When you’re exploring careers, many degrees might appear to be very similar on the surface. The fields of counseling and social work, for example, overlap in many key areas, including somewhat in the skills and education required for success. It should come as no surprise, then, that these degrees are often considered side by side by people who are interested in a career helping others deal with the everyday challenges of life.

If you’re unsure whether to pursue a masters in counseling or a masters in social work, it's important to understand which career opportunities are available to you upon earning each degree. Here is a look at what each role entails and the key differences to think about before choosing a graduate program for counseling vs social work.

Who is a Master’s in Counseling Better for?

A master’s degree in counseling is intended for someone who wants to work as a professional counselor, or as a supervisor or administrator in settings that provide mental health services.

Credible graduate programs prepare students to satisfy the requirements for licensure as clinical practitioners. Common job titles of people with a counseling degree include:

  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor: LMHCs work with patients to understand, diagnose, and treat mental disorders and behavioral issues that are causing stress or harm in their daily lives.
  • Marriage and Family Counselor: Family counselors work with couples and families to identify harmful relationship dynamics and foster positive communication.
  • Substance Abuse Counselor: Addiction counselors assist and treat people who struggle with drug or alcohol addictions.
  • School Counselor: College and school counselors aid students in monitoring academic success and choosing the right educational programs, activities, and habits to achieve their goals.
  • Career Counselor: Career counselors help clients explore beneficial career or educational paths by improving their job search skills and providing information about various roles.

Counseling programs train students to understand the psychology behind human behavior and use research, communication, observation and applied theories to develop therapeutic treatments. The typical counseling curriculum explores social, cultural, and economic factors that affect wellness, patterns of human development, common sources of trauma, and ethical issues in the counseling field, among other topics.

Master-level coursework includes rigorous critical analysis to encourage students to think about mental health in a variety of contexts. Therapy is at the core of counseling, and professionals in this field have to be comfortable interacting with individuals and groups from diverse backgrounds.

Because counselors hold a position of trust, authority, and advocacy among clients, it’s crucial for them to gain as much clinical experience as possible before practicing independently. Graduate programs incorporate roleplaying, supervised field experience, and internship placement to allow students to put everything they’ve learned into action.

Download our guide to learn everything you need to know about becoming a counselor.

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Who is a Masters in Social Work Better for?

A Master of Social Work (MSW) is best suited for someone who wants to work in social services in a clinical, advocacy, case management, or administrative role.

An MSW program prepares social workers to provide clinical support for people or communities in crisis and assess ways that public policy can be improved to help vulnerable populations. Common job titles of people with a social work degree include:

  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker: LCSWs evaluate the needs of people who are coping with psychological, behavioral, or domestic problems and oversee a plan to provide relevant treatment and services.
  • Child and Family Social Worker: Child welfare and family specialists identify at-risk individuals and provide helpful resources to combat problems such as poverty, mental illness, domestic abuse, and homelessness.
  • Healthcare Social Worker: In medical settings, social workers help patients cope with illnesses, coordinate care and resources after a diagnosis, and navigate health-related lifestyle changes.
  • Substance Abuse Social Worker: Addiction specialists diagnose and treat people with chemical addictions and create plans for rehabilitation.
  • School Social Worker: Primary and secondary schools hire social workers to assist students who are struggling socially, behaviorally, or academically and work with their families to manage the underlying causes.
  • Social Service Manager or Administrator: Also known as a Community Service Manager, administrators develop services to address systemic problems that are damaging to public health. Managers may interact with legal and political agencies and play a role in fundraising and policymaking.

Similar to counseling, master-level social work programs train students to evaluate behavior, identify sources of emotional distress or trauma, and diagnose mental health issues. However, the curriculum puts a greater emphasis on social responsibility and the role that public or private institutions play in assisting people in need.

Social workers provide case management services and are often involved in monitoring a client's progress in many different contexts, such as employment, school attendance, parenting, mental health, or economic stability. As a result, MSW programs challenge students to think about problem solving on an individual, group, and community level through the lens of human rights, social justice, ethics, diversity, and cross-cultural issues.

Social work programs also combine research methodology and experiential learning to give students the tools to practice in different social or agency environments. In this degree path, you should expect to complete field internships, clinical practice, and administrative studies.

No Wrong Choice

Social workers and counselors both have the opportunity to help others improve their lives, and each career is involved in sustaining the health and wellness of the community at large. Both types of professionals are qualified to offer some form of clinical mental health counseling.

Additionally, the job outlook for both professions is above average. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social work careers are projected to grow 12 percent from 2020 to 2030, while mental health counseling, school and career counseling, and family counseling are expected to grow 23 percent, 11 percent, and 16 percent, respectively.

Deciding what degree is best for you truly depends on which career you're more interested in pursuing.

Master’s level degrees in Counseling and Social Work have some overlapping components. However, it is important to note that the degree for which you study leads to the specific licensure that you will eventually hold (LMHC/LPC for Counselors and MSW/LICSW for Social Workers).

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