While there are many differences between a Master of Social Work (MSW) and a master’s degree in psychology, both can help candidates gain the education, experience and credentials that they need to contribute to their community and help others.
Every day, social workers and psychologists perform essential services that enable their clients to navigate obstacles and work toward more stable lives. While both of these professionals may provide therapy services to clients, the context and settings of their work can differ.
If you’re interested in pursuing a master’s degree in either social work or psychology, start off by considering various factors like your professional goals, the time you’re willing to spend in school, future earning potential and so on. This guide is designed to help you identify what’s most important to you.
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Social worker and psychologist roles overlap, but ultimately, their functions are very different. Each state/jurisdiction has its own requirements for social work licensing. The same goes for psychology licensure.
Social workers implement interventions to help individuals, families and communities improve their quality of life. While they can take on clinical roles, social workers often serve clients in nursing homes, hospitals, correctional facilities, foster care, schools and other places.
Meanwhile, you can find psychologists working in hospital or office settings, serving clients facing personal difficulties while working to diagnose mental illnesses and provide appropriate therapy. It is also important to note that the path to licensure for social workers and psychologists is not the same.
Because of the differences in licensure requirements and services provided to communities and individuals, there are differences between the master’s degree programs that prepare workers in both fields for their work.
One of the most notable differences is curriculum. At its core, an MSW program focuses on human behavior and development, social welfare policies and the history of the profession. Many programs also emphasize cultural sensitivity. Because social workers often serve vulnerable and high-risk populations, it’s common for an MSW program to involve an advocacy component/course or specialty track to allow students to decide which area of the field they want to work in.
In addition to coursework, MSW students must complete a field placement. The field placement allows students to translate theoretical concepts into practice as they work with community members and receive guidance from a professional.
Like MSW programs, master’s in psychology programs also give students the opportunity to specialize. But these programs differ in that they offer courses with a focus on behavioral neuroscience, psychological quantitative methods and clinical research training.
Master’s in psychology programs can be completed in two or three years. Master of Social Work programs can usually be completed within a two-year window. However, depending on which program you enroll in and whether you choose to be a part-time or full-time student, these timelines may vary.
When deciding between a career in social work and psychology, consider where your passion lies and decide how many years you can commit to school.
Whether you’re a social worker or a psychologist, an important part of your work will involve providing therapy and counseling to clients or connecting them with professionals who can provide similar services. The struggles that clients face and the counseling you offer will differ depending on your career choice, both roles can help patients identify—and eventually overcome—obstacles and personal trauma.
Both social work and psychology are deeply connected to mental health and well-being and incorporate field education enabling students to gain hands-on training. Whether you pursue a Master of Social Work or a master’s in psychology, here are some similarities you can expect in your education:
- Emphasis on human behavior. Both programs place a large focus on human behavior—including individual and group behaviors, coping mechanisms and more. In order to evaluate clients and provide effective counseling, it’s essential that workers in both fields have a firm understanding of this curriculum.
- Research curriculum. While many master’s in psychology degree programs offer a more in-depth education on research and research methodology, MSW programs also cover research, including studies that are relevant to the field and research methodology and ethics.
- Focus on mental health. Both programs place a central emphasis on mental health. Master’s in psychology students learn how to evaluate patients, provide diagnoses and support patients through counseling. MSW students typically learn about how mental illness impacts their clients as well as interventions that can help and counseling tactics to assist clients as they deal with mental health problems.
- Ability to concentrate. Both programs allow students to concentrate in a particular field or area. For instance, MSW students have the ability to concentrate on medical social work or on social work in correctional settings. Meanwhile, a master’s in psychology student could choose to specialize in children’s psychology.
Which Master’s Degree Is Right for Me?
When deciding between a master’s in social work and a master’s in psychology, there are key factors to consider. Here are a few of them:
Time. Will an extra year of schooling make a big difference for you? Do you have time to commit to a three-year program? Will one or two years of education be enough? Remember that an MSW will typically take one to two years to earn while a master’s in psychology could take three.
Goals. Think about your long-term professional goals and which degree will put you on the path to achieving those goals. What types of clients do you want to work with? What specialty do you want to pursue? MSW programs prepare students to work in the field offering services everywhere from schools to prisons.
Salary. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual pay of social workers in 2020 was $51,760. By contrast, the median annual salary for a psychologist was $82,180 in May 2020. Remember that pay varies by location, employer, job title and years of experience. Depending on which you choose, different programs also vary in terms of cost. As you think about your future path, consider what’s feasible and what your long-term financial goals are.
