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Which Career: Social Worker or Psychologist?

December 2019 - Social workers and psychologists have certain things in common. For example, they are both in the field of helping and supporting people, often those who have complex needs or who are facing challenges. However, there are also many differences between the two professions. Their basic tasks and responsibilities are distinct from one another, as are the educational requirements. While most social workers need a master's degree, in the USA for example, a psychologist will need a doctoral degree in order to practice. Psychologists tend to earn more highly, though there are many opportunities for progression in both careers.

If youíre considering a career that involves both helping and supporting people, be sure to read on and see the differences between two roles that do just that.

What do they both do?

Social worker

There are two main career paths that a social worker could choose to go down: a general social worker or a clinical social worker. A general social worker helps their clients to make positive changes in their lives by supporting them with socioeconomic, human rights, poverty, and legal problems. Not only this but a clinical social worker offers support to clients with behavioral, cognitive or emotional, issues. A clinical social worker normally works in a clinic, hospital, or private practice, whereas a general social worker often works in the community. A clinical social worker tends to use a multi-faceted approach to therapy, concentrating on supporting their clients to improve their physical, emotional or financial status.


A psychologist concentrates on human behaviors and observes how the mind works. To put it another way, a psychologist looks into why people think and act in the ways that they do. Their key job is to diagnose and decide on treatment for a range of emotional and mental health issues. Psychologists usually choose to specialize in one area. Such specialisms might include children, couples, the elderly, or families, for example.

What qualifications do I need?

Both social workers and psychologists need to have at least a bachelor's degree to qualify and obtain work. However, the two professions require different types of degrees.

Social Worker

Generally speaking, a social worker needs to have a master's degree in social work before they can practice. There are many great courses, including an online social work degree, which is perfect for somebody looking to continue working while studying. While you won't necessarily an undergraduate degree in social work, you'll need to have completed courses in psychology, sociology, and economics on your bachelor's degree. A social worker must also obtain their license before working with the public. You must complete over 3,000 hours of clinical supervision and take the exam to gain your license.


The educational requirements for a psychologist in the USA are rather higher. They must have obtained a doctoral degree before they can practice. However, this doesn't mean you need to have completed a bachelor's in psychology. Providing you have studied a subject that allows you onto the master's psychology degree, you should be eligible for most relevant Ph.D. programs. Once youíve completed your master's and then a doctoral psychology degree you must complete an approved internship and pass a final exam to gain your license.

Similarities and Differences

Social workers and psychologists share various similarities. For example, both professionals offer support services and/or counseling to their clients. Most clinical psychologists and clinical social workers utilize a range of psychological practices to assess, diagnosis and counsel children, adults, families, couples, and groups.

The key difference between the two jobs is that in addition to providing support to clients, psychologists are also qualified to carry out psychological tests, such as personality tests and intelligence assessments, whereas social workers are not skilled in this area. Furthermore, psychologists usually concentrate more on cognitive behaviors and processes than social workers.

Social workers offer help with practical matters and link clients up with social service resources, such as welfare benefits and food stamps. Psychologists, on the other hand, offer their clients therapy, counseling and other mental health services. However, there are many overlaps between the two and, in many cases, social workers and psychologists often carry out many similar tasks.

Similar Work Environments

Another resemblance is that both psychologists and social workers usually work in many of the same settings. These settings include hospitals, mental health facilities, private practices, clinics, educational institutions, community centers, and skilled nursing facilities. However, a psychologist isn't limited to the clinical field. Instead, they can specialize in areas such as school psychology, family and marriage therapy, sports psychology, corporate psychology or health psychology. They can choose to carry out clinical and other types of research and teach at graduate level, whereas social workers generally cannot.

Social workers usually go on to specialize in areas such as children in care, people with HIV/Aids, people who have experienced domestic violence, etc.


Social work and psychology are both impressive and rewarding career options. Which you choose largely comes down to what you'd like to spend your time doing and which area of supporting people appeals to you. While both professionals offer support and counseling to their clients, social workers focus more on helping to implement practical solutions and hook their clients up with other means of support, whereas psychologists focus on analyzing human behavior and assessing and treating those with emotional or mental health issues.

Educational requirements are another significant factor in the USA. While clinical social workers need a masterís degree in social work, psychologists need a doctoral degree on top of their master's. This means spending another four years in university study and delaying obtaining your license by that extra time. However, psychologists tend to earn more highly than social workers, which may compensate for the time and expense of the additional study and exams.

Both social workers and psychologists make a tangible difference, both to individuals and to wider communities. There are challenges in each role and to gain a real insight, it's advisable to speak to professionals on both sides. Whichever you decide, expect challenges, but ultimately a lifelong career of which you can be proud.

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