Social Work vs. Counseling – What Is the Difference?

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Social work vs counseling. If you are interested in helping individuals and families improve their lives through challenging circumstances, you may wonder which you should pursue.

Social Work vs. Counseling

If you are trying to decide which of these similar-sounding degree fields is right for you, we are here to help!

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What’s the Difference between Social Work vs. Counseling?

Is there a difference between social work and counseling degrees? Do you need a license to work as a professional after graduation? Do both degrees allow you to provide counseling services to clients? Can you provide counseling in social work without a counseling degree?

Below, we’ll try to help you better understand the differences between social work and counseling degrees. While there is a great deal of overlap between these two fields, understanding their differences can help you choose the one that is right for you.

Social Work Degree

Social worker meeting with clients

A degree in social work can allow you to pursue a professional career in social services. A career in this field can allow you to focus on helping individuals, families, and at-risk populations obtain the mental health counseling and services needed to improve their lives.

Those with social work degrees commonly pursue careers as:

  • Licensed clinical social workers (LCSW)
  • Case managers in social services
  • Behavior specialists
  • Social workers
  • Care coordinators

While many social workers also provide one-on-one counseling services, 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.

According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), these services may include connecting clients with employment assistance, housing programs, support groups, or other resources. 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

If you wish to work directly with individuals, couples, and families by providing psychotherapy counseling services, a degree in counseling is often an excellent starting point. Even after graduating from a counseling degree program, you will likely be required to obtain licensure to practice.

According to the American Counseling Association (ACA), a counselor’s role is to help clients work through emotions and challenges, develop healthy coping strategies, and successfully adapt to their environments.

There are many specializations within the counseling field you may choose, including:

  • Addiction
  • Christian counseling
  • Marriage and family
  • School counseling
  • Mental health

The legal requirements to work as a professional counselor vary by state. 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 some entry-level jobs may be pursued with a bachelor’s degree in counseling, many require a graduate degree to obtain licensure.

What Are the Real Differences between These Degrees?

psychologist with client during consultation

From the basic overview above, it is easy to see that social work and counseling degrees have similarities.

In fact, those who have met the requirements to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker may offer counseling services alongside professional mental health counselors at a private practice! There are still many differences between the degrees, though.

These are some common comparisons between social work and counseling:

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 Social Worker
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Case Management
Mental Health Counselor
Marriage and Family Counselor
Addiction Counselor
Average Annual Salary (according to the BLS) $55,350 $43,390 – $60,140
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 range of services provided.

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 support within their social environments.

Social counselors are social workers who may provide diagnoses and treatments for behavioral, mental, and emotional health, so there is some overlap in both fields.


social worker attentively listening to a guy

Both social work and counseling degrees require the completion of rigorous educational programs to pursue a career within these fields. Many top universities offer online degree programs that allow students to attend classes on a schedule that fits into their busy lives.

While social work associate degree programs are available, a bachelor’s degree is often the minimum requirement for graduates to obtain licensing to work in a professional counseling practice. Commonly, social work students must earn graduate degrees, like a Master of Social Work (MSW), to meet their long-term career goals.

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’ mental health.

If you wish to work as a private counselor you’ll likely need to obtain a graduate-level degree before being 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 you wish to work with.

Social Worker vs. Counselor: Licensure

professional counselor talking to a married couple

One of the most common questions asked about this topic is whether or not social workers and counselors are required to have a license to practice. The answer to this question isn’t black or white. It depends on your career goals and the laws and regulations that govern the state you work in.

Social Work Licensing

There are several types of licensing for social workers. The most basic license, an Initial License, can typically be achieved after earning a bachelor’s 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 counseling setting, a Master License or Clinical License is typically required. These licenses are earned after completing a graduate degree program with field experience and passing comprehensive exams.

Counseling Licensing

If you are working toward a degree in counseling, you likely wish to work directly with patients by providing psychotherapy in a professional setting. To accomplish this, a professional license is generally required.

Several different counseling licenses are available, and the right one for you will depend on your specific specialization. To apply for licensure, you likely must complete an accredited graduate degree program and the state-regulated number of fieldwork hours and exams.

