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Social Work vs. Nursing: Which One Should I Choose?

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Reviewed By
Published on: 08/02/2023
Last Updated: 04/17/2024
6 minute read

Nursing and medical social work are two distinct careers with some commonalities. For example, individuals in either profession collaborate with professionals like doctors and government officials, or even cross each other’s paths during patient care.

But the most significant thing they have in common is that both careers involve working hard to improve the lives of others. For that reason, social work and nursing careers have a knack for attracting anyone with a passion for helping others at times when they need it most.

Despite these similarities, however, there are many differences between social work vs nursing. If you’re trying to find the ideal career between a medical social worker and a nurse, read on as we explore their distinctions.

School of Nursing and Health Sciences 

What Is Nursing? 

In their most recognizable form, nurses care for patients directly in medical settings, such as clinics and hospitals. Different types of nurses may also provide care outside the doctor’s office as school nurses, occupational nurses, hospice nurses, and more.1

A newly-registered nurse stands at the doorway to various career paths. Their job description will vary depending on what area they want to specialize in or where they want to work.

Administering patient care is one of the most common paths for a new nurse, but it’s not the only option. Other paths include:2

  • Nurse educators
  • Academic nurse writers
  • Forensic nurses
  • Nurse legal consultants

Educational and Licensing Requirements for Nursing Careers

No matter where their careers take them, all nurses start their journey in the same place: the classroom. Most states require nurses to have an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN). 

Additionally, nurses must obtain licensing from the state where they intend to practice. This requires passing a comprehensive exam known as the NCLEX.3

Many nurses pursue voluntary advanced degrees to bolster their skill sets and professional qualifications. Some choose to work toward a master’s of social work (MSW) or to obtain specialized licensing from state nursing boards.

What Is Social Work?

Like nurses, healthcare social workers are employed in diverse capacities across industries and workplaces. They most commonly work with government agencies to connect people and families with vital support and public resources. They may also intervene in domestic affairs like adoption, child neglect, and spousal abuse. They are advocates of social justice and may perform similar duties on behalf of non-profit organizations.

A social work degree equips professionals with a broad understanding of social services, including the different specializations such as school social work, mental health, and medical social work. Some social workers may gain licenses to provide certain mental healthcare services to their clients after graduation. Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW) can work as counselors, therapists, or in roles that involve connecting clients with psychological care. 

Educational and Licensing Requirements for Social Work Careers

If you want to become a social worker in California, the career requires at least a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW).4 However, in many cases, professionals in the field take their education further, working toward a master’s degree in social work (MSW) or taking courses to earn continuing education credits.

The Similarities and Differences Between Social Work and Nursing

Because of the unique educational requirements of both fields, it’s helpful to decide between social work vs. nursing early on in your educational journey. 

If you’re still unsure about whether nursing or social work is a better fit for you, don’t worry. Understanding the similarities and differences is a key part of making the decision that best fits your career and life goals. 

Similarities of Social Work and Nursing

The primary similarity between social work vs. nursing is that both professions involve serving others to improve their living conditions. Both fields have the same objective of providing essential human services, albeit through different lenses.

Both social workers and nurses work with: 

  • Individuals
  • Couples
  • Families
  • Communities

Differences Between Social Work and Nursing

That said, social workers and nurses facilitate patient care in different ways. 

For most nurses, individual and family needs are met through clinical care. They may work with doctors and other medical professionals to perform testing, determine diagnoses, and administer treatment. Even in non-care roles, nurses apply medical training that’s rooted in an understanding of medical science and clinical practice.

For social workers, care is enacted through communication, council, and connective service. Social workers help people navigate some of life’s most challenging experiences, from divorce and unemployment to homelessness and periods of post-incarceration transition.5

Clinical Social Work: The Intersection Between Social Work and Nursing

If the ideas of providing medical care and lifestyle council appeal to you, you may be fit for a job as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), which is possible to attain with a master’s in social work (MSW). One thing to consider if you want to become a social worker in California is obtaining a social worker protected title.

Perhaps the most amount of overlap lies between nursing and social work in this setting. LCSWs perform several functions that are related to nursing, such as:6

  • Coordinating with other medical professionals to provide care
  • Advocating on behalf of medical patients and their families
  • Helping patients and families manage medical diagnoses
  • Providing patients with information on health services and how to access it

Clinical Social Worker vs. a Nurse Practitioner:

A clinical social worker collaborates with other healthcare or medical teams to address the psychosocial needs of patients, while a nurse practitioner focuses on delivering direct medical care.

Launch Your Education in Nursing or Social Work at Alliant International University 

Whether your desire to provide some of the most essential services in society leads you to nursing or social work, rest assured that both careers are noble and fulfilling. 

No matter what you choose, make sure that quality education is the foundation of your career.

The School of Nursing and Health Sciences at the Arizona campus of Alliant International University offers two nursing degree programs. The bachelor’s of science in nursing and master’s of science in nursing programs can equip you with the knowledge and skills you need to prepare for the required NCLEX licensing exam and care for people in your community.

Or, if you feel compelled to pursue social work or clinical social work, consider a master’s in social work (MSW) with our online program. You can enter the program with any accredited bachelor’s degree, whether that’s in nursing or another area. 

Learn more about your education options at Alliant International University today.

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  1. NurseJournal Staff. “How To Become a Registered Nurse.” NurseJournal. March 21, 2023. Accessd May 12, 2023.
  2. NurseJournal Staff. “15 Nursing Jobs Can Work Instead of Bedside.” NurseJournal. March 23, 2023. Accessed May 12, 2023.
  3. NurseJournal Staff. “How To Become a Registered Nurse.” NurseJournal. March 21, 2023. Accessd May 12, 2023.
  4. Social Work Licensure. “How to Become a Social Worker.” May 8, 2020.…. Accessed May 12, 2023.
  5. Social Work Licensure. “How to Become a Social Worker.” May 8, 2020.…. Accessed May 12, 2023.
  6. Social Work Licensure. “How to Become a Social Worker.” May 8, 2020.…. Accessed May 12, 2023.

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