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For those beginning their educational journey in the field of social work, there’s plenty to learn. First and foremost are two key terms: Master of Social Work (MSW) and Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). The MSW is an advanced degree in social work, and the LCSW is a clinical social work license typically earned after an MSW degree. 

Of course, there’s more to unpack. The social work graduate program prepares individuals for roles such as mental health counselor, family therapist, or healthcare social worker. A licensed clinical social worker is the same but with additional state licensure. They, too, provide mental health counseling, and engage in family therapy. Because of their licensed clinical social work, they can establish their private practice as a clinical mental health counselor. The career outlook for both professionals remains promising, with opportunities spanning different sectors. 

Follow along as we examine the differences between these accreditations as well as the potential career paths for MSW vs LCSW holders. By the end, you may be one step closer to discovering the best fit for your future in the world of social work.

Where and How to Earn Accreditation

Before exploring MSW vs LCSW, it’s important to understand the prerequisites to exploring an advanced social work degree or certification. Typically, an MSW and an LCSW are only viable after earning a bachelor’s degree.

That said, it isn’t required to hold a bachelor's degree in social work.1 Typically, holding a bachelor’s degree in any discipline could allow you to more easily pursue an MSW—and later, an LCSW.

If you’re still working toward a bachelor’s degree, you may consider majoring in a complementary field, including:

  • Psychology
  • Statistics
  • Political Science
  • Anthropology

Once you’ve secured your bachelor’s degree in any field, you may go on to explore continuing education with the MSW degree and LCSW accreditation.


What is an MSW? The MSW degree is a specialized master’s degree given out by accredited institutions, including private and public universities and colleges.

Today, there are several Master of Social Work programs to choose from based on your academic interests and geographic location. Additionally, some specialized programs offer a flexible learning experience for students already in the workforce.

When it comes to how to get a master’s in social work, you must first earn your bachelor’s degree. After earning your four-year degree, pursuing an MSW will require an application process to your chosen institution. In general, the application process will require:

  • Undergraduate transcripts – You’ll likely need to request official transcripts from the institution you graduated from. Your grades and classes may have an impact on your acceptance into an MSW program, but they’re not the only factor considered in the decision.
  • GRE testing – The Graduate Records Examination (GRE) is a standardized test that many institutions require for admission into a graduate program. Some universities are foregoing the GRE entirely, while others may require you only take a specific portion of the test. For those taking the GRE, study aids and tutoring are an option to potentially improve your score.
  • Entrance essay – Many institutions require an essay alongside your other application materials. This essay may ask a general question about your experiences or interests in the field of social work. 

Explore our MSW Degree


An LCSW is a state-specific license, usually allowing for the practice of various unsupervised forms of treatment and therapy in the field of the types of social work. These licenses are subject to state approval, and every state has its own specific requirements.

To begin the process of earning an LCSW, you’ll likely need:2

  • A graduate degree – Typically, the Master of Social Work degree is a prerequisite for applying for an LCSW. Additionally, a doctoral degree in social work could also fulfill the educational requirement for an LCSW. Most graduate programs for social work are designed to prepare students for the rigorous testing required for state certification.
  • Clinical hours – After earning an MSW, you'll have the opportunity to put your education to the test. Most LCSW certifications require two years of clinical hours. The practical, supervised experience of clinical hours can help give real-life context to in-class knowledge.
  • Testing – The standard exams required for an LCSW include a nationally approved clinical exam as well as a state-specific law and ethics exam. Additionally, the coursework and topics covered are frequently updated and revised to ensure the test prepares all candidates for a lifetime of clinical social work practice.

You’ll need to check with your state to determine any additional requirements and find out when you can take the exam. To ensure your clinical knowledge is up to date and easily recalled, consider taking the exam as early as possible after earning your MSW.

How Long Does It Take?

Whether you’re a recent graduate or already in the workforce, you may be curious to know how much time it'll take to earn an MSW or LCSW. In most cases, the faster these certifications can be earned, the sooner you can begin the next phase of your career in social work. 

Consider the following information regarding time expectations for both accreditations.


Degree completion is about finding a schedule that works for you. The MSW degree can usually be completed in 2 to 4 years, depending on your enrollment and your program’s options.

Key factors for degree completion include:

  • Start dates – Different programs may offer more flexible start dates for new students. While many traditional programs only allow for enrollment in the fall or winter semesters, other programs may allow enrollment on a rolling basis. This could provide the opportunity to begin your studies earlier than expected.
  • Class schedule and fast-tracks – A standard MSW program may run 10 to 15 weeks of classes per semester, while others may offer a fast track of 8-week semesters. Additionally, you can enroll in programs offering 3 full semesters per year, allowing you to complete 3 years' worth of classes in two.
  • Professional practice component – You may be able to get a headstart on your clinical practice experience by enrolling in a program that prioritizes clinical training. Some programs may even provide a professional network for you to find career path connections while completing your degree.


