What is the Difference Between a Social Worker and a Counselor

Social workers and counselors have a lot in common – so much so that some people use the terms “social worker” and “counselor” interchangeably. And while there are certainly many similarities between these professions, there are just as many differences.

Sure, social workers and counselors both strive to help their clients improve their lives. But the manner in which they do that, the environments in which they work, their educational pathways, and their salary are often quite different.

In this guide, we’ll walk you through the major differences between a social worker and a counselor.

What is a Social Worker?

A very basic definition of a social worker is someone that assists their clients in coping with problems of daily life. This might mean helping an unemployed client find a job, counseling parents who have lost custody of their child, or advocating on behalf of a developmentally disabled client.

Some social workers – clinical social workers – also provide counseling and treatment to their clients for a variety of reasons. They might offer marriage counseling, substance abuse treatment, or lead group therapy for clients that have a behavioral disorder.

What is a Counselor?

A counselor is not unlike a social worker – their goal is to support positive changes in their clients’ lives through education and treatment. Counselors might offer individual therapy to clients, couples and family therapy, and group therapy as well.

Additionally, counselors often help their clients develop new skills, provide educational programs for clients (e.g., parenting classes), and work with other mental health professionals to devise treatment plans for seriously mentally ill clients.

What are the Differences Between Job Duties for Social Workers and Counselors?

While there is a lot of overlap between the job duties for social workers and counselors, there are some distinct differences.

One of the primary differences is the focus of the work. Social workers, for example, often focus on the day-to-day needs of their clients. For example, a social worker might develop a plan to help a client find appropriate housing, employment, and connect them with a local food bank to ensure they have access to nutritious food.

On the other hand, a counselor might focus less on day-to-day needs and more on the mental health needs of their clients. For example, a counselor might develop a treatment plan to address a client’s depression and anxiety that includes weekly individual therapy sessions.

It’s important to note that these differences are not set in stone. Some social workers provide counseling services while some counselors provide practical assistance to their clients. What you do as a social worker or counselor will depend on many different factors, including your education and training, work experience, employer, and client needs.

What are the Differences in Work Environment for Social Workers and Counselors?

Social workers and counselors work in very similar environments. You’ll find social workers and counselors in schools, government agencies, and in private practice. Both social workers and counselors also work in health care settings like hospitals, inpatient treatment centers, outpatient treatment centers, and mental institutions. In most cases, social workers and counselors work in an office setting.

A difference between social workers and counselors is that social workers more frequently work in the field.

For example, as a social worker, you might conduct periodic home visits with a client who is trying to regain custody of her child. You might do a home interview, inspect the home for cleanliness and safety, and check in on the client’s progress in meeting other goals, like obtaining stable employment. This is not typically something that counselors do.

How Do You Become a Social Worker?

The first step to becoming a social worker is to get a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW). Typically, a BSW takes four years to complete, though this timeframe can be shortened by taking additional classes each semester or lengthened by attending school part-time.

There are many entry-level positions for which a BSW is sufficient. However, if you want to expand your employment possibilities, you might consider pursuing a master’s of social work, or an MSW.

An MSW is an advanced program during which you will have classroom studies on social work topics (e.g., advocacy, psychological theory, social work practice) and field experiences in the forms of practical and internships. These field experiences allow you to see how social workers go about their daily work. You also get an opportunity to put your learning to the test by working under the supervision of an experienced social worker.

Having an MSW paves the way for getting a certification or licensure as a social worker. Many certifications require that you have at least a master’s degree while many states also require that you have a master’s degree to be licensed as a practicing social worker.

For example, in most states, you must have a master’s degree in social work to practice as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). Additionally, to practice as a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW), many states require you to have an MSW.

How Do You Become a Counselor?

The educational path to become a counselor has some similarities and differences to social work.

To begin your education, you’ll need to complete a bachelor’s degree program in psychology, human services, or a related field – even social work! So, while the first step is the same – get a bachelor’s degree – the degree you need to get is different.

