Social Work vs. Counseling: What is the Difference?

Two of the most popular degree majors for altruistic college students are counseling and social work. Each of these professional areas yield benefits both for practitioners and the general public, making them appealing career options for those who are interested in helping other people on a full-time basis.

This guide explores the similarities and differences between social work vs. counseling, providing helpful information about educational requirements, online degree programs, typical coursework, and common careers for those who work in these two fields. If you aspire to guide others toward improvement in both their personal and professional lives, read on and learn how to get started on your chosen path.

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The intrinsic desire to help others can lead to fulfilling careers in social work or counseling after you’ve achieved a college degree.For prospective students wondering about the differences between social workers and counselors, there’s a wide range of options to consider. These include the diverse, specialized areas of education and training, both of which are required for the eventual goal of state certification.

In a nutshell, the difference between a social worker and a counselor is that a social worker often addresses and mitigates disruptions in the client’s social life. On the other hand, a counselor usually works over an extended period, to help improve an individual’s thoughts, behaviors, or actions through treatment plans. It is worth noting that, depending on the source and context, sometimes the term “counselor” is used interchangeably with “therapist” and “psychologist,” though the latter usually has more advanced training and experience.

Social Work

  • Education requirements: Bachelor’s degree in a related field, master’s degree accredited through the Council of Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), and clinical experience in an agency, hospital, or similar setting
  • Licensure: Passing score on the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exam
  • Job duties: Assist individuals and families in important life developments, such as adoptions and career transitions
  • Salary: Median pay of $46,060
  • Careers: Social work in a governmental, school, business, or hospital setting

Counseling

  • Education requirements: Bachelor’s degree in a related field, a master’s degree in counseling, and clinical experience in a school, clinic, or similar setting
  • Licensure: Passing score on the National Counselor Examination (NCE) through the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC)
  • Job duties: Develop treatment plans, help clients develop coping techniques, and create goals for personal growth in others
  • Salary: Median pay of $46,240
  • Careers: Substance abuse counseling, mental health counseling, and marriage and family therapy

To begin down either path, you will first need a bachelor’s in psychology or social work or an adjacent program.

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What is Counseling?

Counselors are fortunate in that they have access to many paths of specialization. With the freedom to select an area that aligns most closely with their interests, the aspiring professional could enter grief counseling, drug abuse counseling, group counseling, school counseling, or any number of other specializations. Still, you can expect many skills to overlap, regardless of preference or specialization.

To be a successful counselor, you must be able to identify client’s thought patterns and behaviors that conflict with their well-being and best interests, as well as teach them goal-oriented skills that inspire a sense of progress and achievement. Occasionally, you may need to assist in crisis intervention, where the client poses the risk of endangering themself or one or more persons through their maladaptive behaviors.

Whether it’s working with students, families, or veterans, sometimes different life scenarios may require unique counseling techniques that are most effective for reaching your target demographic.

What is Social Work?

The field of social services is centered around providing support and guidance to people in society, often functioning as an advocate for those directly in their care. Social workers within this network of professionals may be responsible for providing their clients a wide range of services that can come together and increase a person's quality of life. All of these sensibilities and skills can be learned and instilled through a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree.

Whether it’s within the context of a community organization or directly helping a family make a major life transition, your responsibility as a social worker is to evaluate and raise awareness of difficult problems and create plans to counteract them. Sometimes, a social worker will also assume more clinical responsibilities, which could see them handling sensitive casework, such as a domestic violence situation or navigating a family through adoption. In such cases, a social worker will need not only a Master of Social Work degree, but more advanced, clinic-specific education (which will be discussed later on).

An interesting aspect that exemplifies the difference between a social worker and a counselor is that social work can be applied in a range of settings. Social workers may partner with children and families involved in the social service system, assist patients in rehabilitation facilities, or operate as part of school systems that seek to support their enrolled students.

Comparison of similarities and differences between the fields of social work and counseling

Pros and Cons: Social Work vs. Counseling

Through your research into the roles of social worker vs. counselor, it’s important to acknowledge that while both professions are useful for supporting and helping others, they do each come with their own strengths and weaknesses. To make the best career decision, you should be aware of the benefits and shortcomings of both options, and how each path is unique.

Pros of Counseling

  • Diverse range of specializations
  • Useful in both professional and personal capacities
  • Effective with establishing a customized treatment plan and maintaining wellness
  • More advantages in a clinical setting, such as the opportunity to run support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, and quicker access to physicians and other professionals

Cons of Counseling

  • Usually less focused on the health of entire communities
  • Unable to coordinate services or provisions to the extent most social workers can

Pros of Social Work

  • A lot of autonomy within a community
  • Powerful support network allows them to easily set up clients with third-party assistance
  • Resourceful in ability to identify and match needs to different programs
  • Strong understanding of social health and its impact on client psychology

Cons of Social Work

  • Needs extra education and training to operate in a clinical setting
  • Less effective in providing one-on-one care for inherent behavioral or mental disorders

Mental Health Counselor vs. Social Worker

In the interest of knowing all the career paths in health care, it’s worth analyzing the differences between a mental health counselor vs. a social worker.

