Social Work vs. Counseling

Social Work vs. Counseling

Nov, 20 2020
Social Skills /

If you're pursuing a social work or counseling degree and want to know the differences between these two fields, this guide will help eliminate any confusion and highlight the best pathways for your career. 

Social work and counseling are often placed in a similar group when it comes to niche or specialized work. However, both have unique requirements and certifications to become licensed. No matter which career path you choose, it's essential to recognize the crucial differences between these two fields to understand which is best for you.

Choosing Between Counseling and Social Work

While there are many similarities between counseling and social work, several factors like education, coursework, licensing, and patient populations cause these two career paths to diverge. Below is an overlook of the similarities and distinctions between social work vs. counseling.


For aspiring social workers, you can expect to study and earn a Bachelors of Social Work (BSW) for entry-level social work positions. Those favoring more concentrated or unsupervised roles can opt for a Masters (MSW), which will allow them more expertise and seniority. 

A clinical license can also be obtained in MSW programs, allowing graduates to enter higher-level positions. Additionally, social workers' typical coursework involves classes on human development and core topics surrounding the niche.

Those seeking a counseling degree can opt for a Master's in Counseling and pursue a license in the field. Counseling differs from social work because counseling degrees are often composed of classes and logged hours within the field. 

To be a counselor, you'll need a completed record of logged hours. Additionally, most counseling degrees require concentration in mental health, family counseling, clinical, or youth counseling.

Skill Set

Both degrees will focus on communication and human development. Social work emphasizes understanding social policy and the proper procedures to deal with patients struggling with substance abuse or addiction. 

Counseling majors place more concentration on psychology, human growth, mental health, and trauma therapy. The difference between the skill sets is primarily attributed to the type of work a person performs rather than the difference between the degrees themselves.

Patient Care

A social worker's job is to consider all aspects of an individual or family situation and then to refer patients to services and resources that would best benefit them in the long run. Social work often involves multitasking and looking outwards for several solutions within the social work systems.

Counseling tends to be more individual or small group focused. Counselors often speak to patients regarding mental health or other challenges not associated with the social work systems. The counselor's job is to offer simple solutions to the patient to help ease their pain points.

Degrees for Social Work vs. Counseling

There are a few different types of degrees aimed towards social workers and counselors. As a social worker, you can opt for a BSW or an MSW, depending on your licensing criteria and personal preference. Since social workers often work with larger populations of patients, it can be easier to get a job if you have more experience.

Counselors who go into concentrations or specialized fields may find it more challenging to find job opportunities due to limited open positions. However, a counselor could obtain a high-paying job with less schooling than a social worker.

Requirements and Certifications

Licensing is, by far, one of the most important aspects of any degree program for social workers and counselors. Social workers must pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exam, for example. This exam is meant to showcase any individual social worker's expertise and opens doors for new and higher paying job opportunities.

More specialized and higher degree programs may require additional licensing and examinations for both counselors and social workers. Counselors typically aren't required to take any licensing or certification exams. However, it does offer counselors a way to develop their skills and move up in their respective fields. 

However, while a social worker may obtain numerous licenses to succeed in his/her career, specialized counseling positions are more challenging to come by. So a social worker is more likely to pursue additional licensing than a counselor. 

Salary Outlook for Social Workers vs. Counselors

While many positions for social workers and counselors remain similar in salary outlook, it's essential to understand that different degrees and experience levels will affect the salary outcome. Additionally, licensed professionals often earn more than non-licensed workers. Consider these salary outlooks, per PayScale.

Clinical Social Worker

Median Salary: $58,700

Clinical Social Workers provide emotional and mental health support to struggling individuals. Their role is to provide additional services and resources to help the patient find a path to recovery.

Social Worker 

Median Salary: $48,404

Non-licensed social workers often work to help people navigate their daily lives. They direct families in need of education, healthcare, and mental health, usually referring them to resources to benefit the families' situation.

Licensed Social Worker

Median Salary: $57,559

The licensed social worker does much of the same as a typical social worker in providing people with job resources, living arrangements, and finding solutions to resolve basic needs. They put more emphasis on psychology and mental health as well.

Mental Health Therapist

Median Salary: $45,722

Mental Health Therapists work with individuals to find solutions to mental health problems. They often use behavioral therapy and psychoanalysis to conclude the patient's situation.

Licensed Counselor 

Median Salary: $48,676

A licensed professional counselor works with individuals to set goals to heal and help mental disorders, imbalances, and mental illnesses. This is similar to the mental health therapist, except the licensed counselor can also prescribe medications.

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are some of the most frequently asked questions regarding social work vs. counseling. If you're struggling to choose between the two or want to know which is best for you, these questions may eliminate any confusion.

Is a social worker a counselor?

A social worker provides counseling and advice but, depending on the nature of their degree and job title, are not typically considered counselors. A social worker can offer counseling services, but the breadth of their practice is not as concentrated as that of a counselor.

What's the difference between social work vs. counseling?

Social work focuses on offering families and individuals services, resources, and pathways to help them domestically. Social work is focused on assisting people to achieve basic needs and is often covered by a broad spectrum of social work employees.

Counseling takes an individual approach. Counselors often handle one patient at a time and focus more on mental health and disorders. They provide therapy and often come up with solutions to problems that the individual can change independently without seeking other services.

Can I get a dual degree in both social work and counseling?

It is possible to obtain a dual degree in both social work vs. counseling. While it is uncommon and often unnecessary, some schools provide this option. Additionally, depending on the job you are striving for, both could be potentially useful.

Social work or counseling -- which degree should I choose?

Before choosing a degree, students should decide upon a career path within these two fields. Each career path will include unique criteria in coursework and certification to obtain a job in the field. Once the ideal career has been chosen, a student can begin paving an educational path to achieve the criteria for their ideal job.

Get 20% off your
first purchase

Subscribe to our emails to get 20% off your first order today
and be the first to hear about our awesome deals!