Careers and Salaries

Counseling therapist in a therapy session with a girl

When considering pursuing a career in one of these fields, it is helpful to look at the job outlooks and average salaries for the specific career paths you are interested in pursuing.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is a great starting point for finding detailed information regarding job duties, employment outlook, and annual salaries for counseling and social work careers.

The BLS states that jobs for social workers are projected to grow by 7% over the next 10 years, while the job growth outlook for counselors ranges between 5 and 18% depending upon the specific field. 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 vary, the BLS shows that many careers in social work and counseling offer annual salaries above the national average.

According to the BLS, these are some common careers that may be pursued with a degree in social work and their annual median salaries:

Careers Annual Median Salaries
Social Work Teachers (Postsecondary) $66,510
Healthcare Social Workers $60,280
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers $51,240
Child, Family, and School Social Workers $50,820
Community Health Workers $46,190

These are just some of the careers that may be pursued with a degree in social work.

With a degree in counseling, the BLS states the following careers may be pursued:

Careers Annual Median Salaries
Genetic Counselors $89,990
School and Career Counselors and Advisors $60,140
Marriage and Family Therapists $56,570
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors $49,710
Rehabilitation Counselors $39,990

Your specific salary and job availability will depend on many factors, including your location, education, experience, employer, and the degree you earn.

Pros and Cons of Each Field

Deciding between social work and counseling involves understanding each field’s unique impact and challenges. It’s important to consider your career goals, desired impact, and which path aligns best with your values and professional aspirations.

Field Pros Cons
Social Work
  • Offers diverse work settings, from schools to hospitals
  • Chance to make an impact by focusing on social justice and advocacy​
  • Offers career flexibility, with various roles from direct care to administration available
  • Dealing with difficult situations can be stressful and cause emotional strain
  • Navigating through system red tape can be frustrating
  • Starting salaries may start lower depending on specialization
  • You’ll likely build deep connections and profound relationships with clients over time
  • Many specialization opportunities are available, from marriage to substance abuse counseling
  • You’ll have opportunities to make direct impacts on individuals’ lives
  • Working hours are often flexible, especially in private practice
  • It can be challenging to maintain emotional boundaries and prevent emotional burnout
  • Change often happens slowly, which requires patience
  • Requires licensing, and these extensive requirements can be costly
  • Competitive job market, especially in specializations

Both fields offer rewarding opportunities to make a difference in people’s lives but come with distinct challenges and considerations. To make your choice, you’ll need to consider how your aspirations, lifestyle, and readiness for education and training align with the fields of social work and counseling.

Your personal goals and commitments are key to choosing the path that’s best for you.

Are Social Workers Therapists?

social worker during consultation with a woman

At a glance, the duties of a social worker vs. therapist may not look very different. Social workers can be therapists, but therapists are not always social workers, and the two jobs are not interchangeable.

Many social workers work in settings in which they provide psychotherapy to clients and practice alongside professional counselors. The role of a social worker is broader than that of a therapist, though. Instead of solely focusing on improving their clients’ mental and emotional status, social workers also work to improve their clients’ lives by providing a wide range of social support.


Psychotherapist helping young family solve their marriage problems

While researching different careers that can be pursued with a social work or counseling degree, you’ll likely come across the following terms: Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW), Licensed Professional Counselors (LPC), and Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHC).

LPCs and LMHCs perform very similar roles within the mental health field. The terms that describe this role can be interchangeable and vary state by state. These professionals typically have a graduate degree in counseling and training in a variety of psychotherapy practices to support, diagnose, and treat clients with different mental health disorders.

On the other hand, an LCSW is a graduate with a master’s or doctorate in social work. This type of social worker specializes in mental health counseling. They typically work with clients in a capacity similar to an LPC or an LMHC.

Often, LCSWs 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 are more interested in helping a specific type of client, then a degree in counseling may be more suitable.

If you wish to provide a broader spectrum of social services, then a degree in social work may be the better choice. Both social work and counseling require a dedication to higher education, extensive in-field practice, and state-regulated licensing to work within the professional arena.

Regardless of whether you choose a masters in social work vs. counseling, both fields offer challenging careers with opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others.

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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.