The fact that some Social Work professionals can provide Counseling services to clients often skews the opinion of this field from people that have had little experience with it. There are differences between Social Work professionals and Counselors that should be considered in order to comprehend how these fields differ.

Reviewing Counseling vs. Social Work

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Social Work as a field focuses on providing services to in-need populations within the broad Social Service system. Social Workers can become licensed at different degree levels, which can then lead these professionals into various roles in the widespread Social Work Field.

When considering the differences between Counselors and Social Workers, the comparison is often between Social Work professionals that have completed a Master of Social Work program and achieved licensure. Master's level Social Work professionals can provide Counseling services while under the supervision of a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.

What is the difference between Counselors and Social Workers?

If you were to observe the field of Social Work from a 3rd person perspective, you might see Social Workers conducting different levels of services depending on their expertise. Some Social Work professionals may work hand-in-hand with clients obtaining services, while others provide mental health services to individuals and groups in different settings.

Counseling as a career field involves completing a Master of Counseling degree program and a supervised clinical experience under the supervision of a Licensed Professional Counselor. This process takes 2-4 years depending on your availability and can lead to independent practice after achieving your license.

The services provided by both Master's Social Workers and Counselors can essentially be the same, while Social Workers are not permitted to provide services independently unless they have participated in additional training and received their Licensed Clinical Social Worker distinction.

Social Workers

In comparison to the field of Counseling, Social Work contains many more dimensions for consideration. Social Workers can be classified into different categories depending on their current degree level and type of licensing.

Social Workers are professionals that work with a wide range of clients in the Social Service field. This can include client advocacy in the court system, working with families that receive services from the Department of Human Services and Children's Services, and even with clients that have experienced various forms of crisis or trauma.

At the bachelor's level, Social Workers can pursue licensure and participate in case management positions. While this is a popular degree level for Social Work professionals, bachelor's licensees do not have the clearance to provide Counseling services to their clients.

Students that complete the Master of Social Work degree program and become licensed can qualify to provide Counseling services to their clients. If you were to achieve your license as a master's Social Worker, you could provide direct mental health counseling to many different populations while working under the direct supervision of a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.

MSW Counselors cannot operate independently through private practice. Social Work graduates that are interested in pursuing a career in private mental health practice must complete additional training and supervision to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.

As a LCSW, the career duties of Social Workers can mimic those of the Licensed Professional Counselor. The therapies, assessments, and processes used by each are comparable, while the LCSW can provide more diverse career options directly associated with the Social Work field.


A Counselor is a licensed mental health professional that is focused on helping people manage the symptoms of mental health disorders, assisting with developing strategies for working through complex family issues or trauma, and providing regular therapy to people in need.

The role of the Counselor is strictly set in the mental health setting, with some professionals taking these skills into schools, specialized treatment centers, addiction facilities, and even businesses. While the career setting can vary depending on the type of work you do, the processes you can use to help others are usually the same regardless of where you practice.

During your daily role as a Counselor, you can work with children, young adults, or even the aging population as they find creative ways to manage their emotions. Some Counselors may also specialize in cognitive behavioral therapies that can assist their clients with addressing traumas, fears, or experiences throughout the process.

The reason that Counselors can be found in so many settings is that their focus is on healing people. Counselors can help people work through the general stress associated with certain career fields or even provide acute services during times of crisis or injury.

If you are interested in pursuing a career in Counseling, you should have a profound desire to help those that you serve. Counselors work with clients that are experiencing dissatisfaction with their lives or current situations, making positivity an excellent trait to have as a professional in this field.

In order to become a Counselor in any state, you may be required to complete an accredited Master of Counseling program, participate in a supervised clinical experience under the supervision of licensed professionals, and sit for a board examination for Counselors. Licensing can then be achieved through registering with your state Counseling board.


If you were to observe a Counselor providing services to a client, it may look remarkably similar to a MSW providing mental health services. At this level, the roles of the Counselor and Social Work can be interchangeable, using the same type of therapies and working with the same clients.

Counseling is a field that can provide mental health services to a wide range of clients that are involved with the field of social services, as well as in general society. Social Workers that are qualified to provide therapeutic services can also provide these types of services to clients in the community, rather than just those involved with social service agencies.

Breaking down each discipline, the initial meeting with clients can involve information gathering, assessment completion, and treatment planning. Each client presents a unique case that require individualized planning for optimum healing. The process of treatment development may be identical within each realm of services.

