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From M.S.W. to LCSW: Understanding Your Career Path as a Social Worker

October 11, 2019

Social workers have a fearless drive to enact far-reaching social change. To have the lasting impact they desire, social workers find employment in various fields and roles. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) recognizes 16 areas of social work, including child welfare, substance use, occupational assistance, public policy and academic research.

Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) are social work professionals who have earned their Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) and have the credentials to provide clinical services such as psychotherapy. To better understand the career path of a social worker, it’s crucial to go beyond simply comparing an M.S.W. vs. LCSW—the former serves as a precursor to the latter.

LCSWs play an important role in social work and health care ecosystems, and they can make a significant difference in the lives of the clients they serve. Learn how the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work’s online M.S.W. degree can prepare you for a career as an LCSW.

What Is a Master of Social Work Degree?

Those interested in pursuing leadership roles in social work or providing advanced services to clients should consider earning an M.S.W. degree. This degree empowers graduates to change lives—from supporting clients in overcoming substance abuse, to helping them access critical services like those that provide housing and food.

M.S.W. programs promote the principles of social justice and ethics, human rights, diversity and cultural competence. They help students clearly see the role that inequality and trauma play in the lives of others, equipping them to make measurable improvements. The goal of an M.S.W. degree program is to help students enhance their hands-on experience, prepare for social work in any number of settings, secure social work leadership positions, and boost their competency when working directly with clients and their families.

Courses typically offered within an M.S.W. program cover multiple topics, from human behavior to social work policy. A class focusing on human behavior in the social environment, for example, empowers students to understand how mental and physical health, spiritual and political beliefs, and cultural and socioeconomic background influence clients’ decisions and behaviors. A course in social justice helps students gain a deeper appreciation of diversity, acknowledges the various factors that contribute to differing perspectives, and offers solutions to persistent oppression and inequality.

Other classes depart from theoretical approaches, instead focusing on specific skills. A course in clinical social work practice prepares students for interventions, therapies and approaches crucial to providing clinical services—for example, providing therapy to clients in an effective manner. Another course focuses specifically on strategies required for successful administrative practice. Within this course it’s critical to develop leadership and communication skills as well as learn to remain sensitive to the needs of a group. For those planning to go from M.S.W. to LCSW, these courses can serve as the foundation to treating patients in real-life situations.

The Path from M.S.W. to LCSW

After earning their bachelor’s degree, students who decide to pursue a specialized career path may begin to compare the M.S.W. and LCSW. An M.S.W. degree equips graduates with critical skills to advance beyond the duties of social workers who have a Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.). An M.S.W., however, is not a sufficient credential for professionals interested in providing direct clinical services. For this, a student must become an LCSW (licensed clinical social worker).

How Long Does it Take to Become an LCSW After Earning an M.S.W.?

To learn how to become an LCSW after earning an M.S.W., individuals should refer to their state’s particular licensing requirements, as they vary across the country. However, individuals should expect to complete a minimum of two years of supervised clinical experience and pass a clinical exam to earn licensure. The process of applying to the state board for licensure and passing the licensing exams will also take some time. Additionally, once licensure is earned, the license will need to be maintained (requirements vary by state).

Can I Be a Therapist With an M.S.W.?

Although therapists and clinical social workers both have a foundation in helping people improve their mental and emotional health, they are two different careers. Therapists are trained in psychotherapy and may specialize in different therapeutic approaches, such as cognitive therapy, behavioral therapy and integrative therapy. Therapists tend to place a heavier emphasis on such psychological approaches, whereas LCSWs may focus more on a client’s socioeconomic challenges and connecting them with resources that can provide support.

The other element that differentiates the two roles is education. Therapists usually have either a master’s in psychology or a Ph.D. in psychology. An individual with an M.S.W. alone cannot be a therapist because they lack the applicable degree type. However, they should have no issue advancing from M.S.W. to LCSW.

M.S.W. and LCSW: Applying Your Skills

LCSWs draw on the skills and knowledge they earned in their M.S.W. program when working with clients—including their knowledge of psychotherapy, their communication skills and their cultural competence and sensitivity.

Many LCSWs provide direct client services, such as counseling and psychotherapy for individuals, couples, families and groups. They can assess their patients’ well-being and behavior, diagnose any mental health disorders, treat conditions and addictions, and evaluate progress over time. They are adept at helping clients navigate emotional turmoil, complex relationships, weighty decisions and significant transitions. Their expertise enables patients to identify their goals, gain perspective on their situation, understand the factors that impact their lives, explore new strategies and overcome obstacles. While they are unable to prescribe pharmacological therapies, they may collaborate with medical doctors who can do so.

Social workers are responsible for helping patients follow a treatment plan. This involves advocating for and supporting patients in receiving the best possible services. This may involve anything from researching social concerns in a specific community to referring patients to specific clinics. Other job duties may include identifying communities in need, advocating for policy changes, leading teams and communicating with colleagues from other professional backgrounds.

LCSW Salary and Job Outlook

Social workers earned a median annual wage of approximately $50,400 in May 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Those in the top 10% of earners made $82,800 per year.

Additionally, the BLS projects that employment of social workers will grow by 12% between 2020 and 2030, which is faster than the national average for the job market as a whole.

The compensation data website Payscale reports that LCSWs earned a median salary of approximately $60,000 per their most recent reporting (May 2022), with a salary range between $45,000 and $80,000.

It’s important to note that salary is affected by level of education, experience, location, the particular employer and other factors. The figures provided are meant to serve as a baseline.

Learn More About Earning Your M.S.W. and Becoming an LCSW

An advanced education serves as the first step on the M.S.W. to LCSW career path. For compassionate, driven professionals interested in leadership roles in social work, earning an M.S.W. and pursuing a career as an LCSW may be an excellent fit.

Virginia Commonwealth University is home to the top-rated school for social work in Virginia and the 28th best school for social work in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report. Now, you can apply to earn your online M.S.W. from VCU, where you can learn from your own home.

Learn more about how an M.S.W. degree from VCU can help you take the next important step toward achieving the impactful social work career you envision.