Social Work or Counseling? Which Degree Should I Choose?

Both the MSW and MA permit you to counsel clients

Vintage books
PURPLEANVIL / Getty Images

If you are considering a career in mental health, there are several degree choices that can prepare you to work independently as a therapist. Some choices, such as becoming a psychologist, require a doctoral degree (either PhD or PsyD). However, doctoral degrees are not your only choice - and very often are not the best choice. 

Both the MSW and MA in counseling permit you to counsel clients in private, independent, settings. They both require a master's degree from an accredited program, supervised post-degree hours, and a license.

Counseling (MA)

With a master's in counseling, you'd seek a license as a Counseling Professional Counselor (LPC). States may vary with regard to the exact title, such as Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPPC) in California or Licensed Professional Counselor of Mental Health (LPCMH) in Delaware. 

In addition to a master's degree in counseling from an accredited program, you need two to three years and 2,000-3,000 hours of post-degree supervised practice, as well as a passing score on a state licensing exam.

Social Work (MSW)

After earning the MSW degree from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), independent practice requires a license as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), 2,000 to 3,000 hours of post-degree practice. States vary as to how many of those hours must be supervised. Applicants must also pass a state licensing exam.

Counseling MAs and Social Work MSWs have similar training requirements and abilities. As a client, you can receive excellent treatment from either professional. However, you may be better off with the MSW. Why?

  • The public is more familiar with the MSW. Most people have heard of a social worker and an MSW. Moreover, there is more state-by-state variability in the specific titles of counselors as compared with LCSWs
  • The path to credentialing in social work is very clear in all states. While a master's in counseling ensures licensure in all states, there seems to be variability in how many years of supervised practice and what forms practice may take.
  • Finally, insurance companies reimburse both but may have fewer qualms about reimbursements for MSWs (although this varies by company, of course).

All in all, the MA in counseling and MSW provide similar training but perhaps with different philosophical approaches. The public is more familiar with the MSW degree. Familiarity is important when it comes to selecting a therapist.