Where social workers are generally understood to be specialists with issues like major family developments, transitioning to a new home, or undertaking a new job — mental health counselors work on challenging the interior thoughts and feelings which drive a person’s behaviors and actions. The mental health counselor is responsible for identifying mental health disorders and planning methods to overcome them. However, a licensed clinical social worker with additional education can assume some of those same responsibilities, applying a more clinical approach to their services.

Social work and counseling must work in tandem for the overall societal improvement of mental health and health care.

A list of six statistics that illustrate key populations served by counselors and social workers in the U.S.

Educational Requirements: Social Work vs. Counseling

If you are interested in a career dedicated to empathy and guiding others toward improved social and mental health, consider schools offering a Master’s in Counseling or Social Work

Before you can consider the state licensure required to operate as a professional, you must first acquire enough formal education in your preferred field. You may be eligible for licensing as a counselor once you have completed a bachelor’s degree in a related field and secured a CACREP-accredited master’s degree. CACREP provides accreditation to reliable online counseling degree programs suitable for upcoming clinical professionals, as well as counselors seeking specialization. Similarly, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredits social work degree programs.

There are many accredited programs offered online that are approved by CACREP. In addition to degree requirements, licensing requirements mandate that students engage in supervised field experience during and after their educational program to gain a holistic, clinical knowledge of the position.

This hands-on experience can help you actualize what you’ve learned in school, interacting with clients at a local clinic, school, or private practice. In some states, counseling and social work licensure may require up to two years of  supervised experience working under a licensed professional counselor (LPC) or licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

The majority of centralized training takes place while pursuing a master’s degree at a university, the primary repository of coursework that will guide your experience. Master’s programs in counseling can introduce you to the initial intake and assessment process, different types of methods and therapies available in the field, and the many different specialized fields in which you may practice. Social workers follow a similar path, with a Master in Social Work (MSW) and the opportunity for more education to optimize their talents and handle more sensitive caseloads.

It’s worth noting that, no matter the program, some mandatory threshold of practical experience will be required. This is usually earned through internships in a local agency, private practice, hospital, or other supervised setting of your choosing. Though the criteria can change by program, it’s not uncommon for an aspiring counselor or social worker to accrue thousands of hours of supervised experience before earning licensure.

Online Programs: Earn a Bachelor’s or Master’s in Counseling or Social Work

You don’t need to look far to find online degrees in counseling available from CACREP-accredited universities. The following are a few such online programs.

Alternatively, students interested in pursuing social work can also take advantage of reliable, online Master of Social Work graduate programs. The accreditation agency responsible for secure, competent social work programs is the CSWE. Below are a few accredited online MSW programs for you to consider.

Classes for the Aspiring Professional

It will come as no surprise that the variety and caliber of your education will go a long way in informing what kind of work you will be doing in your professional career. While foundational knowledge of human services and mental health is built through a standard bachelor’s program, much of the more specific and dedicated material will be found through a master’s in counseling or social work.

The following are just a few classes you will find within standard counseling and social work programs.

Trauma-Based Counseling Strategies

Clients who have experienced trauma are common patients in the fields of general counseling and social work. As a student in either of these programs, you may explore the effects of trauma on mental health, assessments and treatment methods, and supportive services available for use in a clinical setting. A combination of these tools can provide well-rounded support to clients working through different forms of trauma in their personal lives.

Individual and Group Counseling Techniques

Whether you choose to pursue a degree in counseling or social work, some of your responsibilities may involve working with people on a one-on-one basis or in groups, so you must be confident in navigating either circumstance. This course can teach you more about effective communication, bonding strategies, and ethics for providing counseling services in a clinical setting. Group counseling knowledge and skills will be of particular interest to those pursuing a future as a family therapist.

Mental Health in Social Work

Part of forming treatment plans may include identifying, measuring, and monitoring minor to severe mental health disorders. This introductory course can instruct you on the methods of assessing clients for mental health needs, as well as taking the next step toward developing a helpful plan for wellness improvement. Service provisions and care coordination may also be a part of this course.

Licensure: Social Worker vs Counselor

With all of the prerequisite education and real-world experience criteria fulfilled, you can proceed toward the goal of licensure. Before you submit your application for licensure, states require that you complete a board examination in your field. Counseling trainees must complete the NCE, and social work prospects must complete the ASWB Exam. Each of these contains 170-200 multiple-choice questions testing the limits of your competencies in your respective field. Successfully passing these tests allows you to apply for state licensure.

Career Differences Between Social Worker and Counselor

Armed with an understanding of the differences between counseling and social work, you have the freedom to consider each field and weigh which options most resonate with your goals and interests. From the career opportunities in counseling: such as clinical mental health, trauma and crisis counseling, school counseling, or career counseling — to the array of degree specialties available to the social worker: like clinical practice, community justice, or geriatric social work — the path you select is rife with opportunities.

Here are some of the health care career options available, as well as the median salary averages for each, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

  • Marriage and family therapists: $49,610
  • Mental health counselors: $46,050
  • Rehabilitation counselors: $35,950
  • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors: $46,240
  • Social workers: $46,060

You may be driven by empathy, a call to improve communities or society, or an intrinsic desire to see others overcome hardship. Whatever your motivations, you can feel confident that whether you choose social work or counseling, you’ll find yourself in a position to positively impact the life of another person, and possibly bring well-being or transformation where it is greatly needed.

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