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Social Justice

LCSW vs. MSW: Comparing social work credentials

April 11, 2019


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

Because social work has numerous professional opportunities, it can be difficult to determine which path will lead you to the impactful career you’re hoping for. Perhaps upon doing some research, you’ve found yourself curious about the various social work titles and acronyms — you’re certainly not alone.

To help offer some clarity, we’ve compared two of the most prominent options for advanced practice social workers: LCSW versus MSW. Join us as we explore the differences between the two and help illuminate the path that will help you achieve your social work career goals.

LCSW vs. MSW: What’s the difference?

One thing you’ll learn early in your search is that, while both an LCSW and MSW have to do with the path of an advanced practice social worker, differentiating the two isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison.

An MSW — or a master of social work — is a degree path. Conversely, an LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker. The latter is a social work professional who has obtained licensure after earning their master’s degree in the field.

Not all social work professions require a license, but licensure is a requirement for all social workers following a clinical path. Clinical social work practice requires practitioners to earn an MSW and obtain an LCSW licensure in all 50 states.

While one acronym refers to a degree path and the other refers to a licensed professional, you might find it helpful to consider the differences between an LCSW and an MSW in terms of the professional opportunities each can yield.

What can you do with an MSW?

MSW programs support students who value ethics, diversity and service to others. Some programs, like the one at University of Massachusetts 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 prepare you with the competencies needed for advanced social work practice. But top-notch programs also focus on preparing students to be innovative leaders of change who advocate for social, economic and environmental justice. They empower graduates to effectively utilize technology to help advance the social work profession and their career potential.

An advanced 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. All MSW degree programs must be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

Graduates of MSW programs can go on to pursue work in an array of different environments. Some examples are mental health and substance abuse treatment programs, child protective services agencies, school-based settings, long-term care facilities, human rights and advocacy organizations, criminal justice and legal organizations as well as hospitals. Local, state and federal agencies also hire social workers for clinical and macro positions.

Considering becoming a social worker?

Explore more about the field and its different career paths.

What can you do as an LCSW?

LCSWs are social workers who are licensed to diagnose and treat mental, behavioral and emotional disorders. They administer therapy services to individuals, groups, families and couples. When working with clients, they help develop strengths-based strategies to change problematic behavior or to cope with challenging circumstances. Another part of an LCSW’s job is to refer clients to other resources or services, which could include other mental health alternatives, support groups or digital healing applications.

But you might be surprised just how much these professionals can do for clients in need of mental health care. Clinical social workers represent the largest group of mental health providers in the nation. They maintain a working knowledge of the following topics:

  • Theories of biological, psychological and social development
  • Mental health disorders
  • Addictions
  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Family and group dynamics
  • Diversity and cultural competency
  • The impacts of trauma, illness or injury

In addition to an MSW, social workers must garner at least two years of clinically supervised post-graduate experience before qualifying to work as an LCSW. It’s during this time that clinical social work hopefuls put their MSW knowledge to work and start preparing for the autonomous advanced social work practice that awaits.

Social work positions, in general, are set to see promising growth in the near future. Overall employment is projected to grow 16 percent by 2026, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the future for LCSWs looks even brighter, as the continued growth of health care spending and treatment will pave the way for increased opportunities for social workers who can offer clinical treatment.

A secure future isn’t the only reason to feel good about becoming an LCSW. Upon analyzing everything from salary data to stress levels, U.S. News and World Report included clinical social work in its list of the 26 top human services jobs for 2019. Social work provides a unique opportunity, offering both traditional career paths and entrepreneurial prospects.

Your advanced social work career awaits

If you’re considering a career path that will help you make a difference in the lives of others, it’s no wonder you’re drawn toward social work. Analyzing your options and weighing the differences between an MSW and an LCSW has hopefully made your path forward become a bit clearer.

But no matter which option you choose to pursue, you’ll start with a master’s degree in social work. If you’re curious about program formats, requirements and the curriculum that could await you in an MSW program, head over to University of Massachusetts Global’s Master of Social Work degree page.

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