Difference Between an MSW and LCSW

Difference Between an MSW and LCSW.

Both a Master of Social Work (MSW) and a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) may help social work professionals provide valuable services to society, specifically to vulnerable populations. Still, there are some key differences between these credentials that may affect career opportunities and more.

LCSW vs. MSW: The Differences

The simplest way to understand the difference between an MSW and LCSW is to define the two. An MSW is a Master of Social Work, which is a graduate degree. An LCSW — licensed clinical social worker — is specific licensure obtained after earning a master’s in social work. LCSWs are licensed to diagnose and treat mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. 

To become an LCSW, you’ll need to hold an MSW from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). However, you don’t have to become licensed just because you have an MSW degree. Think of the LCSW as advanced licensure that may qualify you for more career opportunities. Specifically, an LCSW credential is required if you want to work with patients without the supervision of another professional during your career. 


A Master of Social Work, which is a graduate degree.


A specific licensure obtained after earning a master’s in social work.

MSW and LCSW credentials differ in several other key ways. They have different training and educational requirements. They may affect your job prospects and where you work, and you may see some salary differences in the positions you qualify for depending on the credential you hold. 

Since an LCSW requires additional training and experience beyond a master’s program, you may be interested in pursuing a career as a social worker with just an MSW. With an MSW, you might become a child welfare caseworker, a school social worker or other positions that involve providing therapy under supervision but not prescribing medications. As an LCSW, you could work as a clinical social worker, psychiatric social worker, or in other social work careers in which you may diagnose clients and provide psychotherapy without supervision. Whether an MSW or LCSW is right for you will depend on your career goals. 

LCSW vs. MSW: Education Requirements

Before you enroll in an MSW program, it may be beneficial to earn a bachelor’s degree in a field related to social work. Many students earn their bachelor’s in fields like sociology, psychology, or childhood development before applying to an MSW program. A Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) is a common first step toward a social work career. Graduates with this degree can often apply to an advanced standing MSW program, which may require fewer credit hours and internship hours and can be completed in less time. 

An MSW degree program typically takes two years to complete. The first year is made up almost entirely of classroom education. During that year, you may learn about core social work topics. In the second year, you may have the chance to focus on more specific topics and specialties that interest you and may help prepare you for your intended career. Common specialties include school social work, child and family practice, clinical practice, and community and organization practice. 

Most master’s programs in social work require students to do around 900 hours of field work before graduation. Field education can occur in a number of different settings, including schools, hospitals, community service agencies, correctional facilities, and therapy practices.

Once you’ve earned your MSW from a CSWE-accredited school you may pursue an LCSW, which generally requires two years of supervised experience after completing an MSW program. You will also need to pass a licensing examination to earn your LCSW credential. The LCSW designation is often required to work directly with clientele without supervision. 

LCSW vs. MSW: Career

While an MSW is required to pursue a career as an LCSW, both of these options help prepare you for multiple career paths and roles. Social workers may work in a variety of settings, including individual and family services, school systems, government, healthcare, correctional facilities, and religiously affiliated organizations.

What Can You Do With an MSW?

There are many careers that you can pursue with an MSW that don’t require you to become an LCSW. These include: 

  • Medical social worker who specializes in working with the chronically ill
  • Child welfare caseworker who helps to keep children safe
  • School social worker who supports students and guides them through challenges
  • Substance abuse counselor who works with people who are in recovery

What Can You Do as an LCSW?

Becoming an LCSW allows you to work directly with patients in a clinical work setting. Some settings like hospitals and private practices may only hire LCSWs, so earning your license may open up your career opportunities and make you a more competitive candidate. As an LCSW, you may pursue careers that involve more direct patient care, such as: 

  • Clinical social worker who treats mental health issues
  • Child and family social worker who supports kids and families during challenging times
  • Psychiatric social worker who both diagnoses and treats mental health conditions

MSW Online Program at Baylor University

Whether or not you decide to become an LCSW depends on your career goals, but earning your MSW is the first step to becoming a licensed clinical social worker. It’s important to choose an MSW program that’s accredited and supports your career goals. MSW@Baylor, the MSW online program from Baylor University, allows you to earn your MSW in a convenient format that fits into your life. 

The Baylor University MSW Online Program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. Students in the program focus on service, justice, and empowerment as they learn to become social workers who lead lasting change for individuals, families, and communities. The MSW curriculum ethically integrates faith and social work practice, preparing students from all backgrounds to serve in religiously affiliated organizations and environments in addition to traditional social work settings, like schools and hospitals.

This online program starts in January, May, and August, so you don’t have to wait to take the next step toward starting your social work career. 

Citation for this content: Baylor University’s online master’s in social work program.