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Counselor going over paperwork with couple.

What is the difference between a master’s in counseling and master’s in social work?

Date: August 3, 2017

Many students entering graduate school know they want to do one thing with their professional careers: help others. The ambition to provide guidance and assistance to people experiencing difficult life situations is strong in a number of individuals considering post-bachelor education. However, despite the clear desire to help, many prospective students encounter the challenge of deciding whether a Master of Arts in Counseling (MAC) or a master’s degree in social work (MSW) or is right for them.

The two fields share some commonalities, yet there are differences in each that students need to be aware of and consider when investigating what type of graduate program will best serve their long-term personal and career goals. Understanding what separates a counseling degree from a social work degree helps interested students position themselves to gain the most value from pursuing a graduate program.

It is important students take their time when researching and applying to programs, especially when choosing between counseling and social work, as the decision will factor in heavily when it comes to careers and life after completion. However, once further along in the process, speaking with a representative at Bradley University about the institution’s MAC degree is a beneficial first step. Students with a little less solidity in their decision-making and who are still testing the waters of both fields can read on to learn a more about what sets counseling and social work apart from one another, and the strengths of each field.

Both fields poised for job growth
Interested students should know that pay is essentially the same for both counseling and social work. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social workers earned a median salary of $46,890 in 2016; comparably, mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists earned $44,170. What’s even more noteworthy for those researching career prospects is both fields are poised for above-average job growth. From 2014 to 2024, BLS data shows mental health counselor and marriage and family therapist positions could grow 19 percent (well above the 7 percent average job growth expected across all occupations). Social work jobs are slated to grow a healthy 12 percent over that same period.

Curricula focused on different elements
The similarities between counseling and social work are abundant; even degree programs are structured around the same general pillars of practice-based approaches, scientific theories and experiential learning. However, differences do exist in how schools structure their programs and outline curricula. For instance, MSW programs may include courses on helping clients cope with poverty, how to negotiate the bureaucracy, migration and human rights, and health policy.

MAC curricula may feature some of the same introductory courses (multiculturalism, human behavior) but then branch out into other areas of study that delineate the focus of counseling opposed to social work — courses like counseling skill development, group counseling and dynamics, and marriage and family counseling.

A constant no matter whether you enter a MAC or MSW program is the requirement for an internship, field placement or other practicum. In addition to the 45 to 60 credits most programs require, around 750 to 1,000 hours of experiential learning are needed to graduate. These hours can be obtained in clinical residencies or internships that place students with professional organizations and institutions.

A counselor speaking with a young girl and taking notes at a table.

What to know about a MAC degree
Counseling and social work share many of the same tenets and ideals of helping clients; only the professional paths diverge in how they administer care. While social work may take a more environmental or macro approach to achieving positive outcomes that might incorporate counseling along with other outreach strategies, a mental health counselor or marriage and family therapist primarily uses counseling to achieve client goals. Counselors often help clients understand and process emotions, while also developing coping strategies that help clients effectively assert control such as practicing mindfulness or other brain-based approaches, as well as cognitive behavioral therapy.

An expressed focus on tackling the core drivers of pain, stress, discomfort or breakdowns of interpersonal relationships leads many counselors to establish a specialty. Gaining knowledge and experience in specific client matters can help counselors gear their approach toward particular client populations, like those who need help with:

  • Mental health
  • Addiction
  • Family situations
  • Marital problems

The clinical focus of professional counseling also separates it from social work in that counselors will, at times, diagnose mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression, which may be outside the bounds of social work depending upon the social worker’s training.

The application of cognitive behavioral therapy and other counseling theories is another feature to counseling work that makes it distinct from social work. Counselors learn the counseling interventions that help clients identify and acknowledge harmful behaviors, emotions or thoughts, and then teach them how to cope and take steps to make lasting life changes that bring about positive or life-improving change. The goal of social work is just as much related to these outcomes, but counseling is more focused on using counseling theoretical and brain-based approaches. Social workers and counselors may help an individual struggling with addiction by providing them literature on the subject and referring them to a support group. It’s the counselor who has training in group counseling to facilitate a support group to help individuals understand their addiction, how it affects them and others, and what steps they can take to make lasting changes in their lives.

That example highlights the divides in social work and counseling: They both aim to treat the same conditions, only in ways that are separate yet ultimately complementary.

Counselors work in many of the same settings as social workers. While a fair share of mental health and marriage and family counselors establish private practices, counselors also are employed largely by hospitals, public and private sectors, and other types of communities needing guidance. Professional school counselors work in schools providing developmental education and counseling for students in primary, middle and high school settings.

What to know about an MSW
Students who enter this academic track are more likely to have varied institutional duties and responsibilities outside the direct care of clients. Make no mistake, many social workers participate in the direct care of their clients and are intimately involved in crafting personal approaches to each case. Many others work with serving larger systems, like social or public welfare agencies. Social workers and professional counselors prepare for the relatively diverse client populations they will encounter. Practitioners in both professions are working with clients from all socioeconomic backgrounds, of all ages and with a range of reasons for seeking professional treatment.

The differences in social work lie in how these professionals work with clients. The primary focus of social work is to connect people with the services they need to function well in our society. At times, they engage in trying to change systems that may be oppressive to both individuals and communities. Professionals in both social work and clinical mental health counseling expect to work in the capacity of advocates, which may call for communicating and coordinating with different social services and other organizations to find help for their clients.

Social workers in welfare agencies may need to forge connections with local employer groups and staffing firms so that they can put their clients in touch with employment counselors. In a school setting, social workers work with students who need special education, including children with behavior and mental health disorders. While it is well within their capacity as a professional social worker to treat the underlying causes of issues that manifest themselves as things like disruptive classroom behavior, social workers also are trained to find outside solutions and create a cast of providers to help serve clients. Social workers are found in many of the same settings as counselors:

  • Community agencies
  • Hospitals
  • Private practice

Social workers may be more prevalent in leadership positions of welfare agencies, child protective services or advocacy groups. The realities of social work typically lead these professionals to pursue positions of influence in the social services strata. If a professional has particular experience in helping food stamp recipients, he or she may have a whole set of ideas for improvement that only can be pushed from the top down. MSW graduates are thus leveraged to advance throughout hierarchies to institute progress and change for the better of their client populations.

Consider Bradley University for your MAC
Students often have difficulty in deciding which career route to take: counseling or social work. As laid out, the professions inherently are linked, making it difficult to ascertain which is best for you. In general, target social work if you’re more inclined to seek reform or policy for the disadvantaged and underserved, and counseling to develop the counseling skills that are necessary to treat individuals, groups and families successfully with a focus on wellness and improved functioning.

Whether you have decided on pursuing a counseling degree or are just leaning toward it, you may benefit from contacting an enrollment advisor at Bradley University to learn more about the MAC. Doing so can provide even more illuminating insight into the strengths of pursuing a degree in counseling as a clinical mental health counselor or professional school counselor.

Sources:
https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm#tab-6

https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/mental-health-counselors-and-marriage-and-family-therapists.htm#tab-6

Recommended reading:
A career in counseling: A closer look at areas of specialization
Five reasons to pursue a master’s degree in counseling online
Top lesson I have learned as a counselor

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