Online Masters in Social Work (MSW) vs. Master’s in Psychology Degree Programs

Social Work (MSW) vs. Master’s in Psychology


Master’s of Social Work (MSW) vs Master’s in Psychology – Which Degree is Right for You? 

Psychology and social work professionals are trained to understand people’s behaviors and help guide them through challenging experiences. As a result, if you’re passionate about helping others, a Master’s in Social Work (MSW) and a Master’s in Psychology might be equally appealing.

Despite their obvious similarities, these degree programs have significant differences in focus and potential career opportunities. In this article, we’ll explore what each program involves and how to decide which one is right for you.

Differences Between Masters in Social Work vs Psychology?


An essential aspect of any degree program is its accreditation status. Accreditation ensures that the institution or program meets certain quality standards.

For MSW programs, the primary accrediting body is the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Prospective students should look for CSWE-accredited programs, as these meet the established standards for social work education. CSWE accreditation can also be crucial for licensure and job prospects. Many CSWE accredited online MSW programs offer students the ability to pursue their degrees with more flexibility.

Accreditation for psychology programs is primarily provided by the American Psychological Association (APA). However, the APA currently only accredits doctoral programs. Consequently, students pursuing a master’s degree in psychology should ensure their program is regionally accredited and has a strong reputation.


The curricula of MSW and psychology master’s programs reflect the distinct focus of each field.

MSW programs typically offer a broad curriculum covering micro, mezzo, and macro levels of social work practice. This can include courses on human behavior, social welfare policy, research methods, ethical practices, and diversity. They also usually require fieldwork, giving students practical experience in social work settings.

On the other hand, master’s in psychology programs delve into the study of human thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Areas of study may cover cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, psychopathology, and statistical analysis. The curriculum often leans more towards research, and some programs might offer a thesis or non-thesis option depending on students’ interests and career goals.


Both MSW and psychology master’s programs offer a range of specializations reflecting the diversity within each field.

In social work, students might choose to specialize in areas like:

  • Child and family welfare
  • Trauma and domestic abuse
  • Adult wellness and mental health
  • Mental health care for the elderly
  • Administration and leadership

These concentrations allow students to focus their studies and fieldwork on specific populations or aspects of social work.

Master’s in psychology students also have numerous specialization options. These can include:

  • Clinical psychology
  • Counseling psychology
  • Forensic psychology
  • Industrial-organizational psychology
  • School psychology

Each specialization provides more in-depth knowledge and can guide the student’s career trajectory.


Licensure requirements vary significantly between the two fields. With an MSW, graduates can pursue licensure as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in most states, enabling them to provide therapy services independently. The specific requirements can vary by state but typically include completing a certain amount of supervised clinical experience and passing a licensure exam.

In many states, a master’s degree in psychology isn’t sufficient to obtain licensure. However, it’s a critical step toward earning a doctoral degree, which is the typical requirement to become a licensed psychologist. Some states have licenses for master’s-level psychologists, such as psychological examiners, psychological technicians, and school psychologists, but their scope of practice may be limited compared to doctoral-level psychologists.

Career Options

While both fields open doors to careers helping others, the specific job roles can differ.

MSW graduates can work in various roles, from clinical practice as LCSWs to roles in community outreach, policy development, or social work administration. Specific career paths include working in schools, substance abuse facilities, and healthcare environments.

In contrast, a master’s degree in psychology can lead to roles in research, counseling (with appropriate licensure), human resources, or academic settings. Some graduates may choose to continue their education with a doctoral degree to expand their career opportunities and potentially become licensed psychologists.


Salaries in both fields can vary widely based on factors like specialization, location, experience, and the specific job role. On average, psychologists tend to earn higher salaries, particularly those with doctoral degrees. However, LCSWs and social workers in certain specialties or roles can also earn competitive salaries.

