If you’re a student considering pursuing a career in social work, you’ve likely encountered the abbreviations MSW and LCSW. Knowing what these terms mean is essential to understanding the social work field and its educational and professional opportunities.

A Master of Social Work, or MSW, is a degree, while a licensed clinical social worker is a professional credential and title. This article provides an in-depth exploration of what MSWs and LCSWs are, how they are connected, and how they differ. It also includes insight from Leslie Reyna, an admissions counselor for the University of Texas at Arlington’s School of Social Work.

What is an MSW?

A Master of Social Work (MSW) is a graduate degree that prepares students for advanced-level and clinical social work. While students in the U.S. who have a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) can hold non-clinical social work positions, they must have an MSW to obtain the state-issued license that qualifies them to practice clinical social work.

The MSW is the most common graduate-level social work degree available. However, some schools offer a Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW) or a Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA). These degrees typically provide the same coursework and career preparation as an MSW.

MSW programs are available online, in-person, and in a hybrid learning format. Coursework builds on existing social work knowledge and skills to train students to work directly with various client populations in clinical settings. Students in an MSW program will also complete supervised clinical practice hours to get the necessary first-hand experience working with clients.

MSW Program Requirements

As an MSW is a graduate degree, students must have a bachelor’s degree to be eligible for enrollment. The type of bachelor’s degree students must have depends on the program. Some MSW programs, known as advanced standing programs, require students to have a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or similar degree. These programs focus entirely on more advanced social work skills because students already have the foundational social work knowledge from their undergraduate education. An advanced standing MSW program typically requires 30-40 credits and can be completed in 1-2 years.

Other MSW programs are open to students of all educational backgrounds. The curriculums for these programs teach foundational social work concepts and practices before moving on to advanced coursework. Students must usually complete 48-60 credits to earn this type of MSW.

One of the key elements of an MSW program is the supervised clinical internship. Internships give students hands-on experience in a professional setting, such as a medical or psychiatric hospital, government agency, school, or outpatient treatment facility. Students work directly with clients under the supervision of a licensed social worker to learn the professional practices and nuances of providing direct care.

What is an LCSW?

A licensed clinical social worker, or LCSW, refers to a social worker with a state-issued license qualifying them to provide services directly to clients. The term is also commonly used to refer to the license itself.

An LCSW can offer counseling and other interventions to help clients cope with and overcome challenges. They work in various settings, including private practices, medical and psychiatric hospitals, inpatient and outpatient treatment facilities, government agencies, and more. LCSWs can also open their own private practices. Clients can include adults, children, families, and couples.

LCSW Requirements

Social workers become LCSWs when they receive a license issued by their state’s regulatory board. An MSW or a similar degree is a prerequisite to obtaining a license. Specific curriculum requirements vary by state. Therefore, checking with your state’s regulatory board before selecting an MSW program to ensure the curriculum meets its licensure requirements is important.

Another critical element to look for when selecting an MSW program is accreditation. According to Reyna, “Students should ensure that the program they choose is accredited by the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE), or they risk the possibility of not having any of their credits count towards licensure.” Accredited programs meet industry standards for educational quality and proper training in social work practices.

After graduation, individuals must complete the state’s post-graduation supervised clinical experience requirements. The required number of supervised clinical experience hours varies by state but is typically between 3,000 to 4,000 total hours.

Once students complete their supervised clinical hours, they can request approval from their 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

Earning an MSW can open the doors to many jobs with solid growth potential. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that overall employment in the community and social services occupations will grow at a faster-than-average pace through 2032. According to the agency,  there will be approximately 281,600 new jobs, on average, per year in the social services sector.

An advanced social work degree also increases earning potential. ZipRecruiter reports that the average annual LCSW salary in the U.S. is $94,158, compared to $52,521 for non-clinical social workers.

Individuals with an MSW can consider the following career paths:

  • 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 therapists — Work with individuals, couples, families, and other groups to diagnose and treat cognitive, behavioral, or similar disorders in 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 managers — 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

How long does it take to complete an MSW degree?

Generally speaking, it will take two years of full-time study to complete an MSW. However, a few factors can impact the specific amount of time it takes to earn this degree.

First is the number of credits the program requires. Advanced standing MSW programs for students with BSW degrees may require as few as 30 credits and can typically be completed in one year of full-time study. Meanwhile, MSW programs for students who must complete foundational and advanced coursework can require up to 60 credits and will take longer to complete.

Students who enroll in a part-time MSW program will likely need an additional one to two years to complete all their coursework and clinical requirements.

Some schools offer various completion tracks for MSW programs, so it’s best to check with each school you’re considering to find out what the timeline for the program is.

How much does an MSW degree cost?

The average cost of a public service master’s degree, which includes social work, is $72,770, according to EducationData.org. However, several factors influence a program’s cost and what individual students actually pay.

For example, public colleges typically charge lower tuition than private schools, especially 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 in the 2021-22 academic year was $12,596 at public universities and $29,931 at private colleges.

There are also many ways students can reduce their tuition costs, including scholarships, grants, military service discounts, and employer tuition reimbursement benefits.

Contact the school’s financial aid office to speak to a financial aid counselor for the most accurate information about what a program costs.

Is a social work degree worth it?

There are many benefits to earning a social work degree, including increased job opportunities and higher earning potential.

According to Reyna, “A social work degree provides students with many career opportunities. Many jobs want to ensure that you can be resourceful and help not only navigate the complex service systems in the U.S. but also create bridges between the service provider and the communities they are trying to serve. The skills students learn in a social work program can help in various careers because no matter 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.

Should I get a social work degree online or in person?

Both types of programs have advantages and disadvantages; ultimately, the choice comes down to individuals’ needs and preferences.

Says Reyna, “The choice between an online or in-person 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 weekly.

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 program best suits their needs.

Social Worker Resources

Many organizations provide students and professional social workers with resources for career development, networking, and educational opportunities. Some of the most prominent organizations are listed below. 

  • Council on Social Work Education (CSWE): CSWE 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