Social Work vs. Counseling – What is the Difference?

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For students who are interested in helping individuals and families improve their lives through challenging life circumstances, there are many options for degree programs that can help you pursue a career to achieve your goal.

Social Work vs. Counseling

Two of the most common degree programs within this field are Social Work and Counseling. If you are one of the many students trying to decide which of these similar-sounding degrees is right for you, you may have a lot of questions regarding the similarities and differences between these two related fields – and we are here to help!

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So what is the difference between a Social Work degree and Counseling degree? Do you need a license to work as professional after graduation? Do both degrees allow you to provide counseling services to clients? In the information below we will discuss all of these questions and more to help you gain a better understanding of what it means to earn your degree in either Social Work or Counseling.

While there is a great deal of overlap between these two fields, there are a number of distinct differences that are important to understand before choosing the degree program that is right for you.

Social Work Degree

Social worker meeting with clients

A degree in Social Work allows you to work as a professional within the diverse field of social services. What does that mean for you?

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In short, a Social Work degree opens the door to a variety of career paths that focus on helping individuals, families, and at-risk populations obtain the mental health counseling and services that they need to improve their lives. A few of the common careers that graduates of a Social Work degree program can pursue include:

  • Licensed clinical social worker (LCSW)
  • Case manager in social services
  • Behavior specialist
  • Social Worker
  • Care coordinator

While many social workers also provide one-on-one counselling therapy services to their clients, their job responsibilities go beyond that of a professional mental health counselor. In addition to counseling, social workers also assist their clients with putting social services in place to help adapt their client’s environment into a more supportive setting.

These services may include connecting their clients with employment assistance, housing programs, support groups, and contacting other resources that would improve the lives of their client. A growing number of universities now offer social work degrees online in addition to their on-campus programs.

Counseling Degree

school counselor talking to her student

For those who wish to work directly with individuals, couples, and families by providing psychotherapy counseling services, a degree in Counseling can be an excellent starting point to a rewarding career.

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Those who have graduated from a Counseling degree program are typically required to obtain licensure in order to practice, and their primary role is to help their clients work through emotions and challenging life circumstances, develop healthy coping strategies, and successfully adapt to their environment.

There are a number of specializations within the counseling field, and you may choose to further your education by choosing one of the following Counseling degree concentrations:

  • Addiction Counseling
  • Christian Counseling
  • Marriage and Family Counseling
  • School Counseling
  • Mental Health Counseling

The legal requirements to work as a professional counselor vary by state, so it is always important to look into the specific regulations of your region for becoming a mental health counselor before choosing the program that best matches your future goals.

While there are some entry-level jobs available with a bachelor’s degree in Counseling, many students continue on with graduate degree programs in order to obtain licensure that allows them to work in a private practice.

What are the Real Differences Between these Degrees?

psychologist with client during consultation

From the basic overviews above, it is easy to see that both Social Work and Counseling degrees have a number of similarities.

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In fact, those who have met the requirements to be a Licensed Clinical Social Worker may offer counseling services alongside professional mental health counselors at a private practice! However, there are still many distinct differences between the degree programs.

To give you a visual of the common comparisons between Social Work and Counseling, see the information in the table below:

Quick Facts Social Work Counseling
Most Common Degree Level Bachelor’s degree or higher Graduate degrees
(Master’s and Doctorate)
Online Degrees Available? Yes, with in-person requirements for graduate degrees Yes, with in-person requirements
Popular Career Paths Licensed Clinical Social Worker Social Worker
Case Management
Mental Health Counselor
Marriage and Family Counselor
Addiction Counselor
Average Annual Salary $45,900 $39,980 – $53,660
License Required? Yes, in many career paths Yes

While both licensed social workers and counselors can provide psychotherapy, the biggest difference between the two fields is the scope of services they provide. As stated previously, counselors focus on providing emotional and behavioral therapy support, while social workers work on a broader scope to help their clients find supports within their social environments.


social worker attentively listening to a guy

Both Social Work and Counseling degrees require the completion of rigorous educational programs in order to successfully pursue a career within these fields. Many top universities also offer online degree programs that allow students the flexibility to log-on to classes on a schedule that fits into their busy lives.

While there are Social Work degrees available at the associate’s level, a bachelor’s degree is often the minimum requirement for graduates to obtain licensing to work in a professional counseling practice. Commonly, students go on to earn graduate degrees within the Social Work field in order to successfully meet their long-term career goals.

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Both on-campus and online counseling degrees train students in a variety of psychotherapy tools that can be used in their counseling careers to support their clients in maintaining their mental health. Most commonly, students interested in working as a private counselor are required to obtain a graduate level degree before they will be eligible for licensure (dependent upon your state’s requirements).

