Question: What is the difference between an MSW and an LCSW?

Answer: In the field of social work, MSW stands for Master of Social Work, while LCSW stands for Licensed Clinical Social Worker.

While these two terms are often mentioned together and are related, they actually mean two completely different things. MSW refers to a degree program, while LCSW refers to a profession (and a professional license). In the majority of cases, to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), you must first earn an MSW.

We have compiled a complete list of online masters of social work degrees for students who are interested in earning their MSW online.

Master of Social Work (MSW)

An MSW is a graduate degree program offered by colleges and universities in the United States. In order for a program to be called an MSW program, it must be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). MSW programs are offered through a variety of different delivery methods including on-campus, hybrid, and online.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

An LCSW is a social worker who has been licensed by his or her state of residence to provide clinical social work services to patients. These include diagnosing and treating mental disorders (for example: anxiety and depression) and helping patients cope with life-changing events (for example: terminal illness or the loss of a family member). All clinical social workers in the United States must be licensed to treat patients. The main path to become an LCSW requires an MSW degree from a CSWE accredited program.

Check out our article on how to become a licensed clinical social worker for more information.

While a license is necessary to become an LCSW in all 50 states, not all social work professions require licensing. The licensing requirements for other types of social workers vary by state. For more information, check out our list of social work licenses by state page. Individuals who are interested in community-based social work, such as community organization and planning, may not be required to pursue professional licensing after completing their MSW degree.

Licensing Requirements for LCSWs

While all states require licensed clinical social workers to complete a CSWE-accredited MSW program*, specific requirements in terms of coursework and field education vary by state. For example, students who wish to pursue licensing in the State of New York must complete a minimum of 12 hours of clinical coursework for licensure. In California, the Board of Behavioral Sciences requires LCSW candidates to have completed classes in child abuse, substance abuse, spousal abuse, aging and long term care, and human sexuality, prior to taking the state’s mandatory licensing examination. Due to the variations in state regulations for clinical social worker licensure, we recommend that students who plan to pursue a career in clinical social work to research the specific requirements for LCSW licensure in their state of residence while they research online MSW programs.

For students who are interested in clinical social work, some schools offer online MSW programs with a clinical social work or mental health concentration. The curriculum in these programs is typically designed for students who wish to pursue a career in clinical social work. However, an online MSW program with an advanced generalist concentration may prepare students for clinical social work as well, depending on the curriculum of the program. Therefore, we recommend students to speak with an admission advisor or program administrator before applying to a program to ensure that the program aligns with his or her career goals and aspirations. Students may also be able to complete additional requirements post-graduation if they were not able to do so during their degree program. For more information, check out our page on online clinical social work programs.

*Currently, 27 states will accept a doctoral degree in social work (either a Ph.D. or DSW) in place of an MSW. At this time, the CSWE does not accredited social work doctoral programs as of April 2020.

More FAQs about Online MSW Programs

Last updated: April 2020