Social Work vs. Therapy: Is There a Difference? 

Social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists are all different types of professionals who are trained to offer therapy, but there are differences in their training, education and the services they provide. Though social work and other fields like psychology and psychiatry involve working with people to help them deal with difficulties in their lives, the career paths for each have different focuses and meet their clients’ needs differently.

Degrees in social work vs. sociology vs. other areas of human services can all lead to separate fields. Candidates will need to complete different requirements depending on whether they want to become social workers or another type of therapist. Once qualified, social workers’ day-to-day functions differ from the duties performed by other types of therapists even though individuals in all of these roles provide support to their clients and patients.

Social Worker vs. Therapist Job Responsibilities

As stated above, social workers can be considered a type of therapist. “Therapist” is a title for a few different professionals who attempt to understand a person’s thoughts, feelings, emotions and behavior. Psychologists, psychiatrists, licensed professional clinical counselors, licensed marriage and family therapists, pastoral counselors and psychiatric nurse practitioners are also professionals who are trained to offer psychotherapy. They support individuals (and sometimes communities) to live more fulfilling lives. However, there are some differences between therapy provided by social workers vs. therapists of other kinds. Social workers focus on helping people deal with challenging situations while other therapists treat mental or physical disorders or diseases.

Psychologists may conduct studies or experiments to understand how people work. Psychiatrists have medical training. They hold a doctor of medicine or doctor of osteopathic medicine degree. After earning their degree in medicine, psychiatrists specialize in psychiatry. Psychiatrists mainly focus on the biological aspects of mental illness and are able to prescribe medication to rectify chemical imbalances that sometimes cause mental illness. 

Social workers, on the other hand, work with people to address problems and work through difficult experiences. They may provide support during a divorce, illness or unemployment. Social workers do not have a medical background, though some social workers can also diagnose and treat behavioral, emotional and mental issues or disorders. These social workers are called clinical social workers or licensed clinical social workers. Clinical social workers need to complete additional training and meet specific licensure requirements.

What Skills Do Social Workers vs. Other Therapists Need?

Social workers and other types of therapists often need to have similar skills. All professionals that provide therapy must have excellent communication skills because they often discuss sensitive information with their patients or clients.

Social workers also need to have strong interpersonal skills since they work directly with people from a variety of backgrounds and in different settings. Social workers and other kinds of therapists need to be problem solvers in order to find innovative and practical solutions for the people they are helping.

In addition to this, the main qualities of a therapist include being able to establish trust, the ability to explain symptoms and develop a consistent treatment plan, and involvement in continuing training and education. There are a variety of therapist skills that professionals need to have in order to be effective. These may include technical skills related to the delivery of interventions and strategies, relational skills and cultural skills—that is, the therapist’s awareness of cultural context.

Social workers also need to be able to deal with difficult emotions and show compassion and empathy for their clients. They often manage multiple clients and therefore need to have strong organizational skills.  

What’s the Difference Between Becoming a Social Worker vs. Becoming a Different Type of Therapist? 

Although social workers and other types of therapists sometimes carry out similar roles, different fields have different education requirements. Wondering how to become a therapist? Clinical, counseling and research psychologists need to hold a doctoral degree. This is usually either a PhD in psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD).

To become a social worker, you must hold at least a Bachelor of Social Work degree. Clinical social workers should have a master’s degree in social work. They also need to complete two years of supervised practical experience in a clinical setting. Social workers and clinical social workers need to be licensed by their state. 

Sponsored Online Social Work Programs

University of Southern California

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Master of Social Work (MSW)

The MSW@USC is the online Master of Social Work from top-ranked USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. USC offers virtual and in-person field education, and students focus on adults, youth or social change.

  •  Minimum completion time: 16 months
  • Online classes taught by USC faculty 
  • Virtual field training to build skills and confidence

University of Denver

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Master of Social Work (MSW)

The University of Denver’s Online MSW Program is delivered by its top-ranked school of social work and offers two programs. Students can earn their degree in as few as 12 months for the Online Advanced-Standing MSW or 27 months for the Online MSW.

