Social worker vs. psychologist: Which human services path is right for you?
As you search for a career path you can feel good about, rest easy knowing there are a number of humanistic professions you could pursue. If your career goals involve helping people overcome the challenges that may hinder their potential, you may find yourself drawn toward social work and psychology.
Both social workers and psychologists are trained to tune in to a person’s cognitive, social and emotional behaviors. They aim to provide guidance, strategies and resources to help individuals cope with the difficulties they face. This can, at times, include providing diagnoses and administering psychotherapy.
Despite the handful of similarities between these professions, there are also some notable differences that can help you decide between following a social worker path and that of a psychologist. We dug into the data to outline these two impactful career paths below. You just might find you’re a natural fit for one of them.
Social worker vs. psychologist: How do their duties differ?
Both social work and psychology house numerous specialties—from working specifically with schoolchildren to specializing in mental health and substance abuse. While such a wide range of services means each professional’s job duties may vary, there are some core elements specific to both of these roles.
Social workers not only help people cope with challenges in their lives, but also dedicate ample time and energy to advocacy. These human services professionals help raise awareness and advance causes both with and on behalf of their clients at the local, state and even national levels. Social workers will typically work with families and individuals to help improve their quality of life.
Some of the typical social worker duties include the following:
- Assessing a client’s needs, situations and strengths to determine their goals
- Helping clients adjust to major life changes, such as illness, divorce or the death of a loved one
- Researching, referring and advocating for community resources on a client-by-client basis
- Responding to crisis situations, such as mental health emergencies or child abuse
- Identifying people or communities in need of help
- Following up with clients to ensure improvements are made
Psychologists, on the other hand, observe, interpret and record how people relate to one another and their environments by studying cognitive, emotional and social behaviors. Their goal is to understand and explain complicated thoughts, emotions, feelings and behavior. A psychologist’s process for doing so can include controlled laboratory experiments, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Rather than working with families or community groups, psychologists typically assist individuals who are experiencing difficulties in their own lives in a one-on-one capacity.
In general, psychologists are responsible for the following job duties:
- Conducting scientific studies of behavior and brain function
- Identifying psychological, emotional or behavioral issues and diagnosing disorders
- Identifying and testing for patterns that can help them better understand and predict behavior
- Discussing treatment plans with clients and other medical professionals
- Writing articles, research papers and reports to share findings with others
Social worker vs. psychologist: What is the career outlook for both?
You may plan to pursue a particular career based solely on your passion for the field, but it can be reassuring to know you’re entering an industry with promising potential. The good news is, both social work and psychology are expected to see notable growth in the next few years.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), overall employment of social workers is projected to grow 16 percent through 2026—that’s more than double the rate of all occupations nationwide. Healthcare social work jobs are set to see particularly prominent growth, increasing by a projected 20 percent in that same time frame. At the same time, mental health and substance abuse social worker positions trail just behind with 19 percent projected growth.
The BLS forecasts similar growth for psychologists. Overall employment of psychologists is projected to grow 14 percent through 2026, which is twice the national average. Clinical, counseling and school psychologist jobs are all expected to experience the same growth rate during this time frame.
Some experts hypothesize demand for psychology services will increase particularly for two groups: aging populations and those within schools. As the population ages, additional services can help people deal with the mental and physical changes that occur as they grow older. And as more people become aware of the connection between mental health and learning, school psychologists’ expertise will be in high demand.
Social worker vs. psychologist: How can you pursue these paths?
There are multiple educational pathways that could lead you to a career as either a social worker or a psychologist. The most common requirement for entry-level social work positions is a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW). According to the BLS, a BSW prepares students for direct-service positions, such as a case worker or a mental health assistant.
Clinical social work positions require a master’s degree in social work (MSW). MSW programs typically prepare students to work in their chosen specialty, and they require students to complete a supervised practicum or internship. You’ll also need two years of supervised training and experience. You can then take a clinical exam to become licensed. Licensure requirements vary by state, so be sure to look into the specifics in your area.
Most psychologist positions require a doctoral degree in psychology, but the BLS reports a master’s degree in the field can be sufficient for some positions. A Master of Arts in Psychology with an emphasis on Marriage and Family Therapy like the one at Brandman University, for example, can qualify graduates who obtain proper licensure to work in marriage and family counselor positions.
For the clinical, counseling and research psychologist positions that require further education, you have the option of pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree. Ph.D. psychology programs are research-intensive and culminate in taking a comprehensive exam and writing a detailed dissertation. The Psy.D. is a clinical degree often based on practical work and examinations, rather than a dissertation. Most psychology doctoral programs will include a one-year internship.
In most states, you must be licensed to practice as a psychologist. State-specific licensure requirements can be found at the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards site. Practicing psychologists must complete continuing education courses to maintain licensure in many states, as well.
Are you destined for a one of these careers?
Hopefully, exploring the differences between social workers and psychologists has made your end goal a bit clearer. And now you may be able to start mapping the educational path to your future career.
If you find yourself drawn toward social work or psychology, head over to Brandman University’s Arts & Sciences page and explore the options at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
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