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Social Welfare & Justice

LCSW vs. MSW: Comparing social work credentials


Making a difference in the lives of others is your calling. If you’re ready to pursue this passion with a career that can make an impact, it may be time to consider advanced social work. Whether you’re already working as a baccalaureate-qualified social worker or are employed in another industry with a bachelor’s degree in a different field, you have options.

Because social work includes many job opportunities, it can be difficult to determine the best path to the rewarding career you want. If you’ve done some research but are confused by the various social work titles and acronyms, you’re certainly not alone.

We’ve compared two of the most common options for advanced practice social workers: LCSW vs. MSW. Keep reading to find out how they differ, and which one is best for your career goals. By the end of this article, you’ll be able to answer the following questions: What is an MSW? What is an LCSW? What can you do with these credentials?

LCSW vs. MSW: What’s the difference?

While both an LCSW and MSW are common for advanced practice social workers, they are distinct in several notable ways. Social work terminology can be confusing, so let’s start by answering some of the most common questions:

  • What does MSW stand for? MSW stands for Master of Social Work, which is a higher education graduate degree.
  • What does LCSW stand for? LCSW stands for “licensed clinical social worker,” which indicates a professional has obtained additional state licensure after earning a master’s degree in the field.
  • Do all social workers require a license? Not every social work profession requires a license, but it is necessary if you want to work in a clinical setting.

Now that you understand these important definitions, you can start to see that LCSW versus MSW isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. It’s not about choosing one or the other — in fact, you’ll need to first obtain an MSW before even being qualified to become an LCSW.

That being said, let’s explore the professional opportunities these social work credentials can lead to.

What can you do with an MSW?

MSW programs attract students who value ethics, diversity and service to others. Some programs, like the one at UMass Global, take that a step further by providing flexible learning options and an innovative curriculum designed for working professionals.

The primary goal of an MSW program is to help students develop the competencies needed for advanced social work practice. Top-notch programs also focus on developing innovative leaders of change who advocate for social, economic and environmental justice.

MSW curriculum teaches you to identify and understand multidimensional problem solving and uses evidence-based assessment and intervention models that reflect best practices in the social work field. High-quality MSW degree programs are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which is required by most states for licensing.

MSW social workers can go on to pursue work in many settings. Some examples include:

  • Mental health and substance abuse treatment programs
  • Child welfare agencies
  • Schools and universities
  • Long-term care facilities
  • Hospitals
  • Clinics
  • Military organizations
  • Local, state and federal agencies
  • Human rights and advocacy organizations
  • Criminal justice and legal organizations

Considering becoming a social worker?

Explore more about the field and its different career paths.


What can you do as an LCSW?

Now that you know the LCSW meaning, you understand that you’ll actually need to obtain an MSW before being eligible for this title. This graduate-level education serves as a foundation for this important role.

LCSW social workers are licensed to diagnose and treat mental, behavioral and emotional disorders. They administer therapy services to individuals, groups, families and couples. They help clients develop strengths-based strategies to change problematic behavior or to cope with challenging circumstances. Another part of an LCSW’s job is to connect clients with additional resources and services.

Clinical social workers represent the largest group of mental health providers in the nation. They maintain a working knowledge of the following topics:

  • Biological, psychological and social development theories
  • Mental health disorders
  • Addiction and alcoholism
  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Family and group dynamics
  • Diversity and cultural competency
  • The impacts of trauma, illness or injury

In addition to an MSW, one must complete at least two years of clinically supervised post-graduate experience before qualifying to become an LCSW social worker. It’s during this time that the student applies what he or she has learned and starts preparing for the advanced social work practice that awaits.

Across the board, social work positions are set to see promising growth. Overall employment is projected to grow 9 percent by 2030, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is faster than the national average for all occupations. Healthcare social workers and those who specialize in mental health and substance abuse disorders are expected to see even faster job growth.

Your advanced social work career awaits

If you’re set on pursuing a rewarding profession, it’s natural to be drawn to social work. After digesting the information above, you should now realize that comparing MSW versus LCSW isn't exactly an equal comparison.

Analyzing your options and weighing the differences between an MSW and an LCSW has hopefully made the path forward a bit clearer. They both lead to rewarding roles – and they both begin with a graduate-level education.

Curious about what an MSW program includes? Explore our online Master of Social Work degree.

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