10% make more than $87,300 annually.

Those working in child, family, and social services, as well as schools, tend to earn the lowest salaries. On the other hand, those who work in hospitals and local government earn the most, with an average annual income of $62,390.

Salary and Financial Benefits of Obtaining LCSW Licensure.

An LCSW allows you to work in more challenging roles with significantly higher pay. The average salary for an LCSW ranges from $73,337 to $88,308, with a median salary of $80,050, according to

LCSWs can work without supervision, so many open their practices. This allows them to set their fee structure and control how much they earn.

Geography also influences salary levels. California, for instance, offers a median salary of $69,530 annually as the top employer of social workers. On the other hand, Rhode Island, which employs far fewer social workers, has an average wage of $84,430, making it the top-paying state.

Other factors influencing salary are sector and specialization. The Director of Corporate Responsibility is the highest-paying specialization, which pays $142,940 annually.

Job Outlook for MSW vs. LCSW Professionals

The demand for social services is increasing, leading to a positive job outlook for MSW holders and LCSWs. Employment of social workers is projected to grow 7 percent from 2022 to 2032, according to the BLS.

Educational Pathways: From MSW to LCSW

The path from MSW to LCSW is both challenging and rewarding. Staying the course ensures more job opportunities and the ability to learn about people from different walks of life and circumstances.

The path begins with earning your MSW from an accredited school and ends with joining a professional organization for mentorship opportunities.

Accredited MSW Programs: The Foundation.

The ASWB clinical board only recognizes MSW programs accredited by the organization. Accredited MSW programs consist of 60 credit hours and prepare students for clinical practice. It covers human behavior, the social environment, research, and ethics.

Licensure Preparation: Coursework and Clinical Experience.

Individuals may study at their own pace to prepare for the exam by requesting exam materials from the licensing board. They might also find online study sessions helpful.

The exam questions gauge an individual’s knowledge and comprehension of the five core areas.

  • Clinical practice with individuals, families, and social groups.
  • Social work, values, ethics, and professional issues.
  • Diversity and human behavior and society
  • Research methods for social workers
  • Foundations of public policy relevant to individual problems.

Examination and continuous education for LCSWs.

To take the LCSW examination, you must schedule an appointment to go to a testing center through the Association of Social Work Boards website or by calling their 24-hour line.

Once you pass the exam, you will receive a valid license for up to three years. To renew the license, you must complete continuing education, which can include:

  • lectures
  • seminars
  • workshops
  • webinars
  • professional development courses
  • lectures

You might also consider continuing education programs the National Association of Social Workers offers.

Making the Decision: MSW vs. LCSW in Your Career Planning

Whether you enter the workforce with an MSW or pursue an LCSW depends on your long-term career goals. Those who want to advance up the ladder begin working with an MSW under supervision, then earn their LCSW for more job opportunities.

If you’re unsure which path to take, here are a few points to consider.

Considering Your Career Goals in Social Work.

If your career goal is to work within the community in an entry-level position, then an MSW is all that’s required. However, if you want to work as a licensed Clinical Social Worker, you must have an LCSW.

Evaluating the Commitment to Becoming an LCSW.

If you are determined to work in a high-level position without supervision, then earning your LCSW is essential. However, becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker requires much effort and dedication. Completing the clinical hours alone takes an additional 3000 hours, which may seem like a lot. Still, the practical knowledge and skills you’ll acquire from working under a licensed mentor are invaluable.

Long-Term Benefits of Licensure for Professional Development.

With an LCSW license, you can apply for higher-paying jobs with more flexible hours. You can also apply for jobs in a broader spectrum of sectors. In addition, the 36-month renewal requirement enables you to learn about any changes in social work or research.

Resources and Next Steps

Working as a successful social worker means updating your knowledge and networking with others in your field. Joining a professional organization is a great way to achieve these objectives simultaneously.

Professional Organizations and Resources for MSW and LCSW Candidates.

There are multiple professional organizations and resources for MSW and LCSW candidates.

They include:

  • The Clinical Social Work Association
  • Council on Social Work Education
  • Society for Social Work and Research
  • Association of Social Work Boards
  • National Association of Social Workers
  • Clinical Social Work Association

A few valuable resources for aspiring LCSW and MSW candidates include:

  • The Journal of Social Workers Values and Ethics
  • The American Board of Clinical Social Work
  • The American Council for School Social Work

Steps to Take After Completing an MSW Program.

After completing an MSW program, you may go directly into social work or fulfill the requirements for obtaining an LCSW, which are as follows:

  • Fulfill your state’s requirement for supervised clinical hours.
  • Register and pass the clinical-level ASWB exam.
  • Complete the LCSW licensing application, along with any background checks.
  • Pay the applicable fee.

Finding Mentorship and Guidance in the Journey to LCSW

To find the right mentor for your journey to becoming an LCSW, it’s important to establish your expectations, boundaries, and goals first. Once you’ve done that, you can reach out to potential mentors who meet these needs.

It’s important to remember that mentorship is not a static process. It’s a good idea to provide regular feedback to your mentor and ask for feedback from them. If the mentoring process isn’t working as well as you’d hoped, don’t be afraid to adjust and find another mentor who better meets your needs.

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