What is the Difference Between a Master’s Degree in Social Work and Psychology?

Last Updated: June 29, 2024

Master’s in Social Work Vs. Master’s in Psychology

A Master’s in Social Work (MSW) prepares you for practice in the field, working directly with individuals or communities, and advocating for social justice. A Master’s in Psychology, on the other hand, deepens your understanding of mental processes and human behavior, often leading to roles in research, counseling, or clinical psychology.

To better understand the differences between these two career fields, it is important to have a basic idea of what social work and psychology entail. Both careers focus on helping people resolve issues and improve their lives; however there are noticeable differences between them.

In its simplest form, a social worker provides direct care services (i.e. resources, assistance and guidance) to clients and patients, suffering from psychological disorders (mental illnesses), financial problems (i.e. poverty, debt, unemployment, etc.), legal complications and/or civil rights issues.

As a master-level, licensed social worker, you may work at a hospital, clinic, residential treatment facility, skilled nursing facility (assistant living or nursing home), social services agency, private practice or college. Your main duty will be to assess, diagnose, and treat psychological/mental, emotional, and behavioral health issues.

On the other hand, your main duty, as a psychologist, will be to observe and study human thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and relationships. In other words, you will concentrate on “figuring out” how the human mind works (i.e. thoughts and emotions) and how it contributes to behaviors.

Psychologists study human behaviors, and the ways in which the human mind functions. They spend most of their time counseling diverse populations with emotional distress, psychological disorders, relationship dysfunction, and adjustment issues.

Should you seek an advanced degree in social work or psychology? Better yet, are you contemplating whether or not you should pursue a master’s degree in social work or psychology? Is so, you are in luck. This article will explain to you the differences between these two professional degrees.

What are the Differences Between these Two Master’s Degrees?

Well, although these two degrees function in a similar manner, there are some differences. Both graduate degree programs take approximately 2 to 3 years to complete. They both also require an internship at a hospital, social services agency, mental health/residential treatment facility, hospital, clinic, educational institution, business, and/or private practice.

In addition, the courses in both degree programs are very similar, if not the same. However, there are also some differences in what is needed to practice in these two fields.

For example, a master-level professional counselor and therapist can only call himself or herself a licensed professional counselor or therapist. He or she cannot call himself or herself a licensed psychologist or a psychologist. Why? Well because this individual does not have a doctorate and/or license in psychology.

On the other hand, a social worker does not need a doctorate to “practice” as a social worker. In other words, this person can provide direct care services, simply with a bachelor’s or master’s degree, and a state license.

Both social workers and psychologists need to have strong communication and problem-solving skills. They must also be empathetic, compassionate, understanding, appropriately trained, trustworthy, professional, “likable,” and creative.

Both careers also require that medical/mental health workers exhibit non-judgmental and supportive behaviors towards clients and patients suffering from difficulties, emotional distress, and/or psychological disorders.

Moreover, both social workers and professional counselors/therapists must know how to accurately assess and interpret bodily gestures and facial expressions.

Another difference between these two degrees is that social work master’s degrees prepare students to provide direct care services (i.e. resources: aide, transportation, healthcare, etc.).

As a social worker, you may be required to take clients and patients to court dates, doctor’s appointments, government assistance offices, school, work, etc. You may also be required to help your clients and patients complete paperwork and/or sign-up for basic living skills classes.

On the other hand, psychology, counseling, and therapy master’s degree programs prepare students to primarily provide counseling services to clients and patients. Most master-level professionals and therapists are not required to provide direct care services to clients and patients.

What Does a Master’s Degree in Social Work Involve?

In order to practice as a social worker, you must earn a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree from an accredited social work graduate program. You must also obtain license in the field of social work from your state licensing board.

It is important to note that most graduate social work programs combine basic liberal arts coursework (i.e. English composition I & II, natural sciences, math, history, social sciences, electives, etc.) with more specialized sociology, psychology and social work classes (i.e. introduction to psychology, social welfare policies, social work practices, etc.).

In addition, many graduate-level social work students focus on: advocacy, children and families, mental health/psychology, social welfare, and community organizing. And, although many colleges and universities offer doctorates in social work, in this particular field, a master’s degree is considered “terminal” (the highest level of education needed to obtain the highest paying jobs).

It will take you approximately 2.5 years to earn a master’s degree in social work. In addition, you may be required to complete an internship (6 months to 1 year) at an approved social services agency, hospital, clinic, or private practice.

Licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) help clients and patients improve their lives (i.e. health and well-being) by providing guidance, counseling services and resources to them. In addition, these medical professionals refer clients and patients for services like: government assistance (i.e. housing, food stamps, healthcare, daycare and employment), and additional services (i.e. counseling, medications, classes, and support groups).

As a licensed social worker, you may develop client/patient treatment plans, and in some cases, conduct individual, child, family, and/or group therapy sessions.

In addition, you may collaborate with other medical and mental health professionals (i.e. counselors, physicians, registered nurses, psychiatrists, clinical social workers, and psychologists) to provide the best care for your clients and patients. Ultimately, your main goal will be to ensure the health and well-being of your clients and patients.

With a master’s degree in social work, you may be able to seek employment as a: college instructor, retail manager, business manager, human resources executive, practitioner, child and family case manager, or licensed, clinical social worker at a hospital, clinic or social services agency.

What Does a Master’s Degree in Psychology Consist of?

Similar to a master’s degree in social work, you will first need to earn a bachelor’s degree (in any field) from an accredited college or university. Once you have graduated you will need to enroll, and graduate from a reputable graduate psychology program.

While in your psychology program, you will be required to concentrate on specific area(s) of psychology such as: marriage and family therapy, school counseling, family counseling, health counseling, clinical counseling/therapy, and mental health counseling. It will take you approximately 2 to 3 years to earn a master’s degree in psychology.

In order to “practice” as a therapist or professional counselor, you will need to pass your state’s licensure exam (once you earn your master’s degree in counseling or marriage and family therapy). It is important to note that only students, who have graduated from specific psychology and counseling programs (CACREP-accredited master’s programs) will be allowed to take state licensure exams.

Once you obtain licensure as a marriage and family therapist (LMFT) or professional counselor (LPC), you will be able to seek employment as a: therapist, counselor, college instructor, human resource executive, manager, social service case manager, psychological researcher, residential treatment facility director, and/or practitioner.

The main functions of licensed counselors and therapists are to: observe, evaluate, interpret/diagnose, and document how people respond to one another. In other words, they study the human mind, behaviors, and relationships. These mental health professionals also explore how people react to one another, animals, and the environment.

Basically, they study why people think and behave the way they do. Moreover, as a licensed counselor or therapist, you will be responsible for interviewing clients and patients (intakes), providing counseling services, and administering and interpreting psychological assessments (i.e. intelligence, job, personality, and/or performance).

You may also be required to develop behavior modification treatment plans for clients and patients. It is important to note that most master-level, licensed professional counselors and therapists cannot prescribe medications. In fact, there are only 2 states (New Mexico and Louisiana) that allow these medical professionals to prescribe psychotropic medications to clients and patients.

It is also important to understand that you will not be able to “practice” as a licensed psychologist with just a master’s degree. You will, however, be able to “practice” as a licensed professional counselor or therapist. You will only be able to call yourself a “psychologist,” once you have earned a doctorate, and obtained a license to “practice” as a psychologist.

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