Counseling and Social Work
Deciding whether to pursue a graduate degree in counseling or a graduate degree in social work can be a tough undertaking. After all, these fields of study have a lot of similarities, not the least of which is that you get the knowledge and training to help people improve their lives.
However, counseling and social work are two very different careers. And to start a career in these fields, you have to take different paths to get your education and relevant training.
If you are not sure whether a master’s in counseling or a master’s in social work is right for you, consult the guide below. You will find many differences between the two that can help you decide which career path you should take.
Master’s in Counseling Vs Master’s in Social Work
A master’s in counseling focuses on therapeutic methods to help individuals manage their life challenges, while a master’s in social work broadens the scope to address social issues, providing help at both the individual and community level.
The major difference between a master’s in counseling and a master’s in social work is the philosophy that underlies your training. A master in counseling program focuses on psychological theory, counseling techniques, and often includes a research component as well. These skills are developed in the context of learning how to directly provide services to clients.
Meanwhile, an MSW program focuses on some clinical training, but programs tend to focus more on case management and developing advocacy skills. That’s because many social workers rely less on providing clinical services to help their clients and more on providing their clients with resources to improve their circumstances.
For example, let’s say your child has Level 2 Autism Spectrum Disorder and is in need of support services to conduct activities of daily living. In this case, a social worker might be the better service provider because they have the resources to connect you with physical therapists, occupational therapists, educational psychologists, and other specialists that can help address your child’s needs.
But, let’s assume that your child already has the support they need, but you would like to learn ways to better communicate with your child. In this case, a counselor might be a better choice for services. For example, you could see a counselor that specializes in working with children with mental disorders and developmental disabilities, and they could work with you one-on-one to develop improved communication skills.
Another difference between a master’s in counseling and a master’s in social work is the scope of practice once you graduate. An MSW program prepares you to provide a much broader range of services to individuals, couples, families, and communities at large. So, a social worker might be more likely than a counselor to participate in community health planning. For example, a social worker might teach community-based courses that help low-income families identify resources for making ends meet.
A counselor, on the other hand, would be more likely to deliver therapeutic services directly to individuals, couples, and families. Not only that, but the services a counselor provides tend to be narrower in scope. For example, a counselor might provide therapy to a low-income couple whose marriage is experiencing stress because of their financial situation.
So, you can see how counselors and social workers might address the same problems, but the manner in which they do so differs. This isn’t to say that social workers can’t have a narrower field of practice or that counselors can’t provide more than therapy.
But, by and large, a master’s degree in counseling focuses more on providing individual services, whereas a master’s in social work prepares you to provide a broader scope of services.
Differences in Coursework
As you’d expect, the coursework you take in a master’s in counseling program differs from what you’d take in a typical master of social work program. These differences reflect how counselors and social workers carry out their jobs.
For example, a typical counseling program includes a series of courses that prepare you for delivering therapeutic interventions in individual, couples, family, and group settings. These courses might include the following:
- Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy
- Psychodynamic Counseling
- Assessment in Counseling
- Multicultural Counseling
- Psychopathology and Diagnosis in Counseling
These and other courses hone your ability to assess, diagnose, and treat mental illnesses with a variety of clients, be they children, adolescents, or adults. Furthermore, depending on the program in which you enroll, you might have an opportunity to specialize in a certain counseling technique or working with a certain population.
For example, many counseling programs allow you to specialize in working with either children or adults. Some programs give you further options for specializing in working with certain types of clients or in certain settings, like school counseling, marriage and family counseling, or clinical mental health counseling.
By contrast, a master’s program in social work prepares you for the tasks of advocacy and case management that were discussed earlier. MSW coursework might include classes like:
- Social Welfare Policies and Services
- Social, Economic, and Political Environment
- Social Work Practice with Organizations and Communities
- Human Behavior
- Research Methods with Statistical Applications
As you can see, the core coursework for an MSW has a much broader focus than coursework for a master’s degree. You can also see that the subject matter is quite different – there is a focus on social forces, social services, and working with communities as opposed to learning specific counseling techniques, as is the case with a master’s in counseling.
