Counseling vs Social Work

Social work and counseling overlap in many ways, but the disciplines are in fact distinctly different. Counseling is a facet of social work, but social workers can only provide it if they have achieved a certain level of education and licensure -- usually a master's degree, and a clinical license. Either way, counseling is simply one of the many tools at a social worker's disposal to help them assist their clients. A counselor, on the other hand, has extensive training in areas like psychopathology and trauma disorder treatment to directly help clients overcome their problems. To reach that level of expertise, a counselor needs to attain at least a master's degree.

Master of Social Work Degree

A master's in social work (MSW) is ideal for prospective social workers who plan to practice independently or in an unsupervised setting. However, a graduate degree is not usually required for entry level positions in social work. Many states support a level of licensure that corresponds to a bachelor's in social work (BSW), and some states even license social workers with an associate degree. BSW graduates are equipped to work in supervised settings where clinically licensed social workers can oversee their work. MSW programs prepare graduates for the Association of Social Work Boards' (ASWB) clinical and advanced generalist exams and licensure. With a master's degree and clinical licensure, social workers can pursue unsupervised positions, such as mental health or substance abuse social worker, medical social worker, or child and family social worker. Entry level salaries for social work jobs generally range between $40,000 and $50,000, while mid-level salaries range from $50,000 to $60,000.

Typically, MSW coursework is divided into two sections. Students first learn to address core topics in social work practice, human development, and other subjects. Then, they choose a concentration and accumulate field experience for mastering its practical application. Learners select their concentration based on which kind of licensure they plan to pursue, and all MSWs require significant field experience -- even for students pursuing an online master's in social work. MSW graduates who pursue clinical licensure will be equipped with the right tools for direct client service (such as counseling) through psychotherapy-focused field experience.

Master's in Social Work Curriculum

  • Social Work Practice with Children and Families: This area of study covers family dynamics, children's welfare, and crisis intervention. This coursework would be essential for a graduate interested in family, child, or school-related social work settings.
  • Introduction to Social Policy: Social policy courses dissect the systems of support that exist to protect those in need. Social workers must understand these systems as part of their industry's foundation.
  • Substance Abuse and Addiction Disorders: Aspiring social workers interested in working with substance abuse-related cases should take coursework on understanding, assessing, and treating substance abuse and addiction, and their relationship with the individual.
  • Oppression and Privilege in Macro Social Policy: Coursework on macro social policy typically covers coursework on the diverse social factors that have influenced and continue to influence social policy, such as race and gender.
  • Social Work Research Methods: Coursework in social work research methods gives learners the tools to understand how social work programs can better people's lives.

Master of Counseling Degree

Because counselors work directly with clients to help them overcome issues relating to mental, emotional, and social health, they are held to high standards for education and licensure. Many disciplines involve some degree of one-on-one counsel, but the explicit title of “counselor” reflects a particular skill set and level of education. Licensed professional counselors must first obtain a master's degree in counseling, which requires extensive study of psychotherapy and human development, plus how to assess and treat trauma, addiction, and mental and emotional disorder. Counseling students must also log hours of field experience, developing their practical psychotherapy skills. They may pursue a concentration in family counseling or clinical mental health counseling.

Counselors can work in schools, treatment centers, or private practices. Regardless of their work setting, counselors use psychotherapy to help clients confront their problems and improve their own lives, rather than referring them to third parties who could offer assistance. According to Payscale, the median entry-level salary for a marriage and family therapist is $50,000; the median mid-level salary is $55,000.

Master's in Counseling Curriculum

  • Human Growth and Development: Counselors take coursework in the various stages of human growth and psychological development, in order to create a foundation for their psychotherapy practice.
  • Group Counseling and Psychotherapy: Foundational courses teach the methodology and theory involved with both individual and group therapy, to ensure a range of opportunities in the future.
  • Trauma Therapy: Master's in counseling programs generally offer coursework on trauma therapy. This coursework is of special interest to those planning to focus on clients with disorders such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
  • Counseling Ethics: There is a range of ethical considerations in counseling, and aspiring counselors should take them seriously. Coursework in counseling ethics prevents learners from making well-intentioned mistakes in their future practice.
  • Diversity in Counseling: Racial and gender diversity factor into the fair and ethical practice of counseling. Understanding clients' socioeconomic and cultural differences will help counseling students learn how to best help their future clients.