As always, it’s important to research salary expectations in your specific area of interest and geographical location. According to PayScale, these are the salary ranges for some psychology and social work professionals:

  • Licensed clinical professional counselors (master’s degree holders): $34,000 – $63,000
  • LCSWs (master’s degree in social work holders): $48,000 – $85,000
  • Psychologists (doctorate holders): $66,000 – $133,000
  • Medical social workers (doctorate holders): $72,000 – $111,000

Remember these are median salaries and actual earnings fluctuate based on various factors mentioned above.

Similarities Between Master’s in Psychology and MSW Programs

Education Requirements

To pursue either an MSW or a master’s in psychology, you’ll typically need a bachelor’s degree. Many students come from a related undergraduate program, such as an online BSW or an online bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Online BSW Options

Both degrees offer online programs, allowing flexibility for working professionals or those with other commitments. You can pursue an online MSW with no GRE or an online master’s degree in psychology.

Focus on Helping Others

Both fields are dedicated to understanding and improving human lives, albeit from slightly different angles. Social work often focuses on macro-level societal factors, while psychology tends to delve into individual mental processes and behavior.

MSW vs Masters in Psychology: Which Degree is Right for Me?

When choosing between a master’s in psychology and a master’s in social work, the decision can be challenging. Each program offers unique opportunities and career paths. Analyzing some key points may help you better understand each program and identify the one that’s best suited to your skills and interests.

Factors to Consider When Choosing Between Master’s Degrees

While every student’s academic path depends on unique circumstances, there are some factors that are likely to have a significant influence on your decision, including:

  1. Personal interests: A career is usually more fulfilling if it aligns with your passions, so reflect on what you find most engaging. Are you more intrigued by the human mind and behavior or motivated by social change and helping communities?
  2. Career goals: Think about your long-term career aspirations. Do you see yourself working one-on-one with patients as a clinical psychologist in private practice, or would you prefer to become a social worker who guides clients through their daily challenges?
  3. Licensing and practice: Consider your desire to practice independently or in a clinical setting. Licensing requirements vary for psychology and social work.
  4. Educational investment: Consider the time and financial commitment for each program and evaluate the return on investment.

Who is a Master’s of Social Work Better For?

A Master of Social Work (MSW) is an ideal degree for individuals who want to commit their professional lives to social change, advocacy, and supporting people and communities. MSW programs often emphasize practical skills and hands-on experience through fieldwork.

Overview of Degree Program, Requirements, and Curriculum

  • Duration: Typically 2 years (full-time).
  • Curriculum: Courses may include social policy, human behavior, research methods, ethics, and diversity.
  • Fieldwork: Most programs require extensive fieldwork for hands-on experience.
  • Accreditation: Look for programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

MSW Job Outlook

The job outlook for social workers is positive, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting a 9% growth rate from 2021 to 2031, which is faster than average for all occupations.

MSW Careers

  • Clinical Social Worker: These professionals provide therapy, counseling, and help clients manage a variety of life challenges. The therapy might focus on individuals, families, or groups dealing with issues like illness, divorce, or unemployment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for mental health and substance abuse social workers, which includes clinical social workers, was $49,130 in 2021.
  • School Social Worker: These social workers are employed in educational settings to identify problems with abuse or neglect and help students overcome obstacles to their education. They collaborate with teachers, parents, and school administrators to improve students’ academic outcomes and develop a safe and productive learning environment. The median annual salary for school social workers is about $49,150.
  • Healthcare Social Worker: Social workers specializing in health work with patients dealing with chronic or terminal illnesses, helping them understand their diagnoses and providing emotional support. They also offer guidance to family members and caregivers and offer patients education and counseling resources. The median annual wage for healthcare social workers was $60,840 in 2021.
  • Child and Family Social Worker: These professionals protect vulnerable children and help families in need of assistance. They address issues like child abuse and neglect, oversee adoptions, and secure foster homes for children living in unsafe environments. The median annual wage for child and family social workers was $49,150 in 2021.
  • Social Services Manager: Social services managers coordinate and supervise social service programs and community organizations. They manage workers who provide social services to the public and might also conduct research to identify necessary program improvements. The median annual pay for social and community service managers was $74,000 in 2021.
  • Policy Analyst: Social work policy analysts review public policies to determine how they will affect communities and individual needs, particularly for vulnerable populations. They recommend changes or actions in policy, usually for governments, political parties, or associations. The average salary for a policy analyst was around $63,600 as of 2023, according to PayScale.
  • Community Development Worker: These professionals help to ensure the well-being of residents within communities by developing improvement projects and creating connections with government agencies and service providers. This could involve setting up and managing community centers or initiatives. PayScale reports that community development coordinators in the U.S. earned an average salary of around $40,800 as of 2023.