Truth be told, since counselors must have a master’s degree or higher to be able to practice, you can actually get a bachelor’s degree in just about any field. The only question is how many prerequisites you might need to take before being officially admitted to a master’s program.

Counselors can take various pathways in graduate school. Some might pursue a master’s in school counseling so they can work specifically with students in a school setting. Others might apply to a counseling psychology program so they can work with individuals, couples, and groups in a private practice setting. Yet others might pursue a master’s degree in clinical counseling to prepare for a career in a mental health or behavioral health setting.

As with social workers, the more education you have, the greater the likelihood that you can fulfill your career goals. There are some entry-level counseling-related jobs you can get with a bachelor’s degree (e.g., substance abuse counselor, probation agent) but the career selection is much more diverse if you have a master’s degree.

As discussed earlier regarding social workers, to be certified or licensed as a counselor requires a master’s degree in most cases. For example, to work as a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), you must have at least a master’s degree in counseling, psychology, or a related field.

While most social work jobs can be had with a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree, many counseling jobs require that you have a doctorate. If you want to teach at the university level, for example, a doctorate is all but required. If you wish to do clinical work or research, doctorates are typically preferred.

What is the Difference in Salary for Social Workers and Counselors?

The difference in salary between social workers and counselors is fairly negligible.

For instance, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for a social worker as of May 2020 was $51,760. By contrast, the median yearly salary for a counselor in May 2020 was $47,660 – a difference of a little more than $4,000 per year.

When looking at the median pay range for social workers and counselors, the numbers are comparable once again. Social workers at the lower end of the pay scale earn median annual salaries under $33,020 while social workers at the top of the pay scale earn in excess of $85,820 per year. Counselors at the lower end of the pay scale earn less than $30,590 per year while counselors at the top end of the pay scale might expect to earn more than $78,700 per year.

So, the median salary and the pay range for these professions are pretty similar. However, there are other factors that can affect how much you earn as a social worker or as a counselor.

For example, if you have a master’s degree in social work and 15 years of experience as a social worker, you can expect to earn more money than if you just graduated with your master’s degree in social work and have zero on-the-job experience. The same holds true for people employed as counselors.

In addition, where you are employed can have a significant impact on the income you earn. Social workers employed by hospitals and other health care facilities earn a median yearly wage of $57,630 while social workers employed by schools earn a median yearly wage of $48,430, which is about a $9,000 a year difference.

The same is seen amongst counseling jobs. Counselors employed by government agencies make a median annual salary of $54,070 while counselors employed in residential mental health facilities make a median salary of $40,560 per year – a difference of nearly $14,000.

So, there is not much of a difference in the baseline salaries or the pay range of these careers. There is also little difference in how you can go about making more money as a social worker or a counselor. Get a higher degree, build work experience, and choose where you work carefully as all three factors can greatly affect income potential.

What is the Job Outlook for Social Workers and Counselors?

Unlike the salary information discussed above, there is currently a significant difference in the job outlook for these careers.

According to the BLS, employment of social workers is expected to grow by 12 percent through 2030. This is a faster-than-average growth rate that should result in 78,300 social work job openings year over year for the rest of this decade.

It is expected that social work jobs will experience the greatest growth in health care, education, and child and family services settings. Additionally, the BLS predicts more robust growth for social workers that specialize in mental health and substance abuse services. That niche of social work is expected to grow by 15 percent through 2030.

This is certainly good news for prospective social workers. But the news is even better for future counselors.

The BLS estimates that employment in counseling will grow at a 23 percent clip through 2030. This is much faster than average for all jobs that might result in as many as 41,000 job openings through the end of the decade.

As with social workers, the increased need for counselors will perhaps be greatest in the areas of mental health and substance abuse treatment. Counselors that specialize in treating behavioral disorders and counselors that work specifically with military veterans are expected to be in high demand in the coming years as well.

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