Social Work, Counseling, or Psychology: How to Pick Your Path

Learn about each unique degree path, compare career prospects, specialization opportunities, and earning potential, and decide which one these mental and public health careers is the right choice for you.

If you want to help people improve their mental health and wellness, you’ve probably considered a career in social work, counseling, and psychology. Each profession involves teaching people healthy coping skills and positive life management strategies to deal with emotional and psychological challenges. And while these careers share a number of important characteristics, there are distinctions that set each profession apart from one another. Whether you want to help people get to the root of their problems, or you want to teach individuals useful life skills, this guide is for you. Keep reading to learn what makes each of these professions unique and gather the tools and resources you need to pick your path toward a rewarding career helping others.

Breaking Down the Basics

Although counseling, psychology, and social work are interconnected, understanding the factors that set them apart will help you pick the profession that’s right for you. From understanding the level of education required to learning the issues and populations you’ll be working, here’s what you need to know about these three careers.  

Counseling

Counselors help patients cope with a variety of mental, emotional, behavioral, and social challenges and work toward concrete and actionable solutions. Counselors work in a wide range of settings, including schools, hospitals, and private practices. They also work with many different populations, both one-on-one and in groups. Counselors often provide services based on their expertise, such as helping people in addiction recovery make behavior changes and cope with new ways of living, or helping high school students figure out their next steps into adulthood.

Psychology

Like counselors, psychologists focus on helping patients improve their mental wellbeing. Psychologists may also use their knowledge of human emotions and behaviors to work in industries outside of healthcare, like marketing, education, or research. Many psychologists specialize in different aspects of psychology. Abnormal psychology, social psychology, and developmental psychology are just a few avenues psychology students and professionals can explore.

When it comes to clinical practice, psychologists tend to take a theoretical approach to patient care. Where counselors may ask, “What can we do to alleviate your stress?” psychologists might instead ask, “Why do you feel stressed?” They often help patients understand the root causes of the issues they face. Many psychologists use practical techniques in conjunction with theoretical ones, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), to support their patients.

Social Work

Social work often incorporates elements of both counseling and psychology, but social workers may also focus on client case management, advocacy, and systemic policy change to help communities and vulnerable populations. Some social workers diagnose and help treat mental health issues while also connecting clients with federal, state, and local resources to help them meet their needs, improve their lives, and successfully adjust to changes and challenges.

Social workers work in a wide range of environments and capacities. One social worker, for instance, may discover that a student’s outbursts are rooted in her family’s housing instability and then connect her family to a subsidized housing program. Another may work to develop a community program that combats social isolation among seniors or help a client adopt a child.

Career Comparison & Earning Potential

Although all three professions have the potential for earning high salaries, your annual income will have a lot to do with your education level. Below we breakdown some of the more popular professional paths for each of these careers as well as the required education and licensure and what you can expect to earn.

Counseling

Description Degree RequiredState License RequiredProfessional CertificationsMedian Salary
Substance Abuse Counselor A substance abuse counselor is a support system for people with drug and alcohol addictions, eating disorders, and other behavioral issues. They teach individuals how to modify their behavior with the intention of full recovery. Master’s degree in counseling or social work State licensure required Voluntary certifications available  $46,240
Career CounselorCareer counselors assess clients’ skills and aptitudes to help them develop career goals and interests. They help clients build skills or education plans to aid them in meeting their goals. Clients may be new to the workforce as well as mid- and late- career professionals looking to improve or change their careers.Master’s degree in counseling, career development counseling, or relatedState licensure required by some statesVoluntary certifications available$57,040
Rehabilitation CounselorRehabilitation counselors help clients with a variety of disabilities gain autonomy and manage the impacts their disabilities may have on their school or work as well as their mental, social and physical wellbeing.Master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling or relatedState licensure required, unless providing exclusively vocational rehabilitation counselingRequirements vary by state and services practiced Voluntary certifications available$35,950
Mental Health CounselorMental health counselors help a wide range of clients identify mental health issues like anxiety, stress, and low self-esteem and develop appropriate coping and behavior change techniques to alleviate or resolve these issues.Master’s degree in counselingState licensure requiredVoluntary certifications available$46,240
School CounselorSchool counselors may work in elementary, middle, or high schools to help students develop social, emotional, and academic skills. They may provide emotional support and guidance to students and help teachers, parents, and administrators foster a healthy learning environment. Master’s degree in school counselingState licensure requiredTeacher licensure may be required in some states$57,040

