By: Kate Quick
Many aspiring helping professionals struggle to understand the difference between Social Work and Counseling. While these fields are similar, there are key things that distinguish them, and it is important for students to understand these differences so that they make smart decisions on which career to pursue.
Let us begin with the ways that Social Work and Counseling overlap. Both professions are considered helping professions, or jobs in which professionals work with individuals to improve their quality of life by treating their physical, mental, social, or spiritual health. Both social workers and counselors have goals to assess situations and to improve lives, especially within marginalized groups. Both professions require at least a master’s degree, and both social workers and counselors can treat mental health issues through the administration of therapy after obtaining the appropriate licensure. Many of the therapeutic skills and practices used in mental healthcare are shared between the two professionals.
Both professions have robust backgrounds that support the implementation of their practices. While there are many shared components, the frameworks of the two professions differ. Social work focuses more on the systems that operate to support and oppress groups, and to better understand an individual’s life, it should be considered in the context of the systems that drive that individual’s interactions. While counselors can work with groups and promote societal change, a counselor’s work is more targeted and focuses more on the client versus societal or group dynamics.
Social work can operate on micro, mezzo, and macro levels. Through micro-level practice, social workers directly work with individuals to assist in their coping. In mezzo-level practice, social workers work with groups, such as families or specific communities. At the macro-level, social workers lead and establish social change on a large scale through organizing, influencing policies, and administration.
Counseling typically does not exceed mezzo-level services. Counseling is client-centered and focused on client change. Counselors employ interventions that help their clients identify harmful behaviors, work through negative emotions, and develop skills and coping mechanisms to change behavior and to improve mood. Another unique component to counseling is that it has foundations and many theories based in psychology and brain-based sciences. Many times, counselors use these psychological theories to diagnose and treat mental health disorders.
Educational Requirements & Licensure
Individuals can work entry-level positions, such as a case manager or intake coordinator, in either social work or counseling. However, for both professions, attending graduate school is highly recommended or required for a professional career and/or higher-level positions.
For aspiring social workers, individuals may graduate with a master’s degree in social work (MSW) and apply for their Licensed Social Worker (LSW) licensure. If an individual only holds a bachelor of social work (BSW) degree, they must obtain three years of supervised experience under an LSW or LCSW before they can apply for LSW licensure. Without an LSW, social workers cannot participate in clinical work.
All social work educational programs must be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), and many programs, like the DePaul University MSW program, offer concentrations in various areas, such as community practice, forensic social work, clinical mental health social work, school social work, etc.
In Illinois, MSWs are no longer required to take any licensure exam to become an LSW. To become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), individuals must obtain a specified amount of supervision hours and pass the Association of Social Work Boards examination.
For aspiring counselors, individuals must graduate with at least a master’s degree in counseling to become licensed. The program must be accredited by a nationally-recognized accreditation body, such as the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), which DePaul also offers. In Illinois, once students have completed their graduate programs, they must pass the National Counselor Examination and submit an application to the state to obtain their Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) licensure. After a minimum of two years and a certain amount of supervised hours, LPCs are eligible to extend their LPC license to a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC), but this requires taking the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination. Only LCPCs and LCSWs can practice independently and own private practices, hence why many helping professionals extend their licensing.
*I have described Illinois requirements. The amount of supervised hours required and the exact title of licensure will fluctuate depending on the state.
*For both social work and counseling, other concentrations such as school or higher education, may require different licenses, depending on the state.
Common Places of Employment
There is much overlap between the settings in which social workers and counselors can work. Here are some common examples of places in which either may work.
-Community health clinics
-K-12 schools or universities
-Military and veteran care centers
-Senior or geriatric care centers
While it is more common for social workers to serve in larger settings and social or public welfare agencies, such as the Department of Child and Protective Services, this is not a hard and fast rule. As long as professionals have the appropriate licensure and credentials, counselors and social workers can work in any of these settings.
Common Tasks and Duties
There is a lot of overlap between social workers’ and counselors’ tasks and responsibilities, but there are some key differences in their desired goals. Social workers typically provide assistance to improve struggling individuals’ levels of functioning and sense of stability. Assistance can range from tackling unemployment, child abuse or neglect, homelessness, legal issues, food insecurity, or access to medical care.
Social workers are more commonly engaged in advocacy, policy change, and the coordination of resources than counselors.
Counselors can still engage in all of the above tasks, but their main goal is focused on providing therapy to clients with mental health issues, such as anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, grief, etc. Additionally, it is more common for counselors to take on specialties, such as addiction counseling or marriage and family counseling. See the below chart for more specific differences between the two fields:
|Identify communities in need of support||Diagnose and treat mental health disorders|
|Advocate for communities through participating in social services||Design effective treatment plans and track progress of client change|
|Focus on social change and policy||Help clients understand how trauma, stress, and cognitive abilities affect mental health|
|Coordinate resources for individuals in marginalized communities||Evaluate the effectiveness of treatment plans|
|Provide temporary therapy or counseling to clients||Aid clients in developing skills to better manage conflict of life stressors|
Career & Salaries
For both social workers and counselors, job outlooks are promising. More and more people are seeking professional help for mental health issues, which in turn has increased the projected growth and need for all mental health professionals, regardless of background.
Projected growth of social worker careers is 7% from 2022 to 2032, which is faster than the average for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates an average of 63, 800 openings for jobs each year over the next decade. The median annual salary for social workers in May 2022 was $55,350. See the Bureau of Labor Statistics for more information on social work projections.
Counseling careers are expected to grow even more than social work occupations. Projected growth of counseling careers is 18% from 2022-2032, which is faster than social work occupations and significantly faster than the average for all occupations. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates an average of 42,000 openings for jobs each year over the next decade. The median annual salary was lower for counselors than it was for social workers at $49,710 in May 2022. See the Bureau of Labor Statistics for more information on counseling projections.
When considering which helping profession to pursue, it is important to consider that neither is objectively better than the other. In both careers, there is opportunity to achieve change. In social work, this might be at a group or systems level, whereas in counseling, it may be more at the individual level. Regardless, both careers provide ample ways to help others and build a career dedicated to helping others. To assist in deciding which career is for you, this Mental Health Professions Career Test might help.
Feeling lost and don’t know where to start? DePaul’s Career Center, your professors, and your budding professional network are your trusty sidekick in this adventure. We’ll show you how to find your guiding star, from sharpening your pitch to finding internships and building a killer network.
Book an appointment with Kate, or another member of the advising community through Handshake, or by calling the front desk at (773) 325-7431.