LCSW: Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Featuring advice from the following experts:
Laura Vanderhill, LSW, Professional Gerontologist
Kayla Hines, second-year MSW student on clinical track, University of Houston
Many students who earn a master’s in social work (MSW) degree opt to pursue a clinical path, which means they work directly with clients. Every state in the U.S. requires clinical social workers to be licensed—and in most states, that license is an LCSW.
What Is an LCSW?
A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) is a professional licensed by their state to counsel people experiencing psychological, social, or family-related challenges. “LCSW” refers both to the license itself and the job title of a person who has earned it.
States offer a variety of licensure options in social work, but LCSW is the primary license for clinical practitioners. No matter what state you live in, to obtain this license you need to earn an MSW degree, put in a specified number of supervised work hours, and get a passing score on a national exam. Refer to the How to Become a Licensed Social Worker section below for more information.
Variants of the LCSW
While some states don’t offer LCSW licensure specifically, they have licenses that are analogous to the LCSW—meaning, they are meant for social workers who want to practice as clinicians—and they have the same primary requirements.
You can find out the terminology your state uses in our state-by-state licensure table.
MSW vs. LCSW—What’s the Difference?
MSW (Master of Social Work) is a degree earned at a college or university, while LCSW is a type of license—and a job title. To get this license you need to have an MSW degree (or higher) and fulfill training and assessment requirements as outlined by your state board.
Not everyone who earns an MSW becomes an LCSW. An LCSW is a specialized type of social worker who is authorized to work in a clinical setting. There are many other MSW careers, some that require a license and some that don’t.
What Does an LCSW Do?
Licensed clinical social workers use a strength-based therapeutic approach to help people deal with mental and emotional issues. They seek to uncover a client’s inner strengths and use a variety of therapeutic models to help that person capitalize on those strengths.
LCSWs also look at their client’s environment to identify whether there are any negative factors impacting their client’s well-being. They might connect a client with outside resources that can help alleviate these factors.
Often an LCSW will specialize in a particular population, such as juveniles, the elderly, convicted offenders, or children who are in foster care. Many of them work with disadvantaged populations who need more than just therapy. In fact, social work is guided by a code of ethics that stresses the importance of serving such populations.
LCSWs work in healthcare facilities, schools, correctional facilities, adoption centers, nursing homes, and many other settings. Many also have private practices.
LCSW vs. LMHC (Licensed Mental Health Counselor)
You might be wondering how LCSWs and licensed mental health counselors (LMHCs) are different. They both provide counseling, they both work with a variety of populations, and they both work in a range of settings. Our experts weigh in:
I think the difference between LCSW and LMHC for counseling may come down to a difference of ethics and perspective. Social workers are trained to look at social determinants of health…and to recognize that racial disparities have a psychological impact, for example.
—Laura Vanderhill, Licensed Social Worker, Credentialed Professional Gerontologist
Clinical social workers embrace a person-in-environment theoretical foundation which suggests a person’s individual behavior is largely impacted by their environmental context… An LCSW will not only use evidence-based therapeutic models to treat mental illness, but they will also address systems, laws and policies at the local, state, and national level in the therapeutic process.
—Kayla Hines, second-year MSW student on clinical track, University of Houston
Although the process of becoming an LCSW can vary somewhat from one state to the next, all states require the following:
Other state-specific requirements might include completing additional coursework or taking a state exam in addition to the national exam. For example, California requires applicants to pass the California Law and Ethics Examination and complete five additional courses.
The following table shows the licensure terminology and training requirements for each state. There is also a link to your state board, where you can find more detailed information.
Educational Requirement: Master’s in Social Work (MSW) Degree Programs
There are many MSW degree programs to choose from, with a wide variety of available specializations. Concentrations might focus on a general area such as mental health or a narrower area such as older adults. Make sure you choose your program carefully to ensure it provides coursework that matches your career goals.
Also make sure your program is accredited by the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE). Most states will not issue licensure if your master’s program isn’t approved by the CSWE.
To enter a master’s program, you must have a bachelor’s degree—usually with a specified GPA. It’s helpful if your bachelor’s is in social work or a related field.
In addition to classwork, you will need to do fieldwork—hands-on clinical experiences—and possibly complete a capstone project.
You can learn more about MSW programs on our MSW degree page.
Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) Licensing Exam
No matter where you live, you will need to pass this exam to earn an LCSW. There are five categories of the exam, based on education level and area of practice:
- Advanced Generalist
All states require that you take the clinical exam (several will also accept the advanced generalist exam). The maximum time limit for completing the test is four hours, and it costs $260 to take the test.
The exam contains 170 four-option, multiple-choice questions, only 150 of which are scored. Questions fall into one of the four content areas:
Out-of-State Licensure Applications
Most states have different requirements for out-of-state applicants who are already licensed in their state. Some states call this process “licensure by credential” or “reciprocity.” In most cases test scores and work experience hours can be transferred from the original state to the new.
However, applicants might have to complete additional work hours if they are short of the number required by the new state. Applicants might also have to take coursework specific to the state—for example, in California they must complete an 18-hour course on California Law and Professional Ethics.
Meet the Experts
Laura Vanderhill, LSW, M.H.A., is a licensed social worker and professional gerontologist with 15 years of clinical and community-based experience. Early in her career she worked at Cooperative Elder Services, Inc., providing direct client care, clinical assessments and supervision, program development, and community outreach. She then served as the Associate Director of Community Services at Springwell, Inc., where she supervised several volunteer-based programs, managed federal grants, and conducted a community needs assessment. Currently, Vanderhill is the Clinical QA Specialist at Carescout, which helps families navigate long-term care options and provides clinical assessments and caregiver support, among other services. She is also an Adjunct Instructor and guest lecturer at Regis College in Weston, MA.
Kayla Hines is a second-year MSW student at the University of Houston—she is on a clinical track and hopes to get her LCSW. She recently finished her internship as a wellness counselor intern at Memorial High School through Communities in Schools Houston. Before pursuing her master’s, Kayla worked as a resident advocate at a family abuse center, where she conducted assessments and provided referrals on a crisis hotline for victims of domestic violence. She also worked at a 24-hour shelter to provide residents with assistance in areas such as crisis intervention, meal preparation, and intake.