Online Master of Social Work vs. Online Master of Counseling

Pursuing an online master’s degree in either social work or counseling provides professionals a chance to advance their careers while performing fulfilling work. Both social work and counseling are widely considered as helping fields. They are well known as being attractive to those interested in bringing about positive change in people’s lives. Furthermore, individuals with a Master of Social Work or Master of Counseling degree can serve as counselors.

With so much common ground in place between the two degrees, what are the key points of difference? Perhaps more importantly, which path is right for you? Let’s compare the two to find out:

Key attributes and benefits of an online Master of Social Work

Generally speaking, a Master of Social Work program will take two years to complete, but options are available to either accelerate or extend that timeline, depending on your background and experience. For example, some programs, such as the Rutgers University Master of Social Work, allow individuals who hold a bachelor’s degree in social work to take an advanced standing into the Master of Social Work program. A Master of Social Work can serve as preparation for pursuing a doctorate-level degree or for career advancement and licensure. In most cases, social work certifications that incorporate counseling will require a master’s degree.

Generally, MSW programs do not require a bachelor’s in social work, making the degree an accessible option for those interested in changing their careers or pursuing social work after finishing a separate undergraduate degree. Areas of specialization and concentration availability can vary substantially between programs.

With the core attributes of MSW programs established, what can individuals do professionally once they have obtained this degree?

Certifications and career options: While some social work jobs are available for individuals with a bachelor’s degree, most areas of practice will either require or prefer an MSW. A CareerTrend report pointed out that many states mandate individuals have a master’s degree in order to obtain licensure. Furthermore, industry organizations, such as the National Association of Social Work, provide specialized certifications for individuals with high-level skills and education. Put simply, an MSW opens the door to new options and opportunities in the sector, taking away many of the restrictions and limitations that come for social workers without an MSW.

MSW Careers reinforced this point, explaining that, besides positions requiring an MSW, many jobs that are open to individuals with a bachelor’s degree still prefer that applicants have an MSW. Not having an MSW degree can also limit a person’s ability to get promoted, as an MSW is often required for management positions.

An MSW opens the door to more advanced and nuanced work opportunities, it also brings pay benefits to the table. According to Payscale, the median salary for social workers is $44,743. Tasks for individuals in this pay grade typically include serving as an advocate for patients, connecting individuals with support groups and educational opportunities, performing emotional and social assessments, and taking on basic case management tasks.

This data is describing a fairly standard social work job, which may include positions held by individuals with a bachelor’s degree, but Payscale’s research on social work professionals with a Master of Social Work showcases just how varied the positions can be. Job titles listed for those holding an MSW can include:

  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker
  • Mental Health Therapist
  • Medical Social Worker
  • Clinical Social Worker
  • School Social Worker

Individuals with an MSW tend to be happy with their jobs – Payscale’s research included ratings from more than 2,000 professionals, and the profession has a five-out-of-five rating for job satisfaction. According to Social Work License Map, social work salaries can vary greatly from region to region, but generally speaking, individuals with a license can expect to receive a median annual income boost of $5,000. Furthermore, individuals with an MSW can expect to make approximately $15,000 more than those with a bachelor’s degree.

What it’s like to be a social worker: Generally speaking, a person with an MSW degree will focus on assisting individuals by helping them deal with the difficult situations and fostering an environment that helps the patient grow. Key tasks for social workers with an MSW may include:

  • Performing case management
  • Providing counseling and advocacy
  • Helping patients cope with the environments around them
  • Managing community groups or care centers
  • Branching into private practice and research

Key attributes of a master in counseling

Social work focuses on helping to create safe, healthy environments for patients, while counselors tend to focus more heavily on providing psychological assistance and therapy for individuals. Here’s a look at the master in counseling degree and what it leads to for career development.