Of course, the types of specializations available in each program are different, too. For example, many MSW programs offer specializations in public policy, gerontology, or public health. Other popular options include social work administration, community and social systems, or clinical social work.
The length of these programs is different, too. A typical master’s in counseling takes two to three years to complete, including fieldwork, like an internship. A typical MSW program usually takes 1.5 to two years if you already have a bachelor’s of social work.
This brings up another point – it’s advisable to have a BSW before enrolling in an MSW program. It isn’t a requirement for most programs, but with a BSW, you can more easily transition into MSW studies.
A master’s degree in counseling, meanwhile, is best pursued if you have an undergraduate degree in psychology. Again, this is not a requirement of most programs, but it will set you up for success if you already have a basic understanding of psychological principles.
Differences in Career Opportunities
The career opportunities available to you as a counselor or a social worker share the commonality that you will work in a helping profession. However, as noted earlier, the manner in which you help others differs, and as a result, so do the career opportunities.
With a master’s degree in counseling, you can work in a variety of settings. For example, you can work in career services, schools, or private practice. You might also pursue employment in a community mental health setting, a residential treatment setting, or in a hospital.
Despite the wide variation in work settings, your purpose will generally be the same – work with clients in individual or small group settings and provide guided interventions and treatments to help them cope with mental illness or stressors in their lives.
For example, if you are a counselor in a hospital setting, you might provide therapy to families of terminally-ill patients. This therapy would focus on end-of-life issues and preparing the family to cope with their grief and loss once their loved one passes away.
If you are a master’s-level social worker, your training would be most beneficial for working in community or organizational settings in which you connect clients with resources that address their specific problems. You might work in a substance abuse treatment center, as a school social worker, or you might become a licensed clinical social worker so you can provide services to clients in a private practice setting.
Again, despite the broad range of employment possibilities as an MSW, your overarching goal will be to provide the resources your clients need to function better and more effectively meet their needs. Using the hospital example from earlier, as an MSW in a healthcare setting, you might help the family of a terminally-ill patient connect with an attorney to finalize their loved one’s will or with a funeral director to prepare their loved one’s funeral arrangements.
Which is Better? Master’s in Counseling or Master’s in Social Work?
If you are passionate about diagnosing mental illnesses and working with clients in an individual or small-group therapeutic setting, a master’s in counseling program is the better option. Likewise, if you want to learn more about the human condition and why we behave the way we do, counseling is typically a good choice.
On the other hand, if you are curious about human problems on a societal level and envision yourself working with individuals, small groups, and communities or organizations to remove barriers to healthier living, a master’s in social work is the way to go. Additionally, if you want a greater number of employment possibilities with a larger pool of clients, an MSW is generally the better bet.
Ultimately, though, both of these master’s programs lead to highly fulfilling careers. Counselors and social workers alike can do a lot of good over the course of their careers, and doing so can lead to extremely high job satisfaction. In other words, no matter which option you pick, you’re setting yourself up for a highly rewarding career!
What is the Difference Between an MA and an MSW?
An MA program in counseling and related fields tends to focus on helping you develop the counseling skills necessary for treating individuals with mental illnesses. In contrast, most MSW programs focus less on developing counseling skills and more on practical skills required for managing clients’ needs and advocating on their behalf.
Another difference is the type of field experience required to graduate. Counseling programs place you in a relevant setting that allows you to provide counseling services to clients. For example, if you’re in a school counseling program, your internship will be in a school setting.
But, MSW internships typically take place in agency settings, like the Department of Family Services. Moreover, MSW students typically perform in-home services (e.g., wellness checks of clients), whereas master’s in counseling programs usually don’t have this requirement.
And rather than using your internship experience to gain counseling skills, you will instead use your MSW internship to learn how to manage a caseload, hone your advocacy skills, and explore local resources that your clients can utilize to improve their situation.