Students and professionals interested in pursuing an advanced degree have several options to consider as they explore different degree programs. Going back to school to earn a master’s degree is both a major time and financial commitment. Therefore, students should thoroughly research their options before deciding which school and program to attend.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists Social Workers, Psychologists, Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists, Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors, and Rehabilitation Counselors as similar occupations under the category of Community and Social Service. (For students who are unsure about which career path they wish to pursue, we definitely recommend reviewing the career profiles provided by bls.gov.) To help students better understand the differences between a MSW, a MS in Psychology, and a MS in Counseling, we decided to ask social work professors the following question and have consolidated their answers below.
In your opinion, can you briefly explain the difference between a MSW, a Master’s in Counseling and a Master’s in Psychology?
Dr. Pamela A. Yankeelov, Ph.D. (Professor and Associate Dean of Student Services at the University of Louisville, Kent School of Social Work)
The MSW curriculum prepares students to practice with multi-level systems: individuals, families, groups, organization and communities. It is built upon a liberal arts base that provides students with a perspective that society is a complex organization of diverse people and ideas, each of which includes strengths upon which society may prosper and grow. The Kent School of Social Work draws on various perspectives such as cultural, conflict, developmental, ecological, and systems theories to identify and examine social problems and inform intervention strategies to ameliorate them. It is expected that students will be able to critically identify and assess social problems to understand how they are maintained and how they impact people’s quality of life as well as apply their knowledge and skills in a culturally competent manner and promote social and economic justice.
The ultimate goal is for Kent’s graduates to leave our program with the knowledge and skill to affect change at all levels in the system in which they operate and to advocate for and assist clients who are faced with the difficult challenge of requiring services from more than one service delivery system. Therefore, the curriculum is also guided by the goal of having graduates see themselves in the role of transforming the system of care in which they deliver social work services. Transformational social work practice is the active and deliberate utilization of social work knowledge and skills to enact a fundamental shift to another level of thought and action to assist individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities to change the fundamental structures and character of systems in order to enhance people’s bio-psycho-social-spiritual functioning and their opportunities to realize their best possible quality of life.
Students in a Master’s in Counseling or Master’s in Psychology program tend to receive a more micro oriented, client centered education. Social workers view the person in their environment and understand the need to assess the influences of the environment and intervene in the environment. Social workers operate from a social justice perspective focusing on working with vulnerable and oppressed populations, which is generally not the core principle of the other disciplines.
Dr. Jodi Constantine Brown, Ph.D., MSW (Associate Chair of the Social Work Department at California State University, Northridge) and Rachel Wu (MSW Online and Offsite Program Coordinator at CSUN):
There are both subtle and major differences between the various degrees of an MSW, a Master’s in Counseling, and a Master’s in Psychology. Generally, those who receive a Master’s in Counseling are specifically focused in pursuing a licensed professional counseling role in a variety of settings including schools, mental health facilities, relationship and families, careers, or substance abuse, to name a few. Those who pursue a Master’s in Psychology may find themselves working in a clinical setting providing psychotherapy and psychological assessment, or engaging in further research in a specialty area such as cognitive psychology, human factors, developmental psychology, social psychology, or forensic psychology.
A person with an MSW may play the role of a counselor, therapist, or researcher, and may perform assessments in a clinical setting, but they are not limited to these areas. Depending on the MSW’s area of focus and work experience, the field of social work incorporates theoretical and research-based knowledge in human biology, psychology, sociology, economics, and political science as a basis for understanding and practice with individuals and families, groups and communities, and societies as a whole. Work may be performed in a direct-service setting with individuals, or in a policymaking and administration setting.
The MSW degree is more broad, and therefore less limited and specific as the other degrees mentioned; similarly, because of the interdisciplinary foundation of social work, the social work practitioner will carry a more holistic understanding and approach to their role and the people they serve. In any of these cases, those who have earned these advanced degrees may even find themselves teaching at a college or university level in their respective fields of study or focus.
Professor Craig Stanley, MSW, LCSW (Director of the MSW Program for the College of Social Work at Florida State University)
From an educational perspective, while I do not have direct experience in those other programs, I believe that social work orients itself a bit differently than the other disciplines. For example, our profession is one that focuses on issues such as social justice with a focus on vulnerable populations. We also look at issues from the person in environment perspective. A social work education provides a broad foundation that allows the MSW graduate to be qualified and effective in a number of different arenas. Clinical social work programs provide instruction in counseling but they are not solely focused on that function. I suspect that psychology and counseling programs do not provide the broad foundation that the social work programs do.
From a marketing perspective, most states will not license master’s level psychologists. There are several types of jobs that will only hire social workers to provide clinical services. For example, the V.A. does not hire Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHCs) to provide clinical services to veterans, they hire LCSWs.
Please note: these answers should only be used as part of a student’s decision to pursue a MSW. For students who are unsure about which degree program is right for them, we recommend speaking with professors and/or professionals in the other disciplines as well.