If you’re interested in becoming a psychotherapist and providing counseling services, there is more than one educational path available to you. Though you certainly have options, the two most popular degrees for a career in counseling are the master’s in counseling and the master’s in social work (MSW).
Both the Master of Social Work (MSW) and the master's in counseling are considered professional degree programs. Both require you to attend graduate school and obtain state licensure to become part of this regulated profession.
Meeting the conditions of regulation and state licensure is important. Becoming a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) ensures that you’ve met the minimum training, education, and experience to operate as a therapist. Without licensure requirements, any individual, regardless of expertise, could create a counseling program, nail a shingle on the door, and say, "The therapist is in." Earning a counseling degree or an MSW and becoming licensed to practice are essential for credibility. It confirms that you have a credentialed discipline behind that shingle.
There are some settings where you can provide one-on-one counseling and act as a "counselor" without a graduate degree. These are usually found in areas such as domestic violence, substance abuse, and gambling. But without professional certification, these counseling roles are limited in scope, considered more junior or informal. They do not allow you to work in higher-level counseling positions or in most healthcare settings.
A primary benefit of obtaining a master’s degree to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) is that you become third-party reimbursable. This means that the fees charged for counseling can be reimbursed by a patient’s insurer.
While some therapists—school social workers who provide counseling, for example—may not be impacted by the need for third-party reimbursement, many therapeutic settings rely on these funds to operate. Coupled with the professional standards that licensure confers, reimbursability ensures that the overwhelming majority of counselors working in healthcare and private practice have obtained a master’s. In fact, many healthcare employers will not even hire a candidate who does not hold a higher level degree.
Now that you know that a master’s is worth pursuing (and likely necessary), the question remains: Which master's program do you choose? A master’s degree in counseling? Or a Master of Social Work? Before you can decide which counseling degree program is best for you, you should explore how the degrees overlap and differ in preparing students for a career in counseling.
When it comes to career outcomes, the two degrees overlap. Both the master’s in counseling and the Master of Social Work allow you to:
Or just plain 'therapy,' informally, to clients in a multitude of therapeutic and healthcare settings from a home office to a hospital.
Treatment can be provided with methods learned not only through coursework, but also through a practicum or field experience.
Whether you work in a hospital or a clinical practice setting, both degrees will allow you to structure treatment where you need to.
Both degrees allow you to practice as a mental health counselor, marriage and family therapist, or clinical social worker in a private setting.
You’ll have many career paths to choose from in areas including marriage and family therapy, clinical mental health counseling, school counseling, and rehabilitation counseling.
Though they lead to similar professional outcomes, the MSW degree and the master’s in counseling have fundamental philosophical differences. And, in some cases, a patient or institution may prefer one degree over another.
Because a social worker’s training is broader by design, you may find it offers more flexibility in practice. You may be more agile with an MSW as a result, and better able to adapt and change your career as it develops.
Medicare will cover the services of doctors of psychiatry and psychology, as well as mental health services provided by a clinical social worker in social work practice. Requirements for reimbursement through Medicare include the completion of an MSW or doctoral degree, plus at least two years of experience in supervised clinical social work. Offering this level of coverage to patients will provide options for both you and the clients you work with.
In a job search, an MSW may prove its value, and holding one could broaden your choice of paths and opportunities as your career progresses.
Social workers do much more than provide therapy and counseling services. They may focus on a patient’s mental health, but they also will examine other contextual aspects of that patient’s life. This is the particular philosophy of social work: to go beyond an individual’s emotional state of mind and make practical interventions to help them live a better life. An example of this is the hospital social worker who delivers family counseling and discharge planning, and sets up ongoing treatment and social services for the discharged patient. Again, this broader reach is the realm of a typical social worker.
A mental health counselor with a master’s in counseling, by comparison, would limit their focus to just the patient’s mental health issues and emotional health, without considering these other aspects of day-to-day life.
It’s also important to note that as a degree, an MSW may make you more employable. It is seen as a distinct credential; while MSWs can apply for all of the same positions that master’s in counseling graduates apply for, the opposite is not usually true.
To determine your best fit, you will need to do your homework.
MSW programs do vary in terms of preparing students for therapeutic counseling work. First and foremost, make sure your MSW program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Most states require LCSWs to graduate from a CSWE-accredited program, so it's really important. Furthermore, to become a licensed clinical social worker and deliver psychotherapeutic therapy, MSWs must pursue postgraduate coursework and training—though they are permitted to begin their counseling practices during this time. Likewise, master’s of counseling graduates have to work for a specified period of time before becoming fully licensed. Counseling graduate programs should be accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP).
If becoming a therapist is your end goal, and you have decided to pursue an MSW, it is important that you choose a social work program with a specialization in clinical counseling. One option is to seek out an MSW program that offers a stand-alone certificate in individual, couples, and family therapy. There are many social work programs—including online programs—that offer a dedicated certificate in clinical counseling.
This degree offers you narrowly focused preparation as a counselor in a range of specialized settings. You can earn an online master's in counseling, just as you can earn an online MSW.
It’s possible that the broader scope of the MSW may give you the flexibility you need for a variety of social work careers. Keep in mind that you may not see the full arc of your career at its beginning, so it's important to plan for future opportunities.
Some states have established mental health counseling as its own license category. Others group a range of mental health counseling professionals together. MSWs generally are not grouped with mental health licensure, but pursue state licensure as a standalone profession. So, while both degrees come with rigorous requirements, both academically and for state licensure, you may find that one degree has an easier go of it in your state than the other.
Ultimately, either degree can result in a fulfilling career helping the most vulnerable among us. But it is in your best interest to do your research on the master’s in counseling and the Master of Social Work, and to choose the career path that will lead directly to your professional goals.
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