There are also many ways to customize your Counseling degree program to focus on specific mental health concerns or populations that you wish to work with when practicing in the field.


professional counselor talking to a married couple

One of the most common questions that we are asked in regards to this topic is whether or not social workers and counselors are required to have a license. The answer to this question isn’t black or white, and it depends upon your career goals and the laws and regulations that govern the state in which you will be practicing.

Social Work Licensing

There are several types of licensing for social workers. The most basic license, called an Initial License, can typically be achieved after earning a bachelor’s degree in Social Work. These licensed social workers work under the supervision of an approved Licensed Clinical Social Worker.

If you would like to work with clients one-on-one within a counselling setting, then either a Master License or Clinical License is typically required. These licenses are earned after social workers have completed a graduate degree program with field experience and passed comprehensive examinations.

Counseling Licensing

If you are working towards a degree in Counseling, you likely have goals of working directly with patients by providing psychotherapy in a variety of different professional settings. In order to accomplish this, it is generally required that counselors have a professional license.

There are several types of counseling licenses available based upon your specific specialization. Typically, you will need to complete an accredited graduate degree program, as well as the state-regulated number of field work hours and examinations in order to apply for a professional counseling license.

Careers and Salary

Counseling therapist in a therapy session with a girl

Earlier we discussed a number of different careers that are popular for graduates of both a Social Work and Counseling degree program.

When considering pursuing a career in one of these fields, it is always a good idea to take a look at the job outlooks and average salaries for the specific career paths that you are interested in pursuing. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics is a great starting point for finding detailed information regarding the job duties, employment outlook, and annual salaries of a wide range of social work careers and counselling careers.

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For example, the BLS states that those who work within the field of social work can expect to experience a 12% occupational growth by 2020, while the job outlook for counselors ranges between 8 and 22% depending upon the specific field they work in. These numbers are as fast as or faster than the national average across all occupations, which is great news for those considering enrolling in one of these popular degree programs!

With the general state of our nation’s economy, it is important to many students that their future career provides them with a comfortable living wage. While the average annual salaries for both social workers and counselors varies based upon their education, experience, and skillset, the BLS shows that the majority of careers within these fields offer annual salaries that are above the national average across all occupations.

Are Social Workers Therapists?

social worker during consultation with a woman

The role of a professional social worker can be confusing for students that are trying to understand the difference between social work and counseling, and many of them wonder if social workers are actually considered therapists.

While social workers can be therapists, therapists are not always social workers and the two jobs are not interchangeable. Many social workers work in a setting in which they provide psychotherapy to clients and practice alongside those who are professional counselors.

However, remember that the role of a social worker is broader than that of a therapist. Instead of solely focusing on the improving the mental and emotional status of their clients, social workers also work to improve their client’s lives through providing a wide range of social supports throughout their communities.


Psychotherapist helping young family solve their marriage problems

If you have been researching the different careers available after graduating from a Social Work or Counseling degree program, you have probably come across terms such as Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW), Licensed Professional Counselors (LPC), and Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHC). So, what do these terms mean and how are they different?

An LPC and LMHC perform very similar roles within the mental health field. In fact, the terms that describe this job role can be interchangeable and vary based upon the state in which you live in. These professionals have typically earned a graduate degree within Counseling and have been trained in a wide range of psychotherapy practices that help them support, diagnose, and treat clients with a number of different mental health disorders.

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On the other hand, a LCSW is a graduate of a Social Work degree program and has earned either a master’s or doctorate degree. This specific type of social worker specializes in mental health counseling, and they typically work with clients in a capacity similar to a LPC or LMHC. Often, LCSW’s take a holistic, strength-based approach to mental health, and help their clients create a list of concrete steps to create immediate positive change in their lives.

So, Which Degree Is Right for Me?

College Student Having Meeting With Counsellor

Hopefully after going through the information above, you have a broader understanding of the similarities and differences between a degree in Social Work and a degree in Counseling. So, how do you know what the best choice is for you?

A great starting point is asking yourself what your long-term career goals are and in what capacity you hope to interact with clients. If you have a deep interest in a specific concentration, such as marriage and family or substance abuse, then a counseling degree may be able to provide you the specialized tools you need to make a difference for this type of client.

However, if you are interested in learning about the broader spectrum of social services and would like the option to work within a variety of settings that allow you to help clients adapt their environment to suit their needs, than a degree in Social Work may be a wise choice.

Both social work and counseling require a dedication to higher education, extensive in-field practice, and state-regulated licensing in order to work within the professional arena. Regardless of the degree program you choose, you will find both fields to offer challenging, careers that allow you the opportunity to make a difference in the life of others within your community.

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Elizabeth Abner
WRITTEN BY Elizabeth Abner

Elizabeth is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Foreign Policy and earned her master's degree in business administration. For her undergraduate studies, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration with a concentration in international business. Elizabeth's research is focused on universities offering online degree programs.