Your Guide to Understanding the Difference Between Social Workers vs. Psychologists

Created by careersinpsychology

Human services is a broad field with a lot of different specialties and opportunities to help people and communities. For anyone coming in from outside the field, though, it isn’t always clear what each of those roles is for. Is there a difference between counselors and therapists? What about the difference between social workers and psychologists?

When you’re picking a career it’s important to understand what both the similarities and the differences are for social worker vs psychologist jobs. And the place to start is with the similarities: both psychologists and social workers are there to help.

Psychology itself is a big tent, pulling together everything that modern science and research can tell us about how people think and act. Social work is all about dealing with the fallout in communities when those thoughts and actions aren’t in the best interests of individuals.

The psychology - social work relationship is effective in developing strategies for dealing with real challenges and finding practical solutions to real world problems.

Clinical social workers use key psychological concepts and therapies to assist their clients, but they may refer those clients to psychologists when mental health issues are complex. Psychologists refer patients back to social workers when their psychological issues are created or set on overdrive by conditions like hunger, abuse, or homelessness that only social services can solve.

Together, social workers and psychologists form a community of human services professionals that rely on one another.

The Key Difference Between Social Work and Psychologist Jobs

Both social workers and psychologists are in the business of helping people who can no longer effectively help themselves. In some cases, they might even be the same people, with the same kind of issues… anxiety, depression, addiction—all are mental health issues that can be treated by either a licensed clinical psychologist or a licensed clinical social worker.

The biggest difference is in the ways a clinical social worker vs a psychologist will try to treat those issues.

  • Social workers - Perceive problems as stemming from larger societal issues, and help deal with those issues in a holistic way.
  • Psychologists - Look primarily internally for sources of mental health problems and uses individual therapy to build coping mechanisms.

Psychologists expect to resolve problems from within the mind of their patients. Social workers specialize in dealing with issues that come from the environment and outside circumstances.

Both a social worker and a psychologist might see someone experiencing depression as a result of homelessness. The psychologist will focus on treating the depression itself, working with the patient to find acceptance and to work on issues within their own control to resolve the mental issue. The social worker, while still offering empathy and therapy, will also pursue strategies to try to get the person into permanent housing, dealing with the root cause of the problem.

Can a social worker work as a psychologist?

Is it possible to go from being a social worker to being a psychologist? Yes, but it’s not easy! The licensed social worker vs psychologist educational paths are pretty far apart. But if you decide to pursue licensure as a clinical psychologist on top of earning the credentials to work as a licensed social worker, you are allowed to do so.

Is a LCSW better than a psychologist?

The comparison of LCSW to psychologist is a little bit apples to oranges. They fill different roles in the field of human services, and each of those roles might be better or worse at handling a particular type of case. A social worker will probably not have many tools available to help a paranoid schizophrenic, while a psychologist has advanced training for that kind of mental problem. On the other hand, a psychologist will come up dry if someone walks in the door who needs food stamps. A social worker, on the other hand, knows just who to call to get it sorted out.

What Is The Difference Between Social Worker and Psychologist Education and Training?

Both social workers and psychologists receive specialized training to give them the skills to pursue their professions.

For social workers, that means earning a master’s degree in social work (MSW). It’s a two-year program that covers subjects such as:

  • Sociology and community building
  • Advocacy and leadership
  • Clinical treatment
  • Social systems and safety nets
  • Social justice

Different concentrations are available in most MSW programs, so a social worker might specialize in working with geriatric populations or in child welfare. MSWs also include practicum and internship placements, giving you the opportunity to put your new skills into practice and learning on the job.

Psychologists and social workers are both highly trained professionals who work to support individuals with mental health issues.

Psychologists have a longer path to get to clinical practice. A doctoral degree is the standard, either a PsyD (Doctor of Psychology) or PhD (Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology), taking as long as seven years to complete after earning a bachelor’s degree. These programs also have plenty of field experiences along the way, and allow concentrations in areas such as clinical practice, behavioral psychology, or social psychology.

