What is the difference between a social worker, psychologist, and counselor?

As someone passionate about the mental health field, you want to choose a master's program that aligns with your interests and career goals. Fortunately, you have three academic tracks to explore: social work, psychology, and counseling. Choosing the right path starts with understanding each of these interrelated careers.

Social workers, psychologists, and counselors all provide vital services to people in need:

Social workers identify clients' problems and research community resources that may help. Some of these resources may include psychologists and counselors' services.
Psychologists help clients by treating underlying emotional or mental problems. Psychologists also conduct and publish original research. Unlike counselors, psychologists often treat the same clients for long periods, sometimes years.
Counselors often specialize in a specific group (e.g., high school students, adults looking for new careers). While psychologists attempt to undercover clients' underlying issues, counselors focus more on coping skills.

Difference in Degrees

Master's in Social Work (MSW)

MSW programs typically require that applicants possess a bachelor's in social work or a related field. Other application requirements may include a minimum undergraduate GPA and relevant work experience. As you explore programs, consider whether an online, on-campus, or hybrid program best fits your needs. On-campus programs appeal to students who can study full-time. Hybrid and online MSW programs mainly attract students who plan to continue working while earning their degrees. Programs include 36-45 hours of coursework that most students complete in 1-2 years. Programs require an internship or field placement where students work under licensed social workers' direction.

When researching schools, ensure that those on your shortlist possess not only regional accreditation but also accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). CSWE-accredited programs best prepare students for their future careers.

Master's in Psychology

Master's in psychology programs prepare graduates to work as psychologists and in many related careers (e.g., market researcher, data analyst, health project coordinator). Master's programs rarely require applicants to possess a master's in psychology. Like with MSW degrees, you can select from on-campus, hybrid, and fully online programs. Your program may offer one or more specializations in educational psychology, applied psychology, and social psychology. The 40-50 credit curriculum stresses research theory, lifespan development, and a capstone course. Capstone courses often involve one or more internships or field placements where you perform research under a trained psychologist's guidance.

As you explore programs, disregard those that lack American Psychological Association (APA) accreditation. If you attend a non-APA-accredited school, you may have trouble finding employment or entering a doctoral program.

(Back to Top)

MSW vs MS in Psychology

Although MSW and master's of science (MS) in psychology programs include many similar graduation requirements, there are things that set them apart from one another. Many MSW programs take approximately one to two years to complete, while a masters in psychology takes roughly two to three years. When looking into psychology programs, you should consider if you want to go on to a doctorate degree or if you would prefer a terminal degree/specialization. An example of that would be a  master’s in clinical psychology, which requires no further schooling and allows for to psychotherapy be provided to patients under the supervision of a licensed clinical psychologist. Psychology courses focus solely on the mind: how to identify mental problems and propose solutions. Psychology master's students receive a more in-depth education in research methodology, a prerequisite for careers and doctoral programs.

Master's in Counseling

Master's of science (MS) in counseling degrees prepare graduates to become licensed professional counselors (LPCs) in their home states. These programs typically require applicants to hold a bachelor's in counseling or possess relevant professional experience. However, some programs offer bridge tracks that include both master's- and undergraduate-level counseling courses. Bridge programs typically take an additional year to complete.

Non-bridge programs take two years and include coursework in theories of counseling, assessment of counseling, and counseling methods. Throughout the program, students complete multiple supervised practicums that culminate in an internship in a local counseling facility. Students who earn their degrees entirely online work with their programs to select appropriate placements in their home communities.

If possible, apply only to programs that boast accreditation from the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Program (CACREP). CACREP accreditation signifies that a program exceeds the organization's strict standards, prepares students for state licensure, and offers a curriculum that focuses on counseling methodology. For example, a CACREP-accredited counseling program may include 1-2 psychology or social work courses -- an important component as professionals in these three careers often collaborate -- but emphasizes coursework in community health, counseling theory, and multicultural counseling theories.

(Back to Top)

MSW vs MS in Counseling

Social work and counseling are two similar fields that focus on improving the lives of individuals, however the help being offered is delivered differently. Social work focuses on solving a large spectrum of social issues through the use of various resources. Counseling focuses on helping clients with a specific type of problem. Plus, counselors who work in a clinical setting may be responsible for diagnosing mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, which social workers may not have the training to do. With these differences between the fields, the curriculum is different as well. Courses in counseling will be directed toward the methods, theories, and techniques of counseling. Additionally many counseling programs have specializations based on types of clients or conditions a student would like to work with, for example addiction counseling or school counseling. There will be required courses that need to be taken if a specialization is chosen and internship experiences can be geared toward that specialization.

Difference in Careers

Social Worker Career

For many people in need, a social worker represents their first contact with someone who can provide help. Social workers connect clients with other trained professionals -- such as licensed psychologists and professional counselors -- who can address their programs.

Doctors, police officers, and other officials often call on social work agencies -- either private or public -- to assess individuals' needs. After interviewing clients, social workers make an action plan that typically includes social services. A social worker may act as a stepping stone between clients and the resources they need. To make sure their clients succeed with these services, social workers visit their clients' homes and workplaces on a regular basis.

With an average salary of $47,980 per year, you may find social workers in many different environments. Child, family, and school social workers work for schools and school districts to identify the root causes of children's behavioral, social, or academic problems. These issues often involve the family, so these social workers must know how to work with both children and their parents. Mental health and substance abuse social workers are experts in identifying signs associated with mental health conditions and drug abuse. They typically work with adolescents and adults. Hospitals and other healthcare facilities employ medical social workers to assist patients who need extra help recovering after discharge. For instance, a medical social worker may find an at-home caregiver for a patient. In addition to these three popular professions for social workers, others may exist in your home community.

Ready to make an impact? Read more on How to Become a Social Worker.

Psychologist Career

Psychologists and licensed professional counselors share overlapping job responsibilities: meeting with clients, identifying mental health issues, and prescribing treatment plans. Although many psychology graduates go on to become a licensed professional counselor, their education prepares them for other careers as well. They can also work as marriage and family therapists: professionals who work with families long term to solve underlying issues. Others become industrial/organization (I/O) psychologists - highly trained psychologists study organizations' work environments and make suggestions that can improve productivity, employee satisfaction, and retention.

Like licensed professional cousnelors, some psychologists work in schools or exclusively with children. They often help children who experience significant trauma such as the sudden loss of a parent or abuse. School counselors, on the other hand, help children cope with more common obstacles that prevent their success in school.

Licensed Professional Counselor Career

Licensed professional counselors (LPC) possess not only a master's degree but also licensure from their home and/or practicing states. States that differentiate between LCPC and LPC licenses grant the former to counselors who work in healthcare settings. Requirements for both licenses include an advanced degree, at least 300 hours of supervised experience, and passing the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination or National Counselor Examination. For their licenses to renew, LPCs and LCPCs must complete multiple professional development courses each year, althought requirements vary by state.

LPCs work in many roles. Child and school counselors both work with small children and adolescents either in school, community, home or office settings. Counselors develop action plans, and through regular meetings, determine if these plans have made a positive effect. Mental health counselors help individuals and groups cope with mental illness, trauma, stress, and other factors that impact mental health negatively.

(Back to Top)