Counseling vs. Social Work

By Rachel Schneider

This guide provides information regarding the differences between counseling and social work. We focus on educational pathways, relevant skills, requirements and certifications, and salary and career data to compare and contrast master of social work (MSW) and master of counseling degrees.

When deciding whether to pursue a career in social work or as a counselor, learners should focus on their ideal client base. Aspiring professionals can explore the differences between counseling and social work programs to determine their best fit and ensure they understand the licensing process.

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Choosing Between Counseling and Social Work

Counseling roles share some similarities with social work career opportunities, along with some key differences. In the following section, readers can explore the different degrees, licensing information, coursework focus, and patient populations for these professions.


A candidate typically needs to possess a bachelor of social work (BSW) degree for entry-level social work positions. Earning an MSW, along with clinical licensure, prepares graduates to pursue unsupervised positions. Coursework in MSW programs typically focuses on core topics in social work and human development, along with concentration courses.

A master of counseling degree prepares graduates to pursue licensure as licensed professional counselors. Counseling students typically must log their field experience hours. Counseling programs can offer concentration opportunities in areas like clinical mental health counseling or family counseling.

Skill Set

Social workers and counselors develop many of the same skills, including the ability to communicate effectively and think critically. During their degree programs, learners pursuing an MSW focus on understanding social policy and learning how to work with patients dealing with substance abuse and addiction disorders. Counseling students focus on gaining a deeper understanding of human growth and development, along with how to provide trauma therapy.

Patient Care

Counselors typically focus on helping families and individuals with a specific set of problems, particularly patients with mental health disorders. Social workers, on the other hand, focus on providing a wider range of services in social service systems.

Counselors tend to provide support in only one service. Social workers often refer patients to other services and resources to provide them with the complete and specialized treatment they need.

Requirements and Certifications

Licensing requirements differ based on the scope of practice. Clinical social work requires each professional to earn a master’s degree, while direct services social work requires only a bachelor’s degree. Counselors must earn a master’s degree to pursue certification.

Social work licensure requires candidates to complete and pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) examination. All states use the exams provided by the ASWB for social work licensure. Social work licensing opportunities feature different designations, including licensed social worker, licensed clinical social worker, licensed independent clinical social worker, and licensed independent social worker, depending on the scope of practice.

Which Degree Should I Choose?

Degrees in social work and counseling both require learners to complete fieldwork and work directly with clients to manage their mental, emotional, and social health. Counseling degrees explore deep research in human development and related topics.

Both fields typically pay similar salaries, but the patient population options differ. Counseling positions offer more specialization, which can make it more difficult for professionals to find job opportunities. Clinical social workers must receive more extensive training than direct services social workers.

Master of Social Work Degree

An MSW degree prepares learners with the advanced knowledge and skills they need to pursue licensure after graduation. Earning an MSW typically takes degree-seekers between 1-2 years of full-time enrollment. Social work programs at the master’s level focus on equipping learners with the competencies necessary to work as healthcare social workers, school social workers, therapists, and clinical social workers.

Master’s programs expose graduates to more advanced career opportunities and higher salary benefits. Degree-seekers at the master’s level can explore flexible online program options through many colleges and universities.

Students who want to pursue careers as social workers in unsupervised settings should pursue MSW programs. Graduates can consider careers as medical social workers, child and family social workers, and mental health or substance abuse social workers.

Master of Counseling Degree

Students interested in becoming a licensed counselor can pursue a master of counseling degree. These master’s programs typically require degree-seekers to satisfy around 30 credits of coursework. Students who enroll full time usually take between 1-2 years to graduate.

Throughout the rigorous curriculum, learners focus on multicultural counseling, psychopathology, disabilities, and more. In addition to their coursework, a counseling student typically completes a practicum or capstone component.

Many master’s programs prefer applicants who hold a bachelor’s degree in counseling or related field. During the admission process, each applicant should provide a completed application, official transcripts, along with letters of recommendation, a statement of purpose, and a current resume.

Salary Outlook and Careers for Social Workers and Counselors

Social work vs. counseling salary information can vary depending on the particular career, the setting, certifications, educational background, and experience level. Salaries for social work career paths in the following list range from about $47,000-$57,600, while the included counseling careers extend from about $44,600-$47,000.

Clinical Social Worker

Clinical social workers provide therapy to individuals in need of emotional or mental support. These social workers also coordinate additional services to help meet clients’ individual needs.

Median Salary: $55,998

Licensed Clinical Social Worker

These social workers provide psychological therapy and counseling to assist with placing patients in jobs, finding living arrangements, and meeting basic needs.

Median Salary: $57,559

Social Worker

Social workers help people navigate problems in their daily lives. These professionals help patients in healthcare settings and offer services and support to families and children in need. They can also focus on the academic needs of children in schools.

Median Salary: $47,149

Mental Health Therapist

These therapists oversee interactions with clients to provide therapy and suggest additional services. They apply many different psychological methods, including psychoanalysis and behavioral therapy.

Median Salary: $44,635

Licensed Professional Counselor

Licensed professional counselors provide care to individuals with mental illnesses, imbalances, or disorders. These counselors set goals for patients to help maintain their mental health.

Median Salary: $47,848

Frequently Asked Questions

Social work or counseling — which degree should I choose?

Before choosing either degree, students should consider their ideal career path. Learners interested in pursuing licensure after graduation to practice as social workers should enroll in social work programs, while those interested in careers as marriage and family therapists or school counselors should pursue degrees in counseling.

Is a social worker a counselor?

While social workers provide therapy and counseling to their clients, they follow different pathways to licensure and different job titles. Counselors specialize in providing guidance, while social workers focus on different capacities of therapy, depending on their licensure.

Can I get a social work and counseling dual degree?

Yes. Some schools offer dual degrees in both fields. Most aspiring professionals tend to choose one degree, but certain institutions offer pathways to earn both simultaneously.

What are social work and counseling similarities?

Social workers and counselors both aim to help people deal with the problems they face in their lives. These professionals often use psychotherapy to help clients or patients talk through their issues and develop effective coping strategies to deal with emotional and psychological concerns.

Social Work and Counseling Resources

  • Social Welfare Action Agency The Social Welfare Action Agency coordinates with its various social chapters to work for social change locally and nationally. This social policy-oriented organization integrates social services with the broader pursuit of social justice.
  • American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work The ABECSW sets national standards for clinical social work practice. This organization provides the critical accreditation new graduates need. Practitioners with ABECSW certification qualify for preferential liability insurance rates.
  • American Counseling Association ACA works to further counselors’ professional development through a nationwide collection of divisions, regions, and branches. This association offers continuing education opportunities and conferences to entry-level practitioners and experienced professionals alike.
  • American Mental Health Counselors Association Founded in 1976, the AMHCA offers two publications, conferences, continuing education opportunities, and preferred liability insurance rates for students and experienced counseling professionals.

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