  • Complete the Online Advanced-Standing MSW in as few as 12 months if you have a BSW; if you do not have a BSW, the Online MSW Program may be completed in as few as 27 months.
  • No GRE Required
  • Mental Health and Trauma or Health, Equity and Wellness concentrations

Fordham University

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Master of Social Work (MSW)

Fordham’s skills-based, online MSW program integrates advanced relevant social work competencies, preparing students to serve individuals and communities while moving the profession forward. This program includes advanced standing and traditional MSW options.

  •  Traditional and advanced standing online MSW options are available.
  • There are four areas of focus: Individuals and Families, Organizations and Community, Evaluation, and Policy Practice and Advocacy.
  • Pursue the degree on a full-time or part-time track.

Simmons University

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Master of Social Work (MSW)

Aspiring direct practitioners can earn their MSW online from Simmons University in as few as 12 months. GRE scores are not required, and the program offers full-time, part-time, accelerated, and advanced standing tracks.

  • Prepares students to pursue licensure, including LCSW 
  • Full-time, part-time, and accelerated tracks 
  • Minimum completion time: 12 months

Syracuse University

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Master of Social Work (MSW)

Syracuse University’s online Master of Social Work program does not require GRE scores to apply and is focused on preparing social workers who embrace technology as an important part of the future of the profession. Traditional and Advanced Standing tracks are available. 

  • Traditional and Advanced Standing tracks
  • No GRE required
  • Concentrate your degree in integrated practice or clinical practice

Baylor University

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Master of Social Work (MSW)

Complete the Master of Social Work online program at Baylor University in as few as 12 months. Serve populations in Texas and around the world while ethically integrating faith and social work practice. No GRE required.

  • Address injustice from a strengths-based perspective
  • Ethically integrates faith and social work practice
  • Serve as a trusted resource for clients, no matter their personal background
  • Complete the MSW online program in as few as 12 months

Howard University

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Master of Social Work (MSW)

The online Master of Social Work program from Howard University School of Social Work prepares students for advanced direct or macro practice in culturally diverse communities. Two concentrations available: Direct Practice and Community, Administration, and Policy Practice. No GRE. Complete in as few as 12 months.

  • Concentrations: Direct Practice and Community, Administration, and Policy Practice
  • Complete at least 777-1,000 hours of agency-based field education
  • Earn your degree in as few as 12 months

Case Western Reserve University

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Master of Social Work (MSW)

In as few as a year and a half, you can prepare for social work leadership by earning your Master of Social Work online from Case Western Reserve University’s school of social work.

  • CSWE-accredited
  • No GRE requirement
  • Complete in as few as one and a half years

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You do not need to hold a bachelor’s degree in social work in order to be admitted into a master’s degree in social work program. In most cases, a degree in any field is acceptable although having a bachelor’s degree in a related field like psychology, sociology, economics or political science is recommended. If, however, you do hold a bachelor’s degree in social work, you could earn your master’s in social work in one year instead of two. 

Social Worker and Therapist Salaries

Wondering how much social workers make? The median annual salary for a social worker in 2020 was $51,760, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 

The average salary for a therapist in other fields is higher than that of social workers. The median annual salary for a psychologist in the same year was $82,180. Psychiatrists earned a mean annual wage of $217,100 in 2020.  

What Type of Therapist Should I Be? 

According to the BLS, the demand for social workers is expected to increase by 12% between 2020 and 2030. This is faster than the average growth rate of all occupations. Around 78,300 social worker jobs are projected to open up each year between 2020 and 2030. 

In comparison, employment of psychologists is projected to grow 8% between 2020 and 2030. That is about as fast as the average growth rate for all jobs. Around 13,400 positions for psychologists will open each year between 2020 and 2030, according to the BLS.

The demand for psychiatrists is predicted to grow by 13% between 2020 and 2030 —the fastest of the three helping professions related to therapy. 

Deciding whether to become a social worker or another type of professional who offers therapy, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, should not depend solely on the salary expectations and projected job growth rate. Although these may be significant factors, the most important thing to consider is what you would like to focus on and how you would like to assist others.

Last updated February 2022