MSW vs Counseling: What’s the difference

MSW vs Counseling: what is the difference?

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 of 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.

written by Rana Waxman

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 an MSW?

Master of Social Work 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.

  • Accredited online university
  • Take one or two core courses at a time and complete as many as you want in 12 weeks for one flat fee*
  • Competency-based curriculum delivers both foundation knowledge and real-world skills, so that what you’re learning in your courses is immediately applicable to your career goals.

*Books, supplies, and other fees apply. Military Tuition Assistance (TA) is not available for FlexPath.

Check out the following five MSW concentrations and some partner programs that offer each below.

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

Check out the sponsored listing below.

University of Southern California (USC)

The Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work at USC offers a:

This is the only program of its kind offered by a civilian research university and allows students the opportunity to explore strategies helping those who have dedicated their lives to protecting our freedom.

Other MSW programs at USC are:

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 carei

Some partner programs that offer MSW programs are:

Boston University

Fully accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the School of Social Work at Boston University strives to develop dynamic and diverse social work practitioners, leaders, and scholars through advanced coursework.

One of five concentrations for the Master of Social Work at BU is Children, Youth, and Families, which examines how families pass on cultural values to the next generation and how to promote the healthy growth and development of children.

Columbia University

Designed for students who want to help others, advocated on the behalf of those who can’t advocate for themselves, and who want to learn which evidence-based tools can promote social change, the Master of Social Work at Columbia offers four concentrations and seven fields of practice.

One of these options is the Family, Youth, and Children’s Services, which teaches how to connect children, youth, and families with a range of preventative, protective, and other social services.

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 rehabilitationii

University of Michigan

Offering a 60-credit-hour program, the University of Michigan offers four curriculum schedules for the MSW program so that you can discover the option that fits your schedule and goals. Plus, the school offers four concentrations and five practice areas.

One of the practice areas for the Master of Social Work (MSW) at Michigan is health, which prepares students for different health care systems and settings and how to work with individuals, families, groups, and organizations on various health care issues.

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
  • Abuseiii

Check out the partner program below.

The University of Chicago

Offering an AM degree, otherwise known as atrium magister (master of arts), in social work, which is academically equivalent to an MSW, The University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration combines direct social work practice with policy development, interdisciplinary research, and social science theory.

The School Social Work concentration for the Social Work AM requires a field placement so that students have the chance to apply the research and analysis they do in classes by working directly with children, teachers, and parents.

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

Sponsored Listings

Simmons College

The School of Social Work at Simmons College offers a rigorous, hands-on, and specialized education. Created in 1904 as the nation’s first institute of higher learning to offer training for clinical social workers, Simmons offers full-time, accelerated, part-time, online, and advance-standing options for their Master of Social Work (MSW).

In addition, Simmons offers four clinical concentrations, which includes a Mental Health and Addictions option. This program combines field settings with coursework to teach students how to rapidly perform:

  • Thorough assessments
  • Evaluations
  • Formulations

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

Check out the sponsored listing below for an example of an MFT master’s program.

Tip for Choosing a Marriage and Family Therapy Program:

Look for COAMFTE accredited MFT programs.


Northcentral University

Through rigorous training and coursework, NCU strives to help you develop into a competent, ethical, culturally-sensitive, and licensable marriage and family therapist who will make a difference in your community.

Offered completely online, the marriage and family therapy concentrations require practicum, internships, and clinical supervision activities that include traditional engagement.

Some of the MFT program available at NCU are:

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 placementv

South University

Designed for those interested in helping people in need, South University offers a Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling that can help you become a compassionate professional counselor.

The curriculum is designed to prepare you to perform expected competencies in an ethical, legal, safe, and effective manner.

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 disordersvi

Check out the partner program below for an example of a counseling master’s degree in substance abuse and behavioral disorders.

Walden University

In addition to the general Clinical Mental Health Counseling master’s, Walden University offers five concentrations to help you tailor your education to meet your goals. One of these concentrations is the:

This program analyzes modern research and theories on the treatment, case management, and assessment of patients, and how to help them and their families cope with their unique struggles.

Walden also offers a:

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 processesvii

Emporia State University

The Art Therapy program at Emporia State University teaches how to utilize art media, images, the creative process, and patient / client responses to the created productions as reflections of an individual’s development, concerns, and conflicts.

The two-year Master of Science in Art Therapy Counseling is one of only a handful in the central United States that is approved by the American Art Therapy Association (AATA).

Sponsored Listings

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 resolutionviii

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:

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?

Get Matched with a Master of Social Work or Counseling

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 learn how to apply today!

Or, continue reading about CSWE Accredited MSW Programs or Advanced Standing MSW Programs.

All Partner Schools with MSW (or Related) Programs