Certifications & Specializations

The National Board of Certified Counselors offers a handful of credentials to qualified professionals:

National Certified Counselor (NCC) Regarded as the premier counseling board certification, the NCC credential indicates a high level of education, work experience, and expertise in counseling. After earning board certification, professionals can apply for the following certifications:

Applicants must have completed a certain number of accredited graduate-level courses in content areas related to their certification and pass an exam. Find specific education details on each certification page. Those pursuing CCMHC or NCSC certification must also meet supervision, work experience and professional endorsement requirements.

Psychology

DescriptionDegree RequiredState License RequiredProfessional CertificationsMedian Salary
Clinical PsychologistClinical psychologists use a variety of techniques to diagnose and treat mental, emotional and behavioral disorders. They may use a combination of assessments, interviews and therapies to treat clients, and they collaborate with other healthcare professionals to determine the best form of treatment.Doctorate in psychologyState licensure requiredPassing score on the EPPP exam78,200
Industrial-Organizational PsychologistThese psychologists study and analyze workplace behavior, often with the intent of improving the workplace experience for employees, increasing productivity or finding the most appropriate positions for workers. They may also help with organizational development and employee training.Master’s or Doctorate in psychologyState licensure requiredPassing score on the EPPP exam92,880
School PsychologistSchool psychologists assess educational issues, like student development and behavior problems. They may counsel students, work with schools to create development and evaluation plans, and suggest ways to improve learning outcomes and emotional wellbeing of students.Doctoral or education specialist degree in psychologyState licensure requiredPassing score on the EPPP exam78,200
Forensic PsychologistForensic psychologists apply their knowledge of human emotions and behaviors to help investigators understand the psychology behind criminal cases. They may serve as expert witnesses in court.Doctorate in psychology or criminal psychologyState licensure requiredPassing score on the EPPP exam$101,790
Counseling PsychologistCounseling psychologists help clients identify and resolve problems they face. They may use techniques like talk therapy or CBT to help patients recognize the causes of their struggles and tools they have to cope.Doctorate in psychologyState licensure requiredPassing score on the EPPP exam78,200

Social Work

DescriptionDegree RequiredState License RequiredProfessional CertificationsMedian Salary
Licensed Clinical Social WorkerLicensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) may work with a wide range of clients, often helping them with mental health and behavioral issues. They may provide counseling services as well as refer clients to doctors, therapists, psychologists, and other resources.Master’s degree in social workState licensure requiredCertification requirements vary by state$61,230
Healthcare Social WorkerHealthcare social workers help clients and their families cope with illness and the adjustments that may come with it. Some provide counseling while others focus on helping clients understand their diagnoses and the resources available to help them adjust. They can also help healthcare professionals understand the non-medical impacts of their patients’ illnesses.Master’s degree in healthcare social workState licensure requiredCertification requirements vary by state$56,750
Child and Family Social WorkerThese professionals focus their attention on vulnerable children and families and work to connect them with resources and services that improve their wellbeing, like nutrition assistance and housing programs. Some may provide counseling to help families and children cope with their circumstances.Bachelor or master’s degree in social work, depending on the scope of practiceState licensure required in most statesCertification requirements vary by state$47,390
School Social WorkerSchool social workers collaborate with teachers, administrators, and districts to support students and their families and address issues that may be affecting students. They may develop staff training programs, counsel students and connect families to community resources that may alleviate student stress.Bachelor or master’s degree in social work, depending on the scope of practiceState licensure required in most statesCertification requirements vary by state$47,390
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social WorkerThese social workers work with clients who are dealing with mental health issues or addiction. They may provide direct support and connect clients to community resources, like counselors, doctors and 12-step programs, that can offer additional help.Master’s degree in mental health social work, substance abuse social work or relatedState licensure requiredCertification requirements vary by state$46,650

