Deciding on a Degree: Counseling or Social Work?

By Angie Best-Boss

One of the most commonly asked questions in the helping profession is, "Should I get a master's in counseling or in social work?" The answer depends on your interests and goals. Below you will find advice and the pros/cons of those looking to pursue their master's in social work.

What can I do with each degree?

Those who choose to pursue a master's in counseling will have a variety of options once they graduate. For example, the counseling profession includes:

 

If you pursue a master's in social work (MSW) the career path will be slightly different. You may become a medical or public health social worker, dealing with issues like substance abuse or elder care. Or, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests, you might build a private practice or become a non-profit administrator, researcher, or policymaker, developing and implementing programs that address social problems.

MSW's median salary is $54,870, while those with a Masters in Counseling may start slightly lower, but have similar average earnings according to the U.S Bureau Labor Statistics, 2012 data.

What's the Difference?

As helping professionals, there can be a great deal of overlap between the two fields. In general, counselors often do individual clinical work and focus specifically on helping people through a particular set of circumstances. Social workers may also provide direct services, but they tend to be more outwardly focused on working within larger systems.

For example, when a social worker works with a man suffering from stress due to single parenting, the social worker may provide therapy, refer him to a child care agency, and help him work with his employer to adjust his work schedule. The counselor, on the other hand, is more likely to focus entirely on helping the man understand, accept and deal more appropriately with his emotions regarding his situation.

Back to School

Harry Stevens decided to go back to school for his MSW after he was turned down for yet another promotion at his job. He says, "Although I have been a successful case manager for several years, my boss finally explained that he wanted me to have professional training in administration and supervision so that I wouldn't step into a different job unprepared. When you work with state and federal funds like we do, the stakes are high and getting an MSW was a way to show I was prepared for the next level of responsibility. I was surprised to learn that I could get an MSW degree in about two years." Typical courses include program administration, agency budgets, public policy and ethics and require a minimum of 900 hours of supervised field instruction.

In counseling graduate programs, students focus on a primary interest, such as marriage and family therapy, substance abuse or addictions counseling, rehabilitation counseling, clinical mental health counseling, or career counseling. According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook, most counseling degree programs require 48 to 60 semester hours of graduate study, as well as require a period of supervised clinical counseling.

A Day in the Life

A day in the life of a social worker or counselor can vary tremendously, depending on the area of specialty. Many counselors spend a significant amount of time in an office meeting with a number of clients throughout the week. Counselors in private practice may have to spend significant energy building their practice. Social workers who don't have a private practice may take a very active role as community advocates. Social workers who prefer a more traditional office setting may face demanding caseloads as well as the additional responsibilities of program administration.

What about the Job Market?

The good news is that both fields are expected to grow over the next decade. In fact, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, favorable growth is expected for several reasons, including:

  • As boomers age, the growth of medical and public health social workers is expected to surge.
  • Substance abusers are increasingly being required to have substance abuse treatment such as counseling or face jail time.
  • Social workers and counselors in private practice are more affordable than psychologists.