LCSW vs. MSW: What’s the Difference?

Confused about the differences between an LCSW and MSW? Learn about the differences between these two medical professionals and how each can help you on the road to recovery.

Social workers provide invaluable services to society. They work with vulnerable populations to help them find stability in their lives. Becoming a social worker requires a fair amount of education and training. However, there are multiple ways in which a person can become a social worker. One way is to earn a Master of Social Work (MSW), which is a master’s degree that focuses on social services. Once someone has earned an MSW, they can take a state licensing exam to become certified as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

Medical professionals may easily recognize the difference between an LCSW and MSW. Both professionals can play a crucial role in the lives of people who are struggling with addiction and many other mental health conditions. For people not in the medical field, the differences between an LCSW vs. MSW may not be as obvious. 

The MSW Degree

An MSW degree is an excellent idea for anybody considering going into social work or a similar field. To see patients, an individual is required to become an LCSW. However, with an MSW, there are other career paths that can be pursued without becoming an LCSW. Before alternative career paths can be considered, an MSW needs to be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). 

People interested in social work must first receive their bachelor’s degree in a related topic before enrolling in an MSW program. Common bachelor’s degree subjects include:

  • Childhood development
  • Psychology
  • Social work
  • Sociology

For most MSW programs, it takes a minimum of two years of study to complete an MSW degree. The first year of study consists mostly of classroom education with a focus on core social work concepts. During the second year, students participate in more specialized training that focuses on specific topics or sub-specialties of social work. These sub-specialties include:

  • Child and family practice
  • Community and organization practice
  • Gerontological social work
  • School social work
  • Social justice and advocacy

Career Opportunities With an MSW

An MSW is required to become an LCSW. However, there are many other MSW career options that someone can pursue with this degree alone. Some MSW career paths include:

  • Medical social worker that advocates for chronic or terminally ill patients
  • Substance abuse counselor that helps individuals in recovery
  • Child welfare caseworker that ensures the safety of children
  • School social worker that helps students with school-related and personal problems

LCSW Requirements

Becoming an LCSW is necessary for anyone with an MSW degree who would like to see patients. For individuals to receive their LCSW, they must pass a licensing examination by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). Licensing exams are available in all states, Washington, D.C. (District of Columbia) and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

The ASWB offers several different examinations depending on the license a person is seeking. These include licenses for associate, bachelor’s, master’s, advanced generalist or clinical associate social work degrees. Different states and jurisdictions may only offer some of these licenses. Regardless of the license, exams are comprised of 170 multiple-choice questions that assess an individual’s knowledge of social work. The test lasts four hours and is taken electronically. 

The general steps to become an LCSW include:

  • Having a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field
  • Earning an MSW degree from an accredited social work school, which can be found through the CSWE
  • Completing additional coursework
  • Shadowing or performing supervised clinic hours
  • Passing a licensing examination through the ASWB; an additional test on law and ethics may be necessary in certain states
  • Periodically renewing your LCSW license per state regulations

Where LCSWs Can Work

The typical career path for an LCSW involves some form of clinical work. Many LCSW career options overlap with MSW options. Certain workplaces like hospitals, psychiatric institutions, and private practices will require that an individual is licensed as criteria for employment. Other institutions may not require licensing. Nevertheless, LCSW career options include

  • Clinical social workers that can diagnose and treat mental health conditions like addiction, anxiety or depression
  • Psychiatric social workers who specialize in treating and diagnosing psychiatric illnesses
  • Child and family social workers who specialize in supporting the well-being of children and family life

How LCSWs and MSWs Are Different

Besides the different career options for LCSW and MSWs, how are the two different? Some of the differences involve: 

  • Training requirements
  • Educational background
  • The ease in finding a career after obtaining an LCSW or MSW
  • Differences in salary

Educational and Training Background

A bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field is a prerequisite for both LCSW and MSW degrees. However, an LCSW requires additional coursework, clinical experience and passing a licensing exam. For example, individuals may need to take advanced social work classes. The National Association of Social Workers offers additional classwork online or in-person. 

Supervised clinical experience is an additional training requirement for individuals seeking an LCSW license after they have obtained their MSW. Clinical experience involves practice diagnosing and treating mental health conditions, interactions with patients, individual and group therapy, advocating for patients and research.


Because LCSWs are licensed and can actively practice, they have the potential to make more money than MSWs, generally speaking. However, the difference between an MSW and LCSW salary will vary substantially by institution, the state where an individual practices and the cost-of-living. 

A person who has only received their bachelor’s degree in social work has a median expected salary of approximately $47,000 per year, while a person with an MSW degree has an expected salary of about $56,000 per year. A LCSW has an average salary that ranges between $40,700-$70,600 per year

Career Outlook

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of social workers — whether they have an MSW degree or LCSW certification — was projected to grow by 16% from 2016 to 2026. This rate of growth is much faster than for other professions. As more and more people start to value and destigmatize mental health, both MSW and LCSW careers will become even more invaluable in society. 

LCSW vs. MSW: Which One Is Right for You?

At first glance, it may be hard to know whether an LCSW or MSW is the best choice during recovery. Some tips for choosing the right health professional during treatment include:

  • If you think you might be diagnosed with a mental health condition or might need prescribed treatments during your recovery, talking to an LCSW may be the best option
  • If you would just like to talk to a health professional about personal and life issues without a formal diagnosis or treatment plan, talking to an MSW may be the best option

If you are affected by a substance use disorder and want to receive rehab care and mental health counseling, The Recovery Village can offer you personalized treatment at several facilities across the countryContact a representative today to discuss treatment options for addiction and other co-occurring mental health conditions. 

Available Positions at The Recovery Village

The Recovery Village has several facilities throughout the United States, and we are always looking to add new professionals to our team of industry-leading experts. In addition to positions at one of our facilities, jobs are also available nationally through our telehealth platform. Our evidence-based approach to addiction treatment has made us one of the first organizations to be designated as a Blue Distinction Center for Substance Use Treatment. We are accredited by The Joint Commission, and our staff collectively holds over 3,000 professional credentials.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.