Master’s in Counseling vs Master’s in Social Work: Which to Get?

Published on February 6, 2023 · Updated on March 23, 2023

Master’s in Counseling vs Master’s in Social Work: Which to Get?

Published on February 6, 2023 · Updated on March 23, 2023

There are few things more admirable than choosing a career dedicated to helping others. If you’ve decided your best path to that goal is through providing hands on intervention and support, you’ve probably narrowed your choices down to being either a counselor or a social worker.

To be a licensed practitioner in either profession, you’ll need a master’s degree. There are plenty of good reasons to choose either. After all, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is projecting that the need for social workers is expected to grow by 12% from 2020-2030, while the demand for mental health counselors is projected to grow by 23%.

Whichever you choose, you’ll likely find yourself in demand and making a real difference in the lives of people who really need you.

What Are MS Counseling MS Social Work Degrees For?

Though there are similarities between many of the courses taught in master’s in social work and master’s in counseling programs, there are also significant differences. Most notably, the two lead to very different careers.

If your goal is specifically oriented toward providing therapy and support for mental and emotional health, you should go with a Master’s in Counseling program. With this degree, you could become a marriage and family therapist, a mental health counselor, a rehabilitation counselor, and possibly a school counselor.

By contrast, while the curriculum in a Master’s in Social Work program will include classes in human behavior, they also prepare you to provide services other than counseling by incorporating classes in social policy, social services, and creating strategic plans to help clients help themselves.

How To Choose Between A Master’s Degree in Counseling vs. A Master’s Degree in Social Work Program

Both educational pathways lead to a professional degree and highly respected, impactful careers. So, which you choose is really a question of personal preference.

To help decide, you should focus on who you want to serve and how you want to serve them. The information below will help clarify the differences between the two.

What Is A MS in Counseling?

A Master of Science in Counseling degree is an educational program that leads to professional counseling licensure in your state. It is generally a two-year program that includes coursework and field work. Classes provide an overview of these topics:

  • Counseling theory
  • Patient assessment and diagnosis
  • Counseling methodology
  • Research

Many programs offer the opportunity to specialize in areas such as substance abuse or children and families. 

Who Should Get A MS in Counseling?

If you are interested in helping people improve their ability to function, individually and in their relationships with others, then you are a good candidate for an MS in Counseling. You will learn to do the following:

  • Address emotional, physical and mental needs
  • Help clients become more productive and positive
  • Help clients deal with stress
  • Improve clients’ sense of self-worth

What Can You Do with A MS in Counseling?

Once you’ve graduated with your MS in counseling, you will have a wide range of professional options available to you. The most common career paths for those with an MS in Counseling degree include:

School counselors help students of all ages to address challenges. This could include social issues, academic challenges, bullying, and mental health issues. School counselors generally work within a school environment and become well attuned to the population of students.

Though their salaries range depending on many factors (state, education level of the position, counseling degree, experience, and expertise), the Bureau of Labor Statistics says the median annual salary for a school counselor is $58,120, with the lowest 10% earning less than $35,620 and the highest 10% earning more than $97,910.

Many corporations and organizations hire counselors to help their executives and employees to maximize their efficiency, productivity, and collaborative skills. The work involves team building and helping employees achieve emotional intelligence strategies. Counselors also are involved in workplace interventions to address conflict.

According to the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, master’s level counselors working in the federal government reported the highest median income ($107,000) followed by those working in the manufacturing industry ($100,000).

Group therapy has been proven to be one of the most effective therapeutic tools in mental health! Group counselors facilitate group therapy sessions by providing counseling to both individuals and members of a group that generally share a common background or face similar issues such as grief, illness, addiction or domestic abuse. According to, the average median group counselor salary is $46,698, with a low of $41,957 and a high of $52,215.

What Is A MS in Social Work?

A Master of Science in Social Work prepares graduates to support and advance social and economic justice for vulnerable populations. Graduates of these programs have the knowledge and training they need to work in several environments:

  • Community-based healthcare
  • Mental health counseling
  • Child protection
  • Public policy
  • Hospital care coordination

Earning a Master of Science in Social Work degree is a prerequisite for licensure in many social work roles, including Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Licensed Independent Social Worker. Most MSW programs take two years to complete and are comprised of both academic studies and hands-on field work. The first-year’s curriculum is generally devoted to general social work classes, including:

  • Social work practice with corresponding field instruction
  • Human behavior and the social environment
  • Psychopathology
  • Introductory social work research methods
  • Social welfare policy and services
  • Diversity and oppression

The second-year is often comprised of specialty electives as well as extensive field work.

Who Should Get A Master of Science in Social Work?

People who choose a career in social work are equally interested in helping people, but they focus on teaching them to help themselves and connecting them with the resources they need to thrive. To be an effective social worker, you need to be empathetic and a good listener. But you also need to be organized and able to point people in the direction of the resources they need.

Social workers help people in a way that is focused on connecting people to the external help that is available to them and giving them the tools and support they need to make use of that assistance.

What Can You Do with A Master of Science in Social Work?

