What is the Difference between the MSW and the LCSW?

Some social work positions require additional credentialing and licensing. And an extra two years of professional post-graduate work. These positions tend to be in the mental health field.

The acronym "MSW" stands for Master's Degree in Social Work. It refers to the graduate degree one pursues for a Masters in Social Work, hence the moniker, MSW. Students who earn this degree are referred to as an "MSW."

LCSW stands for licensed clinical social worker. This is a higher tiered social work credential. Depending on your career goals, this credential may benefit you. Or it may not be required.

An LCSW is an individual who has earned the MSW but gone on to pursue additional coursework and training, and then passed specialized social work licensing exams. These steps are rarely required. To become a LCSW, a graduate must gain an additional two years of professional experience in a relevant social work practice field. This experience can be in the form of a full-time, salaried position. Any MSW who has completed 3,000 hours or 2 years or more of professional experience is eligible to take appropriate licensure exams and become a LCSW.

Becoming a LCSW requires a significant investment of time and training. Most LCSW's will have to pass several exams to ensure standards of competency. Because the LCSW is a regulated profession, you should learn of the requirements for the LCSW in your intended area of practice and your state.

As we said, the LCSW is not for everyone. Nor is it necessary. The MSW is a broad based and in-demand degree. You will likely find an overwhelming majority of employers and health care institutions eager to hire you. There are many social worker positions and career paths one might pursue that do not require becoming a LCSW. This is the case if you intend to pursue a position in policy and planning, program administration, fund raising, grant writing, research, discharge planning, working with the aged, criminal justice or in any number of fields. It is also possible to find employment as a counselor with just the MSW. Requirements for a counselor position vary by job and setting. It is possible that counselor position may set you up to earn the LCSW n a few years.

For these reasons, it's worthwhile to think about to the kind of work you hope to pursue as an MSW. There are many opportunities to specialize during the period you attend school, and to earn a unique certificate in a focused area such as Disaster Mental Health and Trauma, or Family and Marital Counseling. Your MSW studies and training can position you for a LCSW, or allow you to pursue an equally viable career track with just the MSW.

If you have a strong interest in delivering mental health counseling and psychotherapy in a clinical setting, and becoming third-party reimbursable, (this means insurance providers will pay you or your employer for the counseling services you provide), the LCSW will be required.

Nedda Gilbert

Ms. Gilbert is a certified social worker and 30 year educational consultant with an interest in helping college-bound and graduate school students manage the process and stress of admissions effectively. She is one of the senior founding managers of the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company, and the author of The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and another book, Business School Essays that Made a Difference (Random House). She is a guest contributor to Forbes Magazine on college and college life. Ms. Gilbert is also certified as a collaborative family law professional in New Jersey. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MS from Columbia University.