Social Justice

Social work vs. counseling: Which field is right for you?

Social Work vs Counseling Career 

Helping professions come in many types and span multiple disciplines. Nursing, criminal justice, psychology and public health are all examples. But there are fewer roles that focus on your specific interest: equipping people with the tools they need to improve their own lives.

With this specific objective in mind, you may find yourself periodically weighing the choice of social work versus counseling. It can be difficult to know which of these professional paths is the right fit for you, because they share numerous things in common. While these roles are alike in some ways, there are some important distinctions that mean one career is likely going to be more appealing to you than the other.

So, how can you decide the best way to proceed? It can be helpful to compare how the specific job responsibilities, educational requirements, workplace settings and even the necessary skills vary for both careers. As you learn more about counseling and social work, keep your own professional goals in mind. Doing so may help reveal which career you might want to pursue.

Social work vs. counseling: How do job responsibilities differ?

It bears mentioning that there are numerous counseling and social work specializations, which means specific job duties can vary from one role to the next. That said, there are a few core functions professionals should expect to perform in their respective fields.

Counselors focus on advising individuals and helping them develop skills to overcome challenges or meet goals. School and career counselors are predominantly concerned with helping students or working professionals achieve success. Substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors provide treatment that allows clients to effectively manage issues ranging from addiction to emotional distress.

The following responsibilities are common for all types of counselors:

  • Evaluating clients’ abilities and mental health
  • Identifying issues that may hinder clients’ progress
  • Helping clients understand and overcome problems they’re facing
  • Developing individualized plans to help clients meet goals
  • Collaborating with family members to help clients succeed

While social workers do help people overcome challenges through counseling, they also help connect clients with other services and resources. Many of these professionals are heavily involved in advocacy efforts.

The following duties are typical for all types of social workers:

  • Identifying people and communities that need assistance
  • Helping clients adjust to changes and challenges they’re facing
  • Referring clients to community resources that can improve their wellbeing
  • Responding to crisis situations when needed
  • Developing and evaluating programs and services that help meet clients’ needs

Social work vs. counseling: Where do these professionals work?

Because there are numerous kinds of both social workers and counselors, these professionals can spend their days in many different locations. International social workers, for instance, can find themselves at adoption agencies, refugee camps and a variety of nonprofit organizations that impact communities around the world. Substance abuse counselors, on the other hand, might work in local detox centers or rehabilitation facilities.

While settings really depend on the practitioner’s specialty, there are a number of workplace locations that are common to professionals in both disciplines. Here’s a look at some places that employ social workers and counselors:

  • Mental health centers
  • Schools
  • Correctional facilities
  • Private practices
  • Hospitals
  • Nursing homes
  • Military bases

Social work vs. counseling: What are the education and training requirements?

The first step toward a career in counseling is to obtain a bachelor’s degree in a field like psychology. While it’s possible to qualify for some counseling positions with just an undergraduate education, many positions require a master’s degree depending on the state and employer. Candidates who have completed graduate-level studies can provide more services to clients and require less supervision.

Many counseling positions also require licensure, but the specifics are different depending on the state. You can verify requirements in your area by reviewing the directory from the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). In most cases, candidates must complete an extensive amount of supervised counseling experience and pass either the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE).

The process is relatively similar for social workers. The first step is to obtain a bachelor’s degree in social work. It is possible to qualify for some positions, such as a caseworker or mental health assistant, with just a bachelor’s degree. That said, more senior roles and all clinical social work positions require candidates to obtain a Master of Social Work (MSW). Students who studied something other than social work during their undergraduate studies will also need to obtain an MSW to transition into this career.

While requirements to begin practicing vary by state, most social workers — clinical and nonclinical — must obtain licensure. This typically involves completing a prescribed number of supervised experience hours and passing the appropriate exam. To become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), for instance, you’ll need to complete two years of supervised experience and pass the Clinical Social Work Licensing Examination. You can see your state’s requirements using the comparison tool from the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB).

Social work vs. counseling: Which skills are most important?

Both professions involve providing guidance to individuals, so good listening and speaking skills are paramount. The same is true of being a team player, which is essential for effectively collaborating with clients to help address their needs and goals. Social workers and counselors also need to be skilled at case management, treatment planning and having a good understanding of mental health.

What other competencies are essential? Using real-time job analysis software to analyze social work and counselor postings from the last year, we identified the top skills employers are looking for in candidates.*

Some other important competencies for counselors include:

  • Understanding of psychology
  • Understanding of behavioral health
  • Writing
  • Organizational skills
  • Ability to build effective relationships

Some of the most valuable competencies for social workers include:

  • Crisis intervention
  • Familiarity navigating social services
  • Discharge planning
  • Understanding of behavioral health
  • Patient care skills

Social work vs. counseling: How do salaries differ?

When it comes to earning potential, there’s some variation among both social workers and counselors. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that substance abuse, behavioral and mental health counselors earned a median annual salary of $46,240 in 2019, but it was $57,040 at that same time for school and career counselors. Also note that while social workers as whole earned a median annual salary of $50,470 that same year, this figure was $56,750 for those in the healthcare field.

You should also know that there’s a real need for both types of professionals. Employment of social workers is projected to grow 13 percent through 2029. As for substance abuse, behavioral and mental health counselors, employment is expected to grow 25 percent over that same time frame. There’s no shortage of job opportunities regardless of which path you choose.

Progress toward your chosen career

Now that you’ve gone through a comparison of social work versus counseling, you probably have a better idea of what it would be like to work in each field. You might even recognize that one career is more closely aligned with your personal skills and interests.

The next step in your journey is determining how you can start to gain the necessary qualifications. In many cases, this means obtaining the requisite education. Find out more about your degree options for both social work and counseling by reviewing the programs offered at University of Massachusetts Global’s School of Arts & Sciences.


* (analysis of 107,427 social work job postings and 193,335 counselor job postings, September 01, 2019 – August 31, 2020)

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