LCSW or LMSW: Exploring Your Future in Social Work

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Group Counseling session

A Master of Social Work (MSW) degree can pave the way to advanced professions within the social work industry. It is often a requirement for licensure in the field, and those licenses take two key forms: Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) and Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW).


Differentiating Between the Work the Licenses Allow

The two licenses vary in practice. An LMSW license is designed to certify that an individual possesses the requisite high-level social work skills to work in a variety of settings, including entry-level, supervised clinical work. A report from education advice publication Noodle likened the LMSW to an entry-level clinical certification because it allows individuals to engage in some clinical practice as long as they work under the direct supervision of a licensed clinical social worker. This makes the LMSW a common requirement for social work jobs in settings like mental health, as employers in the field often expect this certification as a baseline.

The LCSW is a full clinical certification. It is more specialized and niche than the LMSW, but it also allows individuals to pursue higher-level clinical positions than would typically be available with an LMSW. In particular, the LCSW allows the license-holder to engage in unsupervised clinical practice. This can allow an individual to go into private practice or take on a clinical role ― which typically involves skills such as psychotherapy ― in organizational settings. It also lays the groundwork for a person who wants to move into clinical supervision, as the certification is required for such roles.

When it comes to the LMSW vs. LCSW discussion, it is important to note that both licenses require expertise that goes beyond what is typically covered in bachelor’s degree programs. They both require an MSW degree, as well as completion of specialized licensure exams.


Obtaining the Licenses

Obtaining an MSW degree is one of the common elements of the LMSW and LCSW licenses, but beyond that, requirements can vary significantly between states. The Association for Social Work Boards (ASWB) administers social work licensure exams that licensed applicants must complete.

The ASWB serves as a licensing hub for the states, providing examination and certification services in collaboration with state boards. Its exams highlight some of the key skill differences between the LMSW and LCSW.


Skill distinctions between LMSW and LCSW

There is a great deal of crossover in the knowledge, skills, and abilities expected from individuals seeking an LMSW and LCSW. Based on exam outlines from the ASWB, some areas of commonality and distinction between the licenses include:

Human growth and development: Both exams cover key topics in human growth and development, but the LMSW exam includes questions on topics involving human behavior in the social environment as well as diversity and discrimination. Instead of those areas of emphasis, the LCSW exam covers concepts of abuse and neglect and issues around diversity, social/economic justice, and oppression.

These differences in the exam highlight the types of roles emphasized by the two certificates. An individual hoping to obtain an LMSW certification needs specialized, high-level knowledge necessary for hands-on work in the field. However, an individual with an LCSW is expected to have a broader and deeper knowledge of big-picture issues in the sector, as such expertise is needed for those in leadership roles or performing clinical work without the assistance of a direct supervisor.

Psychotherapy, clinical interventions, and case management: The LMSW exam covers topics around psychotherapy, clinical interventions, and case management in one large portion of the exam, making up 27% of all materials covered. The LCSW assessment, on the other hand, includes primary sections on assessment and intervention planning, as well as interventions with clients/client systems that, taken together, make up 48% of the exam.

This imbalance showcases how the LMSW assessment serves as an entry-level license prior to full clinical practice. The LMSW exam tests students on their knowledge, skills, and abilities in many areas of clinical practice, particularly in terms of direct interactions with clients. The LCSW exam, however, goes much deeper into the processes and systems behind clinical practice, giving them much more weight. This highlights how an LMSW holder is expected to have basic clinical skills, but that an LCSW is needed to provide the deeper clinical care required for independent or unsupervised clinical social work.

Professional values and ethics: This portion of the exams is similar across both tests, highlighting the way social workers will often face similar issues when it comes to maintaining professionalism, living up to the values of the industry, and both working with patients and managing patient data ethically. Supervisors or individuals in private practice may need a deeper understanding of regulatory laws and systemic best practices as they are responsible for defining operations where they work, and some fine distinctions in the exam cover that. However, ethical issues are equally relevant across the profession.

These exam topics demonstrate some of the crossover between these two licenses. They include many similar skills, areas of knowledge, and abilities. As such, the distinction is not as simple as saying LMSW holders work across a variety of social work roles while professionals with an LCSW license are focused on clinical practice. There is much more overlap than that, with the LMSW certification often being a first step into clinical practice.

Instead of thinking of the two licenses as on a similar level, but for different purposes, the contents of the exam position them more as a natural progression. The LMSW serves as the first step to social work in clinical settings, even if it is not sufficient for full clinical practice. The LCSW serves as a final step for providing clinical care. This is evidenced in the salary ranges for these roles, as Payscale indicates the median salary for LMSW holders is approximately $50,000 per year, while that figure jumps to nearly $57,000 for those with an LCSW.


How an MSW prepares students for licensure

MSW degree programs are often designed to prepare students for a wide range of high-level occupations in the field. The degree provides the overarching industry knowledge and highly specific practical expertise needed to deepen one’s impact on lives through social work. It can open doors to advanced positions in the field and lays the groundwork for licensure.

The online MSW program at Regis College is specifically designed to help students navigate the upper reaches of the social work sector, covering materials that help them prepare for the LMSW exam. Our program also incorporates practical field placement work under the direction of a clinical supervisor, helping students to prepare for a future LCSW credential.

The LCSW is the highest license in the social work sector, and an MSW degree is a key step in obtaining certification. Regis College can help you as you work to grow your skills and expertise. Contact us today to learn more about our online MSW program, its curriculum, and how the program’s format can fit in your schedule. We’d be happy to connect you with an enrollment counselor to help you get started.


Recommended Readings:

How to Pass the LMSW Exam

What work environments are possible with an MSW?



LMSW vs. LCSW a Guide to the Differences by Noodle

About the Exams by the Association of Social Work Boards

2018 Masters Social Work Licensing Examination Content Outlines by the Association of Social Work Boards

2018 Clinical Social Work Licensing Examination Content Outlines by the Association of Social Work Boards

Licensed Clinical Social Worker Salary by Payscale

Licensed Master Social Worker Salary by Payscale

Student Outcomes by Regis College