Counseling psychology and social work are both what can be termed as “helping professions.” Members of each profession acquire advanced training in their field in preparation for working with clients to help them improve their social, emotional, and mental health functioning.
Counseling psychologists and social workers often work in similar settings, including mental health hospitals, schools, hospices, community mental health clinics, and in private practice.
While these career areas share many similarities, there are also significant differences between them. Whereas counseling psychologists tend to focus on helping individuals work through their emotions and develop strategies that improve their functioning in their environment, many social workers focus instead on adapting the environment to the client so they are able to function better within it.
Nevertheless, counseling psychology and social work are fields that offer workers a highly satisfying job helping others through difficult times.
With growth expected in both areas over the course of the next decade, and many high-quality programs available for training at universities across the nation, both fields would be an excellent choice for people who seek an exceptionally rewarding career.
Role and Purpose
The role that counseling psychologists and social workers play in the lives of their clients can differ rather dramatically. Where counseling psychologists focus on helping clients identify problem areas in their lives and developing skills to overcome those problems, social workers focus on adapting the client’s environment in order to facilitate change.
In a mental health setting, a counseling psychologist would work primarily one-on-one with a client to prepare him or her for improved functioning in the community. They might focus on developing skills for handling stress, expressing emotions effectively, or forming healthy relationships.
Conversely, social workers would focus on preparing the community for the individual. Rather than focusing on developing personal attributes or skills that will make clients successful, a social worker would focus on developing support programs and identifying community resources upon which the client can rely.
For example, if a client comes to a counseling psychologist because her unemployment is causing stress in her life, the psychologist might work with her to identify the emotions she feels about being unemployed and help her develop healthy coping strategies for dealing with her emotions and stress.
If that same client visited a social worker, although work would still be done with regard to the source of the stress and dealing with it in a healthy manner, the social worker’s primary focus would be to help the client make modifications to her environment to ameliorate that stress. Specifically, the social worker might put the client in contact with an employment agency or job coach who can provide direct services to address her specific problem.
Another primary difference between counseling psychology and social work is the perspective from which they operate. Many counseling psychologists will deal with past events and examine how those events influence current behavior. In that regard, counseling psychology has a much more specific focus – it operates on a micro level.
Social workers, however, deal less with how clients got to be in their present situation, and focus more on how to resolve current issues in order to ensure future success. It is a more systemic and macro approach to resolving client issues.
Using the example from above, a counseling psychologist might want to identify the specific reasons for the client’s unemployment and work on any issues that prevent her from keeping a job.
A social worker, on the other hand, would take a future-based approach and be interested in providing specific supports that make employment more likely.
Training and Licensure
Workers in the counseling psychology and social work sectors are required to have advanced degrees in their fields.
In counseling psychology, this usually means having a Ph.D., but some counseling psychologists have a Psy.D. or Ed.D. instead. Regardless of the type of doctorate they earn, counseling psychologists-in-training participate in four or five years of graduate study that includes classroom learning and internship experiences.
Coursework includes studies in the areas of psychology, theories of counseling and personality, psychopathology, assessment, statistics, ethics, and other courses that focus on human behavior and clinical practice.
Social workers can find employment with a number of levels of education. Entry-level positions only require a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree. Individuals with an advanced degree, such as a Master of Social Work (MSW), Doctor of Social Work (DSW), or Ph.D. in Social Work, receive the required training to offer therapeutic services to clients.
Coursework for advanced degrees in social work typically includes goals and practice of social work, human behavior, diversity, social policy, social work research and theory, clinical or administrative practice, and other courses that focus on facilitating social and systemic change.
In order to practice as a counseling psychologist or social worker, individuals must have the appropriate licensure from the state in which they practice. Licensure requirements vary from state to state, but their function remains to ensure that individuals offering mental health services do so in a professional and ethical manner.
Workers in both fields can also work towards voluntary certifications that recognize a special area of focus. Counseling psychologists can be certified in a host of areas, including school counseling, rehabilitation counseling, addiction counseling, and mental health counseling.
Social workers are also able to gain certification in a variety of specialties, including treatment of individuals in the military, those with addictions, the elderly, youth, families, and in the healthcare sector.
The median annual pay for counseling psychologists and social workers will depend largely on the setting in which one works. Both professions offer higher pay for individuals in private practice, while those who work in an institutional setting, such as a community mental health center, can expect to earn much less.
However, regardless of setting, counseling psychologists make, on average, far more than social workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, counseling psychologists make an average annual income of $99,640, while social workers have an average annual income of $63,010 (2021).
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