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Master’s in Social Work vs. Clinical Mental Health Counseling: Which Degree is Best?

The two master’s programs prepare you for careers devoted to helping people make positive changes in their lives. Take a look at what distinguishes one from the other.

A master’s in social work and a master’s in clinical mental health counseling share more similarities than differences. Each degree prepares students for careers as positive change agents—but it’s the manner in which they provide help that separates one from the other.

Careers and Education of Social Workers

A master of social work (MSW) degree helps prepare students for diverse jobs within the two main types of social work careers:

  • Direct-service social workers—They connect people in need with vital services and resources, such as financial aid, food stamps, jobs, housing, healthcare, and mental health counseling, all of which can help individuals and families transition out of at-risk situations into more stable lives.

  • Clinical social workers—Their clients often suffer from emotional and behavioral problems, addictions, and mental health disorders. Social work clinicians have master’s-level training to perform psychotherapy and even diagnose patients. They are often members of a collaborative team of psychiatrists and advanced-practice psychiatric nurses. Social workers with a master’s degree have the credentials to work in a range of settings, like healthcare organizations and public and private agencies at the community, city, and state levels.

When comparing MSW programs, it is important to consider accreditation and specializations. The strongest indicator of academic excellence within an MSW degree program is accreditation by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). In fact, graduation from a CSWE-accredited MSW degree program is necessary for licensure as a social worker in most states. In terms of specializations, look for master’s in social work degrees offering specialized online degree programs with elective clusters that give students the option to focus on a particular field, such as addiction; children, families, and couples; crisis and trauma; and other specific areas.

Job Market for Social Workers

Jobs for social workers are expected to grow at a rate of 19% from 2012 to 2022—faster than the average for all occupations. The median annual wage was $44,200 in May 2012, and the top 10% earned more than $72,980.*

Careers and Education for Clinical Mental Health Counseling

Clinical mental health counselors use their degrees to help enable clients to see their own abilities and inner strength—fostering the motivation to overcome challenges and make positive changes in their daily lives.

Dr. Robyn Trippany, faculty member of the MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program at Walden University, reveals the key to being an effective counselor:

“If you are always telling the client what to do … you miss out on those moments where you get chills up your arms because you see that the client finally figured it out. That’s what makes counseling so amazing—when you stop thinking you’re the expert and allow the client to be the expert in his or her own life .”

Careers for professionals with a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling include roles such as licensed professional counselor, licensed professional clinical counselor, and licensed mental health counselor. Counselors may choose to work with young people, adults, or a geriatric population in a wide range of professional settings.

Job Market for Clinical Mental Health Counselors

As more insurance policies provide coverage for mental health counseling services, the job market for mental health counselors is projected to grow 29% from 2012 to 2022—nearly triple the average rate for all occupations. In May 2012, the median annual wage for mental health counselors was $40,080, with the top 10% earning $66,630.*

Whether you choose a Master of Social Work degree or an MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, you can anticipate a rewarding career facilitating positive changes in the lives of many.

Explore Walden University’s CSWE-accredited MSW degree program and online 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.

*Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012 Edition, Social Workers, Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists, on the Internet at

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