If you’re considering a career in social work, you may have come across the terms ‘licensed master social worker’ (LMSW) and ‘licensed clinical social worker’ (LCSW). These terms refer to two types of state-issued licenses social workers can receive in the U.S., representing two similar but distinct career paths in the social work profession.

This article will explore the differences between LMSWs and LCSWs, including educational and professional requirements for both types of licensure. It will also provide an overview of job prospects and salary expectations for various social work roles, as well as information about earning a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. Leslie Reyna, an admissions counselor for the University of Texas at Arlington’s School of Social Work, also provides her insight into preparing for a social work career.

What is an LCSW?

An LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker. The term is also often used to refer to the license itself.

Clinical social workers provide services directly to clients, offering counseling and other interventions to help them cope with and overcome challenges. They work in a variety of settings, including private practices, medical and psychiatric hospitals, inpatient and outpatient treatment facilities, government agencies, and more.

In order to practice as a clinical social worker in the U.S., individuals must have a state-issued license. To obtain this license, students must earn an MSW or similar degree and fulfill the state’s requirements for post-graduation supervised clinical experience. The required number of supervised clinical experience hours varies by state but is typically between 3,000 to 4,000 total hours.

What is an LMSW?

An LMSW is a licensed master social worker. The term is also commonly used to refer to the license itself.

States grant LMSW licenses to social workers who have completed their MSW degree but don’t have the supervised clinical experience hours required to become an LCSW. LMSWs may be able to provide some clinical services to clients, but only under the supervision of an LCSW. Many social workers use the LMSW credential as a stepping stone towards their LCSW.

LMSWs can also work in non-clinical roles focusing on administrative and operational responsibilities, including case management, delivery of services and programs, and advocacy. While these roles may not require social workers to have their LMSW, having this license can open up more job opportunities or help individuals qualify for competitive positions. Students should also note that not every state offers an LMSW.

How to Become an LMSW or LCSW

There are a few different paths to becoming an LMSW or LCSW, most of which depend on your current educational status.

Whichever option works best for you, it’s essential to choose a program that is accredited by the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE) and offered at a school with regional accreditation.

“Accreditation is important because it allows students to pursue a license in social work,” Reyna says. “If students earn their degree from an unaccredited program, they risk the chance of not being able to pursue licensure based on their state’s licensure requirements. At the bachelor’s level, students who earn their BSW at an unaccredited university may not be eligible for MSW programs.”

Students should always check with their state’s regulatory board and review educational requirements for LMSW and LCSW licensure to ensure they choose an appropriate degree program.

Option 1: Enroll in a “4+1” BSW-to-MSW program

If you don’t currently have an undergraduate degree, the fastest way to become a licensed clinical worker is to enroll in a “4+1” BSW-to-MSW program. These programs allow students to earn their bachelor’s and master’s degrees in five years of full-time study by matriculating directly from their undergraduate program into their graduate program. Students may be able to start taking master’s-level courses while still an undergraduate. Once students complete their MSW, they can apply for their LMSW license (where applicable) and begin accumulating the required supervised clinical hours needed for their LCSW.

Option 2: Earn a BSW and gain professional experience

Some students prefer to gain professional experience before continuing their education and earning a master’s degree. Students who have a BSW can work in non-clinical roles like case manager, social services coordinator, or social work planner. Depending on the state in which they’re working, they may pursue the licensed baccalaureate social worker (LBSW) credential.

Although this path will add to the time it takes to become an LMSW and LCSW, this might be an ideal option for students who are still deciding if they want to pursue clinical social work. It may also open up more graduate-level educational opportunities, as some MSW programs prefer students who have professional social work experience.

It’s critical that students considering this path enroll in a BSW program at a regionally accredited university, as attending a nationally accredited or non-accredited school can limit options for graduate programs.

Option 3: Pursue an MSW as a change in careers

Perhaps you’re considering becoming an LMSW or LCSW, but you have a bachelor’s degree in a field other than social work. You can pursue a clinical social work career by enrolling in an MSW program that is open to students regardless of their educational background. These MSW programs typically require 60 credits and take two years, as students must complete foundational and advanced coursework. There may also be requirements for prerequisite undergraduate coursework that students have to fulfill before enrolling in the program. However, this is a faster and more cost-effective option than earning a BSW first.

Complete licensure exams and supervised clinical hours

Regardless of how you complete your educational requirements, once you have your MSW, you can apply for your LMSW license. Specific requirements and processes vary by state. For more information, visit the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) website.

If you intend to obtain your LCSW license, you will have to complete supervised clinical experience hours before you can apply to take the LCSW exam. The exact number of supervised clinical hours you need depends on the state in which you’re seeking licensure, but it is typically between 3,000 to 4,000 hours.

Once you’ve completed your supervised clinical hours, you can request approval from your state regulatory board to take the licensure exam through the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). The licensure exam consists of 170 questions and is administered by appointment at testing centers throughout the U.S. As of this publication, the exam fee is $260. For more information about the licensing exam and process, review the ASWB Exam Guidebook.