After completing your MSW degree and earning the requisite clinical experience, it shouldn’t take long to earn your LCSW certification.

When asking “How long does it take to become a social worker,” you’ll need to allow time for:

  • Studying
  • Taking the exams
  • Waiting for your results

It may take weeks or even months to hear back about your LCSW exams. In the meantime, you can continue to earn clinical experience and begin your job search. Additionally, some graduate programs will provide you a direct route toward testing, thereby speeding up your accreditation process.

What Will You Learn?

Your educational experience will typically depend, in part, on the institution you study at. While all accredited programs and certifications must follow state and federal guidelines, every student will have a different experience.

Consider the following information regarding coursework and accreditation expectations.


Most MSW programs will likely include a classroom and clinical component, and your institution of study may offer you the option of specializing in a particular sub-field of social work as well. 

Additionally, as you complete coursework, you should expect classes to become more challenging, building on the knowledge and skills you’ve already developed.

Some common classes for earning an MSW include:3

  • Public welfare policy
  • Science of social work
  • Crisis and trauma in social work

The goal of an MSW program is to prepare you for a career in the field, and your interests and strengths may play a large role in determining your educational path.


Because the LCSW is a certification, it’s not inherently an educational practice. Instead, it’s designed to test you on your knowledge and experience related to your pursuit of social work.

LCSW certification exams will typically test you on information, including:4

  • Diagnosis and treatment
  • Clinical therapy and casework
  • Professional values and ethics
  • Human development and behavior

Questions will typically take multiple-choice form and request that you consider the correct action for a variety of scenarios.

What Careers May They Offer?

Both the MSW and LCSW could open up new avenues for career advancement in the field. Both certifications can better prepare you to pursue different opportunities, though you’ll likely have more options by earning both accreditations.


What can you do with a master’s in social work? For those just completing their graduate degrees in social work, you may find a large number of employment opportunities. 

Common jobs for MSW graduates may include:

  • Human resources manager – Nearly every business requires a human resource manager tasked with addressing workplace policies and handling inter-office issues.
  • Social worker – Schools, public health clinics, and medical facilities typically hire certified social workers. What does a social worker do? Typically, social workers manage casework for students, families, and patients, and school social workers will usually offer mental health counseling for their students.
  • Non-profit work – Community organizations frequently hire MSW graduates to conduct community outreach. This job might entail staffing, project management, and networking with healthcare institutions.


When it comes to how to become a social worker after earning your MSW, with the additional accreditation of social work licensure, you may enjoy higher salary opportunities in various licensed social worker positions as well as unique employment opportunities.

Many LCSW holders find careers in:

  • Research – Universities and health institutions employ LCSW holders to conduct various forms of clinical research. From psychological testing to surveys, you could put your social work education to use in the research setting.
  • Healthcare management – Shape public policy at major institutions. An LCSW accreditation may help prepare you for a career in healthcare management, working with administrators to develop actionable plans to change the healthcare landscape.
  • Therapy – Rehabilitation centers, outpatient programs, and psychiatric institutions rely on licensed clinical social workers to treat patients suffering from mental health issues.

Expand Your Education with Alliant

A degree in social work could lead to a rewarding career, both personally and professionally. With an MSW, you could expose yourself to a variety of settings, and, with an additional clinical social work licensure, you may find more career opportunities and higher compensation. If you’re ready to begin your journey, Alliant is here to guide you to your dream career.

At Alliant International University, we offer a specially-designed program for you to earn your MSW. With online coursework, professional social work practice experience, and cultural competency training, you’ll be well on your way toward earning state certification. If you’re interested in exploring everything Alliant has to offer, visit us today for more information and to start your application.

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  1. “FAQ: Can you earn a Master of Social Work (MSW) without a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW)?” Online MSW Programs. January 2022. Accessed May 25, 2022.
  2.  “Licensed clinical social worker – A complete guide.” Masters in Social Work Online. August 3, 2021. Accessed May 25, 2022.
  3.  Scott Wilson. “LCSW vs. MSW (Master of Social Work).” Human Services Edu. June 14, 2021. Accessed May 25, 2022. 
  4.  “Licensed clinical social worker – A complete guide.” Masters in Social Work Online. August 3, 2021. Accessed May 25, 2022.

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