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If you’re contemplating a career in psychology or human services, you might be both thrilled and overwhelmed by the number of roles and specializations available.

But two often stand out from the pack: social workers and psychologists. Both offer professionals the chance to enhance the lives of others. Both are invaluable resources on the individual and community level. And both offer a host of personal rewards that range from working with diverse populations to making a lasting impact.

While overlaps exist between social work and psychology, they’re distinct sectors and professions—and knowing how they compare is key to shaping your academic and professional journey.

Explore Our Psychology Programs

 

What is a Social Worker?

At the most fundamental level, social workers aim to improve the lives of others.1 They’re trained professionals who are often brought in to help people navigate (and cope with) both everyday and complex clinical social work challenges, such as:

  • Unemployment
  • Financial challenges
  • Housing issues
  • Food insecurity
  • Substance abuse
  • Mental health challenges
  • Domestic conflicts
  • Healthcare access

On a larger scale, social workers advocate for economic and social justice, particularly for vulnerable populations, by lobbying for initiatives and policy changes that nurture a more balanced and inclusive society.

What is a Psychologist?

Psychologists, on the other hand, are highly trained mental health professionals who help people cope with mental health conditions and emotionally distressing circumstances, such as:2

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Eating disorders
  • Alcohol use disorder (PTSD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Grief and loss

Similar to social workers, their primary focus is enhancing their clients’ lives. Yet, they approach it specifically through the lens of mental health. To that end, they:

  • Assess individuals to determine their emotional and behavioral patterns and challenges
  • Diagnose (when applicable) psychological conditions
  • Craft treatment plans
  • Provide clinical interventions in the form of treatment methods ranging from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)

6 Key Differences Between a Social Worker vs Psychologist

Becoming either a licensed social worker or a clinical psychologist isn’t just rewarding on a deeply personal level—both are also increasingly needed across the country.

In fact, communities across the US are seeking to bring in more social workers to help their residents with issues like food insecurity and homelessness.3 Meanwhile, a recent study conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that six in 10 therapists do not have openings for new patients—this amidst what many define as a country-wide mental health crisis.4

But deciding which career of the two to pursue comes down to understanding each profession’s nuances:

#1. Educational Pathways

For many choosing a career, any profession’s educational requirements are a huge determining factor.

Some may want to enter the job market as soon as possible. Others may be ready for the time commitment it takes to gain the knowledge, skills, and confidence they need to be at the top of their game. The difference between a licensed social worker and a clinical psychologist is reflected in their educational voyages:5

  • Social workers – In most employment settings, social workers must hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW). Many who aspire to do clinical social work, however, choose to attend graduate school to obtain either an master’s in social work (MSW), an licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), or a doctoral degree (either a DSW, or Doctor of Social Work, or a PhD, or a Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work).6
  • Psychologists – Psychologists typically hold one of three doctoral degrees: a Doctor of Psychology (PysD), a Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology (PhD), or a Doctor of Education (EdD). Some states allow professionals who hold a master’s to use the designation of “psychologist,” but most states also require those with a master’s to practice under the supervision of a professional who possesses a doctoral degree.

Social workers and psychologists may be in school anywhere from four to 10 years, but that number hinges on the amount of education they elect to go after. 7,8

Our Programs for Aspiring Psychologists and Social Workers

The master’s in social work program at Alliant helps students gain the real-life skills and in-depth knowledge they need to jumpstart a career in social services, while our doctoral programs for psychology prepare students for the rigors of the field of psychology, whether they choose to pursue a role in higher education or a clinical setting.

The best part? Our online programs are designed with the contemporary, busy student in mind so that you can strike the type of work/life balance you may one day emphasize with your clients.

#2. Scope of Practice

Social workers and psychologists both concentrate on enriching their clients’ mental health and emotional well-being.

That said, social workers tend to focus not just on providing clients with mental health counseling and support but also (in an effort to help them mitigate the stress they may be experiencing) connecting them with social services like:

  • Emergency housing
  • Medical assistance
  • Employment assistance
  • Childcare assistance
  • Welfare

Whereas a licensed clinical social worker may work with individuals to ensure their basic needs are met and supply them with therapeutic counseling, psychologists concentrate on assessing, diagnosing, and treating clients through a variety of modalities.

Social workers take a wider, more holistic approach to their clients’ well-being, while psychologists assume a more scientific line of action that’s geared specifically at treating mental health complications and emotional issues.9

#3. Population and Settings

Another key difference between social workers and psychologists? The populations they serve and the settings in which they usually work:

  • Social workers – Social workers are an essential resource, period, but particularly for individuals and communities who are impoverished, oppressed, or otherwise somehow marginalized. They may also see a broader and more diverse range of clients than psychologists, and employ their services in settings such as prisons, human services, government agencies, and schools.
  • Psychologists – This is not to say that you won’t find psychologists in correctional facilities or schools, or that psychologists don’t work with vulnerable populations. (On the contrary—some psychologists work exclusively with certain populations, such as transgender individuals or ethnic minority groups.)10 However, psychologists tend to work more in private practices, mental health clinics, and specialized settings, such as sports or corporate organizations.

#4. Professional Responsibilities

To recap: Psychologists and social workers are trained in psychotherapy, meaning both have the qualifications required to provide mental health counseling.