Graduating with a Master of Science in Social Work Degree prepares you to work in diverse environments with all demographics. Graduates of MSW programs have enough education in human behavior to qualify for jobs in psychology and counseling as well as advocacy. Some of the most popular career paths available to those with an MS in Social Work degree include:

Policy analysts focus on social issues that affect large groups of the population. They collect demographic data and research to apply it in a way that creates policies that work to the advantage of many others and are implemented by social workers at the field level. According to the average median salary for these professionals is $74,702, with those at the top of the pay scale earning over $133,000 per year.
Hospice social workers work with patients and their families after a terminal prognosis has been given. After assessing the patient’s needs, they coordinate available services to assure the best quality of life possible for the patient’s remaining time. They also manage the administrative complexities in order to ease the burden on family members. Their assignments generally last from the time that a patient is referred to hospice until after the patient’s death. The Bureau of Labor Statistics classified hospice social workers in the health care services category, and reports that the median annual salary for this position is $51,760.
Social and community service managers work within a specific community, identifying their needs and working as an advocate to arrange for resources. They act as advocates, communicating what is needed to officials and lobbying to affect change on behalf of those they represent. According to U.S. News and World Report, the median salary for a social and community service manager is $67,150, with the lowest 25% earning $52,480 and the top 25% earning an average of $88,180.

Comparison chart of MS Counseling vs. MS Social Work

What to Look for in Counseling Graduate Degree Programs

10 Best Schools That Offer Counseling Degrees

  1. Northwestern University
  2. Boston College
  3. University of Chicago
  4. Columbia University in the City of New York
  5. University of Pennsylvania
  6. University of Denver
  7. Lehigh University
  8. Northeastern University
  9. Fordham University
  10. Boston University

If you’re looking for other schools that offer online/offline Counselor degree programs, check out the Find Your Perfect “U” tool. You can search over 6,000 colleges and universities with 11 different filters to find the perfect school for you!

On-Campus vs. Online Counseling Degrees

Though counseling is a career that involves direct engagement with patients, the development of new technologies has allowed students to choose whether to study for their Master’s in Counseling Degree in a traditional on-campus setting or online.

Remote and in-person programs both cover the same curriculum and lead to the same degree, but each offers its own advantages. Where the traditional brick-and-mortar setting invites greater engagement with professors, fellow students, and all of the social aspects associated with being on the campus of an academic institution, online learning allows greater flexibility for students who have a career, social, or family obligations. These students can attend classes from anywhere that has a WiFi connection while still earning a living, raising children, or caring for elderly loved ones. In many cases, online education also carries fewer expenses.

Counseling Certification and Licensure

Becoming a counselor and seeing patients requires more than just earning your degree. Once you’ve graduated, you will need to meet your state’s requirements for licensure.

Every state has its own unique eligibility criteria established for the protection of its citizenry, and in most cases, they require these three things:

  • Graduation from a master’s degree program accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs
  • Completion of either an internship or supervised clinical hours totaling approximately two years
  • Successful passing of the National Counselor Examination (NCE) administered by the National Board of Certified Counselors


Pursuing a Master’s Degree in Counseling requires a significant investment of time, effort, and money, so before you choose a school, it is essential that you confirm that it has been accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

This highly respected agency accredits both master’s and doctoral degree programs in counseling and its specialties. Accreditation confirms that an academic institution has met minimal standards with regard to specific categories:

  • Settings
  • Program content
  • Mission and objectives
  • Student selection and advising
  • Faculty qualifications
  • And more!

For your own assurance as well as to confirm its quality to future employers and clients, make sure that every program to which you apply meets this important requirement.

Pros and Cons of Counseling

If you’ve known you wanted to be a mental health counselor forever, then the career is likely a calling for you. For everyone else trying to make the decision, here are the pros and cons of earning an MS in Counseling.

  • You will work directly with people who need support and empowerment, using your education to help them overcome obstacles and learn valuable coping mechanisms.
  • You have the choice to work in many different specialties and work environments.
  • As you learn and gain experience, you can move on to leadership positions.
  • The job is endlessly interesting, with each day offering the ability to learn something new and encounter people who need your help.
  • The field has tremendous potential for growth, with demand expected to grow at a higher rate than that of most other occupations.
  • Counselor compensation is not as high as that of many other careers requiring the same investment of time and effort.
  • The job can be stressful and emotionally debilitating, as you are constantly exposed to people’s troubles.
  • Becoming a counselor is a long road, requiring several years of education and clinical experience.

What to Look for in Social Work Graduate Degree Programs

On-Campus vs. Online Social Work Degrees

Choosing between an online and on-campus learning experience as you pursue your Master’s Degree in Social Work is highly personal and depends on your particular circumstances. As long as you are choosing from accredited programs, you can feel confident that both remote and in-person programs offer the same curriculum and content.

The difference between the two lies in the convenience and flexibility they offer to their students. For degree candidates who are working or raising a family while pursuing their education, having the ability to attend classes from home rather than living on campus or commuting to a brick-and-mortar has obvious advantages and may also come with a lower cost for tuition.

