Master’s in Social Work vs Master’s in Counseling 

Without the help of social workers or counselors, many people would be in different situations than they are now. In hospitals and schools, correctional facilities and recovery residences, these mental health professionals help those in vulnerable positions—and, by extension, the public as a whole. 

But dig a little deeper and you’ll find differences in the function of social workers vs counselors. Counselors typically help individuals and families work through a specific set of problems, often around behavioral, emotional and mental health. Social workers have a broader remit. They may provide direct counseling, but they also provide assistance to people and help them navigate a range of social services—from education to healthcare.


There are some differences between a Master of Social Work and a Master of Counseling. Some of the specifics vary by institution. Here are a few factors to consider, as you conduct your research:

Accreditation. A master’s in social work requires different accreditation to one in counseling. To obtain state licensure as a licensed professional counselor, future counselors should consider programs accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP) or the Master’s in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC). Social work master’s students should consider a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) to be eligible for social work state licensure.

Outcomes. Both programs prepare candidates to make a difference in the lives of the people they work with, but this can happen in different ways. Counselors are trained to help clients directly. Social workers may develop the skills to provide psychotherapy but are more likely to help clients and communities find the resources they need to change their circumstances, remove social barriers or influence public policy on a broader scale.

Specializations. Though they sometimes overlap, graduate degrees in social work and counseling normally have different specializations. Reflecting their broader domains, social workers might focus on criminology or trauma and violence, among other areas. Counseling master’s degree programs tend to have tighter focuses around mental health. That includes family therapy, addiction counseling, and grief counseling.

Salaries. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social workers had a median annual salary of $50,470 in 2019, though pay varies by job title, specialty and location. The same can be said for counseling jobs. Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors had a median annual pay of $46,240. All of these numbers can fluctuate depending on your credentials, whether you possess a doctorate degree in social work and a host of other factors.


There are some similarities between a master’s in counseling and a master’s in social work, too. Here are a few similarities between the two:

Flexibility and Length. If completing a program at your own pace is top of mind, consider that a master’s degree in both subjects can often be taken part-time. A master’s program in social work can typically take between one and two years if you’re completing it full-time. Part-time options generally take around three years. Master’s in counseling programs can be completed within a similar timeframe. Many programs are also fully available online, with exception of internships and practicums, allowing you to balance work and study.

Prerequisites. Many master’s degree programs require candidates to have completed an undergraduate degree before starting. In addition, a background in relevant subjects like social or behavioral sciences is often recommended, but this is not usually mandatory. The specifics differ by institution, but many expect a GPA of 3.0.

Training. Social workers and counselors both need robust training before they can work independently in their respective fields. Students who want to become clinical social workers and those who choose to specialize in mental health counseling may cover similar topics while in school. Such topics include psychotherapeutic practice and advocacy. Some states also require additional supervised postgraduate experience, in both fields, before being licensed.

Third-Party Reimbursement. Licensed social workers and counselors may become third-party reimbursable. This means that the fees charged for counseling or social work can be reimbursed by a client’s  insurer. While some employers, such as those in educational institutions, may not be impacted by the need for third-party reimbursement, many therapeutic settings rely on these funds to operate. 

Which Master’s Degree Is Right for Me?

Neither master’s is better or worse than the other—social workers and counselors can both go on to enjoy fulfilling careers. Candidates considering either option are typically excited about helping others, have a flexible attitude and a strong sense of empathy and don’t mind working in an emotionally-demanding environment. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), as of September 2019, 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness every year. There will likely always be a need for mental health professionals.

These fundamental differences are reflected in both social work and psychology graduate programs. A Master of Counseling is designed to give candidates a deeper understanding of human behavior and development. On the other hand, a Master of Social Work may give students a strong grounding in wider societal problems—such as substance abuse and addiction disorders. If you’re interested in a career that involves empathy, effective communication, or just helping others, either track could be a good fit.

Whichever path you choose, there is ample space for personal development. In fact, the job market is growing. According to the BLS, employment of social workers in the U.S. will grow 13% by 2029. The BLS also projects employment of substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors to grow by 25%. 

Master’s Degree in Social Work

More specialized than a bachelor’s degree, a master’s in social work may enable you to pursue advanced roles in the field. With an MSW, you may choose to become a licensed clinical social worker. If that’s your goal, just make sure you meet your state’s licensure requirements. 