Who is a Master’s of Psychology Better For?

A Master’s in Psychology is suited for individuals fascinated by the human mind and behavior. This program tends to be more research-focused and is often pursued by those interested in psychological assessment, counseling, or preparation for a doctoral program.

Overview of Degree Program, Requirements, and Curriculum

  • Duration: Typically 2 years (full-time).
  • Curriculum: Courses may include cognitive psychology, abnormal psychology, research methods, statistics, and theories of personality.
  • Thesis Option: Some programs offer thesis options for students interested in research.
  • Accreditation: While the APA doesn’t accredit master’s programs, regional accreditation is essential.

Master’s of Psychology Job Outlook

The employment of psychologists is projected to grow at a rate of 6% from 2021 to 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Specializations like clinical, counseling, and school psychology are expected to have higher demand.

Master’s of Psychology Careers

  • Mental Health Counselor: Mental health counselors help people manage and overcome mental and emotional disorders and problems with their family and relationships. They teach their clients coping strategies, assess their progress, and provide therapy services to overcome their problems. The median annual wage for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors was $48,520 in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Industrial-Organizational Psychologists: These professionals apply principles of psychology to human resources, administration, sales, and marketing problems in an organizational setting. They may undertake activities such as policy planning, employee testing and selection, training and development, and organizational development and analysis. As of May 2021, the median annual wage for industrial-organizational psychologists was $105,310.
  • School Psychologist: They work within the educational system to diagnose and treat behavior and learning problems in students. They collaborate with teachers, parents, and school personnel to develop specialized learning plans and address behavioral issues. The median annual wage for school psychologists was $78,780 in 2021.
  • Forensic Psychologist: Forensic psychologists assess people involved in legal cases and the criminal justice system, including suspects accused of crimes, to help judges, attorneys, and other legal professionals understand how psychology might have affected a particular case. They often conduct psychological evaluations and provide expert testimony in court. The median salary for this role in 2023 was around $77,100 per year, according to PayScale.
  • Geropsychologists: These professionals specialize in the mental well-being and the specific issues faced by older adults. They focus on issues common to elderly people, including cognitive decline, medical illnesses, and end-of-life care. According to PayScale, the median salary for psychologists with skills in geriatric care was approximately $81,600 in 2019.
  • Researcher: A researcher in psychology conducts studies and experiments to investigate various aspects of human behavior. They attempt to understand unknown elements of how the human mind works, as well as analyze the connections between behavior and various factors, such as biology, environment, and social interactions. The median salary for a professional in the psychology research and development industry is around $57,000 per year, according to PayScale.
  • Human Resources Manager: Human resource managers use psychological principles to guide the recruitment, selection, and training of staff. They might also handle employee relations, compensation and benefits, and training. The median annual wage for human resource managers was $126,230 in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Remember, whether you choose a Master’s in Psychology or a Master’s in Social Work, both options can lead to rewarding careers centered around helping others and making a meaningful difference in people’s lives.

Both Degree Options Are Solid Choices

Whether you choose an MSW or a Master’s in Psychology, you’re taking a step towards a fulfilling career. Both fields offer the opportunity to make a meaningful impact on people’s lives by helping them navigate mental health challenges, traumatic experiences, and complex relationships. The key to selecting a degree program lies in discovering which one leads to a professional path that you can envision pursuing for years to come.

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