And yet, social workers are mainly tapped to help people navigate difficult situations. What these may be are case by case but also contingent upon their area of focus. A geriatric social worker, for example, might supply an elderly client and their families with resources and support specific to the concerns that arise with aging, such as helping them access healthcare and secure affordable senior housing. Meanwhile, a substance abuse social worker may connect an individual suffering from addiction with an inpatient rehabilitation center.

On the other hand, psychologists are primarily tasked with diagnosing and treating mental health conditions. Their extensive training, specifically, in mental and behavioral health, may enable them to use a more comprehensive range of clinical interventions, such as:11

  • Somatics
  • EMDR
  • Psychodynamic therapy
  • Humanistic/experiential therapy
  • Psychoanalysis
  • Internal Family Systems (IFS)

It's also important to distinguish the roles within social services, such as the differences between a case manager vs a social worker, each playing unique but complementary roles in client support.

#5. Research and Training

Both social workers and psychologists must undergo substantial training.

  • Psychologists – Depending on the level of schooling you choose, psychologists are required to fulfill anywhere between 2,000 and 4,000 of post-graduate clinically supervised hands-on training (through assessments, private counseling, and consultations, for example); they may also have to complete a one-year APA-approved internship.12 Further, prospective psychologists usually participate in teaching in addition to their coursework and clinical training.
  • Social workers – Obtaining licensure as a social worker typically entails two years of hands-on experience at community-based agencies or in a clinical setting.13

And do both conduct research?

Yes, but research is a larger component of one’s education in PhD programs in both disciplines.

#6. Licensing and Certification

One of the other major differences between social workers and psychologists is that social workers may have the opportunity to work without a license in some nonclinical settings, but all psychologists must receive licensure to practice.14

Obtaining licensure in either profession also differs:

  • Social workers – Licensing requirements for social workers vary by state. Nonetheless, social workers may need to pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) examination, as well as state-specific exams. For those interested in practicing in specific states, understanding how to become a social worker in California can provide insights into the unique requirements and opportunities available.
  • Psychologists – Psychologists must pass state-specific exams and the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology, a test composed of 225 multiple choice questions.15

But what do psychologists and social workers have in common?

Both are required to complete continuing education courses to maintain their licensure—and both are in the perfect position to pivot their clients’ lives in a more positive direction. It’s also worth noting that in many regions, 'social worker' is a protected title, requiring specific credentials and licensure to ensure that practitioners meet professional standards.

How Alliant International University Prepares Mental Health Professionals

As you weigh the requirements and unique responsibilities of a social worker vs psychologist, you can rest assured that both professions may be incredibly satisfying. What’s more, Alliant International University can help you decide which way to go and put you on an academic path that can propel you closer to your ultimate professional goals.

Discover how you can enact change with Alliant International University.


Sources:

  1. CareerExplorer. “What Does a Social Worker Do?” CareerExplorer, March 2, 2023. https://www.careerexplorer.com/careers/social-worker/.
  2.  “What Is a Psychologist? What They Do, When to See One, and What to Expect.” WebMD. Accessed April 19, 2024. https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-is-psychologist. 
  3. Becker, Sam. “Why the Government Is Aggressively Hiring Social Workers in 2023.” Fortune Education, December 20, 2023. https://fortune.com/education/articles/why-the-government-is-aggressively-hiring-social-workers-in-2023/. 
  4. “What Is a Psyd? Your Degree Guide.” Coursera, November 29, 2023. https://www.coursera.org/articles/psyd. 
  5. “What Is the Difference between Psychologists, Psychiatrists and Social Workers?” American Psychological Association. Accessed April 19, 2024. https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/psychotherapy-professionals. 
  6. “DSW vs. Ph.d. in Social Work.” CORP-MSW0 (SWLM), August 8, 2022. https://socialworklicensemap.com/social-work-degrees/doctorate-in-social-work/dsw-vs-phd/. 
  7. Kendra Cherry, MSEd. “Different Timelines for Doctorate-Degree Options in Psychology.” Verywell Mind, November 7, 2023. https://www.verywellmind.com/how-long-does-it-take-to-get-a-phd-in-psyc…;
  8. “Ph.d. in Social Work.” CORP-MSW0 (SWLM), July 5, 2022. https://socialworklicensemap.com/social-work-degrees/phd/. 
  9. LCSW vs. psychologist: Key differences and comparisons | indeed.com. Accessed April 20, 2024. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/finding-a-job/lcsw-vs-psychologist. 
  10. “Psychology Careers Guide.” American Psychological Association. Accessed April 19, 2024. https://www.apa.org/education-career/guide/careers. 
  11. Inc., Cerebral. “What Are the Different Types of Therapy?: Cerebral: Revised 12/12/2023.” Cerebral, December 12, 2023. https://cerebral.com/blog/whats-online-therapy-like. 
  12. Seiter, Cecilia. “Social Worker vs. Therapist: What’s the Difference?” Forbes, March 1, 2024. https://www.forbes.com/advisor/education/psychology-and-counseling/social-worker-vs-therapist-whats-the-difference/. 
  13. “Social Work vs. Therapy.” CORP-MSW0 (SWLM), July 6, 2022. https://socialworklicensemap.com/social-work-careers/social-work-vs-therapy/. 
  14.  Unlicensed social worker: What is it? and how to become one? | ziprecruiter. Accessed April 20, 2024. https://www.ziprecruiter.com/career/Unlicensed-Social-Worker/What-Is-How-to-Become. 
  15. “The Path to EPPP Excellence.” American Psychological Association. Accessed April 18, 2024. https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2007/09/eppp. 

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