As is the case with most graduate programs, you’ll need an undergraduate degree to apply to an MSW program. The specifics vary by institution, but many expect:

  • A minimum GPA of 3.0 
  • Two or more references
  • A personal statement
  • A transcript from a prior institution 

Though candidates with a bachelor’s degree in psychology or related social/human services may find it easier to jump into a Master of Social Work program, some people have no background in social work when they apply.  

If you already hold an accredited Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) and meet minimum requirements, you can apply to an advanced standing MSW program and gain your master’s faster than candidates without a BSW. For students who value their independence or who want to study while working, there are online MSW programs. Whatever you decide, do your research before committing. With so many areas of specialization, it’s important to know what you’re getting into.

What Can I Do with a Master’s in Social Work?

A master’s in social work allows candidates to assume a number of roles, both in the private and public sector. Here are a couple of social work career paths to consider: 

  • School Social Worker.  A school social worker works directly with students, parents and teachers. Their goal is to set students up for success in the classroom and at home. They do this by providing relevant services to help students and families thrive and contribute to their communities.
  • Mental Health Social Worker. Living with a mental illness can present challenges for many individuals, families, and communities. A mental health social worker plays an important role in helping their client’s navigate mental health challenges and improve their overall wellbeing. Mental health social workers work in a variety of settings including private practices, hospitals, community health organizations, primary care facilities, rehabilitation treatment centers and more. 
  • Medical Social Worker. Social workers are at the frontlines of helping people cope with problems affecting their wellbeing, and sometimes those problems are tied to medical issues. You can find a medical social worker in a hospital, community clinic and other healthcare settings.
  • Military Social Worker. Military service members, veterans and their families can benefit from the services of a social worker. For instance, an active duty member may struggle with depression. A military social worker can provide this individual with counseling and other resources to help them through turbulent times. Military social workers may work at army bases, but others might decide to set up a private practice. 

Be sure to thoroughly research your top program options to determine which one will help you achieve your professional goals.

Master’s Degree in Counseling 

A master’s degree in counseling equips candidates with the knowledge needed to work in a number of fields, from helping children in schools to working with the victims of domestic violence. The specific education requirements for master’s in counseling programs vary by institution, but many expect:

  •  GPA of 3.0
  • Several references
  • Personal statement
  • Transcripts 

Though candidates with a bachelor’s degree in the social sciences are sometimes preferred, some students have no background in counseling when they apply.  

Master’s degrees in counseling may open more doors professionally than undergraduate alternatives. For instance, if you want to become a grief recovery practitioner, you need a master’s degree. And to obtain additional certification in grief counseling, a master’s is required too. This is usually also true for licensed/certified school counselors. 

Exactly what you’ll study in a master’s in counseling program depends on the university, but most CACREP or MPCAC accredited programs blend theory with practical skills like diagnosing illnesses or working in groups.

What Can I Do with a Master’s in Counseling?

A master’s degree in counseling allows candidates to compete for a number of roles, both in the private and public sector. Here are a couple of career paths to consider:

  • Family Counselor. Like other counselors, family counselors treat some general issues, such as depression and anxiety. But their work usually focuses on issues that specifically impact families, such as marital conflicts and domestic violence. Family counselors often work in mental health centers. They can also work in private practices.
  • School Counselor. Young people may find growing up difficult and school counselors are there to help. They work with students at all levels, from elementary school to college, and encourage educational advancement. School counselors also support students with issues such as bullying, low self-esteem, or relationship problems. As their name suggests, school counselors work across a range of educational institutions.
  • Rehabilitation Counselor. People with disabilities face a number of challenges in their daily lives. Rehabilitation counselors are here to support them, working across a range of physical, mental, and emotional problems, ultimately helping to improve their overall wellbeing. Rehabilitation counselors work in a number of places, including residential care homes, youth guidance centers, and community rehabilitation centers.
  • Substance Abuse Counselor. Substance abuse is a constant problem in America. Substance abuse counselors are vital in helping their clients overcome addiction to drugs or alcohol. Apart from diagnosing addiction problems, they develop treatment plans for clients and meet with them regularly as they recover. Substance abuse counselors can work in both the public and private sector, specifically in hospitals, government agencies, and schools.

Information on this page was last retrieved in February 2021.