Differences Between a Social Worker and a Psychologist

If you’re unsure which field is right for you, consider the key differences in social work vs. psychology.

Social work focuses on improving people’s well-being while also ensuring that the basic needs of individuals and communities are met. Social work emphasizes the external factors that impact people’s lives.

Psychology deals with the study of the mind and human behavior, with the aim of bringing us greater understanding about both. Professionals in psychology often diagnose and treat mental health issues and develop techniques that help people change their behaviors.

Read on to learn about:

What makes social work and psychology unique

Degree programs in each discipline

Career opportunities in the fields

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Role of Social Workers vs. Psychology Professionals

Professionals in psychology and social work both help their clients navigate life’s challenges. However, their approaches and focuses differ significantly.

What Do Social Workers Do?

Professionals in social work provide services that help people overcome obstacles and establish greater stability in their lives. Social work focuses on individuals and their environments. In particular, social workers address the needs of vulnerable and oppressed communities, with an emphasis on social justice.

An important aspect of social work is addressing the societal factors, such as inadequate housing and unemployment, that can affect an individual’s outlook and ability to thrive. Social workers connect their clients to social services and other critical resources to improve their social and physical environments. This may mean helping a family sign up for Medicaid or helping a person with a disability find financial assistance for necessary services.

Social workers often develop and implement programs that bolster the social net and ensure that those in crisis can find intervention services to address everything from child abuse to suicide. Additionally, social workers often provide therapy to their clients and counsel them on actions that can change their circumstances.

Known for advocacy, social work strives to address systemic social problems. Those in the field may conduct research and advocate for policies that improve social services and conditions.

How to Become a Social Worker

To become a social worker, you must complete your Bachelor’s degree in social work. At this level, you will have learned about community and program organization, case management, crisis response and client advocacy. You can still land jobs with a Bachelor’s, but many states require social workers to hold a master’s degree. By having a master’s degree, you can select your area of specialization e.g., mental health, families, youth or aging adults.

What Do Psychology Professionals Do?

Psychology aims to understand people’s thoughts and behaviors. Its primary goals are to describe, explain, predict, and change how people behave and think. By carefully observing and describing behaviors, psychologists can discover rules and principles that govern them. With this knowledge, they can explain and predict behaviors, making it possible to develop techniques and methods for changing them.

Some professionals in psychology focus on research, while others enter into practice. In both cases, psychologists apply ideas within their discipline to solve real-world problems. These problems can range from identifying strategies that improve weight loss programs to providing therapy for individuals in mental health crises.

Though many professionals in psychology work in health care, diagnosing and treating people with mental health issues, you can find them in other areas as well. For example, companies and organizations hire consulting psychologists to gain insight into how to best support or motivate employees. Psychology also brings insight into how students learn, so educators can design better curriculums and improve instruction methods.

How to Become a Psychologist

The first step in becoming a psychologist is by earning a bachelor’s degree. If you want to be a licensed therapist, you must enroll in a master’s program. You must select an area of specialization (e.g., marriage, child psychology or family therapy). The idea of going back to class in person may be troublesome for some. Fortunately, you can pursue a masters in psychology online.

Social Work vs. Psychology Degree Programs

When choosing which field to enter, take a close look at the differences between social work and psychology programs to see which most suits your interests. The covered topics and learning outcomes vary considerably.

Bachelor of Social Work Degrees

Social work education reflects the core values of the discipline. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) defines those values as “service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence.”

At the undergraduate level, social work programs offer interdisciplinary curricula that cover:

  • Social and behavioral science
  • Biology
  • Social policy
  • Psychology

Students examine history, social policy, and statistical analysis to understand how different systems impact people’s lives. These examinations shed light on how poverty, foster care, imprisonment, health care, and education, affect individuals, groups, and communities and their ability to access social services and thrive.

In behavioral science courses, social work students learn about human development, which gives them insight into people’s needs at different stages of their lives. This insight allows social workers to effectively develop and implement programs that meet their clients’ needs.

Additionally, social work programs engage students in research and hands-on field experience in the form of practicums. These field placements occur in settings such as child service agencies or mental health clinics. They give students the chance to apply their classroom learning to the real world.

Social work degrees prepare graduates to conduct casework in which they assess their clients’ needs and connect their clients to needed resources. Social work degrees also train graduates to perform clinical assessments, treat their clients with cultural sensitivity, and advocate for policy changes.

Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science in Psychology Degrees

If you choose to study psychology at the undergraduate level, you can select between Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Science (BS) programs. A BA gives you a chance to take more general education courses and explore other disciplines, while a BS offers more focused coursework in psychology, mathematics, and statistics.

In addition to studying important thinkers like Freud who helped shape the science and theories in the discipline, undergraduate students of psychology learn practical skills, for example, research methods and critical thinking. They examine topics such as:

  • Human development
  • Sexuality
  • Sociology

Psychology degrees focus on examining the human mind and behavior through the lens of science. This involves cultivating an understanding of how biological, social, and neurological factors may influence our behaviors, perceptions, and relationships.

