Social work or psychology: Which master’s degree is right for you?

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Both licensed clinical social workers and psychologists can perform clinical counseling tasks, creating a great deal of similarity between the positions. However, the underlying training and degree structure can vary significantly. Here’s a close look at the differences between the areas of study to help you identify which program type could be the right fit for your personal and career goals.

A quick look at the MSW degree

Pursuing a master’s in social work offers students an opportunity to enter or advance in the field. An MSW is often considered a natural fit for career changers because most programs do not require a bachelor’s degree in social work. This accessibility comes largely because most social work licensure programs require a master’s degree, making it fairly common for professionals to pursue an MSW.

The extent to which a master’s degree is essential is clear in statistics from the Council on Social Work Education. The industry body found that approximately 63,530 students were enrolled in baccalaureate-level social work programs in 2016. During the same year, 64,486 students were enrolled in MSW programs. This shows that an MSW is often critical in the industry.

Because an MSW is so important, many curriculums balance core, essential training on general areas of study in the field and then supplement those courses with concentrations. For example, the Regis College MSW provides a strong foundation for general social work learning and complements the primary curriculum with a strong emphasis on clinical education.

Online MSW programs provide flexibility when it comes to how and when students engage in coursework, and they supplement core courses with practical training in the form of supervised work programs and similar opportunities. U.S. News & World Report explained that this blend between classroom and field learning is making online studies a viable option for MSW students, but it is always essential to make sure a program is accredited when working toward certification.

An MSW achieved through a program focused on clinical studies can prepare students to obtain their Licensed Clinical Social Worker Certification, which would designate an individual as a psychotherapist.

Master’s in psychology at a glance

Like the MSW, a master’s in psychology is accessible by individuals who have a bachelor’s degree in a different field. However, it often helps to have taken a few undergraduate psychology courses prior to seeking the more advanced degree.

In many cases, job outcomes for a master’s in psychology lead to work outside of the sector. For example, many businesses, schools, and public organizations offer job roles in which a background in psychology is helpful or even necessary, but in which counseling and similar work is not a primary component of the job. Many psychology positions require individuals to hold a Ph.D. to achieve certification, particularly in areas of study such as counseling.

What’s the practical difference between the degrees?

In many cases, preparing to be a counselor is not very different, regardless of whether you’re working in social work or psychology. Becoming a licensed counselor requires similar skills, but the formal licensure process can vary from one field to another. This is where understanding the diverse career outcomes for the degree programs can be so important.

An MSW generally prepares students for positions incorporating a variety of key tasks, including offering counseling, serving as patient advocates, and working with friends and family of clients. Conversely, a master’s-level degree in psychology isn’t always adequate for counseling, but instead prepares graduates for research, work in human services, or even forensics.

A report from the Chronicle pointed out that becoming a Licensed Clinical Psychologist requires a Ph.D., something that was also highlighted by Psychology Degree Guide. That report says that the majority of people pursuing a master’s in psychology are doing so as a bridge to a Ph.D. because so many jobs in the field require the doctorate degree.

The MSW, on the other hand, is typically the primary benchmark for certification in social work and provides a major boost to career opportunities. Besides licensure, an MSW allows individuals to get deeper into clinical work and pursue leadership positions in the field. There is still value in pursuing an even more advanced degree in social work — typically for either research/academic work or more advanced clinical study — but the MSW serves as the entry point to some of the most desirable jobs in the social work field.

Why get an MSW?

Completing an MSW allows you to enter or pursue advancement in a field that is widely regarded as fulfilling and rewarding, and that is also growing quickly. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 16 percent job growth in the social work sector from 2016 to 2026. This is more than double the national average.

Besides helping you obtain the skills and expertise needed to advance your career, an MSW can serve as a stepping stone into a rapidly growing industry. To learn more, contact us today and we can connect you with resources on how to get started with an online MSW from Regis College.


U.S. News & World Report
Council on Social Work Education
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Regis College