Certifications & Specializations

Board Certified Diplomate in Clinical Social Work (BCD): The American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work offers a certification granted to advanced-generalist clinical social workers who demonstrate high level competency. The Board also offers certificates in Clinical Supervision, Practice with Children and Their Families and Psychoanalysis for those who have earned the BCD credential.

NASW Social Work Credentials NASW offers two leadership-focused credentials for members: The Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW) and Diplomate in Clinical Social Work (DCSW). They also offer 18 certifications to qualified social workers, regardless of their membership status. Certifications recognize specific accomplishments in addictions work, case management, clinical work, education, gerontology, healthcare, hospice and palliative work, military work and work with youth and families.

Certifications & Specializations

American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) Specialty Certifications ABPP offers a huge range of certifications for psychology professionals of different specialties. Upon meeting requirements and passing an exam, psychologists can become Board Certified Specialists in these 15 areas:

  • Behavioral and Cognitive
  • Clinical Child and Adolescent
  • Clinical Health
  • Clinical
  • Clinical Neuropsychology
  • Counseling
  • Couple and Family
  • Forensic
  • Geropsychology
  • Group
  • Organizational and Business
  • Police and Public Safety
  • Psychoanalysis
  • Rehabilitation
  • School

Nationally Certified School Psychologist (NCSP) The National Association of School Psychologists grants professional certification to highly qualified school psychologists. Members and non-members may apply for certification.

Education Breakdown & Graduation Requirements

There are many different educational routes you can take when working toward psychology, counseling, and social work careers. Your program of study and the level of degree you receive not only dictates the information you learn and the skills you gain, but also the types of careers you can pursue. Compare different degree programs and their content, requirements and formats to pin down the right program for your goals.

Psychology

Program DescriptionGraduation RequirementsOnline Options
Master’s in Psychology Consisting of approximately two years of study, coursework at this level allows students the opportunity to specialize in a particular subset of psychology such as addiction, sports, or industrial psychology. A master’s degree in psychology can be enough for a career in the field, though a doctoral degree may be required for full licensure in certain states. In-person internship or practicum Fully online and hybrid master’s degrees in psychology do exist, but not all schools offer them. Check what program options are available at your college.
Doctor of Psychology Doctor of Psychology, or PsyD, programs are practice-based rather than theory-based, making them a great option for clinical psychologists who want advanced expertise in areas like mental health diagnoses and intervention. PsyD programs typically take between four and six years to complete. Upon completing a PsyD program, you will need to take a state licensure exam to become a fully licensed psychologist.Supervised practicum and internship and a research dissertation or equivalentYou can find fully online and hybrid PsyD programs. Contact your school to learn about their offerings.
PhD in Psychology A PhD in Psychology combines practical and theoretical education and can prepare students for clinical practice, teaching and research alike. Because of the extra academic and research coursework, PhDs may take longer to earn than PsyDs, usually around five to eight years. Graduates need to take a state licensure exam to begin their careers as psychologists. Supervised practicum and internship and a research dissertation or equivalentPsychology PhDs are available fully online and in hybrid formats.

