Social Work vs Psychology

If you are contemplating a career in psychology or social work, you may be wondering what distinguishes the two fields. While both psychology and social work are concerned with individual behavior, mental health, and wellbeing, they ultimately require very different educational trajectories and licensing in order to practice. In addition, the roles of each are distinctive.

If you’re wondering which path to pursue, read on.

Degrees and Licensing

A career in social work or psychology begins with a degree. An undergraduate degree in psychology will likely include papers on behavior, neuroscience, memory and cognition. An undergraduate degree in social work will likely include papers on child protection, mental health in social practice, or psychology for human services. Psychology features as an element of a social work degree, but represents only one aspect of many.

More pronounced differences between the two disciplines become apparent at graduate level. Those who are interested in social work pursue an Online MSW Program to attain more specialized, clinical knowledge for managing caseloads, understanding policy, and assisting clients. An MSW program requires two years of coursework on average, along with practical training in the field. A Master of Science in Psychology (MS) may take two to three years. In both cases, supervised fieldwork in a particular specialization is required.


One of the major considerations that may affect your choice is the salary associated with each discipline. Because of the differences in educational requirements, training and job descriptions, salaries vary between the two fields, with psychologists tending to earn a higher average. That being said, the specialty training held by a social worker will also influence their salary. Social worker administrators can earn in excess of $100,000.

As of December 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report for social workers indicates that those who work in child, family and school social work earn an annual average of $46,270 while those who choose careers in health care social work earn a slightly higher average of $56,200. Social workers in mental health and substance abuse earn an annual average of $44,840. The BLS report for psychologists indicates an average salary of $79,010.

Job Descriptions

Both social work and psychology share some similarities, but the actual job descriptions are distinct. Social workers assist individuals, families, or communities to improve their quality of life. The context of family, community or society is constantly present when social worker is supporting an individual. Social workers must possess a thorough understanding of basic human development and behavior in order to carry out successful interventions. Social workers additionally help their clients to overcome personal challenges by assisting them to develop the necessary skills to succeed, or in some cases, allocate resources or funding. If the scope of an individual’s problems is beyond a social worker’s training, a referral to a psychologist may become necessary.

Psychologists also work with those who are experiencing trouble in their lives, but typically work with individuals rather than whole families or other groups. When an individual sees a psychologist, he or she may undergo psychological testing or counseling. The psychologist can identify the problem behavior in order to help their patients adapt to challenges. The primary goal of psychologists is to perform diagnostic testing for mental illnesses and provide therapy for their patients.

Work Environments

The work environments in which social workers and psychologists spend their time is also quite different. While both careers can involve working in an office setting, providing therapy and counseling to individuals, groups and families, social workers typically work in multidisciplinary team settings more often. Social workers are also often out and about in the community or visiting clients. Social workers can be found in a wide variety of locations, including rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, schools, mental health institutions, prisons, military bases and many other locations.

When making choices for your future career, it is valuable to be informed about all the possible study paths that interest you. While social work and psychology share some similarities, they provide different forms of care to individuals and require distinctive training and degrees. Understanding the differences between these two career paths equips you to make the right choice for your future.