Social Work vs. Psychology

Both social work and psychology are fields that equip others with the necessary tools to help themselves. Social work and psychology are oriented towards the same outcome: recognizing and treating mental illness, and empowering individuals to improve their own lives. While they sometimes overlap and intersect, each profession approaches their work with individuals in a distinctive manner. As a result, each profession requires different levels of education, licensure, or certification. 

Social workers help people solve and cope with everyday problems that arise in their lives. While some social workers require a bachelor’s degree, clinical social workers should have a master’s degree, appropriate experience, and a license for the state in which they practice.

Psychologists study emotional, cognitive, and social processes and behavior. They observe and make sense of the way in which an individual relates to others and the environment around them. Psychologists typically hold a doctoral degree in psychology and a license to practice. In some cases, a master’s degree may suffice for certain related positions. 

As of 2021, there were over 700,000 social workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS reports in 2021 that there were also over 170,000 psychologists.

Both fields are also projected to grow in the coming decade, along with the overall employment of individuals working in these fields. This growth will be driven by increasing demand for healthcare and social services. If a career based on helping others resonates with you, there’s never been a better time to consider studying social work or psychology.

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Education Requirements

Social Work Education

A career as a social worker begins with a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW). This degree typically takes four years and represents the minimum requirement for an entry-level administrative position. In some cases, a bachelor’s degree in a related field such as psychology or sociology may suffice. 

The bachelor’s degree provides training in topics as varied as diverse populations, social welfare policy, human behavior, and ethics, to prepare you for positions such as a caseworker or a mental health assistant.

If you’re interested in pursuing other career options such as a clinical role, additional graduate study is likely necessary. The majority of clinical positions require a master’s degree in social work (MSW), which typically takes two years to complete and includes a supervised practicum or internship

A master’s degree allows further specialization and the development of clinical assessment and managerial skills. A bachelor’s degree in almost any relevant field will allow entry into a master’s degree in social work (MSW), which lasts two years. BSW graduates are recognized to have already completed their first year. Advanced standing admissions allow these students to complete the master’s degree in one to two years. 

Psychology Education 

The path to becoming a psychologist begins with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, which takes four years to complete, on average. Topics you may study include social psychology, cognitive science, perception and cognition, and human neuroscience. A bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement to access entry-level jobs in administration, human resources, or communications. 

The completion of a master’s degree in psychology, however, places clinical assistant roles within reach. Master’s degree graduates can work as psychological assistants in clinical, counseling, or research settings.

If you aspire to be a clinical psychologist, a researcher, or work in therapeutic settings, a doctoral degree is required. There are two educational trajectories that can help you gain this qualification: a Ph.D. in psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree. 

A Ph.D. is a research-based degree that requires the student to write a dissertation and takes between five and eight years to complete. The Psy.D. is a clinical degree that represents a practice-focused alternative. It takes between four and six years to complete. Students must undergo a one-year internship as part of the clinical doctoral program.

Licensure or Certification

The first part of becoming a social worker or psychologist is the completion of the necessary undergraduate and graduate degrees. The second part of the equation is attaining the relevant experience, licensure and certifications that are required to practice. 

Holding a job as a social worker or psychologist, particularly in a clinical context, requires evidence that you have relevant experience. Experience is gained through clinical hours, practicum and internships. After accumulating the necessary hours of experience, you can undertake the necessary steps to apply for a license or certification.

Social Worker Licensure

All U.S. states require clinical social workers to earn licensure. To become a licensed clinical social worker, you will need to undertake a minimum of two years of supervised clinical work after you graduate. Following the completion of your clinical experience, you must pass a clinical exam to receive your license.

Licensing requirements vary between states, so consider contacting your state licensure board to find out more. You can find additional information about regulatory boards at the Association of Social Work Boards.

Psychologist Licensure

Psychologists who wish to practice psychology or work in roles using the title “psychologist” must be licensed in most states. There is significant variation among psychology licensing laws due to the variation among different psychologist roles and between states. You can find out more about specific state requirements from the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards

In general, clinical and counseling roles require the individual to complete an internship and one to two years of supervised professional experience in their relevant field. The candidate must then pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology.

