Social worker vs. psychologist: Which human services path is right for you?

As you search for a rewarding and people-centric career, rest easy knowing there are many humanistic professions you could pursue. If your career goals involve helping others overcome their challenges, it’s natural to be curious about social worker versus psychologist roles.

Both social workers and psychologists are trained to tune in to a person’s cognitive, social, and emotional behaviors. They aim to provide guidance, strategies, and resources to help individuals cope with the difficulties they face.

Although these professions do overlap, there are also some notable differences between social work and psychology. Understanding these distinctions can help you decide which of is right for you. We dug into the data to outline these two impactful career paths below. You just might find you’re a natural fit for one over the other.

What are the differences between social worker and psychologist duties?

There are numerous subfields within social work and psychology. Practitioners in either field can specialize in working with children, students, marriage and families, mental health, or substance abuse, to name a few. With this wide range of services, each professional’s job description may vary, though there are core elements specific to both of these roles.

What do social workers do?

Social workers not only help people cope with challenges, but they also dedicate ample time and energy to advocacy. They help raise awareness and advance causes both with and on behalf of their clients at the local, state and even national levels. Social workers typically work with families and individuals to help improve their quality of life.

Common social worker duties include the following:

  • Assessing a client’s needs, situations, and strengths to determine their goals
  • Helping clients adjust to major life changes, such as illness, divorce, or the death of a loved one
  • Researching, referring, and advocating for community resources on a client-by-client basis
  • Responding to crisis situations, such as mental health emergencies or child abuse
  • Identifying people or communities in need of help
  • Following up with clients to ensure improvements are made

What do psychologists do?

Psychologists, on the other hand, observe, interpret, and record how people relate to one another and their environments by studying cognitive, emotional and social behaviors. Their goal is to understand and explain complicated thoughts, feelings, and actions. A psychologist’s process for doing so can include controlled laboratory experiments, psychoanalysis, and psychotherapy. Rather than working with families or community groups, psychologists typically work with clients in a one-on-one capacity.

Common pyschologist job duties include:

  • Conducting scientific studies of behavior and brain function
  • Identifying psychological, emotional, or behavioral issues and diagnosing disorders
  • Identifying and testing for patterns that can help them better understand and predict behavior
  • Discussing treatment plans with clients and other medical professionals
  • Writing articles, research papers, and reports to share findings with others

What is the career outlook for a licensed social worker vs. psychologist?

You may plan to pursue a particular career based solely on your passion for the subject, but you will probably still want some assurance that there will be jobs available once you finish school. In the case of social work and psychology, both are solid career paths with ample opportunities.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), overall employment of social workers is expected to 9 percent through 2031 — that’s faster than the average for all occupations nationwide. Mental health and substance abuse roles are also projected to rise substantially in that time frame, with a growth rate of 11 percent. 

The BLS forecasts a stable job market for psychologists. Overall employment of psychologists is projected to grow six percent through 2031, with similar rates for clinical, counseling, and school psychologist specialties.

Some experts hypothesize demand for psychology services will increase particularly for two groups: aging populations and those within schools. As the population ages, additional services can help people deal with the mental and physical changes that occur as they grow older. And as more people become aware of the connection between mental health and learning, school psychologists’ expertise will be in high demand.

Social worker vs. psychologist: How do you become one?

Multiple education tracks could lead you to careers in psychology and social work. The most common requirement for entry-level social work positions is a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). According to the BLS, a BSW prepares students for direct-service positions, such as a case worker or a mental health assistant.

Clinical social work positions require a Master of Social Work (MSW). This program typically prepares students to work in their chosen specialty and requires students to complete a supervised practicum or internship. You’ll also need two years of supervised training and experience. You can then take a clinical exam to become licensed. Licensure requirements vary by state, so be sure to look into the specifics in your area.

Most psychologist positions require a doctoral degree in psychology, but the BLS reports a master’s degree in the field can be sufficient for some roles. A Master of Arts in Psychology with an emphasis on Marriage and Family Therapy, like the one at University of Massachusetts Global, for example, can qualify graduates who obtain proper licensure to work in marriage and family counselor positions.

For the clinical, counseling, and research psychologist positions that require further education, you have the option of pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree. Ph.D. psychology programs are research-intensive and culminate in taking a comprehensive exam and writing a detailed dissertation. The Psy.D. is a clinical degree often based on practical work and examinations rather than a dissertation. Many doctoral psychology programs also include a one-year internship.

In most states, you must be licensed to practice as a psychologist. State-specific licensure requirements can be found at the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards site. Practicing psychologists must complete continuing education courses to maintain licensure in many states, as well.

Is your future in social work or psychology?

This social worker versus psychologist comparison should have you one step closer to determining where you can make your impact. Whichever of these rewarding professions you choose, you’ll likely need to further your education to make the career your own.

If you find yourself drawn toward social work or psychology, check out the undergraduate and graduate degrees at UMass Global’s School of Arts & Sciences for online programs that fit your schedule, budget, and career ambitions.

Our degree offerings in these fields include:


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