Social Work vs. Counseling: Choosing a Career That Is Right for You

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Group of Doctors Sitting at the Table and Analysing Patient's Results
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) is right for them.

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

It is important that students take their time when researching and applying to programs, especially when choosing between counseling and social work, as the decision will make a significant difference 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 online MAC degree is a beneficial first step. Students who are still testing the waters of both fields can read on to learn more about what sets counseling and social work apart from each other and the strengths of each field.

Why Earn an MAC Degree?

Social work and counseling share many of the same tenets and ideals of helping clients; only the professional paths diverge in how they administer care. Social work takes a more environmental or macro approach to achieving positive outcomes that might incorporate counseling along with other outreach strategies. In contrast, an individual with an MAC degree who works as a mental health counselor or a 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 express 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.

A counselor speaking with a young girl and taking notes at a table.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 individuals struggling with addiction by providing them literature on the subject and referring them to  support groups. It is 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 divide in social work and counseling: They both aim to treat the same conditions, but in separate yet ultimately complementary ways.

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 are also 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.

Is a Social Work Degree Worth It?

When comparing social work vs. counseling, the question of whether a social work degree is worth it might arise. To answer that question, it is helpful to explore some important aspects of the social work profession. For example, social workers 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 serve larger systems, such as 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 are in how these professionals work with clients. Social work’s primary focus 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 school settings, social workers may work with students who need special education, including children with behavior and mental health disorders. While it is well within their capacity as professional social workers to treat the underlying causes of issues that manifest themselves as things like disruptive classroom behavior, social workers are also 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 practices

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 professionals have particular experience in helping food stamp recipients, they may have a whole set of ideas for improvement that can only 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.

Counselor vs. Social Worker

The fields of social work and counseling can overlap in many ways, and one way to approach a counselor vs. social worker comparison is to examine specific similarities and differences of the two professions.

The similarities between counseling and social work are abundant and include the following:

  • Both professions attempt to assist individuals with challenges they are facing in their lives.
  • Both licensed counselors and licensed clinical social workers can provide therapy to clients.
  • People in both professions study the same general pillars of practice-based approaches, scientific theories and experiential learning.
  • Both professions require individuals to complete an internship, field placement or other practicum before working in the profession.

However, important differences distinguish each profession, including the following:

  • MSW curricula focus on things such as 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, such as counseling skill development, group counseling and dynamics, and marriage and family counseling.
  • A social worker might be involved in assessing a client’s need for services then referring them to community resources (such as nutrition programs or childcare). A counselor might be involved in assessing a client’s mental health; developing treatment plans; and providing treatment for specific challenges, such as depression or anxiety.
  • Social workers might choose to specialize in areas such as children and families, school social work, health care or clinical social work. Counselors might choose to specialize in areas such as substance abuse, behavior disorders, marriage and family counseling, or crisis intervention.

Social Work vs. Counseling Salary

A review of social work vs. counseling salary information reveals that pay is comparable for the two fields.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social workers earned a median salary of $51,760 in 2020; in comparison, marriage and family therapists earned $51,340, and substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors earned $47,660.

What is even more noteworthy for those researching career prospects is that both fields are poised for above-average job growth. From 2019 to 2029, BLS data shows that substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselor positions could grow by 25% (well above the 4% average job growth expected across all occupations). Marriage and family therapist positions are projected to grow by 22%, and social work jobs are slated to grow by 13% over that same period.

Consider Bradley University for Your MAC

Students often have difficulty in deciding which career route to take: social work or counseling. In general, target social work if you are 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 still weighing your options, you may benefit from contacting an enrollment adviser at Bradley University to learn more about the MAC program. Doing so can provide even more illuminating insight into the strengths of pursuing a degree in counseling as a clinical mental health counselor or a professional school counselor.

Recommended Readings

A Career in Counseling: A Closer Look at Areas of Specialization

Top Lesson I Have Learned as a Counselor

Types of Counseling Careers


U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Marriage and Family Therapists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors