Comparing Social Service Degrees

What is a Social Service Degree?

Social services exist to support the well-being and health of individuals, families and communities. Different types of social service degrees exist to support possible career growth of individuals interested in providing support to their neighborhoods and beyond. Some social service related pathways may be represented a variety of academic disciplines, including social work degrees and other degrees related to social work, such as counseling and mental health degree programs, and public health education programs.

If you’re considering a career in social services but are confused by the wide variety of social service degrees available, it could help to gain an understanding of each discipline.

Social Work Degrees

Social work degrees come in many different sizes and shapes. There are associates, bachelors, masters and doctorate level social work degrees — all with different possible social work career outcomes.

Although entry-level social work positions may only require a bachelor’s degree, a Master of Social Work (MSW) program is often required for some state licensure, including clinical social work. An MSW is typically a two-year graduate degree that may prepare students to practice social work in their respective state. Clinical social workers, who are licensed to treat emotional, mental and behavioral issues, must typically hold an MSW.

Other opportunities may also exist in advocacy, social policy and program planning for graduates of on-campus, online MSW programs, online LCSW programs, or online DSW programs.

Social Work vs Psychology Degrees

Each social service related degree offers varied curriculum and career pathways. While social work degrees may focus on social environments, social policy and welfare, and social disparities – psychology degrees may focus more internally on an individual level.

The field of psychology has several graduate degrees that could lead to rewarding careers in mental health and human behavior. Psychologists are often doctorate level professionals although some psychology careers may only require a master’s or bachelor’s degree. Psychology degrees may focus on lifespan development, psychology of personality, cognitive functioning, assessments and research, and other specific courses depending on concentrations.

The Ph.D. in clinical psychology, typically takes five-to-six years to earn, includes training in the treatment of individuals with moderate to severe mental health issues. Clinical psychologists also conduct research and teach in colleges and universities. Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology) also provides training in clinical skills, but there is less emphasis on research.

Typically, social work focuses on the individual within communities and systems while psychology degrees focus on the individual and how they interact with their communities and systems. Learn more on our full comparison between social work and psychology.

Social Work vs Counseling Degrees

A master’s degree in counseling will typically focus on preparing professionals to address emotional, behavioral and mental health concerns. Counseling degrees will often have coursework related to theories, human development, career development, social and cultural diversity, and assessment and testing. Both social work and counseling degrees prepare professionals to work with individuals, families and communities.

Unlike social work, counseling degrees do not focus on the use of means outside of individual counseling to help people. After completion of this degree program, students can look forward to many challenging yet rewarding career options. Many find work as mental health counselors, addiction counselors, family/marriage counselors and school counselors, even working with social workers for the holistic treatment of individuals. Learn more on our full comparison of social work and counseling.

Social Work vs Sociology Degrees

Sometimes confused for one another, social work and sociology degrees don’t vary extremely in curriculum content but are not intended for similar career outcomes.

Social work degrees may focus on advocacy and treatment planning for individuals, families, communities, and addressing system disparities. A degree in sociology often focuses on the study of society, how we interact within social systems, and how we develop with these influences. Some coursework may include social systems, theories, research, organizations and inequalities. Sociologists and alike may influence social disparities and systems, much like social workers may by advocating for their clients.

Sociology degrees focus on systems and how individuals behave within those while social work degrees focus on the individuals first and how to advocate and address disparities or inequalities.

Social Work vs Public Health Degrees

With a degree in public health, professionals may focus on implementing programs and policies to prevent the spread of disease, protect against environmental hazards, respond to health emergencies and promote healthy behaviors. The field is also concerned with ensuring that all segments of the population receive equal access to quality health care, similar to professionals who pursue a social work degree.

Professionals with a degree in public health often find themselves in administrative positions within hospitals or health-related government and non-government organizations. Social workers may also find themselves working in similar environments, influencing change and advocating for their clients. Some universities offer a dual program MPH/MSW combining curriculum of social work advocacy and public health policy.

Social Work vs Public Administration Degrees

A master’s degree in public administration (MPA) may prime public service professionals to become influential leaders on a local, state, and federal level. Some public administration careers include: city and county management, human resource management, law enforcement, non-profit fundraising, and urban planning. Professionals with an MPA may work in government or non-profit sectors managing volunteers or employees influencing possible policy change and advocacy.

Social work degrees may also provide professionals with skills and tools to advocate for their clients, policy change and to influence social systems disparities and inequalities. While different on a micro level, public administration and social work degrees may both interact and influence public policy for the greater good.