Counseling

What is the Difference between a Masters in Counseling and a Masters in Social Work?

What is the Difference between a Masters in Counseling and a Masters in Social Work?
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Nedda Gilbert February 16, 2018

Should You Get a Masters in Social Work or a Masters in Counseling? Which Degree is Best? That is the Question.

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If you’re interested in becoming a psychotherapist and providing counseling services, you have some great options. The two most popular degrees to pursue for a career in counseling are the Masters in Counseling and the Masters in Social Work.

Both are professional degrees. Both degrees require you go to graduate school. Finally, both require you obtain state licensure and become part of a regulated profession. Regulation and meeting the conditions of state licensure is important because it ensures you meet a minimum of training and education to operate as a therapist. Without this, any individual may just throw a shingle up on their door and say, “The therapist is in.”

Masters Degree + Licensure

Getting a Masters degree and then the licensure is a key differentiator. The Masters says you are a serious professional, and your licensing offers protections to the population you treat.

There are some settings where you can provide one-on-one counseling and act as a “counselor” without a graduate degree. These positions are usually found in areas like domestic violence, substance abuse, and gambling. But without professional certification, these counseling positions are limited in scope, considered more junior or informal, and will not allow you to work in higher counseling positions, or in most health care settings.

A primary benefit of obtaining a master’s degree, and becoming a licensed therapist, is that you will be third-party reimbursable. This means that the fees charged for counseling can be reimbursed by the patient’s insurer. Because of this, and again the professional standards that licensure confers, the overwhelming majority of counselors working in health care and private practice sport a masters. In fact, you may find that most health care employers will not hire you without that higher level degree.

So now that you know that the masters is worthwhile, and likely necessary, the question is which degree do you choose? A Masters in Counseling? Or a Masters in Social Work? Before you can decide which degree may be best for you, you should know where the degrees overlap. And how they differ philosophically in preparing you to become a counselor.

How are the Masters of Counseling and Masters of Social Work Similar?

Both the Masters of Counseling and the Masters of Social Work degree allow you to provide therapeutic counseling or “therapy” to clients in a multitude of therapeutic and health care settings. There is even some competition between the two professions because both professional degrees qualify you to treat the same patients in the same settings. Mental health counselors and clinical social workers alike can go into private practice, and likewise both can work in a range of mental health settings including psychiatric hospitals. There are even some cases where a patient or institution may prefer one degree over another. However, these degrees have fundamental and philosophical differences. In some cases a patient or institution may prefer one degree over another.

Difference Between the Masters of Counseling and Masters of Social Work Similar?

The Masters in Social Work degree may offer more advantages because, by design, a social worker’s training is broader. When it comes to third-party reimbursement and Medicare, the social work degree is the preferred front runner.

Some of this may have to do with the fact that social workers focus on a patient’s mental health, and on other aspects of a patient’s life as well. They go beyond the patient’s emotional state of mind to interventions that help patient meet a range of challenges. An example of this is the hospital social worker who does family counselling, discharge planning and sets up ongoing treatment for the discharged patient. Again, this broader reach is typical for a social worker. By comparison, a mental health counselor with a Masters in Counseling would limit his or her focus to just the patient’s mental health.

Despite some of the overlapping areas of practice, these two degrees have fundamental and philosophical differences. The path you choose will in depend on your interests and career goals.

To determine your best fit, you will need to do your homework. Masters of Social Work Programs vary in their strengths in preparing students for therapeutic counseling work. Not all program are created equally. Further, to become a licensed social work delivering psychotherapeutic therapy, social workers must pursue post-graduate work. If a becoming therapist is the end goal, you will want to choose a Masters in Social Work program with a strong focus on counseling and possibly even a program that offers a stand alone credential in individual, couples and family. Or you may pursue a Masters in Counseling which offers you very intense and preparation on just counseling

Think about the type of work you want to pursue with the Masters and if the broader scope of the work social worker degree gives you the flexibility you may need in your career. It’s also important to research state laws about reimbursements and licensure. Again, you may find one degree has an easier go of it than another.

A primary difference is that it is a more narrowly focused degree. The social worker degree dislike an asters in concealing PLUS.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Author

Ms. Nedda Gilbert is a seasoned clinical social worker, author, and educational consultant with 25 years of experience helping college-bound and graduate students find their ideal schools. She is a prolific author, including The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and Essays that Made a Difference. Ms. Gilbert has been a guest writer for Forbes and a sought-after keynote speaker on college admissions. Previously, she played a crucial role at the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company and was Chairman of the Board of Graduate Philadelphia. Ms. Gilbert holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University and is a certified interdisciplinary collaborative family law professional in New Jersey.

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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