MSW vs Counselor

Wondering whether to go into social work or counseling? Both a Masters in Social Work (MSW) and a Masters in Counseling (MA or MS) degree could be worthy grounding for a career in mental health care. Armed with your professional vision and personal interests, you could easily clarify which therapy-focused path is suitable for you.

MSW vs Counseling Coursework

The basic ingredients to either social work or counseling include the schooling required, professional outlook, and methods used in each avenue. At the academic level, the Masters is the way to go, but course lists are your window into the unique heart and soul of each program.

What Is an MSW?

Master of Social Work programs typically aim to help students learn solution-focused therapy, motivational interviewing, and cognitive behavior therapy. Social worker students are also taught 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. In tandem, students usually fulfill a supervised clinical practice and develop the skills to assess and intervene in their chosen emphasis.

Here are five examples of basic MSW courses.

  1. Human Development
  2. Relational and Group Process
  3. Cultural Diversity (E.g. racism, oppression)
  4. Social Welfare Policy and Services
  5. Advocacy and Policy

Types of Social Workers: MSW Concentrations

Along with the core courses, a MSW students should also take several classes in a preferred area of social work. This is where the fun part and your interests are put to task. Also you should know that each school is going to have its own set of MSW emphasis tracks

Military Social Work: Military social workers play a key role in helping veterans, active service members and their families must deal with challenges unique to military life. Check out partner school, USC- Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work for a MSW in Military Social Work.

Social Change and Community Advocacy: Social workers who are enthused about social justice and community engagement might look into partner schools such as Winthrop University, USC, and Sacred Heart University. OLLU's Worden School of Social Service offers a MSW in Hispanic/Latina children and families.

Child and Family Social Workers: Protect vulnerable children and help families in need. Key issues: mental health, poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, physical abuse, rehabilitation, social adjustment, child care, or medical care.i This emphasis could be offered at partner schools such as Boston University, USC, Anna Maria College and Simmons College. 

Healthcare Social Workers: Provide psycho-social support needed by persons, families and groups when it comes to chronic, acute or terminal illness. Key issues: promote health, prevent disease, address barriers to access to healthcare, Medicare and Medicaid related paperwork, referrals.ii For a focus in public health, you might look into partners  Catholic University of America, and USC (gerontology).

School Social Workers: Work with teachers, parents, and school administrators. Their goal is to help children and adolescents with their academic performance and social development. Key issues: aggressive behavior, bullying, teenage pregnancy, misbehavior, and truancy, abuse.i Perhaps consider USC, Simmons, and University of New England.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers: Assess and treat individuals (also group therapy) with mental, emotional, or substance abuse problems. Key issues: abuse of alcohol, tobacco, and/or other drugs (opioids), crisis intervention, case management, client advocacy, prevention, and education. See partner schools such as Edinboro University, Simmons College


Pennsylvania law recognizes two classes of social workers: Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and Licensed Social Worker (LSW). iii

What Is a Masters in Counseling?

Masters in Counseling Psychology programs typically use psychological science as the backbone of its curriculum. As a result, course lists might cover psychological testing. A MS in Counseling course list is usually planned-out to give students a broad academic background in mental health counseling, advanced course work in one or more selected emphasis, and supervised field experience. The practicum usually relates to the chosen emphasis, for 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

Types of Counselors: Counseling Concentrations

Different schools may have Counseling Masters programs that provide in-depth courses to prepare students for a variety of counseling options. See which appeals to you, then prepare wisely. 

Marriage and Family Therapists (MFT): Marriage and family therapists help people manage problems with their family and other relationships. Key issues: unhealthy relationships, divorce and separation, child rearing, home management, or financial difficulties. Tip- look for COAMFTE accredited MFT programs.iv 

Rehabilitation Counselors: Help people with physical, mental, developmental, or emotional disabilities live independently. Key issues: personal and vocational counseling, training, and job placement.Check out schools for Masters in Rehabilitation Counseling

Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors: May counsel groups, families and individuals to engage in prevention and/or treatment. Key issues: alcohol, tobacco, drug, or other problems, such as gambling and eating Check out partner schools with Masters in Substance Abuse Counseling and related programs. For instance, look for a Masters in Forensic Mental Health Counseling program at partner, William James College

Art Therapists: Plan or conduct art therapy sessions or programs to improve clients' physical, cognitive, or emotional wellness. Key issues: assess client needs or disorders using drawing, painting, sculpting, or other artistic processes.vii There are a variety of schools with Masters in Art Therapy Programs to choose from. 

School and Career Counselors: Masters in Career Counseling Schools could help students develop the academic and social skills to perform successfully in school. Career counselors help people develop skills, explore a career, or choose an vocational program to prepare for a career. Key issues: bullying, drug abuse, and planning for college or careers after graduation, resume help, workplace conflict resolution.viii 

What Is the Difference Between Social Workers and Counselors?

Yes, 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.

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. ix

If you have trouble thinking about this, remember the word “social” in “social worker.” This often relates to a reach 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 an alone child.

Basically, social workers often learn how think systematically (the big picture) to work towards social change. MSW students might therefore study to understand some of society’s hot button topics like homelessness, human trafficking, diversity (LGTBQ), inclusion, equity, substance abuse and poverty.

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

  • Do you want to research, refer, and advocate for community resources to assist and improve a client’s well-being?
  • Are you hoping to work with underprivileged individuals, families and communities?
  • 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?

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.

If you have trouble thinking about this, think of the “ing” in “counseling”. Usually, a Masters in Counseling provides basic coursework in counseling theories, and psychological testing. Sometimes, coaching. Essentially, everything related to modern diagnostic, therapeutic and consultative skills.

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

  • Do you want to guide clients through the process of making key decisions and choices?
  • Would you like to study the family systems perspective?
  • Are you interested in working with patients to help them understand their problems and identify their strengths?

Are Social Workers Counselors?

Are social workers counselors? Could a MSW do therapy? To the extent that social workers help people cope with challenges like health, divorce, substance abuse, poverty and provide psychotherapy, the short answer is yes.


That said, the initials you have alongside the MSW count. Many regulated fields like social work and counseling have standards for skills, ethics and thus use protected titles to set the professionally trained apart from those who are not licensed and may have questionable motives and methods. Take away: review licensure requirements.

CSW- LCSW: Clinical social workers (CSW) or licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) are social workers who are licensed to diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders.

The majority of states require LCSWs to hold a minimum of an earned MSW from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).x  Besides a masters degree in social work and to actually take the licensure exam with the Association of Social Work Boards, graduates may spend about two years post-degree in supervised fieldwork.

LPC – LMHC: In terms of counseling, you aren’t off the hook for licensure. Licensed Professional Counselors (LPC), Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHC) are those professionals who have met specific guidelines to be able to provide one-one counseling.

First, graduates need to earn an appropriate degree from a CACREP-accredited program. xi

Then, depending on the state, a LPC or LMHC may need to put in about 2,000 to 4,000 post-graduate supervised clinical hours. Once completed, and to be ‘licensed’ an exam needs to be passed with respective state boards.


Bottom line, MFT's treat patients as a part of a system or unit and typically have earned licensure through the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards. iv LCSW's assess patients and clients on an individual basis and are licensed with the ASWB. x

Get Matched with a Masters in Social Work or Counseling

You know what you want now here’s how to find it. Choose either a Masters in Social Work or Masters in Counseling as your starting point. Add in filters like city, state or country. Say you want to find MSW programs in Philadelphia or Masters in Counseling in Chicago. This generates a list of partner programs to review. Then, click to contact schools directly and right away.

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