What’s the Difference Between an LMSW vs. LCSW?

Portions of the following article were drafted using an in-house natural language generation platform. The article was then reviewed, fact-checked, and edited by multiple members of our editorial team prior to publishing.

Written by: Jennifer Cuellar | Edited by: Diana Zaremba | Reviewed by: Melissa Bronstein | Last Updated: May 2024

Navigating the world of social work can be challenging, particularly when it comes to understanding the different career paths and licensure options available. Two common designations in the field are licensed master social worker (LMSW) and licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

Both a LMSW and LCSW require a master’s degree and allow the social worker to help individuals and communities. However, LCSWs can diagnose and provide counseling services to individuals with mental health conditions independently and without supervision, while LMSWs cannot.

Explore the differences between LMSW and LCSW and help you decide which path might be right for you.

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What is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)?

A licensed master social worker (LMSW) is a professional with a master’s degree in social work who meets their state’s specific licensure requirements. LMSWs can provide non-clinical services or offer clinical therapy as long as an LCSW supervises it.

LMSW roles range from case management and facilitating group therapy to helping clients access basic needs like food and housing. They also play a key role in policy and advocacy for social reform and offer career support to at-risk individuals. LMSWs can work in a variety of settings, including schools, hospitals, public agencies, and mental health clinics.

What is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)?

A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) is an advanced practitioner who has completed additional clinical training beyond a master’s degree. LCSWs can diagnose and treat mental health conditions, provide counseling, and practice independently.

They play a crucial role in assessing a client’s emotional and mental state, intervening when a client is considered high-risk, and helping the client develop a plan using their strengths to overcome obstacles.

LCSWs can also work in a variety of settings, including private practice, hospitals, community mental health clinics, and other healthcare settings.

Comparing LMSWs and LCSWs

Review the educational and state licensure requirements, career opportunities, and salary expectations for LMSWs vs. LCSWs.

LMSW vs. LCSW Comparison
Comparison PointLMSWLCSW
EducationMaster’s degree, with some states requiring around 900 hours of field practicum Master’s degree with some states requiring around 3,000 hours of supervised experience
LicensureMust pass your state’s licensure requirements, which can include the ASWB examMust pass your state’s licensure requirements, which can include the ASWB exam
RolesWorking in policy, providing case management services, or doing clinical work under the supervision of a licensed social workerProviding mental health and/or substance use counseling through a facility or independent practice
Average Annual Salary $58,000$68,000
Source: Payscale

Education and Licensure Requirements for LMSWs

To become an LMSW, you must first obtain a master’s degree in social work from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) or recognized as equivalent. Your master’s program should include at least two years of full-time study and cover areas such as social work values, ethics, diversity, social justice, human behavior, social work practice, and social work.

Passing the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) is often a requirement, along with logging in field practicum hours. The amount of hours can vary by state. For instance, New York requires a field practicum of at least 900 hours to become an LMSW.

After obtaining your degree, you must meet your state’s licensure requirements, which often include passing a recognized licensure examination.

Education and Licensure Requirements for LCSWs

Becoming an LCSW requires meeting more advanced criteria. In addition to earning a master of social work (MSW) from a CSWE-accredited program, you must also complete a significant number of supervised clinical hours. The amount of hours varies by state, but can often reach around 3,000 hours. For instance, both Idaho and Nevada require 3,000 hours to pass.

After completing this supervised experience, you must obtain licensure from your state licensing board — often by getting a passing score on the ASWB exam and meeting any additional state-specific requirements.

Career Opportunities and Salary Expectations for LMSWs

LMSWs work with different populations across various settings, including healthcare and hospice, children and families, community social work, and more. The average salary for an LMSW is $58,000, according to Payscale data from April 2024.

However, pay can vary widely depending on several factors, including the state in which you practice, years of experience, and the setting.

Career Opportunities and Salary Expectations for LCSWs

As an LCSW, you can work in diverse settings such as family medicine, residency programs, community health services, residential treatment centers, outpatient clinics, hospitals, and telehealth services. LCSWs earn an average annual salary of $68,000, according to Payscale.

Deciding Between LMSW and LCSW: Factors to Consider

When deciding between an LMSW and an LCSW, it’s important to consider your career goals, educational commitment, supervisory requirements, salary potential, and state licensure recognition.

If you aim to work in a clinical setting and provide psychotherapy or diagnose mental health conditions, an LCSW would be more appropriate. However, if you’re interested in case management, policy analysis, or working on a macro level to advocate for groups and evaluate public programs, an LMSW might work for you.

It’s also crucial to note that both paths offer rewarding career opportunities and the chance to make meaningful differences in the lives of individuals and communities.

Note: While LMSW and LCSW are common titles, this can vary by state. For instance, in Massachusetts, the equivalent is LCSW and LICSW.

Reviewed by: Melissa Bronstein

Melissa Bronstein, LICSW, is a licensed independent clinical social worker and psychotherapist. Melissa has a virtual private practice in Massachusetts where she specializes in supporting high-achieving young professionals with anxiety and chronic health conditions. Melissa holds an MSW in advanced clinical practice from Columbia University and a BA in gender and sexuality studies from Tulane University. She is also a Certified Clinical Anxiety Treatment Professional (CCATP).

Melissa has over a decade of experience working within the mental health field. In addition to her private practice, she serves as a mental health content reviewer, writer, and clinical consultant, working to expand quality access to mental health care and wellness.

Bronstein is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education Integrity Network.

Page last reviewed on April 24, 2024.