Master of Social Work vs Master of Counseling: What’s the Difference?

There are many careers you can pursue if you are interested in the field of psychology. From counseling to psychiatry, there are so many options to choose from depending on what you are interested in. College grads with degrees in psychology looking to enter a profession related to mental health often pursue master degrees in either social work or counseling, but what is the difference? And how do you know which degree you are interested in?

Both social workers and counselors provide counseling services, but a social worker’s job description goes beyond that. On top of counseling individuals, social workers also provide navigation through issues outside of mental health, including social services such as education. For those who would prefer to focus solely on mental health and issues, a Master of Counseling would perhaps better suit you. Social workers go beyond the realm of mental health to advocate for their clients in a variety of fields. A Master of Social Work leads grad students to different social work paths. Social workers advocate for a variety of causes and people, from child welfare to military social work. A Master of Social Work allows individuals to choose a cause to fight for with their degree.

When someone hears the word “counselor,” images of school counselors are often conjured. Counselors can be found in elementary, middle, and high schools as well as universities. These individuals strive to see students thrive both academically and mentally. Beyond education, there are many more roles that a counselor can fill. Counselors take the form of marriage counselors, grief counselors, community counselors, and a variety of other roles. Similar to social workers, a Master of Counseling gives the holder freedom in choosing what sect of counseling they wish to pursue.

A counselor’s domain also differs from a psychotherapist’s. While counselors are visited by individuals with current issues, such as those dealing with grief, therapists tend to deal with overlying mental issues, especially those from an individual’s past, such as trauma. Psychotherapy is typically a long-term treatment while counseling deals with solving current problems. Those interested in psychotherapy and becoming a therapist can dive deeper into the job functions here.

Social workers and counselors require similar skill sets, though their job functions differ. As an article by the Social Work License Map states, “If you’re interested in a career that involves empathy, effective communication, or just helping others, either [social work or counseling] could be a good fit.” Both jobs need to be filled by empathetic, driven individuals who seek to help others.

It is hard choosing a career, and it is even harder when careers require Master degrees; individuals who majored in Psychology in undergrad are essentially forced to commit to a future career as they apply to grad school. That is why it is essential to understand how a Master of Counseling differs from a Master of Social Work. Proactivity is key and educating yourself on different jobs available to psychology majors will set you up for success.

Check out Dr. Joseph Hammer’s Mental Health Professions Career Test to see the different careers offered for those interested in mental health and explore the different available careers.

By Fiona Schultz
Fiona Schultz Student Assistant & Peer Fellow: Nonprofit, Education & Government