If you’re interested in a therapy-focused career path, understanding the difference between an MSW vs counseling master’s degree is key to finding the perfect program for you. This includes learning about the different courses you may take, concentrations available, and different career paths each concentration entails.

While both a Master in Social Work and a Counseling Master’s degree may prepare you for a career in mental health counseling, an MSW and a master’s in counseling provide a different focus and require different licensure.

MSW vs counseling - Masters of social work vs counseling

MSW vs Counseling: Understanding the Differences

The differences between social work and counseling begins with where the work is done. For example, counseling typically takes place in therapeutic settings, such as a therapist’s office or in a group therapy session.

On the other hand, social work typically takes place in direct settings. These include schools, court houses, health centers, hospitals, and many others.

As a result, while pursuing the different degrees, programs strive to teach how to help clients and patients in these various settings and the various theories and research that applies to each field.

What Is the Difference Between Social Workers and Counselors?

There are many differences between social work and counseling, including the key topics of each field, the settings where each professional works, and the coursework you’ll perform while you earn your degree.

However, there is an overlap between the Master in Counseling and Master of Social Work degrees. Both degrees require graduates to pursue state licensure. Both could provide the skills to provide counseling to people and groups in need. These degree programs also require a minimum number of hours of supervised field instruction in an area of primary interest.

Key Topics in Social Work

One of the main differences between the two disciplines is that social workers are to some extent, advocators. They often provide a wide range of other services to their clients such as referring out to other professionals or investigating child abuse. (Source: BLS.gov)

Also, social work often relates to reaching into the client’s community for extra resources to answer specific needs. For instance, a social worker might try to help families find housing, food stamps, or locate foster parents for a child.

Basically, social workers often learn how think systematically (the big picture) to work towards social change. MSW students might therefore study to understand the causes and possible individual solutions to the challenges of some of society’s hot button topics such as:

  • Homelessness
  • Human trafficking
  • Diversity (LGTBQ)
  • Inclusion
  • Equity
  • Substance abuse
  • Poverty

Take This Test to See If a MSW Might Be Right for You

  1. Do you want to research, refer, and advocate for community resources to assist and improve a client’s well-being?
  2. Are you hoping to work with underprivileged individuals, families and communities?
  3. Would you like to treat people who have problems related to mental illness, poor health, unemployment, homelessness, substance abuse, child neglect, and other complex social issues?

Key Topics in Counseling

Counselors focus on helping individuals and families who have a specific set of problems or need treatment for a mental health disorder. They might encourage clients to talk about emotions and then, use tactics to get them to replace negative patterns with ones that are more life-enhancing.

Usually, a Masters in Counseling provides coursework in counseling theories and psychological testing. Essentially, these programs cover everything related to modern diagnostic, therapeutic, and consultative skills.

Take this Test to See if Counseling Might Be Right for You

  1. Do you want to guide clients through the process of making key decisions and choices?
  2. Would you like to study the family systems perspective?
  3. Are you interested in working with patients to help them understand their problems and identify their strengths?
Top States for Employment for Social Workers, All Other
StateEmploymentAnnual Mean Wage
New York7,940$64,170
South Carolina2,500$41,830

Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Is an MSW?

Social Work Master’s programs aim to help students learn solution-focused therapy, motivational interviewing, and cognitive behavior therapy, as well as the skills and theories to challenge social injustice and change systems of care.

Curricula may feature courses in social administration, public policy, research and ethics, and usually requires a supervised clinical practicum to develop the skills to assess and intervene in their chosen emphasis.

List of 5 MSW Concentrations and Types of Social Workers

While all MSW programs teach a foundation of helping those who cannot or are unable to help themselves live a productive life, many schools offer a variety of concentrations that tailor your curriculum to a specific type of social work.

Check out the following five MSW concentrations.

1. Military Social Work

Military social workers play a key role in helping veterans, active service members and their families deal with challenges unique to military life, such as:

  • Anxiety of active duty
  • Stress of upcoming deployment
  • Coping with physical and psychological effects upon returning
  • Working with families who are stretched emotionally and financially

2. Child and Family Social Workers

In this concentration, students analyze how to protect vulnerable children and help families in need as these are the integral building blocks of the larger social environment. In addition, many programs teach how to address child and family mental health through prevention and treatment programs.

Usually, the curriculum for child and family social worker concentrations focuses on:

  • Mental health
  • Poverty
  • Unemployment
  • Substance abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Rehabilitation
  • Social adjustment
  • Child care
  • Medical care

3. Health Care Social Workers

MSW programs that offer a health or health care concentration, such as the partner program below, analyze techniques and methods of psycho-social support needed by persons, families and groups when it comes to chronic, acute, or terminal illness.

In addition, these programs examine issues such as:

  • Promote health
  • Disease prevention
  • Barriers to healthcare access
  • Medicare and Medicaid related paperwork
  • Treatment and rehabilitation

4. School Social Workers

In this concentration, students analyze how to work with teachers, parents, and school administrators to help children and adolescents with their academic performance and social development.

