MSW vs. Master’s in Counseling: What’s the Difference?

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A counselor meets with a client.According to the National Organization for Human Services, the term “human services” is broadly defined as an approach to meeting human needs by focusing on the prevention and mediation of problems. There are many educational paths that can lead to a career in the field of human services, such as earning a Master of Arts in Counseling (MAC) or a Master of Social Work (MSW). Before looking at MSW vs. master’s in counseling programs, a prospective student should be aware of the practical skills and professional knowledge each degree can offer.

What Is a Master of Social Work?

An MSW is a professional degree that typically follows up on the coursework in a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) program by offering social workers the opportunity to learn more specialized aspects of their practice. An MSW, when paired with two years of supervised professional experience, will also qualify students to apply for clinical social worker licensing. Licensed clinical social workers are able to participate directly in the development and implementation of treatment plans designed to help adjust a patient’s behavior or improve a patient’s mental and emotional health. When comparing an MSW and a master’s in counseling, it can be helpful to examine the basics of each degree.

How Long Is a Master’s in Social Work?

If you’re curious about how long a master’s in social work takes, the answer can depend on your undergraduate degree. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), individuals generally can complete an MSW program in two years. Individuals aren’t required to have undergraduate degrees in social work to enter into an MSW program, but some MSW programs allow individuals with a BSW to complete their MSW degrees in one year.

Careers with a Master’s in Social Work

A number of careers with a master’s in social work are available. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) lists the following possible careers for individuals with an MSW:

  • Clinical alcohol, tobacco and other drugs social worker
  • Advanced social work case manager
  • Clinical social worker in gerontology
  • Social worker in health care
  • Hospice and palliative social worker
  • Children, youth and family social worker

MSW Curriculum

The MSW curriculum is typically divided into two broad categories: generalist and specialist. In the generalist portion, students learn how to assess clients and evaluate and adjust client services to address their needs. The specialist portion, on the other hand, focuses on particular fields within the profession of social work. For example, students might learn how to work in a hospital setting, corrections or the child protection system. In specialist courses, students have the opportunity to use the knowledge they gained through their core courses to make assessments of clients and create intervention plans.

What Is a Master of Arts in Counseling?

A MAC program focuses on building a student’s knowledge of personal development and effectively addressing issues with people across cultural or socioeconomic barriers. At the core of the MAC curriculum, students learn the necessary steps for helping their clients change their lifestyles in order to develop habits that promote positive relationships, career growth and general well-being. Students also learn the importance of research and program assessments that inform and optimize a counselor’s practice.

Upon graduating from a MAC program, counselors can enter the workforce as behavioral, substance abuse or mental health counselors. A MAC degree can also help improve career satisfaction, as counselors with higher education are frequently allowed to operate with lower supervision than their less-educated peers. After 2,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised work, depending on the state, they can then apply for a professional counselor’s license, which may distinguish them further in the field and qualifies them to operate in private practice.

When looking at an MSW vs. a master’s in counseling, consider that they prioritize different aspects of human services. Although the two degree paths have the potential to lead careers that center on helping people improve their lives, choosing to pursue an MSW program means learning how to solve a very broad spectrum of social issues. On the other hand, a master’s in counseling offers students the opportunity to specialize in supporting individuals or small groups of people who all face a specific issue, such as addiction or mental illness. Therefore, it’s important that student professionals who are considering higher education clearly define their individual career goals when choosing a graduate program.

How Long Is a Master’s in Counseling?

How long is a master’s in counseling going to take? According to Psychology Today, obtaining a master’s degree in mental health counseling can take approximately two to three years.

Careers with a Master’s in Counseling

A number of careers with a master’s in counseling are available. The American Counseling Association lists the following careers for individuals with a MAC degree:

  • Clinical mental health counselor
  • Addiction counselor
  • Career counselor
  • School counselor
  • Student affairs and college counselor

Master’s in Counseling Curriculum

The Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) describes master’s in counseling curricula as having two primary components:

  • Foundation and core curriculum covering areas such as professional counseling orientation and ethical practice, social and cultural diversity, human growth and development, and assessment and testing
  • Courses in specialty areas such as clinical mental health counseling, school counseling, addiction counseling and rehabilitation counseling

Finding a Rewarding Career Helping Others

When contrasting an MSW with a master’s in counseling, it can be helpful to explore some actual programs. Learn about expanding your technical expertise and acquiring the advanced skills important for professional growth in the field of counseling by exploring the Wake Forest University online Master of Counseling program and chart a course for a rewarding career today.

Recommended Readings

Master’s in Counseling vs. Master’s in Psychology: What’s the Difference?

What an Online Counseling Degree Can Do for You

Why Now Is the Right Time to Pursue Your Master’s in Counseling



American Counseling Association, Choosing a Career in Counseling

American Counseling Association, What Is Professional Counseling?

Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, Section 2: Professional Counseling Identity

National Association of Social Workers, Apply for NASW Social Work Credentials

National Organization for Human Services, What Is Human Services?

Psychology Today, “5 Paths for Becoming a Therapist”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers

Wake Forest University, Online Master of Counseling Curriculum