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

Social worker conducts a child evaluation.

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 types of social work, including child welfare, substance abuse, 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. They play an important role in social work and health care ecosystems, and they can make all the difference to the clients they serve. Learn what you can expect from the VCU School of Social Work online M.S.W. degree program.

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 human services, like 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 prepare students to enhance their hands-on experience, prepare for social work in any number of workplace 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 culture and socio-economic background influence decisions and behaviors. A course in social justice helps students come to 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. As an illustration, 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.

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. While an M.S.W. degree equips graduates with critical skills to advance beyond the duties of social workers with a Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.), it is not a sufficient credential for professionals interested in providing direct clinical services.

To become an LCSW, individuals should refer to their state’s particular licensing requirements, as they vary across the country. However, individuals can expect to complete a minimum of two years of supervised clinical experience and pass a clinical exam to earn licensure.

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 and 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.

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

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 25th 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.