Online Masters in Counseling vs Social Work Degree Programs

Whether you have a passion for helping individuals navigate personal challenges or advocating for social justice on a larger scale, a graduate degree in either counseling or social work can pave the way to a rewarding career. Both disciplines share a common goal – improving the well-being of individuals and communities – but there are important distinctions between them. This article provides an in-depth comparison between a master’s in counseling and a master’s in social work to help prospective students decide which program they prefer.

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Differences Between Master’s in Social Work vs Counseling


Accreditation is a review process that ensures an educational program meets or exceeds acceptable levels of quality. As such, regardless of whether you’re considering a master’s in social work or counseling, it’s vital to look for accredited programs.

For counseling, seek programs accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP). CACREP accredited online counseling programs maintain a high educational standard, ensuring students receive the necessary skills to provide quality mental health services. These programs also typically meet the educational requirements for licensure in most states.

Social work programs are usually accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). CSWE accredited master of social work programs follow a rigorous curriculum that equips students with both micro (individual) and macro (systemic) social work skills. CSWE accreditation also helps ensure eligibility for licensure.


While both counseling and social work aim to assist others, their respective curricula differ in approach and focus.

Master’s in Counseling

Master’s in counseling programs typically have a curriculum that emphasizes psychological theories, diagnostic skills, and psychotherapeutic techniques. Key courses often include:

  • Human Growth and Development: Understand the biological, psychological, and social changes that occur throughout life.
  • Theories of Counseling: Explore different therapeutic approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral, psychodynamic, and humanistic therapies.
  • Group Counseling Methods: Learn to facilitate group therapy, a powerful tool for change and growth.
  • Ethics in Counseling: Examine ethical guidelines and dilemmas in the counseling profession.
  • Crisis Intervention: Acquire the skills to provide immediate support during a mental health crisis.

Master’s in Social Work

A master’s in social work curriculum adopts a broader perspective. While it also includes training in therapeutic intervention, it offers a larger focus on societal issues. As a student in a social work master’s program, you might take essential courses such as:

  • Human Behavior in the Social Environment: Understand how social systems and structures influence individual behavior.
  • Social Policy: Study the influence of policy on social issues and learn to advocate for policy change.
  • Research Methods in Social Work: Learn to critically analyze research and use evidence-based practice in social work.
  • Community Organization: Explore strategies for community-level change and social justice advocacy.
  • Direct Practice Skills: Learn practical skills for working with individuals, families, and groups to address personal and social issues.


A master’s degree in either social work or counseling offers a variety of specializations to help students align their education with their career goals.

In counseling, potential specializations include:

  • Mental health counseling
  • School counseling
  • Marriage and family therapy
  • Rehabilitation counseling
  • Substance abuse counseling

Each of these concentrations focuses on distinct populations or settings, but all center around providing direct therapeutic services.

In contrast, social work specializations are wide-ranging, including:

  • Clinical social work
  • Medical social work
  • School social work
  • Child and family social work
  • Administration
  • Policy.

This reflects the profession’s broader scope, with opportunities in direct service, policy development, and systemic advocacy.


Both counseling and social work graduates typically require licensure to practice independently. This usually involves a specific number of supervised practice hours and passing a licensure examination. The specifics vary by state, so it’s essential to check the requirements where you plan to practice.

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Career Options

Master’s in Counseling

Graduates of master’s in counseling programs often work directly with individuals or groups struggling with mental health disorders, substance abuse, or personal challenges. They are equipped with skills to provide therapeutic services and may find employment in various roles.

Master’s in Social Work

Master’s in social work graduates can find employment in a broad range of settings, such as hospitals, schools, community agencies, mental health clinics, and government organizations. Their roles can span from direct service provision to policy analysis and advocacy.


While salaries for any profession can vary significantly based on factors such as location, years of experience, and area of specialization, both counseling and social work tend to offer competitive pay. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2021, the median annual wage for mental health counselors was $48,520.

There’s a slight difference between a social work vs counseling salary, as the median salary for social workers was slightly higher at $50,390 per year. No matter your intended profession, it’s essential to research specific roles and locations for a more accurate estimate of your potential earnings.

Similarities Between Master’s in Counseling vs Social Work

Education Requirements

To apply to either a master’s in counseling or social work program, you typically need a bachelor’s degree. An online bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field is a common pathway.

Online Options

Many universities now offer online master’s in counseling and online MSW programs that don’t require the GRE. This allows you to balance your studies with other life commitments.

Focus on Helping Others

Both fields are fundamentally about assisting individuals and communities in overcoming challenges to improve their quality of life. Their approach may differ, but the overall goal of improving the well-being of people and society is the same.

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Master’s in Counseling vs Social Work: Which Degree is Right for Me?

Who is a Master’s of Counseling Better For?

If you’re drawn to helping individuals navigate their mental and emotional health challenges through therapeutic interventions, a master’s degree in counseling might be your calling.

