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Social work vs. psychology: Which humanistic career is right for you?

Will Erstad By  Will Erstad  |  @WErstad_CE  | 

Social_Work_vs_Psychology

It's no secret there are a lot of people in need of help out there. Nearly 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. live with mild to severe mental health issues, and more than 46 million people in the U.S. live in poverty.

When embarking upon the search for the perfect career path, some people find their compassion taking over with questions like, "Wouldn't it be nice to have a career that helps alleviate some of this suffering, and in some small way makes the world a better place?"  

If you've found yourself eager to discover a way to help people with your career, look no further! Careers in social work and psychology can both offer the opportunity to do just that. However, when it comes to deciding on which major to pursue in college, it can be difficult to determine which is the best fit for you.  

To help you make that decision, let's take a closer look at both fields and compare two common jobs associated with each.

Social work vs. psychology: The basics

Broadly speaking, social work and psychology have the common altruistic thread of helping others. That's not to say the differences between these two fields are inconsequential, but most of the differences are found in how this help is applied.   

Clinical psychologists work directly with patients to help them cope with life transitions, as well as to treat a variety of mental health disorders. These patients often require long-term care, so psychologists need to be able to build a rapport with their patients and earn their trust in order to best address what ails them. Clinical psychologists also specialize in psychological testing and diagnosis of mental disorders.  

Social workers, on the other hand, assist clients with a much broader variety of issues. Essentially, a clinical social worker serves as a guide for getting their clients back on track as they deal with challenging life situations. As part of this process, they connect clients with appropriate restorative services and counsel them along the way.  

As you might imagine, the paths of these careers can intersect as social workers may need to refer clients to clinical psychologists in an effort to address their issues.

Social work vs. psychology: Education & training

If you're interested in becoming a licensed clinical social worker, you'll first need to earn a bachelor's degree. From there you must obtain a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree and then earn your state licensure. It may sound like a long, winding path, but once you've earned a BA in the field, most MSW programs will only take one year to complete. It is also helpful to note that the requirements for licensure can vary from state to state, but will typically require the completion of a graduate education program, a passing score on a state licensure exam and a set number of hours of professional, clinically-supervised work experience.  

The educational requirements of a licensed clinical psychologist follow a similar track. First you'll need a bachelor's degree, followed by a doctoral degree in clinical psychology. From there you'll need to earn state licensure. As explained above, this varies by state, but in most cases you must accrue supervised work experience in addition to passing a licensure exam. Do keep in mind, however, that some states have licensure or certification that allows clinical psychologists to work for a hospital or clinic with a only master's degree in the field.  

That said, earning a psychology degree does not mean you are locked into a career as a clinical psychologist. There are opportunities available for those with undergraduate degrees in psychology to work as counselors at residential treatment and correctional facilities. Also, as you might imagine, having a strong understanding of human psychology can be valuable in business fields such as human resources or marketing.

Social work vs. psychology: Outlook & salary

Earning potential isn't everything and it certainly doesn't guarantee happiness, but it is still a significant piece of the puzzle when discerning which career path is the best fit for you. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the 2015 median annual salaries for psychologists ($72,580) and social workers ($45,900 at the bachelor's level and $60,000 at the master's level) are both higher than the national average for all occupations ($36,200).  

But that's not the only category in which both psychologists and social workers are surpassing the national average! The BLS' projected employment growth for both psychologists (19 percent) and social workers (12 percent) are projected to climb faster than the national average of seven percent.

Social work vs. psychology: Other factors to consider

While education requirements, salary and career outlook are all important to consider, they're not all that matters. A big part of career satisfaction is finding a role you enjoy, which is why it's important to understand what you're getting into.  

Both psychology and social work will require you to excel in making personal connections. Your sense of empathy will also be incredibly important. Some of the issues your clients deal with might seem simple to solve on the surface, but being able to understand where they're coming from will help you in aiding them in a non-judgmental manner.  

Another important factor to consider is the people you'll be working with and the effect they'll have on you. There's no denying that life as a social worker or psychologist can be stressful — it's hard not to let the struggles of your clients have an effect on you. Stress levels can vary quite a bit depending on your work situation, but it's important to be conscious of your own well-being and be proactive in your own self-care. This is not intended to scare you away from either profession — nearly any career has its stressors in addition to its rewarding moments — but it's important to be prepared for what you may face.

Get started with helping others

There's a lot to love about a career in psychology or social work. In a world where many jobs focus squarely on the bottom line, earning a paycheck by improving the lives of those in need is extremely rewarding.  

Now that you have a better understanding of social work versus psychology, it's up to you to make a decision. No matter your preference, the College of St. Scholastica has your next step covered: earning your degree!  

If you think you were destined to become a social worker, check out our social work bachelor's degree page. If you feel psychology is your calling, learn more about our undergraduate psychology degree.

Will Erstad


Will is a higher education content creator who writes on behalf of The College of St. Scholastica. He is passionate about learning and enjoys writing engaging content to help current and future students on their path to a rewarding education. 

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