Certification may be required to practice within a hospital, school, or clinic, but it is not typically a requirement for most psychologists. The American Board of Professional Psychology provides information about specialty certification and the fields that require or benefit from it.

Continuing education represents a critical element of licensure for both psychologists and social workers. Many states require these professionals to participate in regular courses to remain current with advances in their field.

Professional Role Responsibilities

Both social work and psychology are professionals oriented toward helping others. What distinguishes the two professions is the methods they employ to achieve this common goal.

Social Worker Role

Social work tends to be very dynamic, providing critical services such as advocacy for clients, crisis response, and connecting clients with resources. Social workers may work full-time or part-time, and depending on where they work, they may have to work shifts or be on call.

More often than not, a role as a social worker requires mobility and flexibility. Depending on your role, your schedule may change from month to month. You may travel to visit people in their homes or provide services or support within environments as diverse as schools, hospitals, courts, or aged care facilities. For example, 70 percent of social workers working with children, families, and schools are required to drive. The nature of the work varies tooit may be oriented towards mentoring, providing a listening ear, or might require you to manage cases.

Psychologist Role

Psychologists may also work in institutional settings such as hospitals, correctional facilities, and schools. In fact, in 2020 an estimated 25 percent of psychologists worked in elementary and secondary school settings to provide services such as counseling, testing, or research. Psychologists who work in healthcare may work at outpatient mental health facilities, substance abuse centers, or as mental health practitioners. 

The diverse applications of the profession may mean that some psychologists find themselves in academia, industrial or organizational settings, human factors psychology, or even marketing research. Those with sufficient experience, a Ph.D., and licensure can also set up their own private practice. In 2020, self-employed psychologists represent 27 percent of the labor market

Psychologists who work within a school, business, or in government may hold full-time work schedules during regular business hours. Those who run their own practices or work in healthcare facilities may hold less regular hours to accommodate client emergencies or work evening or weekend shifts.

Career Outlook and Salary

When you first begin thinking about tertiary study, the idea of entering the labor force can feel very distant. It is vital, however, to have an idea of your future career trajectory in mind to inform your study choices. Both psychology and social work are experiencing growth that is expected to continue over the next decade. 

Social Worker Career and Salary

The most common fields of social work employment include working with children, families and schools, healthcare, mental health, and substance abuse. A career as a social worker is versatile, with the opportunity to work in different roles throughout your career. The median annual wage for a social worker was $50,390 as of May 2021.  The sector is rapidly growing, with 78,300 social work jobs projected each year from 2020 to 2030. 

Psychologist Career and Salary

If you’re interested in pursuing a career in psychology, some of the top places of employment include government, state, local and private hospitals, outpatient healthcare services, elementary and secondary schools, and private practice. The median annual wage for a psychologist as of May 2021 was $81,040, according to the BLS. Candidates holding a doctoral or specialist degree, and postdoctoral experience, may have an advantage when it comes to accessing the most desired positions. Fields most likely to offer future career opportunities include schools, working with the elderly, and rehabilitation psychology.

Similarities and Differences Between Social Workers and Psychologists

Both social workers and psychologists share the objective of supporting other members of the community. However, while psychologists provide a more analytical form of support grounded in testing, research, observation, and documentation, social workers provide a more concrete form of support in the form of advocacy or allocation of resources.

There are some other notable distinctions between the two professions:

  • Social workers can find work in clinical settings with a master’s degree, appropriate experience, and licensure or certification. Psychologists need a doctoral degree, supervised experience, and licensure to practice as a psychologist. The study required to become a psychologist may also demand more time and financial investment.
  • Social workers are likely to have more varied, irregular schedules and may need to be on call in some roles. The same can be true of some psychology professions, but psychologists are more likely to occupy normal business hours.
  • Psychologists can command higher salaries, on average, than social workers.

Both social workers and psychologists provide an invaluable service to individuals and contribute in complementary ways to building a more robust, healthy community. Both professions are expected to grow significantly in the coming years, and offer positive career outlooks for future employment.

Other Helping Professions

Last updated: May 2022