Question: What are the differences between a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)?

Answer: Social work and counseling are related yet distinct fields of practice in which licensed professionals trained at the master’s degree level provide guidance, assistance, and clinical counseling services to individuals, families, and groups. Both fields occupy niches within the larger health and human services sector, and both are grounded in the principles of human psychology and an understanding of social and behavioral science. However, the focus and scope of the work done by Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) differs from that of Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs).

The primary goal in clinical counseling is to help individuals, couples, and/or families overcome specific behavioral and mental health challenges using the tools of psychotherapy and other counseling methods. In contrast, psychotherapeutic counseling is just one of many tools employed by social workers, who are trained to focus on the social, economic, and environmental factors that affect the mental and physical wellbeing of their clients. In addition, social workers are trained to help individuals, families, and communities obtain social services through welfare agencies, government assistance programs, healthcare providers, and networks and institutions that fall beyond the general purview of mental health counseling.

LCSW vs. LPC

The designation Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) applies to social work professionals who hold a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree, have graduate training in clinical social work practice, and have met additional qualifications for licensing in their state. Licensing in clinical social work is required by states for social workers who provide clinical counseling services independently and are thus not subject to the direction and/or supervision of an LCSW. In general, social workers can provide clinical counseling services even if they are not licensed, as long as they do so under the supervision of an LCSW. In addition, there are MSW-trained social workers who specialize in macro practice social work (e.g., program development, advocacy, research) who do not need to seek licensure if they do not plan on independently providing clinical counseling to patients.

Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) is a designation for mental health counseling practitioners who hold a master’s degree in counseling and have met other requirements for licensing in their state. Unlike social work, where there is a division between practitioners who provide individual and/or group therapy and practitioners who do not, psychotherapeutic counseling is central to the field of counseling and most states require all types of mental health counselors to be fully licensed. Similarly, mental health counselors are generally only permitted to provide clinical services under formal supervision during their training, after which they must apply for a state license.

This reflects a key difference between social work and counseling: while social work is often housed within human services agencies and publicly funded programs and institutions that provide a range of supports for people in need, mental health counseling is more closely tied to psychology and psychiatry. Thus, the range of professional responsibilities, the scope of practice, and the array of services provided by clinical social workers are generally broader than those provided by mental health counselors.


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Training in Clinical Social Work and Clinical Mental Health Counseling: MSW vs. Master’s in Counseling Programs

One of the clearest differences between clinical social work and counseling is embodied in the training required to work in these fields. Clinical social workers, as noted above, learn their practice in MSW programs. Mental health counselors are trained in master’s in counseling programs, typically Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MS) in Counseling or Clinical Mental Health Counseling (CMHC) programs.

While there is some curricular overlap between these two types of programs, particularly in areas related to individual and group counseling methods, they differ structurally and pedagogically. For example, clinical social work MSW programs require students to complete a minimum of 900 hours of field education, a signature pedagogy of social work training that involves supervised work experiences at social work agencies and/or in other places where clinical social work services are provided. Students in master’s in counseling programs are generally required to complete at least 700 hours of internship/practicum experiences, during which they learn to provide individual, family, and group counseling services under the guidance of a licensed practitioner at a clinic, hospital, school, or private counseling practice.

In addition to differences in clinical training regimens for social workers and counselors, there are subtle yet clear distinctions in the didactic instruction practitioners in these two fields receive. Master’s in counseling programs focus more narrowly on theories and principles of psychology, mental health, and psychotherapy, and the ethical and legal responsibilities of counseling professionals. MSW programs provide clinical social work specialists with training in psychotherapy, but also require students to complete general coursework that covers topics in social policy, social justice, and social services administration, areas of study typically not addressed in master’s in counseling programs.

MSW Programs

One of the other major differences between training requirements in social work and counseling involves programmatic accreditation at the master’s degree level. There is only one accrediting body for MSW programs: the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE). In addition to mandating that MSW programs require at least 900 hours of field education in order to receive and maintain programmatic accreditation, the CSWE emphasizes competency-based education through a list of nine Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS). These include:

  • Ethical and professional behavior
  • Recognizing and respecting diversity and difference
  • Advancing human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice
  • Practice-informed research and research-informed practice
  • Understanding social policy
  • Engaging with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities
  • Assessing individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities
  • Intervening with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities
  • Evaluating practice with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities

Master’s in Counseling Programs

Master’s programs with a clinical mental health counseling focus are generally accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Programs (CACREP), which mandates a minimum of 700 hours of supervised clinical experiences comprised of a 100-hour practicum that includes 40 hours of direct client contact and 600 supervised internship hours in settings with clients relevant to the program’s area of specialization. Clinical mental health counseling is one such area of specialization. Other common specializations include addiction counseling; rehabilitation counseling; school counseling; and marriage, couple, and family counseling. Clinical mental health counseling programs accredited by CACREP must demonstrate that they provide students with training in various areas, including:

