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Social Worker vs. Counselor: Which Job Description Matches Your Goals?

In general, social workers and counselors are both driven by compassion and a desire to help people in need. They work in similar settings, including home health agencies; hospitals; health clinics; various social services agencies at the community, city, and state levels; the criminal justice system; and private practice.

What Do Social Workers Do?

Social workers who graduate from a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree program help people in distress solve and cope with problems that arise from the many complications of poverty, unemployment, advanced age, physical ailments, mental illness, child and spousal abuse, and other serious issues. The two types of social workers are:

Social Worker vs. Counselor: Which Job Description Matches Your Goals?

  • Direct Service Social Workers—Social workers have the skills to advocate for their clients. They can tap into the network of social services offered by government agencies, religious organizations, and nonprofit organizations to connect their disadvantaged clients with social, healthcare, and financial services such as:

    • Food stamps/Meals on Wheels
    • Housing assistance
    • Transportation services
    • Physical and vocational rehabilitation services
    • Job training programs
    • Medical clinics and mental health counseling
  • Clinical Social Workers—Like clinical mental health counselors, clinical social workers have the additional training to perform psychotherapy. They help their clients work through their emotions, develop coping strategies, and adapt to their environment. With their special knowledge and understanding of the social services network, social workers also help adapt the environment to the client. Clinical social workers and counselors are often part of a collaborative team of psychiatrists and advanced-practice psychiatric nurses.

As advocates for their clients, direct service social workers and clinical social workers often document and report situations of neglect and abuse in a family setting. They help place at-risk children in foster homes and abused women in shelters.

With Master of Social Work (MSW) elective clusters, students can focus on areas of interest like addiction; children, families, and couples; crisis and trauma; forensic populations and settings; medical social work; and military families and culture.

Job Growth for Social Workers

Employment of social workers is projected to grow 16% from 2016 to 2026, faster than the average for all professions. The median annual wage was $47,980 in May 2017, and the top 10% earned more than $79,740.* Licensed clinical social workers in private practices have the opportunity to earn a median annual salary of $50,000 by the age of 35–44, with the top 10% earning $130,000.

What Do Counselors Do?

Specialized counseling degree programs online provide graduates with a variety of career options:

  • With an MS in Marriage, Couple, and Family Counseling, graduates can focus their career on diagnosing mental and emotional disorders and helping clients deal with stressful family issues, such as divorce, family violence, and child-rearing practices.
  • With an MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, graduates can work with young people, adults, or a geriatric population in settings like community mental health centers, correctional facilities, hospitals, child and family service centers, and private practice.
  • An MS in School Counseling gives graduate students the skills and up-to-date knowledge to deal with academic problems, social challenges such as bullying, and family issues that encroach on young people’s ability to learn and perform well in school.
Job Market for Counselors
Specialty Job Growth 2016–2026 Median Annual Wage Top 10%
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder and Mental Health Counselors 23% $43,300 $70,840
Marriage and Family Therapists 23% $48,790 $81,760
School and Career Counselors 13% $55,410 $91,960

Whether you choose a social work degree or a counseling degree, you can prepare yourself for a rewarding career—and to making a real difference in improving the lives of others. Explore Walden University's online social work degree programs and counseling degree programs to launch, advance, or change the direction of your career. Earn your graduate degree in a convenient online format that fits your busy life.

Career options may require additional experience, training, or other factors beyond the successful completion of this degree program.

*Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012 Edition, Social Workers, on the Internet at

†National Association of Social Workers, Center for Workforce Studies & Social Work Practice, Social Workers in Private Practice, on the Internet at

‡Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012 Edition, Mental Health Counselors; Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors; Marriage and Family Therapists; and School and Career Counselors; on the Internet at