How to Become a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) in North Carolina

Written by Jack Levinson

licensed social worker helping elderly

While many people assume the social work profession is exclusively oriented toward counseling and therapeutic services, in fact, there are many other important ways that social workers can help others. From case management to overall organization administration, there are numerous high-level duties for social workers outside of clinical practice.

Those who wish to pursue advanced non-clinical roles in the social work profession will need to become Licensed Master Social Workers (LMSWs) in order to practice.

Indeed, this is the licensing option available for Masters of Social Work who don’t wish to pursue their clinical accreditation. But committing to an LMSW career path can lead one to engaging and advanced roles in the world of social work, providing services that are of immense use to those who need them.

This article will help unpack the roles and responsibilities of LMSWs, with information about the process of becoming a licensed social worker in North Carolina, requirements to receive your social work license, and more.

What does a Licensed Master Social Worker do?

Technically speaking, an LMSW is a social worker who is qualified to hold any role in a social work organization other than those related to direct counseling services. In some cases, LMSWs are authorized to provide counseling under supervision.

But rather than defining LMSWs in terms of what they can’t do, it may be inspiring to learn about what they can do. Holding an LMSW means one has significant educational and field expertise and is therefore able to hold high-level, non-clinical roles within social work organizations. In some cases, these can be positions that deal with the macro side of social work, related to structural or community-based change, rather than the micro level of one-on-one services. They can also be leadership and management roles within social work organizations.

Some social workers choose to become LMSWs when they complete their Master of Social Work degree programs with the longer-term plan of eventually receiving their clinical practice licensing down the line; this can be a great choice for those who wish to pursue counseling but not right away. But counseling and therapeutic services aren’t the be-all end-all of social work, as many professionals might believe.

There are many high-level roles in the social work field that fall outside of clinical practice.

With LMSW accreditation, you’ll be a candidate for these positions, ensuring higher pay and building out a sustainable social work career.

Licensed Master Social Worker Job Titles

One reason why the LMSW path may be less well-known than the Licensed Clinical Social Worker path is that people aren’t aware of the job opportunities available for LMSWs. But these positions can be complex, deeply rewarding roles that give you the opportunity to make a direct impact on the lives of others.

Some job titles for LMSWs include the following:

There are advanced roles for LMSWs in all sorts of social work fields, from family services to housing support to elder care and more. There is no field of social work in which you won’t benefit from receiving your LMSW credential, and many fields in which you will need one in order to be employed.

Licensed Master Social Worker vs. Licensed Clinical Social Worker

If your goal is to become a licensed social worker but you aren’t sure which career path to take, the decision between LMSW and LCSW should be fairly simple. In short, LCSWs are able to perform clinical services – i.e., one-on-one or group counseling and therapeutic services. Receiving LCSW licensing involves completing several years’ worth of work hours, many of them supervised, before achieving fully licensed status.

Since clinical services are specialized, LCSWs are considered the highest level accreditation as a social worker. However, that doesn’t mean that LMSWs cannot hold high-ranking positions within social work organizations. After all, there are many important decision-making roles in social services that fall outside of counseling.

The most important question you should ask yourself as an aspiring social worker is if you would like to become a counselor or therapist. If so, you will need an LCSW in order to see this through. If not, you will find great opportunities as an LMSW, and will be able to get your social work career started more quickly.

How to Become a Licensed Master Social Worker

If you’ve thought about your goals as a social worker and are set on your goal of becoming a Licensed Master Social Worker in North Carolina, your next step is to review the educational and testing requirements to earn this accreditation.

In North Carolina, social work accreditation is overseen by the North Carolina Social Work Certification and Licensing Board (NCSWCLB), who determine the qualification standards outlined below.

Education requirements

To become an LMSW, one must hold a Master of Social Work degree. Most LMSWs pursue their accreditation immediately after completing their MSW programs. Those who wish to immediately become LCSWs will bypass this step, as it is not necessary to whole LMSW accreditation if you are on track for other licensing.