Alternatively, students who choose a campus-based education have the opportunity to establish important relationships with their fellow students as well as their professors. They have greater access to on-campus student services such as career counseling and the university library and may benefit from the more rigid schedule that in-person education demands.

Social Work Certification and Licensure

Every state, and the District of Columbia, requires that social workers pass a state licensure examination and graduate from an educational institution that is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

Each state also has its own additional requirements, which vary depending on the title that a social worker is seeking licensure for. Most states require two years of supervised clinical experience in order to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and there are other requirements to become a Licensed Independent Social Worker. To find out what your state requires, visit the Association of Social Work Boards’ website.


Aspiring social workers have many Master’s in Social Work programs from which to choose, and their pick will depend on many different factors. One important factor for every school is the accreditation by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). The CSWE has a commission that is specifically dedicated to developing standards for social work education and currently has 296 MSW programs that meet their rigorous criteria for inclusion. To ensure that any school you are considering applying to has qualified, visit the CSWE website.

Pros and Cons of Social Work

Social work is both intensely challenging and intensely rewarding. It provides the opportunity to serve people with tremendous needs and to make a real difference. If you are trying to decide whether this is the right career for you, it is important that you weigh the pros and cons of becoming a social worker.

  • Every day is different and holds the opportunity to use your education and training to help somebody.
  • Social workers have the ability to work in many different job settings, careers, and with different demographic groups.
  • Licensure and your advanced degree open the possibility of advancement into higher level positions.
  • The need for social workers is expected to grow at a rate far faster than that of most other occupations.
  • Social workers have very high job satisfaction ratings.
  • Social workers are exposed to extremely upsetting situations in their clients’ lives that can be stressful and emotionally taxing.
  • Depending upon your work setting, you may find yourself managing an overwhelming caseload.
  • Social workers are often exposed to high-risk environments and situations.
  • Social workers have to deal with significant amounts of bureaucracy that can challenge their ability to help their clients.

Applying to Counseling and Social Work Master’s Programs

No matter what your intended area of study, there are some common aspects to applying for admission to master’s degree programs. These include:

  • Having earned a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university or college
  • Submission of transcripts detailing your coursework and grades in college
  • Completion of an application submitted with appropriate fees
  • GRE scores (if required)
  • Letters of recommendation from college professors, mentors, or employers
  • Resume or Curriculum Vitae
  • Personal statement of intentions, interest, or goals

Because both counseling and social work are helping fields that demand high levels of compassion and empathy, admissions committees also require a history of interest in the field. This can be demonstrated through your chosen curriculum as an undergraduate, relevant volunteer work performed, or relevant work experience since your graduation from undergraduate school.

Admission Requirements for MS Counseling and MS Social Work Programs

Students applying for admission to Master’s Degree in Counseling programs or Master’s Degree in Social Work must meet a higher standard for admission than is true of many other advanced degree candidates. Though social work and counseling are different areas of study and have different admissions criteria, in both cases admissions committees are looking for particular types of personalities and levels of commitment to the field of study.

Though every academic institution has its own application process, common additional requirements for admission to Master’s in Counseling programs include:

  • Bachelor’s degree reflecting a minimum of 9-12 hours in psychology, counseling, or marriage and family studies courses
  • Minimum GPA of 3.0
  • Work experience (paid or volunteer) in an area related to counseling or mental health
  • Personal statement addressing the contributions you believe you will make to the mental health field
  • Evidence of ability to meet the qualifications required for field placement as a counselor

Common additional requirements for admission to Master’s in Social Work programs include:

  • Bachelor’s degree preferably reflecting studies in social work, history, society, the living world, or related areas of study
  • Transcript should reflect courses in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences
  • Some programs will require a bachelor’s degree in social work
  • Social work experience, either volunteer or paid
  • Personal statement addressing the contributions you believe you will make to the field of social work

Evidence of ability to meet the qualifications required for field placement as a social worker.


  • What are the most common career paths with a Master’s Degree in Counseling?
    • Graduates of Master’s in Counseling programs frequently choose careers as academic counselors, career counselors, marriage and family counselors, mental health counselors, school counselors, and substance abuse counselors.
  • What are the most common career paths with a Master’s Degree in Social Work?
    • Graduates of Master’s in Social Work programs frequently choose careers as social workers in group settings, hospice, school counselors, social work planners, substance abuse counselors, and mental health counselors.
  • How are counseling and social work different?
    • Though the two fields rely on many of the same skills, social work encompasses an understanding of social policy and how to utilize resources to help people, while counseling is more focused directly on therapy and human behavior.
  • What other careers can I have with a master’s degree in counseling or social work?
    • A master’s degree in counseling or social work can prepare you for careers in administration, corporate responsibility, human resources, government policy, non-profits, teaching, the criminal justice system, and more.
  • How does a social work salary compare to a counseling salary?
    • Though the two careers offer very similar salaries, the median annual salary for social work is approximately $3,000 to $4,000 more.

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  1. Bureau of Labor Statistics
  2. Society for Organizational and Industrial Psychology
  6. U.S. News and World Report
  7. National Board of Certified Counselors
  8. Association of Social Work Boards
  9. Council on Social Work Education