Courses vary between specializations, but your core studies are likely to include:

  • Psychological theory
  • Cognitive and affective bases of behavior
  • Assessment and treatment techniques
  • Psychological research
  • Ethics

Both types of programs have a culminating paper or project, often called a thesis for MSWs and a dissertation for psychologists. While the doctoral dissertation is more intense and takes more time to complete, both involve original research and an expression of your ideas and thoughts in the field.

Both MSW and PsyD/PhD programs are available online these days, allowing most of your coursework to happen out in the cloud. Local arrangements are made for your mandatory field experiences.

Explore Psychology and Social Work Programs Online

Both psychology and social work are such specialized subjects that each has a specialty accreditation process that programs go through to evaluate and approve the course of study. For psychology, this is the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Commission on Accreditation. In social work, it is the CSWE, or Council on Social Work Education.

Social Worker vs Psychologist Licensing Requirements

Both psychology and social work licensure is regulated by separate state licensing boards. Although not all social workers nor all psychologists need a license, it’s a lock that you will have to get one in either job if you want to offer clinical services.

The outline of the license process is pretty similar for both professions:

  • Earn a terminal degree in the field (MSW for social workers, a doctorate for psychologists)
  • Accumulate a set number of hours of post-graduate field experience
  • Pass a national test in your field
  • Pass a criminal background check and state-level jurisprudence tests in some cases
  • Maintain licensure through ongoing continuing education requirements

For social workers, this means going through about 3,000 hours of supervised post-graduate field experience. They have to pass the national Clinical exam from the Association of Social Work Boards, a 170-question test on relevant topics.

Psychology licensure, on the other hand, requires meeting much higher standards. A year or more of post-doctoral supervised experience is required, and two years may be common in certain specialties. They also have to pass the fearsome EPPP, or Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology, a two-part, 225-question exam that covers both core psychological knowledge and treatment skills.

Both social work and psychology have jobs where no license is required. In social work, these are referred to as macro positions, and include people working in back offices or policy development without direct client contact or any therapeutic roles. In psychology, non-clinical jobs can include work in research, policy, analysis, or even in big business, in roles like marketing or product development.

Social Worker vs Psychologist Salary and Career Potential

A social worker career is definitely fulfilling, but most people wouldn’t call it lucrative. As of 2022, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics says the median yearly income for various types of social workers is:

  • $50,820 for child, family, and school social workers.
  • $51,240 for mental health and substance abuse social workers.
  • $60,280 for healthcare social workers.
  • $61,420 for social workers (all other).

Clinical social workers, who have gone all the way through the licensing process, may be able to increase their salary potential. For example, the top 10% of earners in the catch-all social workers (all other) category bring home over $95,000 annually.

The benefits of a psychologist career are more financial in nature. The median there is $81,040, but clinical psychologists, those most comparable to clinical social workers, enjoy a median yearly income of $90,130. Those in the top ten percent can go over $168,790 per year.

Both social workers and psychologists have a lot to feel good about when they go home at night, but the psychologist is probably going home to a larger place!

Both LCSWs and psychologists also have the option of boosting their salary potential by earning specialty credentials in their fields. Through the National Association of Social Workers, LCSWs can receive certification in areas such as addiction, health care, and education. Similarly, psychologists can get certification through the American Board of Professional Psychology in areas including rehabilitation, couple and family counseling, and neuropsychology.

Finally, social workers are expected to experience a much greater increase in jobs over the next decade. BLS forecasts a rise of 9% in social work jobs by 2031. Psychologists, on the other hand, are looking at a much more typical growth rate of about 6% in that period.

Who gets paid more, a psychologist or a social worker?

Psychologists definitely make more than social workers. But compensation isn’t all about what kind of cash you bring in the door. While both psychologists and social workers make a living by helping people, social workers are often engaged in a broader effort to improve the systems of society that reduce inequality and lead to greater social justice. Their objectives are about far more than making money, and their satisfaction can come from places other than their paycheck.

2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics job market trends and salary figures for family social workers, mental health social workers, healthcare social workers, social workers (all other), psychologists, and clinical psychologists are based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed June 2023.