Counseling

Program DescriptionGraduation RequirementsOnline Options
Master’s in Counseling Master’s level counseling degrees often hone in on specific aspects of counseling, like mental health counseling and school counseling. These programs typically take two years to complete and can prepare students to take national and state licensing exams. A master’s degree is sufficient for many counseling careers.In-person internship or practicumFully online and hybrid master’s in counseling programs are often available. Contact your school of choice for details.
Doctorate in Counseling Counseling doctorates, like a PhD in counseling, can prepare students for advanced practice counseling careers as well as careers in counseling supervision and education through a combination of theory and hands-on application. Counseling doctoral degrees can typically be completed in three to five years. Applicants may need to hold a master’s in counseling or a closely related field before enrolling in a doctorate program, but some programs may simply require extra foundational coursework for those without master’s degrees.Practical, in-person internships or residencies and a research dissertationFully online and hybrid options may be available but check with your school to see what formats they offer.

Social Work

Program DescriptionGraduation RequirementsOnline Options
Master of Social Work Students in Master of Social Work degree programs typically choose an area of academic focus, like social change and innovation, children, youth and families, or adult mental health and wellness. Some programs offer additional customization through specialized tracks, like school social work. Social work master’s degrees can prepare students for many social work careers and can usually be completed in two years.Practical and internships, which must be at least partially in-personMany fully online and hybrid Master of Social Work programs are available.
Doctor of Social Work Students seeking a hands-on advanced degree program that can prepare them for leadership roles in social work, like program director or agency evaluator positions, may consider a Doctor of Social Work. These programs take around three years to complete and often offer specialized tracks to focus your expertise.Residency and capstone research projectSome schools offer fully online and hybrid DSW programs. Check with your school to see if they have an online Doctor of Social Work program.
PhD in Social Work A PhD in Social work may be a good fit for professionals who want to delve into research while also honing their hand-on skills and expertise. Some programs are interdisciplinary, allowing students to explore social work through a public health, psychology, criminal justice or education lens. A social work PhD can be completed in about four years, including dissertation work.Research project and dissertationSome schools offer fully online and hybrid PhD programs in social work.

Choosing Your Degree: Questions to Ask Yourself

There can be a lot of crossover in the job duties, clients, and techniques found in these three careers, but carefully considering your goals and interests can put you on a more direct path toward the right career. Asking yourself these questions can get you started.

Q: Are you driven by opportunities to implement systemic change within communities?

Social workers often work not only with clients but with organizations and community leaders to develop policies that can have a positive impact on different populations.

Q: Would you prefer to work with clients short-term to help them reach specific goals?

Q: Are you curious about the psychological underpinnings of people’s issues and behaviors?

Q: Are you interested in helping clients advocate for themselves by connecting them with community resources that can support holistic wellness and personal autonomy?

Q: Would you like to use your expertise in careers outside of client care?

Q: Do you like the idea of helping people develop ways to cope with their problems rather than uncover the cause of the problems?

Resources

American Board of Professional Psychology Explore specialty psychology certifications and stay up to date with industry news, events and continuing education opportunities.

American Counseling Association (ACA) Counseling students and professionals can check out the ACA blog, join counselor communities, learn about licensure requirements and access industry news and publications.

American Psychological Association (APA) The APA offers a wealth of information to psychology students and professionals. Start by checking out their career and education resources.

CACREP Making sure your counseling degree program is accredited is extremely important. Check with CACREP, the accrediting body for counseling and related education programs, to make sure you’re enrolling in an approved program, and explore their student resources for more guidance.

Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Social work students can find accredited degree programs and scholarships and learn more about social work careers and where they can lead.

Hidden Brain This NPR podcast digs into the curious inner workings of human psychology and behavior, bringing together psychology, sociology, economics, anthropology and more through storytelling.

National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Learn more about optional social work credentials, social work news, career specialties, events and professional advice.

The New Social Worker Online This online magazine for social workers is a great source for news, opinion pieces and professional tools and resources.

The Social Work Podcast The Social Work Podcast is bursting with interviews and insights from social work professionals engaged in direct practice, education, research and related endeavors.

Social Work Today Magazine Explore the web counterpart to the print magazine. Find industry articles, search for jobs and dig into your social work area of expertise.

Verywell Mind Verywell Mind is a robust resource for anyone looking to learn more about topics in mental health, including education and careers.