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Question: What Is the Difference Between an MSW and an LCSW?

Answer: MSW is the abbreviation for Master of Social Work, an advanced degree program that provides practice-based professional training in the field of social work. LCSW is short for Licensed Clinical Social Worker, which is the designation for a social worker who has attained formal licensure by the state in which he or she practices. In most states, only clinical social workers who hold an MSW degree are eligible for LCSW licensure. States require social workers who provide clinical counseling services to be licensed in order to set up a private practice and work autonomously in clinical settings.

MSW Degree Programs

MSW degree programs provide professional training and instruction in the theory and practice of social work. There are MSW programs that offer specialized training in clinical social work, which involves learning about the identification, assessment, and treatment of various mental health issues and cultivating the skills necessary to provide counseling services to individuals, families, and other social groups. There are also MSW programs with a curricular focus on the macro practice of social work, which involves learning about social welfare programs and policy administration and community engagement and advocacy. Advanced generalist MSW programs typically provide students with training in both aspects of social work. And there are MSW programs that provide additional specialized instruction in school social work, military social work, and other areas of the profession.

LCSW Licensure

LCSW is the designation for clinical social workers who have a state-issued license to practice clinical social work. Not all social workers must be licensed, and LCSW licensure is only required for clinical practitioners who want to be able to work autonomously and offer client counseling services in private practice. One of the primary requirements for licensure is a master’s degree in social work, or an MSW. In addition, LCSWs must complete a certain number of supervised clinical hours prior to taking a licensure exam. While specific requirements vary by state, most require at least 2000 hours of clinical experience. LCSWs must renew their licenses periodically according to protocols established by the licensure board in their state.


An MSW is a degree conferred by a college or university that indicates a social worker has attained master’s-level training in the practice of social work. LCSW status is conferred by a state board and, while it does indicate that the practitioner has achieved master’s-level training or the equivalent in the practice of social work, it can expire or, in certain situations, be suspended or revoked. A master’s in social work is earned by completing an MSW program’s graduation requirements and, once conferred, it does not expire.

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