Social Work Vs Counseling: Which Degree Is Right For You?

If you’re interested in a career providing therapy and counseling, you might wonder what distinguishes a Master in Counseling from a Master of Social Work degree. Both roles are grounded in offering mental health care assistance. Although there are elements of each role which overlap, each discipline is distinct, providing the student with a specialized set of skills to support clients.

Master in Social Work

Master of Social Work (MSW) prepares students for a leadership role in the care and advocacy of clients that may include offering support to individuals, families, organizations and communities. An MSW degree provides the skills needed to perform clinical assessments, advocate for entitlements and necessary resources, provide education, offer clinical counseling and manage a large caseload of complex cases.

MSW graduates understand the requirements of a supervisory role, can direct clinical programs, manage caseloads, serve on community committees and assist with the development of social welfare policies.

The master of social work offers coursework in clinical practice, social administration, public policy, research and ethics. An MSW degree can lead to many different career paths in the public health and medical fields, nonprofit organizations or government programs that address public needs. Social workers are also taught the skills and theories to challenge social injustice and change systems of care.

Counseling represents a facet of social work, but social workers can only provide counseling if they have achieved a certain level of education and licensure — usually a master’s degree alongside a clinical license. Counseling represents simply one of the many tools and techniques at a social worker’s disposal to help them assist their clients.

Master in Counseling

A Master in Counseling will prepare you for a variety of counseling options including marriage and family therapy, rehabilitation counseling, vocational counseling, mental health counseling and substance abuse counseling. Students in Master in Counseling degree programs study counseling theories and techniques, psychological testing, ethics, research, cultural perspectives and psychological development. Counseling is their central focus and the techniques they study to later apply relate specifically to the profession of counseling.

Similarities and Differences

There are some areas of overlap between the Master in Counseling and Master of Social Work degrees. Both degrees require state licensure which provide the skills to deliver one-on-one counseling to people in need. These degree programs also require the graduate to complete a minimum number of hours of supervised field instruction in an area of primary interest.

One of the main differences between the two disciplines is that counselors focus on helping individuals and families who have a specific set of problems or need treatment for a mental health disorder. Social workers are involved in providing a wider range of services within social service systems, of which counseling represents only one service. Other services provided by social workers include support with acquiring needed resources or material assistance, or referring the client to other entities or organizations that may be able to help.

As an example to illustrate the difference between the roles of a counselor and social worker, consider the case of a family that is dealing with the terminal illness of a family member. A counselor will focus on helping the family members to encounter and come to terms with their feelings about the situation.

A social worker may provide therapy and also refer the family to hospice care, work with a caregiver’s employer to arrange time away from work, or help the family with financial issues. Social workers have a broader understanding of the many systems and community factors that influence the needs and conditions of their clients.

The number of jobs in both social work and counseling are expected to grow over the next decade. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook projects that the demand for counselors will grow by 22 percent through to 2028, faster than average for all occupations. The demand for mental health and substance abuse social workers is projected to grow 18 percent by 2028, which is also faster than the average for all occupations. Job growth will be fueled by an increased demand for health care and social services, as the government continues to increase healthcare spending.

Regardless of the degree you choose to pursue, understanding the differences between the two degrees and possessing a clear idea of your career goals will help you make the right choice for your future.