Master’s of Counseling Degree Program

A master’s in counseling program is designed to provide a comprehensive understanding of human psychology, diagnosis of mental and emotional health disorders, and therapeutic strategies. Here are some specific courses you might find in these programs :

  • Advanced Counseling Theories: This course dives into various therapeutic models, including cognitive-behavioral, humanistic, psychodynamic, and others, and their application in counseling practice.
  • Psychopathology and Diagnosis: Students learn to identify and diagnose mental health disorders using tools such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
  • Multicultural Counseling: This course explores the impact of culture, race, and ethnicity on the counseling process, emphasizing culturally competent therapeutic techniques.
  • Counseling Ethics: Students learn about ethical guidelines, privacy laws, and dilemmas in counseling practice.
  • Career Development and Counseling: This course explores career development theories and strategies to guide clients in their career paths.

Master’s of Counseling Career Options

Counseling is a fast-growing area of employment, with the opportunity to work with many different populations of clients.

Job Outlook

As society continues to recognize the importance of mental health, the demand for skilled counselors is on the rise. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects employment for mental health counselors will grow by 22% from 2021 to 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations. The need for rehabilitation counselors is also projected to grow by 11% over the same period, reflecting an increased need for their services in treating the aging population and those with disabilities.

Furthermore, the increasing emphasis on holistic approaches to student development in educational settings is also driving the demand for school counselors. The BLS projects a 10% growth rate for school and career counselors through 2031.

Counseling Careers

A master’s in counseling can lead to careers as a mental health counselor, school counselor, or substance abuse counselor, among others. Common titles within the field include:

  • Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs): LPCs provide mental health and substance abuse care to individuals, families, and groups. Some work in mental health centers or healthcare facilities, while others open private practices.
  • Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs): LMFTs specialize in helping couples and families navigate relationship issues and familial stressors. They can work in private practice, community agencies, or outpatient care centers.
  • School Counselors: School counselors support students’ academic, career, and social/emotional development in K-12 education settings. They work closely with teachers, administrators, and parents to create a supportive environment for students.
  • Rehabilitation Counselors: These professionals help people with physical, mental, developmental, or emotional disabilities learn to live independently. They might work in community rehabilitation centers, senior living facilities, or government agencies.
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Who is a Master’s of Social Work Better For?

If you’re passionate about social justice, advocacy, and working at both individual and systemic levels, a master’s degree in social work might be ideal. Digging into the details of the program and possible career paths can help determine whether it’s a good fit.

Master’s of Social Work Degree Program

The curriculum of a master’s in social work program offers a broader focus on personal and societal issues. Here are some key courses commonly found in these programs:

  • Social Welfare Policy and Services: Students learn about social welfare policies, their historical development, and their impact on diverse populations.
  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment: This course explores how social systems and structures impact individual behavior and societal issues.
  • Social Work Research: Students learn to critically analyze research, understand statistics, and apply findings to social work practice.
  • Direct Practice in Social Work: This course offers practical skills for working with individuals, families, and groups across various settings.
  • Social Work Leadership and Management: Students are introduced to the principles and practices of effective leadership and management in social service organizations.

Master’s of Social Work Career Options

The social work field includes a variety of occupations with strong job stability.

Job Outlook

Social workers play a crucial role in advocating for and assisting individuals, families, and communities facing a wide range of challenges. As such, the job outlook for social work is also promising. The BLS projects a 9% growth rate for social workers overall from 2021 to 2031, faster than the average for all occupations.

Within the field of social work, certain specialties are projected to experience particularly robust growth. For instance, the employment of healthcare social workers is expected to increase by 11% due to the increased demand for healthcare and social services. Mental health and substance abuse social workers can also expect an 11% increase, reflecting a growing substance abuse crisis and increased demand for mental health treatment.

Social Work Careers

Graduates of social work master’s programs can pursue careers in various sectors, including healthcare social work, school social work, or community social work. Potential positions include:

  • Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs): LCSWs provide direct services, including assessment, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental illness, as well as other psychological and emotional disturbances. They can work in private practice, hospitals, or community mental health centers.
  • Child and Family Social Workers: These professionals support children and families facing various challenges, like poverty, abuse, or health issues. They often work in government agencies, schools, or non-profit organizations.
  • Healthcare Social Workers: Healthcare social workers support patients and their families to navigate the healthcare system, understand diagnoses, and cope with related personal, emotional, and financial issues. They typically work in hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare settings.
  • Community Social Workers: These social workers focus on larger societal challenges, such as poverty, inequality, and social justice. They may work for community organizations, advocacy groups, or government agencies.
image of two graduation caps

Both Master’s Degrees Are Good Options

Both a master’s in counseling and a master’s in social work can lead to fulfilling careers making a real difference in people’s lives. Deciding which is the best choice often comes down to considering what approach you want to take to your work.

For example, if you prefer offering individual therapy, a counseling degree is likely the more logical option, while an interest in reshaping public policy is better served by a social work degree. Whichever path you choose, you’ll be equipped to help other people overcome their challenges and change their futures in meaningful ways.

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