Master's in Social Work vs Counseling

Clinical social workers have to receive more thorough and extensive training than a typical direct services social worker. In turn, these professionals can expect to earn a higher average annual salary. According to Payscale, clinical social workers make an average of $41,500 to $82,000 annually, whereas direct services social workers make $30,200 to $64,600.

Quick Facts Clinical Social Work Direct Services Social Work
Minimum degree level needed to work in the field Master's Bachelor's
Online degrees available? Yes, with in-person elements Yes. Sometimes fully online and sometimes with in-person elements
Popular career paths Clinical social worker, addiction and substance treatment social worker School social worker, Child and family social worker
Average annual salary $41,465 - $81,960 $30,221 - $64,555
License required? Yes Some states require an initial license for BSW graduates.

Which Degree Is Right for You?

Aspiring clinical social workers can expect to directly influence the mental, emotional, familial, and social health of their clients, just as counselors also do. Those who hope to see direct results in the states of their clients may choose to pursue either a master's degree in counseling or the path to clinical licensure in social work. Both options mandate extensive fieldwork, and a counseling degree may also require deep research into topics like human development.

Professionals in both social work and counseling often make similar incomes, with average entry-level salaries ranging between $42,000 and $55,000. The more specialized position of “counselor” may narrow a graduate's job opportunities somewhat and perhaps make it harder to find scholarships to reduce educational expenses.

Salary Outlook for Social Workers and Counselors

Social workers and counselors work in both the private and public sectors, helping schools, medical facilities, residential facilities and the greater community at large function healthily. Ultimately, counselors take more of a hands-on approach in helping clients manage their personal issues. Social workers may utilize psychotherapeutic counseling, but they are more likely to act as “case managers” who direct their clients toward third-party resources.

  • Clinical Social Worker: Clinical social workers provide therapy, plus other services, including job search assistance, home care, and psychological evaluations. A clinical social worker might spend an average day creating treatment plans for individuals at a substance abuse treatment center.
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker: Licensed clinical social workers provide psychotherapy services for clients and helps them access resources as needed. They might conduct therapy sessions with families at a private practice, then work afterward on constructing a regimen for other professionals' reference.
  • Social Worker: Social workers can occupy either generalized or specialized positions in hospitals, residential facilities, nonprofits, and schools. They might spend a typical day assisting residents at a geriatric facility with day-to-day tasks, and conducting interviews to ensure their mental, emotional, physical, and social health.
  • Mental Health Therapist: These therapists provide psychotherapeutic services, assessments, and treatments for those with mental health issues. They might spend a typical day providing psychotherapy to clients, then coordinating with other professionals to create a treatment regimen.
  • Licensed Professional Counselor: Licensed professional counselors directly help clients maintain their holistic functionality and health, via psychotherapy in either individual or group settings. They might spend a typical day leading group therapy sessions and documenting progress for those struggling with alcohol and drug abuse.
Job Title Overall Median Salary Median Salary for Entry-Level Employees (0-5 years) Median Salary for Mid-Career Employees (5-10 years) Median Salary for Late-Career Employees (>20 years)
Clinical Social Worker $52,619 $48,000 $59,000 $64,000
Licensed Clinical Social Worker $55,585 $50,000 $56,000 $64,000
Social Worker $45,546 $44,000 $49,000 $60,000
Mental Health Therapist $42,865 $41,000 $47,000 $53,000
Licensed Professional Counselor $45,420 $42,000 $49,000 $58,000

Social Work and Counseling Resources

  • SocialWorkLicensure.org: This site provides social workers and potential social workers with online resources and informative guides to different kinds of licensure and their requirements.
  • Social Welfare Action Agency: The Social Welfare Action Agency coordinates with its various social chapters to work for social change locally and nationally. This social policy-oriented organization integrates social services with the broader pursuit of social justice.
  • American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work: The AMBECSW sets national standards for clinical social work practice. This organization will be providing the critical accreditation new graduates will need, so it is an important resource to study; practitioners with AMBECSW certification qualify for preferential liability insurance rates.
  • American Counseling Association: The ACA works to further counselors' professional development through a nationwide collection of divisions, regions, and branches. It offers continued education opportunities and conferences to entry-level practitioners and experienced professionals alike.
  • American Mental Health Counselors Association: Founded in 1976, the AMHCA offers two publications (The Advocate Magazine and Journal of Mental Health), a selection of conferences and continuing education opportunities, and preferred liability insurance rates for both students and experienced counseling professionals.
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