Students in psychology degree programs can expect to find courses in:

  • Applied statistics, which focuses on how to analyze research data
  • Laboratory psychology, which requires students to conduct experiments and studies
  • Psychobiological topics, which examine the connections between biology and psychology

Additionally, students take courses examining cognitive, developmental, and social processes.

A psychology degree trains students in the collection, assessment, and critical analysis of data. It also builds the skills and knowledge needed for deep investigations of the many subtopics within the discipline.

Master’s in Psychology vs. Master’s in Social Work

While you can find work in the fields of psychology and social work with only a bachelor’s degree, your choices will be limited. Many students pursue advanced degrees in their designated areas of interest, which opens up many more job and career opportunities in both social work and psychology.

Master’s in Psychology Degrees

A master’s in psychology takes between two to three years to complete. The degree can train graduates to practice as counselors and can serve as a stepping stone to a doctoral-level program.

You can choose between a Master’s of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MS) program. In general, MA programs focus more broadly on research and statistical analysis, while MS programs focus on behavioral science and counseling.

If you want to enter the workforce with only a master’s degree, you should look for terminal master’s degree programs. These stand-alone degrees prepare graduates to work in specialty areas, including the following:

  • Counseling psychology, providing therapy that helps address emotional, social, health-related, and other issues
  • Industrial-organizational psychology, examining workplace behavior to improve employee satisfaction, hire the best people, and develop better training courses
  • School psychology, working in schools to promote students’ emotional and social health and address behavior issues and disabilities


Entering specialty areas may require you to get licenced or registered in the state where you work. States have varying requirements, and some more strictly regulate the scope of practice and supervision required for professionals holding only a master’s degree.

It’s important to note that while a master’s degree can allow you to put your expertise to work in a range of settings, you need a doctoral degree for the American Psychological Association (APA) to recognize you as a psychologist. Otherwise, depending on the state, expect titles such as psychologist-masters, psychological associate, or licensed psychological practitioner.

Master of Social Work Degrees

It typically takes two years to complete a master’s degree in social work. Upon completion, graduates work in the field under supervision for two years, at which point they can become state licensed.

While a bachelor’s in social work can qualify you for entry-level positions in mental health facilities, government agencies, or residential treatment centers, you’ll need a master’s degree to advance your career. With an MSW, you can become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), which allows you to deliver psychotherapy and other advanced services. It also positions you to undertake work in program management or social justice issues in politics.

As with a master’s in psychology, a master’s in social work also gives students the option to specialize. Some areas of specialization in social work are:

  • Family and child welfare, protecting abused and neglected children and promoting the welfare of families
  • Disabilities social work, supporting and providing services to people with disabilities and their families
  • Clinical social work, assessing, diagnosing, and treating addictions and mental illness


LCSWs need to fulfill licensing or registration requirements, which vary by state. Generally, this means passing an exam and completing two years of supervised clinical experience.

Doctoral Degrees in Social Work vs. Doctoral Degrees in Psychology

Social work and psychology offer more than one type of doctoral degree. To choose the one best suited to your career goals, you’ll need to choose between focusing on research or practice.

Doctoral Degrees in Social Work

A Doctor of Social Work (DSW) trains students to practice social work at the management and leadership levels and typically takes two to three years to complete. PhDs in social work emphasize research and require three to five years of study.

Doctoral degrees in social work demonstrate the highest level of expertise in the field and open up considerable work opportunities. A PhD in social work or a DSW can prepare you for leadership roles in public welfare agencies or researcher roles in social welfare policy in think tanks or advocacy organizations. Many social workers with doctoral degrees become college professors or administrative deans at universities.

Doctoral Degrees in Psychology

Students seeking doctoral degrees in psychology can choose between a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) or a PhD. Both can prepare you to become a licensed psychologist. Plan to study four to six years for a PsyD and five to seven years for a PhD. A PsyD emphasizes the application of psychology in practice, while a PhD focuses on generating knowledge about psychology through experiments and research.

PsyD programs prepare students for clinical practice in their areas of specialization, conduct research, or teach. PhD programs also train students for clinical practice but give special focus to applying analytical and statistical methods, collecting data, and running experiments. This type of training makes PhDs especially well suited for teaching or research positions in universities, governments agencies, and research hospitals.

More About Licensure in Psychology

As mentioned, the minimum requirement to become a licensed psychologist is a doctoral degree. Licensure regulations vary by state. However, after completing an accredited doctoral program in psychology, the next step is passing the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). You must also have two years of supervised experience. Many states also require you to take an exam on their laws and rules governing psychology practice and pass an oral exam.

