Picking the Right Degree for You: Master of Social Work (MSW) vs. Master’s in Counseling

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Social worker with client

According to the National Organization for Human Services, human services is broadly defined as an approach to meeting human needs by focusing on the prevention and mediation of problems. There are many education 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 what practical skills and professional knowledge each curriculum can offer to student professionals.

What Is Social Work?

Social work is a field of human services that focuses on providing support to people who need help coping with any social issues that are negatively impacting their lives. Such issues may include poverty, illness, addiction, homelessness or abuse. In order to combat these problems, social workers collaborate with their clients to help them find stability in their lives. This could involve identifying members of a community who may be distressed or suffering abuse and intervening to help improve their well-being. An example of this intervention could be as simple as directing a group of clients toward welfare services, such as affordable housing or food stamps, or as complex as advocating for legal intervention when children are being neglected or abused. Social workers will usually be enlisted to work in schools, health care institutions and publicly organized social services firms.

What Is Counseling?

While there are many professions that provide counseling services, according to the American Counseling Association, professional counseling is a collaborative effort between a counselor and a client to identify goals and define potential solutions to problems that are causing the client emotional turmoil. Examples of such goals include improving a client’s interpersonal relationships and coping skills, reinforcing a client’s self-esteem, encouraging a healthier lifestyle, and optimizing a client’s overall mental health.

To be successful as counselors, professionals are often taught how to provide counseling services in several different types of settings:

  • Individual: This is one-on-one counseling that is more intimate, allowing the client to feel more comfortable addressing personal topics from his or her life, such as anger, depression and relationship problems.
  • Couples: When a couple is experiencing a rough patch in its relationship, a counselor can be hired to improve interpersonal relationship and manage conflict. In this setting, counselors provide opportunities for couples to understand their feelings in order to identify issues that could compromise the integrity of a relationship.
  • Family: Common issues that are addressed in family counseling are concerns regarding parenting strategy, conflicts between siblings, the death of a family member or dealing with any other changes that majorly impact the family structure.
  • Group: Sometimes, it helps to have a group of peers available to offer diverse perspectives on a problem that each member of the group faces. Group counseling is typically offered for as many as eight people and centers on a common factor, such as anger management or recovery from substance abuse.

What Is a Master of Social Work?

A Master of Social Work is a professional degree that typically follows up on the coursework offered in a Bachelor of Social Work 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.

What Is a Master of Arts in Counseling?

A Master of Arts in Counseling 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 better habits that promote positive relationships, career growth and general well-being. In the two years it takes to complete a master’s in counseling program, students also learn the importance of research and program assessments that informs and optimizes 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 a Master of Social Work vs. a master’s in counseling, consider that both prioritize different aspects of human services. Although the two degree paths have the potential to lead to a career that revolves around 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 is important that student professionals who are considering higher education clearly define their individual career goals when choosing a graduate program.

Learn More

To help you expand your technical expertise and acquire the advanced skills important for professional growth in the field of counseling, find out more information about the Wake Forest University online Master of Counseling program.

Recommended Readings:
What an Online Counseling Degree Can Do for You
Master’s in Counseling vs. Master’s in Psychology: What’s the Difference?
Why Now Is the Right Time to Pursue Your Master’s in Counseling

Wake Forest University
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs
American Counseling Association