MPH vs. MSW: Which Career Is Right for Me?

A college student sits on a bed working in a notebook and on a computer.

Social workers often play a pivotal role in supporting broad health goals in a community. In some cases, this may occur through advocacy and awareness programs. In other instances, social workers may lead community groups that provide a vital service, or offer counseling to individuals who are facing difficulties in some form. As such, social workers often become involved in the broad public health concerns that surround them.

This cross-disciplinary involvement can lead to confusion for those who are wishing to advance their careers or explore their professional options. It can be easy to wonder which is better, pursuing an advanced degree in social work or public health, especially if one is drawn to become involved in larger health issues. To make an informed decision, it is important to understand the relationship between social work and public health, as well as the difference between a Master of Social Work (MSW) and a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree.

MPH Degree Program Overview

Public health is a huge industry that spans a wide range of disciplines. Any professional who deals with the overarching health issues that impact communities, population groups or even the world, falls under the realm of public health. Professionals in the field can work in everything from statistical analysis to health care management. However, the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) narrows the discipline down to three key points of emphasis.

  1. Personal: Public health is meant to promote healthy lifestyles and emphasize preventive measures that help populations improve their well-being.
  2. Global: Public health looks at large-scale issues, such as infectious diseases, environmental problems, or implications of violence to identify needs and establish strategies to address them.
  3. Measurable: Population health programs have evolved to the point that the discipline is increasingly measuring its effectiveness through statistical analysis and other scientific data that emphasizes major health issues that affect large groups of people.

MPH and MSW degree programs, therefore, emphasize training individuals in skills pertaining to environmental and community health, responding to natural disasters, dealing with disparities in health across population groups, and responding to epidemics.

Key areas of study, according to the ASPPH, include the following.

  • Biostatistics
  • Epidemiology
  • Health policy and management
  • Maternal and child health
  • Health promotion and communication
  • Minority health
  • Behavioral and social science

MSW Degree Program Overview

An MSW program will emphasize key areas of study that are common among medical professions, but then extend to specific social issues that are vital to treatment in the field. This can include the study of clinical practice, ethics, legal issues surrounding social work, substance abuse counseling, children and family counseling, and similar disciplines.

While the focus on community health and the promotion of well-being are evident across both MSW and MPH disciplines, the two professions pursue those goals in different ways. A social worker may have expertise in understanding health care delivery systems and behavioral psychology, but those skills will be used differently in a typical public health role.

Where a public health professional will usually look at issues from the top down and work to solve them, the social worker will take a more personal approach, helping people deal with health problems and navigate both care and social systems.

In many cases, the two professions can actually benefit from working with one another. In fact, the paper “A Social Work Approach to Policy: Implications of Population Health,” published in the American Journal of Public Health, concluded that social workers can function as allies for the public health sector, as both groups deal with population health disparities.

Differences Between MPH and MSW

In the simplest terms, social workers treat individuals and interact directly with them while working to address larger issues that may impact the well-being of those in the community. Public health professionals, on the other hand, focus more extensively on identifying conditions that impact large groups. Those in public health also establish strategies to counter large-scale health risks and promote healthy populations. These two disciplines are not mutually exclusive, however. In a recent report from the industry publication Social Work Today, the impact of climate change on the practice of social work was discussed.

According to the news source, many social workers who serve communities in states such as Louisiana, Florida, Texas, and other regions, are responding to more weather-related needs. These areas are frequently affected by hurricanes and extreme weather that many believe can be attributed to climate change. This situation, in turn, is leading to extra strain on these individuals and communities.

The report explained that extreme weather, in the form of hurricanes or other natural disasters, can often have an outsized impact on the at-risk populations that social workers serve. As public awareness about these issues is often lacking, it can be difficult to properly advocate for these individuals and position them to get the help they need to recover or prevent future problems. As such, social workers, to meet the day-to-day needs of their constituents, need to get involved in the larger public health conversations surrounding climate change.

Social workers clearly play a role in public health initiatives, but the other skills involved in the profession, such as individual counseling and advocacy, stand apart. This is where the differences between the MPH vs. MSN degrees become clearer.

MPH Careers and Salary

When it comes to deciding between earning an MPH vs. an MSW, it’s important for prospective students to consider what future careers they’d like to pursue. Those who graduate with a Master of Public Health degree can choose from a variety of epidemiology careers. Here are a few options.

Nutritional Epidemiologist

Nutritional epidemiologists research how nutrition and the diets of populations have an impact on people’s health. Their studies contribute to the science of public health nutrition in the field of applied public health. They can work in offices and laboratories for the state or local government. Since they are active in the communities they serve, they may be required to travel to conduct their studies.

Chronic Disease Epidemiologist

Chronic disease epidemiologists seek to understand how different chronic diseases have evolved, become more pervasive, or changed over time. They conduct research on how to treat diseases and disorders. They collect and analyze data to assess the cause of diseases, and plan educational projects to help prevent their spread.

Epidemiologist Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), epidemiologists earned a median annual salary of $70,990 as of May 2019.

MSW Careers and Salary

Individuals who are considering an MPH vs. MSW and leaning toward a master’s in social work can consider pursuing the following careers.

Clinical Social Worker

Clinical social workers focus on working with individuals, families, and groups. They commonly deal with issues such as mental health, and emotional and behavioral disorders. They identify people who need help, teach them coping strategies, and establish treatment plans with physicians. Clinical social workers primarily work in private practices, or in individual and family service agencies.

Hospice Social Worker

Hospice social workers primarily serve individuals who are at the end of their life. They provide emotional support for family members and assist them with insurance and medical paperwork. They are responsible for maintaining records and files, and helping clients connect to any additional resources they may need.

Social Worker Salary

Social workers earned a median annual salary of $50,470 as of May 2019, according to the BLS.

Choosing Between MPH vs. MSW

An MPH may be a great fit if you are interested in solving health problems and helping the public, but aren’t as interested in the day-to-day care of treating patients. If you want to help individuals and promote community services, however, pursuing an MSW may be best for you. This is particularly true if you are interested in providing clinical therapy, as an MSW is needed for licensure in many states.

Whether you pursue an MPH or an MSW, you can enter a broad and exciting field. With an MSW, however, you’ll not only have opportunities to impact individual lives at the micro level, but can also play a role in public health initiatives and potentially steer your career in that direction over time.

Learn more about what the Regis College online MSW program can do for your career journey, particularly in the area of counseling.

Recommended Readings

The Role and Responsibilities of a Hospice Social Worker

Social Work or Psychology: Which Master’s Degree Is Right for You?

What is an MSW and What Can I Do with It?


ASPPH, “Discover: What is Public Health by the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health”

NCBI, “A Social Work Approach to Policy: Implications for Population Health from the American Journal of Public Health”

Social Work Today, “Climate Change and Public Health: How Social Workers Can Advocate for Environmental Justice”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Epidemiologists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers