Counseling Home Blog Social Worker vs. Counselor: Understanding the Differences

Social Worker vs. Counselor: Understanding the Differences

11 Jul
Female counselor speaking with teenage girl while writing on a clipboard

Social workers and counselors make some of the most valuable contributions to society. Professionals in both lines of work help people who need the knowledge and compassion of trained mental health practitioners to improve their lives.

These two professions share many similarities and have significant differences. This guide will help you understand which of the two fields will be the stronger career choice for you.

The Role of Social Workers

Social work is defined as “a practice-based profession and academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people.”1 Social workers advocate for social justice and help people overcome their unique challenges.2

Career Paths for Social Workers

There are many different careers paths within social work, including working with:

  • Children, families and the elderly
  • Mental health, psychiatric, and substance abuse patients
  • Health care and home health patients
  • Lawyers and legal systems
  • Corporate employees in need
  • Company leaders seeking input on employee well-being programs3

Social workers may be called on to choose from a number of intervention practices to help their clients. These include:

  • Counseling to help clients understand issues and develop solutions
  • Crisis intervention to keep clients from experiencing additional trauma
  • Case management to help clients find resources in their local communities
  • Community organization to create systemic change
  • Advocacy to effect legal and policy changes to fight injustice4

Social Work: Educational Requirements and Licensing

While qualifications vary slightly from department to department, federal government positions in the U.S. generally require the candidate to be licensed and to have a master’s degree in social work.5 Licensing requirements may vary by state. Examples include:

  • Licensed Independent Social Workers (LICSW)
  • Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW)
  • Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW)6

The Role of Counselors

The American Counseling Association defines counseling as “a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.”7 Counselors work with clients to solve specific problems, rather than utilizing longer-term therapy.

Career Paths for Counselors

Counselors can specialize in diverse areas, including:

  • Substance abuse
  • Marriage, couples and family
  • Veteran and military
  • Career
  • Behavioral disorder
  • School
  • Clinical mental health
  • Rehabilitation7

Counseling is a flexible field that allows you to choose a path based on your passions, your personal life, and your career goals. Some of the opportunities to consider include:

Private Practice
A private practice will enable you to choose what kind of counseling you want to do. As a business owner, you will also be responsible for expenses such as taxes, health care insurance, liability insurance, security, office space, equipment, employee compensation, and more.8

Practice in a Community Mental Health Center
Community mental health centers can be privately or publicly funded. Treatment is generally conducted on an outpatient basis, and the centers may serve a wide range of mental health needs and client populations.9

School Counseling
School counselors work with children and young adults to improve their school performance, life skills, and mental health. They may also work with school administration on programs to benefit the school population, such as anti-bullying and drug-prevention programs.10

Professor of Counseling
As your counseling career progresses, you might feel a calling to educate prospective counselors. In addition to your master’s degree, you will need to embark on a doctorate in Counselor Education. These rigorous programs include a focused research agenda and scientific education. Graduates may teach at the university level, conduct research, supervise counselors, or lead community or national organizations.11

Counseling: Educational Requirements and Licensing

To become a counselor, you need a bachelor’s degree at a minimum. A master’s degree is strongly preferable and usually required. Licensing requirements may vary by state. Examples include:

  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
  • Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)
  • Licensed Clinical Alcohol & Drug Abuse Counselor (LCADAC)12

Professional Similarities and Differences

Both social work and counseling offer jobs working with people to help make their lives better. Both careers have a minimum requirement of a bachelor’s degree and state license in most cases; a master’s degree is highly desired and may be mandatory. You can earn a master’s degree online, so you do not have to quit your job while completing your coursework. Both professions also offer many career paths, enabling you to choose the one that meets your desires best, and also offers a chance to change your job focus without the need to start over in a different career.

These two fields have a lot in common, but there are distinct functional differences between them. Social workers may directly counsel their clients, but they are more likely to help people find assistive services, from health care to educational resources. Counselors usually work directly with individuals, families, or groups to help them solve specific problems related to behavior, emotional problems, or mental health.13

Social Work or Counseling: Which is Right for You?

As with every profession, there are pros and cons to working in each field. As you read through these, you may find that one or the other strikes your mind and heart as the place you want to be.

Pros and Cons of Social Work

Social work may be your career path if you want to work with diverse populations of people and have a passion for social justice. The hours can be long, with a heavy paperwork load since most of these jobs are in the public sector. Social workers earn a median salary of $50,390 per year, and have a faster-than-average job growth potential.14

Pros and Cons of Counseling

You can choose which types of clients you would like to serve and the type of counseling you prefer. You may also have more flexibility in the number of hours you want to work, as opposed to social workers who have an assigned caseload. The median pay for mental health counselors is $48,520 a year, with faster-than-average growth potential.15

Build Your Counseling Career on Our Expertise

To turn your passion for counseling into a career in which you’ll thrive, get the best possible education. William and Mary offers an Online Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Counseling with these paths of study:

The online learning experience invites you and your peers from across the nation to collaborate with your outstanding instructors—and each other—engaging in an immersive learning experience that aligns coursework with your personal and professional objectives.

Don’t wait. For more information and to begin this important next step in your career, schedule a call with an Admissions Outreach Advisor today.

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