Should I Major in Counseling or Social Work? 

You may be interested in the mental health field but unsure which path to pursue. A bachelor’s degree in counseling and a bachelor’s in social work both offer entry points into social sciences. Understanding the similarities and differences between the two degrees and subsequent career options can help you make the right choice for your personal and professional goals.

Counseling vs. Social Work: Similarities 

As you consider a counseling degree versus a social work degree, you may find they have several factors in common. Both counseling and social work allow professionals to work with people in a social services capacity. They may be working to improve the well-being of individuals, families or communities with various programs and services. 

Other similarities between counseling and social work include: 

  • Training. Counselors and independent social workers require specialized training and supervised experience, typically two years, before practicing without supervision. This supervision likely comes during or after graduating from an advanced degree program. 
  • Courses. There is some overlap in the coursework for counseling and social degrees, such as courses in human behavior, sociology and psychology. Exact course requirements will vary by program and institution. 
  • Length of education. Many undergraduate counseling and social work programs are designed to be completed in four years with full-time study. Some social work and counseling programs may offer part-time schedules for students who prefer to work toward their degree at their own pace. Online bachelor’s degree programs may be available at some institutions to help students maintain a school/life balance, whereas traditional on-campus programs are available to those who prefer an in-person experience. Many social work and counseling occupations require a master’s degree as well. 

Counseling vs. Social Work: Differences 

When exploring whether to major in social work or obtain a bachelor’s degree in counseling, you may note that, although similar in many areas, these two degrees have differences as well. These include:

  • Accreditation. If you wish to receive licensure in either social work or counseling, you will want to consider accredited programs. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) is the leading accreditor in the counseling industry, and many states prefer CACREP-accredited programs for licensure applicants. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredits all social work programs, including bachelor’s programs.
  • Future licensing. All states require private practice mental health counselors to have a license, whereas the licensure criteria for substance abuse and behavioral counselors not in private practice vary by state. As for social workers, all states require clinical social workers to possess a license before practicing because clinical social workers are able to diagnose and treat mental health issues. Some states may also require nonclinical social workers to be licensed.
  • Potential job scope. Counselors help individuals who suffer from drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues, eating disorders or other behavioral or mental health problems. Like counselors, licensed clinical social workers may help individuals suffering from mental health issues or addiction. Social workers also identify community members who need help and assist those faced with everyday issues like illness, unemployment and divorce.
  • Salary. While many factors play a role in earnings, you may want to look at a social work vs. counseling salary as you research both careers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual pay in 2021 for substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors was $48,520. The median salary for social workers in the same year was $50,390.

What Can You Do With a Bachelor’s Degree in Counseling? 

After completing a bachelor’s in counseling, graduates have a few options. Counseling alumni may choose to enter the working world and pursue entry-level positions related to social services like crisis centers or group homes or work in counseling careers such as substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counseling, depending on state requirements. However, to become a licensed counselor, a master’s degree in counseling is typically required. 

Roles in private and public practice that require a master’s degree in counseling include mental health counselor, school counselor and marriage and family counselor. Doctoral programs in counseling may be a good fit for those who want to focus on clinical, academic or research work. 

What Can You Do With a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work? 

A bachelor’s in social work from an accredited program may help qualify you for entry-level administrative and direct-service positions such as a mental health assistant, residential case manager, habilitation specialist, activity/workshop director or caseworker. If your goal is to work as a clinical social worker, a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) may help prepare you for a graduate social work program. 

Clinical social workers must have an accredited master’s in social work. These clinical roles allow social workers to diagnose and treat mental and behavioral health. Other social work roles for master’s degree holders include health services managers; medical social workers; child, family or school social workers; or mental health social workers.

Counseling or Social Work: Which Major Is Better for Me? 

Whether you choose to major in counseling or social work for your undergraduate degree may depend on your long-term career goals. For instance, if you plan to continue your education and earn a Master of Social Work (MSW), a bachelor’s in social work can be a good first step and may even allow you to complete your MSW sooner. If you plan to pursue a master’s degree in school counseling to become a school counselor or continue on to a master’s in mental health counseling, a bachelor’s in counseling might serve you better. 

Last updated in July 2022