Social Work/Psychology

Social work enables you to make a difference in people’s lives. That is easier when you assume a leadership role. If being a leader sounds exciting, you should pursue a doctorate degree. Having the degree opens doors to opportunities in policymaking, social work administration and agency leadership. Also, it is an opportunity to earn more money. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, social workers with a doctorate degree earn 21% more in median earnings than those with a master’s degree.

Some psychologists may want to work with patients, while others may want to focus on academia. Those who want to work in the former should pursue a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree, while the latter should do a Ph.D. A PsyD strictly relies on applying existing knowledge to clinical settings, while a Ph.D. focuses on studying trends and producing new knowledge through research.

Licenses Requirements for Social Work/Psychology

In social work, entry-level jobs do not require licenses. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to land any jobs if you are unlicensed. If you choose to get a license, ensure you have a master’s degree. As for people who want to work in hospitals, you must become a licensed clinical social worker. After completing your bachelor’s and master’s, you must also pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) national clinical exam.

To gain a license in psychology, you must do it through your state’s licensing board. Depending on your state, you may/may not need a license to practice in research laboratories, universities or federal institutions. You need a minimum of a doctorate degree to qualify for a license.

Career Opportunities: Social Work vs. Psychology

Career opportunities in social work and psychology both fall within the spectrum of human services professions. As with most careers, your level of education will determine your eligibility for positions. However, you can find many opportunities to find fulfilling work connected to your interests and areas of specialization in each field.

Social Work Careers

Social workers put their skills to work in the public and private sectors. You can find them in government agencies dealing with foster care, family and child services, veterans, or criminal justice. They also play important roles in health care settings, such as hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and community-based clinics.

Many community-based organizations, schools, and nonprofits also hire social workers to implement social services programs and conduct case management, among other things. Additionally, some social workers open private practices, providing mental health services to clients in need.

Social work careers generally fall into one of three categories: clinical, direct care, or educational. If you choose a clinical career, prepare yourself by earning at least a master’s degree. Direct care social work involves providing services such as case management and crisis intervention. You’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree and often a master’s degree to provide direct services, such as food and clothing,

Educational careers may involve providing intervention services and counseling in school settings and require a master’s degree. They can also involve teaching at the university level or conducting research, in which case, you’ll need a doctoral degree.

Some popular careers for social workers are:

  • School social worker
  • Clinical social worker
  • Child welfare social worker
  • Mental health and substance abuse social worker
  • Health care social worker

Psychology Careers

Professionals in psychology work in diverse settings, including health care facilities, schools and universities, independent practices, government, businesses, and nonprofits. Since psychology has many branches and areas of specialization, professionals in the field enjoy a wide range of career options.

When thinking about a psychology career, treating people with emotional and mental disorders might first come to mind. While many psychology jobs are clinical in nature, other types of work in the field exist. They involve applying scientific knowledge about the human mind and behavior to promote health, help businesses design better products and services, and even protect the planet by finding ways to change people’s habits.

Professionals with advanced degrees in psychology can pursue careers in health care, education, and research. If you choose a clinical career, you may work in marriage, family, addictions, and grief counseling, or you may focus on psychotherapy to address serious mental health disorders. Psychology in education may involve guidance counseling or teaching at the university level if you hold a doctoral degree.

Research roles exist in various settings and often involve application. For example, in industrial psychology, you may apply research methods within a company to improve productivity, or in engineering psychology, you may focus on how people interact with machines to reduce accidents in a factory.

Psychology careers for those with bachelor’s degrees often involve working under the supervision of licensed social workers or clinical psychologists as childcare workers or psychiatric technicians. In these positions, you may help clients perform daily tasks or teach life skills. Other options include work as corrections officers, social service specialists, career counselors, or marketing researchers.

Some additional career opportunities in psychology are:

  • Forensic psychologist
  • Sports psychologist
  • Consumer psychologist
  • Educational psychologist
  • Developmental psychologist

Social Work vs. Psychology Salary

Social work vs. psychology salaries can vary greatly. Much depends on your level of education and where you choose to work. However, the following salary information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) can give you an idea of the earning potential of both fields.

Salaries for Social Workers

Social workers earned a median annual salary of $50,390 — with salaries between $36,520 and $82,840 — as of May 2021. Social workers in health care earned more than child, family, and school social workers. Those who worked for local governments, excluding hospitals and schools, also brought in higher salaries than other industries. 

Salaries for Psychologists

Psychology professionals with a master’s or a doctoral degree earned a median annual salary of $81,040 — with salaries between $47,850 and $133,890 — as of May 2021. Overall, industrial-organizational psychologists earned more than others, as did psychologists working in the government sector.

Consider Social Work vs. Psychology Career Options

Social work vs. psychology careers come with their own distinct advantages and opportunities for you to improve people’s lives and solve problems. By considering the educational paths required, potential jobs available, financial rewards, and your personal interests, you can make an informed choice about which field to pursue. 

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