  • Theories and models related to clinical mental health counseling
  • Principles, models, and documentation formats of biopsychosocial case conceptualization and treatment planning
  • Psychological tests and assessments specific to clinical mental health counseling
  • Etiology, nomenclature, treatment, referral, and prevention of mental and emotional disorders
  • Diagnostic process, including differential diagnosis and the use of current diagnostic classification systems, including the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD)
  • Impact of biological and neurological mechanisms on mental health
  • Classifications, indications, and contraindications of commonly prescribed psychopharmacological medications for appropriate medical referral and consultation
  • Legislation and government policy relevant to clinical mental health counseling
  • Techniques and interventions for prevention and treatment of a broad range of mental health issues

In addition to CACREP, clinical mental health counseling programs may be accredited by the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC), an independent accreditation organization that has standards similar to the ones set by CACREP. Master’s in counseling programs may also be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) or the National Addiction Studies Accreditation Council (NASAC). However, COAMFTE and NASAC accreditation is generally reserved for master’s in counseling programs with specializations in marriage and family therapy or addiction counseling.

The similarities and differences between MSW and master’s in clinical mental health counseling programs are outlined in the table below:

 Master of Social Work (MSW)Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling (CMHC)
Credits:60 semester credits60 semester credits
Field Education / Clinical Hours:900 hours700 hours
Accrediting Body:CSWECACREP or MPCAC
Core Courses:
  • Human Behavior in the Social Environment
  • Social Work Practice with Individuals, Families, and Groups
  • Diversity, Oppression, and Social Justice
  • Social Policy
  • Trauma and Abuse Assessment and Intervention
  • Psychopharmacology
  • Social Work Agency Administration
  • Theories and Models of Mental Health Counseling
    Biology and Psychology of Mental Health
  • Psychopathology
  • Addiction and Co-Occurring Disorders
  • Individual Counseling Methods
  • Group Counseling Methods
  • Differential Diagnosis of Common Mental Health Disorders
Time to Completion:
(See note below)
Two years of full-time enrollment; Three to four years of part-time enrollmentTwo years of full-time enrollment; Three to four years of part-time enrollment

Note: While full-time students can typically complete an MSW or a master’s in counseling program in roughly four semester or two academic years, the actual time to graduate depends on several factors, including the number of courses a student is able to complete per semester/term and the structure of the program. Students who enroll on a part-time basis in either an MSW or a master’s in counseling program often take three or more years to graduate. In contrast, some programs offer courses year-round and have full-time enrollment plans that allow students to graduate in less than two years.

Finally, many MSW programs have designated Advanced Standing tracks that are designed specifically for students who hold a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree from an undergraduate program accredited by the CSWE. Advanced Standing MSW programs can typically be completed in one year by full-time students or two or more years by part-time students. Master’s in counseling programs do not have an equivalent pathway that allows students to earn their degree similar to Advanced Standing MSW programs.

Licensing for Clinical Social Workers and Clinical Mental Health Counselors

State licensing for clinical social workers and clinical mental health counselors are separate processes and specific licensing requirements vary by state. In some states, the same licensing board is responsible for granting licensure to both LCSWs and LPCs (for example, Arizona, California, Texas), while other states have distinct licensing boards for each profession (for example, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon). While each state has their own specific requirements, there are general provisions that are consistent from state to state.

For example, LCSWs and LPCs are required by all states to hold a master’s degree in their field of practice and to have completed a specific number of supervised clinical training hours in that field of practice. Most states require LCSW and LPC candidates to have graduated from an accredited master’s program and to pass a licensing exam. However, social workers and counselors take different licensing exams that cover knowledge and proficiencies specific to each profession, as noted in the table below, which provides a side-by-side comparison of common licensing provisions for clinical social workers and clinical mental health counselors.

 Clinical Social WorkClinical Counseling
Degree Required:Master of Social Work (MSW), Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW), or a CSWE accredited equivalent degree program.Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MS) in Counseling
Clinical Training Requirement:900 hours of MSW field education plus post-graduate hours as mandated by the state (2000-3000 hours)700 master’s program practicum and internship hours plus post-graduate hours as mandated by the state (2000-4000 hours)
Licensing Exam:Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) ExamNational Clinical Mental Health Counseling Exam (NCMHCE) or National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE)
Professional Designations:
(See note below)
Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW), or Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW)Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) or Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)

Note: The specific designations for licensed social workers and licensed counselors vary by state and some states have additional classifications for social workers and/or counselors who have completed their master’s training and are in the process of working toward eligibility for full clinical licensure. For detailed information regarding licensing in clinical social work and/or clinical counseling in a specific state, contact that state’s board of licensing.