There are no work hours required to become an LMSW, but having completed an MSW program, all eligible LMSW candidates will have already completed significant field work, oftentimes in the focus area where they intend to develop their social work career. In some cases, people are able to continue working for the same organizations where they completed their graduate school internship.

Taking the ASWB exam

Upon graduating from their graduate degree programs, Masters of Social Work are eligible to apply for the ASWB exam (Master level). This is a multiple-choice test that draws heavily upon the coursework learned in an MSW program. In North Carolina, test takers are required to pay a $145 fee.

If and when you plan to take the ASWB exam, don’t leave studying until the last minute. Your licensing is an important part of building the career you want, meaning there are high stakes to this test. Your graduate program may help you create study guides or other preparatory materials, and many MSW students form study groups that meet regularly for several months before testing day arrives.

Applying for your credential

Upon passing the ASWB Master level exam, you will be eligible to receive your LMSW credentials. These applications will include your transcript, proof you passed your ASWB exam, and in some cases, one to three reference letters from your professors or colleagues from your internship. If everything is in order, it won’t take long for you to receive your LMSW certification, allowing you to hit the ground running in your social work career.

LMSW Salaries

Those who work in the social work profession typically do not gravitate toward the field for the promise of high pay. But holding appropriate licensing can be an important part of career advancement and in turn, salary increases for social workers.

It is difficult to create meaningful averages of social work salaries, as the field spans so many areas of specialty and employment environments. However, the following information may be helpful as a general framework for prospective social workers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, social workers in North Carolina earn an annual mean wage of $63,770, which is slightly higher than the mean annual wage for social workers nationwide. Those with significant work experience – as afforded by LMSW accreditation – can qualify for leadership roles and other high-ranking positions in social work organizations, which can earn higher amounts: the BLS reports that those in the 90th percentile of social workers earn $95,560 or more per year.

This information can be encouraging and clarifying to social workers who are just at the outset of launching their careers, as it will help you set viable financial and professional goals as you move through the social work profession.


Do I have to become an LMSW directly after receiving my Master of Social Work degree?

If you are not pursuing the path of an LCSW and have just completed your MSW program, yes, it is in your best interest to get your LMSW accreditation right away. This is because many social work organizations cannot hire unlicensed social workers, even for roles that fall outside of counseling services. It will also be useful for test-taking purposes, as the ASWB exam will include substantial material from your MSW coursework.

Is it possible to work as a social worker without licensing?

Only very limitedly. While there may be some entry level positions available for unaccredited social workers, you will quickly find most opportunities to be closed off without a license. If you have already completed your Master of Social Work program, you have already done the hardest work that’s required of you; make the added effort to obtain your licensing, as it will pay off quickly.

Is it possible to become an LCSW if you are already an LMSW?

Yes, certainly. There are many social workers who choose to start their careers as LMSW and wait to gain work experience before taking on LCSW work hours. However, it is worth noting that if you are an LMSW, you cannot put your work hours toward LCSW credit retroactively and will have to start your 3,000 “from scratch.” This means that if you are hoping to become an LCSW soon after receiving your Master of Social Work degree, it will be more efficient to jump straight into the LCSW.

How do the requirements to become a licensed social worker differ between an LMSW and an LCSW?

Becoming an LMSW requires you to complete a Master of Social Work program and pass the ASWB Master level exam. Becoming an LCSW essentially adds the not insignificant step of completing 3,000 work hours with one hundred of those under supervision. For those who wish to do this as quickly as possible, that process tends to take two years. Upon completing these hours, LCSWs will take the ASWB Clinical level exam, which requires similarly extensive preparation to the Master level test.

Are there any forms of counseling you can provide as an LMSW?

In some cases, LMSWs are authorized to practice counseling or other therapeutic methods under the supervision of an LCSW. This can include group counseling or other services related to clients with mental health needs. However, those who wish to focus on therapeutic practices will be better served in the long term by acquiring LCSW certification, which will allow them more extensive counseling roles.