Social Work vs. Clinical Psychology

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For many choosing a career in social services, the biggest choice to make is between pursuing social work or psychology. While the two disciplines have some similarities, they differ in ways like required level of education and earning potential. Both social workers and psychologists help people deal with problems that interfere with daily life, but it is important to note that delivery of care is not the same. For example, social workers may help with direct services and assist clients in solving problems related to legal issues, human rights or poverty. On the clinical side, social workers can address the mental, behavioral or emotional health issues of clients. Psychologists, on the other hand, study human behavior and can diagnose and treat mental illness. To know which field is right for you, it is important to understand these differences and determine which educational path aligns with your career goals.

 Job Responsibilities

The primary responsibility of social workers is to help families and individuals improve their quality of life. Social workers must have an understanding of human development as well as sociology and community dynamics. Social workers can assist their clients in overcoming personal challenges and developing the life skills they need for success. These professionals may also make referrals for social services like health care clinics. Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) can make referrals like these but are more likely to develop treatment plans and work closely with other mental health professionals.

Psychologists also work with those experiencing difficulties in their lives but typically work one-on-one with individuals rather than families or other community groups. They can perform psychological testing or provide counseling to determine the nature of a patient’s symptoms and how best to adapt to them. Most clinical psychologists cannot prescribe medications, though in Louisiana and New Mexico this is legal. The primary goal of psychologists is to make diagnoses and offer psychotherapy using research-based approaches. Psychologists must be licensed by state boards in order to practice.

Both careers can involve work in an office setting, but psychologists may also work in hospitals or private practice. The work environment for social workers varies widely and includes rehab centers, nursing homes, schools, prisons and government agencies.

 Education and Licensure

Most social work positions require a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree, which helps students develop clinical assessment and management skills. A supervised practicum, field work or internship is often required, and states have licensure or certification requirements as well. Becoming an LCSW requires a minimum of two years of supervised clinical experience after graduation. After completing this step, social workers must pass a clinical exam to be licensed.

In the field of psychology, most clinical and counseling roles require a doctoral degree. Students can choose to complete a Ph.D. in psychology or a Doctor of Psychology degree (Psy.D). A Ph.D. in psychology is generally research-based and requires a comprehensive exam and dissertation. Coursework is based in statistics and experimental procedures. A Psy.D, on the other hand, is a clinical degree based in practical work and examinations. Those with master’s-level education in psychology can work as assistants in clinical, counseling or research settings, as well as industrial-organizational psychologists. Licensing laws vary by state, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that most clinical and counseling psychologists must complete an internship and at least one to two years of supervised professional experience. Then they must pass a state licensure exam.

 Salary and Job Outlook

Salaries for both psychologists and social workers vary by region, years of experience and area of expertise. The BLS reports that the median annual wage for social workers is $45,500. Employment for social workers is expected to grow 12 percent through the year 2024, a rate that is faster than the average for all occupations. This growth is primarily driven by an overall increase in demand for health care and social services.

The average salary for psychologists is about $70,700 per year, according to the BLS. Psychologists can expect to see a growth rate of 19 percent through 2024. Most available opportunities will be for those who hold doctoral degrees in an applied specialty.

Getting Started

No matter which career path you choose, earning the right degree is an essential first step. Brescia University offers online degree programs in both psychology and social work that can put you on the path to meeting your goals.

  • The Bachelor of Arts in Psychology provides students with a strong background in the field of psychology and provides a foundation for multiple career paths as well as graduate study.
  • The Bachelor of Social Work is designed to prepare students with rigorous study in social work theory and practice.
  • The Master of Social Work gives advanced generalist social workers the specialized skills to do therapy, address more complex problems, use evidence-based practice interventions, engage in scientific inquiry and take leadership roles.

Learn more about each of these programs today by visiting