Social Work vs. Counseling: What is the Difference?

Two of the most popular degree majors for altruistic new college students are counseling and social work. Each of these central areas can be beneficial for both practitioners and the general public, making them great opportunistic choices for you to consider.

Our team of educational experts has pulled information from both subject areas in order to provide you with a detailed analysis of each field, as well as the resulting careers to choose from after your learning experience. Read through this guide to learn more about how you can become involved in these highly influential fields.

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Difference Between Social Work and Counseling

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An internal desire to help others can lead you into fascinating career fields after you have achieved a college degree. Luckily for upcoming students, there are a wide range of options to consider in diverse specialized areas that can help them reach their full potential after receiving ample training and certification.

In current society, the counselor is a person that focuses on ways to help people live normal and progressive lives. The training for a counselor begins at the onset of the college experience, with the Bachelors in Psychology or Bachelors in Counseling programs.

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What is Counseling?

The majority of centralized training takes place at the masters level at universities, making this level home to the course work that guides your experience. Masters in Counseling programs 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 that you can influence during your career.

Counseling professionals can become certified in areas such as couples counseling, youth and adolescent counseling, school counseling, and even grief counseling. Different life scenarios may require unique counseling techniques that are most effective at reaching your target audience.

What is Social Work?

The field of social services is centered around providing support and guidance to people in society. Social workers within this network of professionals may be responsible for providing their clients with a wide range of services that can come together and increase a person's quality of life.

Through specialized training and masters degree programs, social workers can advance their certification to the LCSW credential, which can allow them to conduct individual counseling with people in the community. This higher level of certification can provide social work professionals with the license needed to implement counseling strategies in addition to the life-changing supports provided by their agencies.

An interesting concept about social work is that it can apply in a wide variety of settings. Social workers can be partnered with children and families that are involved in the social service system, assisting patients in rehabilitation facilities with making important health related decisions, and even be a part of school systems that seek to support their enrolled children.

Pros and Cons of Each

Through your research into each of these learning programs, you might notice that each tends to be glorified to the maximum level. If you truly want to make the best decision about the type of subject you major in, you should be aware of the benefits and the negative attributes of choosing either.

Counseling can be an extremely effective tool for working with people in your general area. People experiencing the effects of mental illness, those that have experienced loss, or even families that are at odds can benefit from diverse counseling techniques.

Counseling provides the general foundation for wellness that can support the process by which social workers operate. While this can be effective when contributing to the effectiveness of a team effort, counselors lack the ability to coordinate services and provisions for their clients in the way that social workers can.

The benefits of choosing social work can be relative to your purpose in this career area. Social workers can help their clients find the right programs, social resources, and mental health services that they need to succeed in their daily lives.

While providing a wide range of services and supports can be positive for both client and professional, it can potentially outweigh a social worker’s ability to provide concentrated counseling services to their clients. Depending on whether you are more focused on providing counseling services or incorporating your support into a client’s coordination of services, either field might be a better choice for you.

Educational Requirements

If helping others sounds like a career goal that you would like to pursue, our team encourages you to consider schools offering counseling or social work programs. Each state requires that professional counselors and social work professionals hold a particular degree and license prior to working with clients, making your learning path extremely important to your career progression.

You can be eligible for licensing as a counselor once you have completed a CACREP-accredited Masters in Counseling degree program. There is an abundance of programs offered in the online setting that contain a curriculum that has received approval from this agency. In addition to the degree requirements, licensing requires that students engage in supervised field experience during and after their educational program.

This hands on experience in the field can help you bring what you have learned to life with actual clients. In some states, counseling and social work licensure may require up to 2 years of supervised experience under the supervision of a licensed professional in each specialized area.

Online Programs to Consider

Online degrees in counseling can be found at schools in different corners of the U.S. and beyond. The CACREP accredits reliable online counseling programs suitable for upcoming clinical professionals, as well as counselors in specialized areas. Check out a few of the accredited online schools accredited by this agency beneath this section.

  • Oregon State University: Online Master of Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • Palo Alto University: Online Master of Clinical Mental Health Counseling and Marriage, Couples, and Family Counseling

Students interested in pursuing the social work path can also take advantage of online and reliable degree programs at the masters level. The accreditation agency responsible for providing reliable programs for your consideration is the CSWE. Our team has pulled a few accredited online options for you to consider on your next step towards licensure.

  • Boise State University: Online Master of Social Work
  • California State University: Online Master of Social Work

Classes to Take

  • Trauma-Based Counseling Strategies: Clients that have experienced trauma are common in 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 to use in the field. Combination of these tools can help you provide well-rounded support to clients that are 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, your daily experiences in the field may involve work with people on a one-on-one basis or even in groups. This course can teach you more about effective communication, bonding strategies, and ethics pertaining to providing counseling services to people in a clinical setting.
  • Mental Health in Social Work: Part of treatment planning for people in need may involve treatment for 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 steps towards developing a helpful plan for wellness improvement. Service provisions and care coordination may also be a part of this course.


Once you have completed an accredited Masters in Counseling or Social Work, your next step will be to complete your field experience requirements. The specific hour requirement for each field can vary according to different states, so you should take a look at your state licensing agency's rules prior to choosing a program.

Most online students have the option of choosing their clinical setting for their experience requirement, which can keep you working locally during this step. Working with licensed professionals in your field can help you gain better knowledge about treatment practices and interventions in your specialized area.

Before you submit your application for licensure, states require that you also complete a board examination in your field. Counseling trainees must complete the National Counselor Examination and social work prospects must complete the ASWB Exam. Successfully passing these tests is followed up by application for licensing in your state.

Careers Available to You

Diverse career opportunities in the field of counseling include those that focus on various mental health disorders in clinical mental health, trauma and crisis counseling, school counseling, and even career counseling. You should choose a specialized field that complements your skills in the field and the groups you would most like to work with.

Social work careers can also be found in a variety of different areas depending on your degree specialty. School social work, youth social work, and clinical social work are just a few of the most popular career options in this field, which others choosing specializations in medical social work and geriatric social work.

List of Programs

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University of West Alabama 🗹 Online 🗗 Masters

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Counseling Career Guide

Still Looking for a Counseling Degree?

Here are some of the most popular online counseling programs. On each page you will find a detailed write-up of the program, specific courses, and schools that offer that program that are currently accepting applicants.

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