Explore Social Work and Related Degree Programs

Social Work Career Outlook & Salary Information

Currently, the job outlook for social workers is strong. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), overall employment in community and social services occupations is projected to grow faster than the average for all jobs through 2032. The agency predicts that there will be approximately 281,600 new jobs, on average, per year in the social services sector.

As for salary, LCSWs typically earn more than non-clinical social workers. According to ZipRecruiter, the average annual salary for LCSWs in the U.S. is $94,158. By comparison, social workers with a bachelor’s degree earn $52,521 per year.

  • Social workers – Help individuals, groups, and families prevent and cope with problems in their everyday lives.
    • Median annual salary: $55,350
    • Projected employment growth (through 2032): 7%
    • New jobs projected: 63,800 per year
  • Marriage and family therapist – Work with individuals, couples, families, and other groups to diagnose and treat cognitive, behavioral, or similar disorders in the context of relationships and interpersonal dynamics.
    • Median annual salary: $56,570
    • Projected employment growth (through 2032): 15%
    • New jobs projected: 5,900 per year
  • Licensed mental health counselors – Help individuals cope with and recover from a range of issues, including depression, anxiety, trauma, addiction, behavioral disorders, and more.
    • Median annual salary: $49,710
    • Projected employment growth (through 2032): 18%
    • New jobs projected: 42,000 per year
  • Social and community services manager – In this administrative position, social workers coordinate and supervise programs and organizations that support public well-being and may manage employees who provide these services.
    • Median annual salary: $$74,240
    • Projected employment growth (through 2032): 9%
    • New jobs projected: 16,000 per year

Frequently Asked Questions

Should I get an MSW degree online or in person?

According to Reyna, “The choice between an online or in-person MSW program is based on three factors:  the ability of the student to be a self-starter, the ability of the professor to provide different ways to learn the material and the amount of time that students have to dedicate to their schoolwork.”

While online classes provide more flexibility and accessibility than in-person classes, they require more self-discipline and motivation since students don’t have the added accountability of seeing instructors and classmates each week.

Course delivery methods vary as well. Online courses rely on readings, recorded lectures, videos, and online discussion boards, while in-person classes include more hands-on activities and real-time discussions. Students should consider their learning style when deciding which type of program will best suit their needs.

Is an MSW degree worth it?

“A social work degree provides students with a plethora of career opportunities,” Reyna says. “Many jobs want to ensure that you can be resourceful and help not only navigate the complex service systems in the United States but create bridges between the service provider and the communities they are trying to serve. The skills students learn in this degree can help them in many career fields because, no matter what the field, you’re working with people.”

Obtaining a master’s degree and licensure also qualifies social workers to open private practices, allowing these individuals to create their own job opportunities.

From a financial perspective, there are also benefits to getting an MSW. “Once students are licensed, they can earn $75,000 to $90,000 per year, depending on the state,” Reyna says.

How long does it take to complete an MSW degree?

The specific length of time it takes to earn an MSW degree depends on a few factors and varies by program.

A key determinant is how many credits the program requires. Advanced standing MSW programs, designed for individuals with a BSW or similar degree, usually require around 30 credits and can be completed in 12-18 months of full-time study.

“Students who don’t have a BSW can expect a longer program in which they will be required to complete the foundations of social work practice before moving on to more advanced practice,” Reyna says. These programs typically require 48-60 credits and take 2-3 years of full-time study to complete.

Another option is a “4+1” program that allows students to earn their BSW and MSW in five years of full-time study.

Students should also keep in mind that enrolling in courses part-time may also add time to their program.

How much does an MSW degree cost?

According to EducationData.org, the average cost of public service master’s degrees, which includes social work, is $72,770. However, many factors influence what a program costs and what a student actually pays.

Public universities are typically less expensive than private schools, particularly for students who live in the state where the school is located. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average in-state tuition for master’s programs at public universities in the 2021-22 academic year was $12,596. Meanwhile, the average tuition for master’s programs at private universities for the same period was $29,931.

Students can reduce the cost of tuition by using scholarships, grants, discounts for military service, and employer tuition reimbursement benefits, if available.

For the most accurate information about what a program costs, contact the school’s financial aid office to speak to a financial aid counselor.

Social Worker Resources

For more information about the social work profession, educational programs, licensure policies, and networking opportunities, check out the following organizations:

  • Council on Social Work Education (CSWE): This organization represents social work education in the U.S., accrediting more than 800 baccalaureate and master’s degree social work programs. It serves social work educators, students, staff, practitioners, and agencies as part of their mission to advance quality social work education.
  • National Association of Social Workers (NASW): As the world’s largest membership organization of professional social workers, the NASW is dedicated to enhancing the professional growth and development of its members, creating and maintaining professional standards, and advancing sound social policies.
  • Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB): This agency provides support and services to the social work regulatory community to advance safe, competent, and ethical practices to strengthen public protection.
  • Clinical Social Work Association (CSWA): This organization represents, protects, and amplifies the voices of clinical social workers and promotes the highest standards of professional practice through advocacy, supporting the effectiveness of state societies, and facilitating educational opportunities.

Learn More About Social Work Degrees