Social Work vs. Counseling

Social Work vs. Counseling

Simply observing a counselor and a social worker may not reveal many differences between the two roles. Both focus on generously serving individuals in their communities.

However, these two professions represent subtly distinct approaches to improving health and well-being. Education, licensure requirements, scope of work, and salary also tend to differ between social workers and counselors. Understanding the differences in counseling vs. social work can help students choose the right career path for them. As with many professions, credentials differ depending on which state students wish to practice in.

What Is the Difference Between Social Work and Counseling?

Because these fields have similar goals, the difference between social work and counseling may not be immediately clear. Professionals in both areas seek to better the health and well-being of individuals in their communities, and both can be equipped to provide individual counseling. However, the training, titles, and approaches of a social worker vs. counselor differ.

Generally, social workers aim to improve the social systems in their communities through case management, advocacy, and social services. Social workers with a clinical focus receive further preparation and supervised training to assess and treat mental health in ways that empower their clients. MSW@Baylor prepares students to recognize the client’s potential and collaborate with them on outcomes that draw on their strengths and capacity. 

Often, this training further emphasizes connecting their clients with resources available in their communities, as well as supporting those who have been historically marginalized in society.

Social workers:

Aim to improve the social systems in their communities through case management, advocacy, and social services.


Are equipped to evaluate mental health through individual, couples, family, or group therapy.

Counselors are equipped to evaluate mental health through individual, couples, family, or group therapy. In these sessions, counselors collaborate with clients to overcome obstacles, change behaviors, address concerns, and improve well-being.

In summary, the key difference between a social work vs. counseling program is in the lens and approach they prepare students to take in serving clients.

What Are the Similarities Between Social Work and Counseling?

The social work vs. counseling fields are similar in their role to seek and improve the welfare of their communities. Both are considered to be helping professions, and they tend to draw students who want to empower individuals and families.

The roles of a social worker and a counselor overlap even more. To become licensed mental health practitioners, both must complete a supervised clinical internship or practicum and pass a state licensure examination. Once licensed, both can treat and diagnose mental health conditions. Neither, however, can prescribe medications.

Counseling vs. Social Work Education Requirements

Students who are considering becoming a social worker or counselor should know that both programs require a master’s degree, which includes a field placement. An MSW typically takes two years to complete, while earning a master’s in mental health counseling may take two to three years. Licensing requirements for both professions vary by state.

Social Worker Education Requirements

Because social worker requirements differ by specialty, there are a number of paths students can take to enter the field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) prepares students for entry-level administrative roles or direct-service positions, such as caseworker.

A Master of Social Work (MSW) degree — such as Baylor’s MSW online program — may be a good fit for individuals seeking to become clinical social workers. These programs provide the clinical training and case management skills clinicians need to serve clients in their communities. A BSW is not required to earn a Master of Social Work, but it does make students eligible for advanced standing programs. 

Students should look to complete a program that is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), as this is required by states for licensure.

  • Demonstrate ethical and professional behavior.
  • Engage diversity and difference in practice.
  • Advance human rights and social, economic and environmental justice.
  • Engage in practice-informed research and research-informed practice.
  • Engage in policy practice.
  • Engage with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities.
  • Assess individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities.
  • Intervene with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities.
  • Evaluate practice with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities.

Counselor Education Requirements

Becoming a mental health counselor requires at least a master’s degree in counseling, typically from a program accredited by a counseling-specific accrediting organization, such as the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

An independent agency, CACREP provides accreditation for master’s programs in counseling and requires courses in eight core areas:

  • Professional Counseling Orientation and Ethical Practice.
  • Social and Cultural Diversity.
  • Human Growth and Development.
  • Career Development.
  • Counseling and Helping Relationships.
  • Group Counseling and Group Work.
  • Assessment and Testing.
  • Research and Program Evaluation.

Students may later pursue a doctoral degree in counseling, such as a Ph.D. or Psy.D. in counseling psychology.

Social Worker vs. Counselor Job Scope

Social workers and counselors both work with clients who have mental or emotional health issues. These concerns could include substance use, trauma, abuse, or disordered eating, among many others.

The daily tasks of a social worker vs. counselor may actually be similar. However, the specific training that each receives allows them to apply a particular lens to the concerns their clients experience and the possible solutions they see.

What Does a Social Worker Do?

In general, an MSW program prepares students to work in their chosen specialization, performing assessments, managing casework, advocating for policy changes, and supporting the social services in their communities. Licensure further prepares students to provide clinical mental health care.

The answer to “what does a social worker do?” varies by setting and client population.

  • Providing counseling services.
  • Evaluating client’s needs, environments, strengths, and support networks.
  • Researching and referring community resources.
  • Advocating for policy changes at the local, state, and federal levels.
  • Organizing groups and tasks forces for creating social changes.

What Does a Counselor Do?

Answering the question “what does a counselor do?” requires an understanding of the professional’s setting and their (clinical) training. Generally, a counselor may spend the day in therapy sessions, helping clients address concerns with their emotional, social, work, school, and physical health.

Counselors may work with individuals, couples, families, or groups. Through experience and training, they often develop expertise in one or more areas, such as relationship abuse, anxiety, or anger management.

A common question clients may have is, “Can counselors prescribe medication?” Similar to a social worker, counselors cannot prescribe medications but they may refer clients to professionals who can.

Social Work vs. Counseling Salary

When considering social work vs. counseling salary, bear in mind that compensation usually depends on level of experience, amount of training, work setting, and location. Aspiring professionals can contextualize a social work vs. counseling salary based on these factors, but the following information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) can provide a helpful starting point. 

Social Worker Salary

In May 2021, the median annual wage for social workers was $50,390. The lowest 10 percent of earners were compensated less than $36,520, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $82,840.

Social worker salary also tends to vary by setting, with the following median annual wages as of 2021:

  • Healthcare social workers: $60,840
  • Mental health and substance abuse social workers: $49,130
  • Child, family, and school social workers: $49,150

Counselor Salary

Similar to social worker salaries, compensation for counselors tends to vary by setting and specialty. Overall, counselors earned a median annual wage of $45,160 in May 2021, with the lowest 10 percent earning less than $29,490 and the highest 10 percent earning $76,780.

According to the BLS, the industries with the highest mean counselor salary as of May 2021 were:

  • Religious organizations: $98,780
  • Grantmaking and giving services: $90,280
  • Insurance carriers: $78,010
  • General medical and surgical hospitals: $64,080
  • Specialty (except psychiatric and substance abuse) hospitals: $63,900

Commonly Asked Questions About Social Work vs. Counseling

Can a social worker or counselor prescribe medication?

No. Social workers and counselors can provide mental health counseling and assessments but cannot prescribe medications.

How long does it take to become a social worker vs. counselor?

An MSW program usually takes two years to complete, according to the BLS. Aspiring social workers will need to pass the appropriate examinations and meet any state-specific requirements in order to be licensed. A master’s in counseling program lasts two to three years. Upon graduation, aspiring counselors will need to pass any state-specific requirements, including examinations, in order to obtain a temporary license, which is necessary to complete post-graduate clinical hours, typically ranging from 3,000 to 5,000 hours, before becoming a licensed counselor.

Individual state requirements will vary and are subject to change, including licensure standards, exam eligibility, and appropriate pathways, and may differ based on individual student backgrounds. Students should do their own due diligence and determine the appropriate pathway and license type for themselves.

Where can social work vs. counseling students complete field placement hours?

Opportunities for field placement may vary based on the program and a student’s area of specialty. Field placement locations may include public and private agencies, nonprofit organizations, and clinical settings.

Citation for this content: Baylor University’s online master’s in social work program.