Various courses usually include examining topics such as:

  • Aggressive behavior
  • Bullying
  • Teenage pregnancy
  • Misbehavior
  • Promote academic success
  • Healthy social and emotional development
  • Abuse

5. Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers

In order to prepare students how to assess and treat individuals and groups with mental, emotional, or substance abuse problems, mental health and substance abuse concentrations offered by schools such as the sponsored listing below, strive to teach various treatment modalities, as well as a theoretical understanding of mental illness and what various substances do to the brain.

Those who pursue a MSW with a mental health and substance abuse study topics such as:

  • Abuse of alcohol
  • Tobacco, and/or other drugs, such as opioids
  • Crisis intervention
  • Case management
  • Client advocacy
  • Prevention
  • Education

Fun Fact:

There were 29,546 graduates from social work master’s programs in 2018-2019. The states with most graduates were New York (12.6%), California (10.6%), Texas (6.3%), and Illinois (5.7%) according to the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

What Is a Masters in Counseling?

A MS in Counseling is usually planned-out to give students a broad academic background in mental health counseling, advanced coursework in one or more selected emphasis, and supervised field experience.

The practicum usually relates to the chosen concentration. For example, if your aim is to provide therapy to recovering addicts, your fieldwork might have you gain hands-on skills at an outpatient center.

Here are 5 examples of basic MS in Counseling courses:

  1. Pharmacology and Medical Issues
  2. Psychopathology
  3. Foundations of Counseling and Psychotherapy
  4. Counseling Theories and Applications
  5. Family Development

List of 5 Types of MS in Counseling Concentrations

Though there are some overlapping principles between counseling and social work, many of the concentrations available in counseling are focused on helping patients overcome specific obstacles and challenges in their lives to continue living a productive life.

1. Marriage and Family Therapists (MFT)

Marriage and family therapy master’s programs teach students how to help people manage problems with their family and other relationships by improving interpersonal communication and conflict resolution.

Some of the key topics of MFT programs are:

  • Unhealthy relationships
  • Divorce and separation
  • Child rearing
  • Home management
  • Financial difficulties

Tip for Choosing a Marriage and Family Therapy Program:

Look for COAMFTE accredited MFT programs.

Source: BLS.org

2. Rehabilitation Counselors

By taking a holistic approach to helping people with physical, mental, developmental, or emotional disabilities live independently, rehabilitation counseling master’s programs, such as the partner program below, examine various therapeutic approaches and usually require an internship or supervised clinical experience.

Some of the key topics in rehabilitation counseling are:

  • Personal and vocational counseling
  • Training
  • Job placement

3. Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors

By studying contemporary treatment and intervention models used to promote recovery, a substance abuse and behavioral disorder master’s strives to prepare you to address the unique challenges of individuals and families struggling to overcome addiction and other issues.

Some of the key topics that courses analyze include:

  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco
  • Drugs
  • Other problems, such as gambling and eating disorders

4. Art Therapy

By combining artistic expression, psychology, and counseling practice, to improve clients’ physical, cognitive, or emotional wellness, many art therapy master’s programs, such as the sponsored listing below, teach fine arts training and clinical experience so that you have the ability to apply lessons studied and researched in class.

Master’s in counseling students who choose an art therapy concentration examine how to assess client needs or disorders using:

  • Drawing
  • Painting
  • Sculpting
  • Other artistic processes

5. School and Career Counselors

Masters in career counseling schools, including programs such as the one offered by the partner program below, strive to teach how to develop the academic and social skills to perform successfully in school and how to guide others in meeting their career goals.

Career counselors help people develop skills, explore a career, or choose a vocational program to prepare for a career, usually by using various personality and aptitude tests to help clients discover their strengths and weakness.

Some of the key topics that you’ll examine in a school and career counseling master’s degree are:

  • Bullying
  • Drug abuse
  • Planning for college or careers after graduation
  • Resume help
  • Workplace conflict resolution
Top Salary Metro Areas in the United States: Dentists, All Other Specialists
Metro AreaAnnual Mean SalaryEmployment
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA$184,7400
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA$179,430100
Nashville-Davidson--Murfreesboro--Franklin, TN$178,8300
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA$178,550410
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA$173,1100

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Get Matched with a Master of Social Work or Counseling Program

Now that you understand the difference between an MSW vs counseling master’s degree, it’s time to find the perfect program for you.

Click on any of the sponsored listings on this page or use the form to get matched to programs that fit your criteria. Then, you can easily check out common curriculum, available concentrations and social work career paths, and learn how to apply today!

Or, continue reading about CSWE Accredited MSW Programs, Advanced Standing MSW Programs or how to become a social worker.

All Partner Schools with MSW (or Related) Programs


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