What to expect from a master of counseling: According to Counselor License, most of the master’s of counseling programs will provide tracks for areas such as:

  • Health counseling
  • Addictions counseling
  • School counseling
  • Mental health counseling

These types of specializations play a critical role in career development, even though they may have a great deal of cross-over in terms of the types of courses and skills involved in obtaining the degree. Counselor License explained that insurance reimbursement for active counselors will typically come with specific coursework or skills requirements, making the right specializations critical. Furthermore, different areas of practice are managed by different licensure and certification bodies, making it extremely important to have a clear career pathway in place when deciding what type of counseling program to pursue. Additionally, coursework alone is usually only enough for associate or similar low-level licenses.

Most full licensure programs require at least two years of work performed under supervision, but these requirements can vary based on specialization, as some groups, such as school counselors, have their own licensing bodies. School counseling certifications and licenses stand out in the sector, the news source explained, as programs are shorter.

Many of these licensing requirements are similar in the social work sector, but as always, it is vital to keep in mind that states will have varied licensure requirements. If you are considering higher education for the purpose of obtaining certification, it is a good idea to check in on the requirements in the state where you want to work.

Besides figuring out specializations, individuals pursuing a master in counseling must also consider what type of degree they want. According to VeryWell, the master’s in counseling degree is available in a variety of formats, including a master of arts, master of science and master of education. The lines between these degrees can blur a bit in terms of the curriculum, but the MA and MS tend to focus on counseling work and require between 50 and 60 credits of graduate coursework. The MEd, which typically takes two years to complete, focuses on preparing individuals for work in academia, though MEd holders can also pursue clinical work.

A Master’s In Counseling article provided more insights into the differences between degree types, highlighting that the MS is better for those who already have a psychology or similar degree and can move quickly into specialization. An MA, on the other hand, tends to be preferred for those with a more general degree and will need some entry-level counseling courses before they are ready to specialize.

Career prospects for counselors: Counselors tend to face a great deal of pay variance depending on where they work. According to Payscale data, mental health counselors make, on average, $43,448 and mental health therapists boast a median annual salary of $49,000.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) points to just how varied salaries can be for educational, guidance, school and vocational counselors. Individuals working in different locations experience highly varied mean wages. Mean annual salaries in key areas of work, based on BLS research, include:

  • Elementary and secondary schools – $65,070
  • Colleges, universities and professional schools – $51,260
  • Junior colleges – $57,340
  • Vocational rehabilitation services – $39,360
  • Individual and family services – $44,460

This data represents areas of work where school and vocational counselors are most likely to work. The highest paying fields based on mean annual salary, according to the BLS, include:

  • Insurance carriers – $70,790
  • Federal executive branch – $68,450
  • Elementary and secondary schools – $65,070
  • General medical and surgical hospitals – $63,120
  • Office administrative services – $63,030

Counselors can expect to see significant job growth. The BLS found that average job growth across all professions is 7 percent for the 2014 through 2024 period. Mental health counselors can expect to see 20 percent job growth during that period. School and career counseling jobs are being created at an 8 percent rate. Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors are looking at 22 percent job growth in the sector.

Working as a counselor: Specific care strategies can vary across counseling disciplines, but a BLS description of job tasks for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors highlights core competencies. These tasks include evaluating mental and physical health for clients, developing treatment goals and plans, helping clients develop skills to cope with areas where they are struggling and referring patients for various services.

Social work vs. counseling – Which is right for you?

The actual content and areas of emphasis for online master of social work and online master of counseling programs can be extremely variable. This comes despite the similarities in the professions because the two areas of work focus on different outcomes. Social Work License Map explained this by pointing out that social workers primarily focus on helping clients work within the community to solve specific problems. Conversely, counselors tend to emphasize enabling individuals to better understand themselves and the issues they are struggling with.
In essence, a counselor helps people gain a stronger psychological understanding of themselves and figure out how they can use that knowledge to cope with the situations they are in. Social workers, on the other hand, tend to work to empower individuals to find success and health in their environments.

If the unique blend of counseling and assistance available in social work sounds interesting to you, it may be time to seriously consider an MSW. The RU MSW program can provide the flexibility and breadth of study needed to make the degree more accessible. Contact us if you want to learn more about the program.

Recommended Readings:
Why is a Master of Social Work Necessary Today?
Counseling Strategies in the Wake of Hate Crimes


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