Career outlook. From 2020 to 2030, the BLS projects overall employment of social workers to grow 12%. Projected job growth for psychologists during the same time period is 8%. Keep in mind that demand for social workers and psychologists can change from community to community, as each one has unique needs tied to demographics, local economy and more.
Master’s Degree in Social Work
There’s no one fixed curriculum for a master’s in social work. However, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) defines core competencies, such as ethical and professional behavior, policy practices and intervention guidelines. Today, there are numerous options for Master of Social Work programs including on-campus, online hybrid and online MSW programs. Most online programs give students the ability to attend classes on a part-time or full-time basis and complete their degree on their own schedule. There are also advanced standing MSW programs available to students with a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). These programs can typically be completed in a shorter amount of time than a traditional MSW program. There are even some MSW programs that do not require a bachelor’s degree in social work.
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The first year of an MSW program is typically known as the “foundation year.” This is when students take required courses that cover all of the fundamentals of social work such as guidelines for ethical practice and background in counseling. The second year, sometimes called the “advanced year,” allows students to specialize and concentrate their studies—diving into advanced coursework in specific areas, like children’s social work or medical social work.
If you’re interested in serving your community by creating sustainable interventions that help individuals and families, you may want to consider earning an MSW. Depending on your specialization, you can expect a broad range of coursework tailored to prepare you to get to work out in the field.
What Can I Do with a Master’s in Social Work?
Social workers perform a broad range of work supporting clients out in the field. Here are some careers you may pursue after completing an MSW:
- School social worker. If you’re passionate about helping young people navigate issues throughout school and college, becoming a school social worker may be a fit for you. This position places social workers in schools to provide academic or social guidance.
- Mental health social worker. As a mental health social worker, you’ll be responsible for helping your clients to improve their emotional health. You may work with clients who have been diagnosed with depression or struggle with addictive behaviors.
- Medical social worker. This type of social worker can work in hospitals, community clinics and other healthcare settings. A medical social worker serves clients with different medical issues including injuries, disabilities and chronic illnesses.
- Military social worker. Active duty members and veterans can seek the services of a military social worker if they are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, or other mental health conditions related to their time in service. Military social workers are also available to assist military members’ families.
- Community health workers. Those interested in becoming a community social worker may educate their communities and/or influence public policy changes.
- Generalist social worker. Social workers have the ability to work nearly anywhere—from hospitals to correctional facilities. At every level, they are able to help people with individual or group problems.
These are just a few of the many career options for MSW graduates. Depending on your concentration and professional goals, there are potentially more professional opportunities that can stem from an MSW.
Master’s Degree in Psychology
Depending on your school and the program you enroll in, master’s in psychology programs can vary. However, they typically take two to three years to complete, often require a thesis and cover the basics of psychology, personality, social psychology and biological psychology. Some master’s in psychology programs also accept students with a BSW degree.
Today, students can choose between online master’s in psychology programs or in-person programs, with options to attend classes full time or part time. Regardless of which option you choose, you’ll have the opportunity to specialize your study and focus on a specific area, if you choose. Perhaps you’ve always been drawn to child psychology or hope to launch a career as a neuropsychologist.
In many programs, clinical experience and research are required, giving students an opportunity to get valuable, on-the-ground experience before heading off into the profession. Some programs also connect students with relevant internships.
What Can I Do with a Master’s in Psychology?
Are you fascinated by the mind and how it impacts human behavior? A master’s in psychology may prepare to provide individual clients/groups with counseling and coping mechanisms to help them navigate tough life situations. There are many directions you can take with your graduate degree in psychology. Here are some of the options:
- Private practice psychologist. Whether in your own practice or as part of a broader collective, you can offer counseling to patients seeking services to help them deal with their personal circumstances. Private practice psychologists typically work in an office setting, seeing patients within their own personal space over an extended period of time.
- Child psychologist. Working specifically with young children and teens, child psychologists help clients who are struggling with mental health issues, trauma, PTSD or other challenges. Child psychologists often use creative counseling methods and interventions.
- Family counselor. Like child psychologists, family counselors often work with children. However, their counseling and guidance also helps an entire family or parents in need. Family counselors analyze obstacles impacting an entire family unit and offer counseling, coping mechanisms, and a space for the family to come together.
Last updated in October 2021.