The educational requirement for providing therapeutic services for each discipline is also similar. Both professionals are required to complete a master's program and obtain licensure prior to having the ability to providing counseling services.

The degree programs for Counseling and Social Work may include components related to establishing care for clients, using empirically-proven methods of treatment, and follow-up care for generalization of services. While the Social Work may include topics related to providing basic Social Service supports, the focus of the program aligns with what is found in Counseling options.

MSW earners are not permitted to providing therapy independently, but can under the supervision of a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. If students move on to complete their LCSW distinction, they can provide Counseling services independently and even in private practice.

Similarities between Counseling and Social Work can include the addition of a wide range of specialties to a chosen master's program. Clinical Mental Health, Substance Abuse, Child and Adolescent, and Family Counseling are just a few specializations that can be present in both degree areas, making both of these options highly customizable for the interested learner.

Job openings for mental health providers may also hire licensed Counselors or Social Workers to fill their open positions. Since both can provide individual therapy services to clients in need, either could be excellent options for these open careers.

Counseling and Social Work are both unique degree fields that provide services of high value to clients in need. While the disciplines of each option are highly unique, the mental health aspect of each can be remarkably similar.

Degree Requirements

Students that are interested in becoming licensed Counselors can begin with a Bachelor’s in Psychology, Counseling, or Social Work. These undergraduate programs can prepare learners by teaching the most basic elements of the brain and the mental processes associated with emotional and behavioral development.

Completion of the undergraduate program can then lead into Master’s of Counseling programs, which are the minimum degree requirement for licensure in Counseling. This 2-3 year program can include aspects focused on assessing needs and providing individualized therapy services, as well as some aspects related to group Counseling.

During a master’s program in Counseling, students may be expected to explore some of the most common – and some uncommon – mental health disorders in society. Exploration of these disorders can then lead into a study of biological and environmental influences, as well as prevalent treatment methods for each.

The Master’s in Counseling can also include a supervised clinical experience that can allow students to see licensed professionals applying the concepts learned during their degree program. This experience can be vital to the development of the Counselor and is required for licensure in all states.

In addition to the in-program clinical experience, graduates of Master’s of Counseling programs may be required to participate in post-degree experience for 1-2 years in the field. Completing this field requirement is a component to receiving licensure in most states.

If you were to begin with a Social Work bachelor’s program, you could obtain a license in your field at this level. However, Licensed Bachelor’s Social Workers are not qualified to provide Counseling services, only case management services related to Social Work roles.

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Students in Social Work programs that are interested in becoming Counselors must complete a minimum of a Master’s in Social Work prior to establishing the credentials for Counseling. Completing the MSW program and obtaining licensure can allow graduates to provide Counseling services while under the supervision of a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.

Those interested in providing independent or private practice Counseling services in Social Work can participate in longer supervision periods and a board examination on their path to the LCSW distinction. Receiving licensure at this level can lead to the ability to provide Counseling services without supervision and in multiple settings and populations.

Career Options

Counseling degree programs and licensure training can include a focus into different types of career paths throughout your career. One of the most intriguing aspects about Counseling is that you can choose a degree concentration to help solidify your involvement in certain treatment areas in society.

Some of the most popular career options for Counseling professionals may be Clinical Mental Health Counseling, School Counselors, Marriage and Family Counselors, and Career Counselors. Most mental health positions can be found in local Counseling agencies or individuals working in private practice.

School Counselors can be employed by school systems for students in various age ranges. This type of career option could involve working directly with students as they navigate the educational system and develop plans for transitioning into adulthood.

Career search agencies, military branches, and social service agencies may also employ Counselors to provide direct services to their clients, which can be beneficial for upcoming professionals interested in providing treatment to specific groups within the community.

If you were to pursue a career in Counseling through a Social Work degree program, you could have access to more versatile career options during your work experience. Since MSW holders can provide Counseling services, you could also have access to the same groups as Counseling graduates, as long as you had the required supervision without the LCSW credential.

Social Work graduates that move on the the LCSW certification can work in private practice – providing Counseling services to the general public or to specific groups according to their specialization. This is one of the most preferred certifications for upcoming professionals in Social Work.

Social Work professionals can also work with social services agencies – even holding dual roles within their organization. The court systems, rehabilitation agencies, and geriatric care facilities are a few more options that can benefit from the services of Social Work professionals.

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The unique nature of Social Work positions can allow graduates in this area to explore career options that include components of both Counseling and Social Work in the general job description. Some professionals at this degree level can even move on to supervisory positions responsible for the oversight of work completed by Counseling professionals.