Counseling, Social Work and Psychology: What’s the Difference?

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Photograph of a textbook with a page that says “We care”When making the choice to work in a mental health setting, you may be curious as to the career trajectories that could be available to you. After all, the field of mental health is a diverse one with career opportunities existing in a number of different positions and sectors, and there are many career choices that involve varying levels and years of formal education, specialty training, field placements and certifications.

For those considering earning an advanced degree in a field that has the potential to drastically impact the community and the individuals around you, there may be some initial questions you might have.

What is the difference between a counselor, a social worker and a psychologist? How do the responsibilities and expectations in these career paths intersect, and in what ways are they different? How is their training different? Which career path is right for you?


Put simply, counselors are often viewed as the first responders for those in need of emotional and psychological support. They work in schools, colleges, hospitals, mental health facilities, private practice, the armed forces and a variety of other areas. Their client base is also incredibly diverse, making it easy for counseling students to choose a demographic they’d like to work with.

By earning a Master of Arts in Counseling, students are prepared for a number of careers in the mental health field, including school counseling, marriage and family therapy, rehabilitation counseling, vocational or career counseling, clinical mental health counseling, and substance abuse counseling.1

For those certain that counseling is a field that they’re interested in, a Master of Arts in Counseling provides students with the opportunity to study counseling theories and techniques, psychological testing, counseling ethics, research, diverse cultural perspectives, and psychological development. From there, students are able to complete the licensing necessary and start their careers.

Social Work

A career in social work, on the other hand, can be much broader. Social workers can pursue jobs in clinical settings, government organizations, social administration, public policy, research, and ethics, as well as schools. Social workers focus on finding solutions to systemic problems, as well as helping smaller communities that are affected by those problems.

Social work programs focus on preparing students for a leadership role in the care and advocacy of their clients, which can include singular individuals and entire communities. They’re also prepared to perform clinical assessments, client advocacy, education and the management of complex caseloads.2

For those who hope to enact wide, sweeping, systemic changes to longstanding institutions and appreciate the ability to work on an individual level, social work offers students the opportunities to do so.


Different still is the role of the psychologist. While counselors and psychologists each help people resolve their problems and become more mentally well, the professions differ in their typical work duties and education required.

Psychologists have extensive training in psychological theory, meaning they are well equipped to assist families and individuals by observing behavior and applying theories that they feel will best help those families. Typically, psychologists also have a more extensive research-based background. Unlike other mental health professions, psychologists can also use their theory-based background to help businesses improve employee morale, or help advertisers increase their sales to certain demographics.

Psychologists typically need to hold a doctoral degree in order to be eligible for many positions, though it should be noted that a master’s is sometimes sufficient. Psychologists must also complete licensing in the state in which they live.2

When choosing a career trajectory in mental health, it can often be difficult to determine which field you might want to consider, as there is overlap in each of these fields. Day-to-day job responsibilities and educational requirements do vary considerably, which may help to push you in one direction or the other.

For those who are interested in working with individuals and families in education, clinical mental health, or human services settings, Wake Forest University online prepares students for a rewarding career in counseling.

Recommended Reading

Counselor vs. Social Worker: Choosing a Path to Inspire Positive Social Change

Serving Humanity: Career Opportunities in Mental Health

How to Become a Clinical Social Worker


1 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, School and Career Counselors
2 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers