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Career comparison: Social worker vs counselor

January 12, 2022
A woman counselor with brown hair and glasses smiles as she listens to another person whose back is to the camera.

Those individuals looking for a meaningful career working closely with people have likely considered all sorts of jobs from nursing to teaching. If you’ve narrowed down your search to a guidance-type role, you might be interested in becoming either a social worker or clinical mental health counselor. At first glance the two roles might seem very similar, but considering each has its own corresponding graduate degree, there are some key differences to consider before committing to either path. Continue reading for a look at how social work and counseling degrees compare in day-to-day responsibilities, working environments, salaries, education and more.

What’s the core purpose of a social worker vs counselor?

Let’s start interrogating the differences between these two professions by taking a step back and looking at how they’re described in simplest terms:

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) writes that the main focus of social work is, “to enhance human well-being and help meet basic and complex needs of all people, with a particular focus on those who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.”1 Meanwhile the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) defines counseling as, “A professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.”2 The key differences between the two, as evidenced in these statements, are the audience, or clients served, and the base purpose of the work.

Both roles are focused on improving people’s circumstances, but social work is directed more towards individuals who belong to some type of at-risk population. Further, social workers are often intercepting their clients at a time of crisis to help their clients meet essential needs like access to food, healthcare, shelter and school on top of the mental health challenges that come along with navigating these situations. As the NASW explains, “Social workers help clients deal not only with how they feel about a situation but also with what they can do about it.”1

The clients of clinical mental health counselors, on the other hand, likely have more stability when it comes to the necessities of survival and will often (but not always) seek out help voluntarily for challenges they’re facing. The American Mental Health Counselors Association describes this service as, “flexible, consumer-oriented therapy,” and explains that counselors “combine traditional psychotherapy with a practical, problem-solving approach that creates a dynamic and efficient path for change and problem resolution.” (To differentiate clinical mental health counselors from yet another role, therapists, counselors are more pragmatic in practice than psychotherapists. For example, counselors are likely to ask questions like: How do we fix this problem? How do we get your needs met? What can you start doing today? Psychotherapy typically focuses on the theoretical side of issues: Why do you feel that way? Where did that come from? What's the origin of this attitude or habit or problem?).3

When it comes to the mission of social workers vs counselors, both look for practical solutions for their clients, but social workers intervene to help people meet basic needs while counselors are sought out by clients to achieve their stated goals in work, relationships and more.

Career Path: Social worker vs clinical mental health counselor

What do social workers do?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the responsibilities of a social worker include:4

  • Identifying people and communities in need of help
  • Assessing clients’ needs, situations, strengths, and support networks to determine their goals
  • Helping clients adjust to changes and challenges in their lives, such as illness, divorce, or unemployment
  • Researching, referring, and advocating for community resources, such as food stamps, childcare, and healthcare to assist and improve a client’s well-being
  • Responding to crisis situations such as child abuse and mental health emergencies
  • Following up with clients to ensure that their situations have improved
  • Maintaining case files and records
  • Developing and evaluating programs and services to ensure that basic client needs are met
  • Providing psychotherapy services

What do clinical mental health counselors do?

Counselors, including those who work with clients that have addiction or behavioral issues, have the following responsibilities:5

  • Evaluate clients’ mental and physical health, addiction, or problematic behavior and assess their readiness for treatment
  • Develop, recommend, and review treatment goals and plans with clients and their families
  • Assist clients in developing skills and behaviors necessary to recover from their addiction or modify their behavior
  • Work with clients to identify behaviors or situations that interfere with their recovery
  • Teach clients’ family members about addiction or behavior disorders and help them develop strategies to cope with those problems
  • Refer clients to other resources and services, such as job placement services and support groups
  • Conduct outreach programs to help people identify the signs of addiction and other destructive behavior, as well as steps to take to avoid such behavior

How do the jobs of social workers and clinical mental health counselors compare?

As we previously concluded, social workers intervene with their clients on a more needs-driven basis while clinical mental health counselors focus on client-directed goals. However, the roles overlap in many settings:


  • Social workers in healthcare settings such as hospitals and clinics help patients understand their diagnosis and make the necessary adjustments to their lifestyle, housing, or healthcare. Social workers help patients with the transition from an inpatient facility back to their home, assisted living facility or community in general. They also can help doctors and other healthcare professionals understand the effects that diseases and illnesses have on patients’ mental and emotional health to treat patients holistically. Some healthcare social workers specialize in geriatric social work, hospice and palliative care, or substance misuse.4
  • Clinical mental health counselors work in a wide variety of health settings, including individual practices, clinics, hospitals and mental health, detox or rehabilitation centers specializing in substance misuse and intervention. The responsibilities of counselors working in the healthcare field are to assess patients’ symptoms of psychological distress and teach coping skills to help clients manage their emotions and experiences by identifying situations, behaviors, and thoughts that interfere with their wellness and recovery.6

Children and families

  • Child and family social workers help families find housing or services, such as childcare, or apply for benefits, such as food stamps. They intervene when children are in danger of neglect or abuse. Some help arrange adoptions, locate foster families, or work to reunite families.4
  • Clinical mental health counselors working with families might provide parenting skills and techniques, work closely with referring social workers to implement plans to prevent removal of children from home environment, provide individual therapy to children and adolescents with severe psychopathology and complex trauma, conduct in-home psycho-educational and case management services to children with mental and behavioral health and their families, lead workshops, educational sessions, and counseling groups.7


  • School social workers act as a central connection between students, teachers, parents, and school administrators to develop plans and strategies to address mainly outside issues that could interfere with students’ academic performance and social development. Students and their families are often referred to social workers to deal with problems such as aggressive behavior, bullying, or frequent absences from school. They also might help with teenage pregnancy and homelessness.4,8
  • School counselors help students learn to manage their emotions and use interpersonal or collaborative skills and explore their postsecondary options. They can conduct short-term counseling to students or provide referrals for longer-term therapy or support. School counselors also might act as advocates for students in individualized education planning meetings or as a systems change agent to improve equity and access, achievement and opportunities for all students.9

Correctional Facilities

  • Social workers in criminal justice settings often perform intake assessments for new arrivals to the prison or juvenile detention facility, develop treatment and support plans for inmates, provide individual therapy and psychosocial educational support groups, provide referrals to medical or mental-health services, and monitor the progress and compliance of inmates in treatment. They also often are responsible for connecting inmates with post-release programs for employment, housing, mental health and wellbeing services.10
  • Correctional Counselors assist individuals in correctional facilities with their general mental health concerns as well as developing coping skills for the uniquely difficult circumstances of prison or juvenile delinquent facilities. They might also work on substance misuse issues. Some clinical mental health counselors working in prison will specifically work with individuals as they prepare to leave the facility and follow up with them while they’re on probation or parole.11

Estimated Salary: social worker vs counselor

Given the variety of settings for each of these professions, salaries will also depend on the specific role and institution at which a social worker or counselor works. The BLS provides the following average salaries:

For social workers working in the following industries:12

  • Healthcare social workers: $57,630
  • Mental health and substance abuse social workers: $48,720
  • Child, family, and school social workers: $48,430
  • Social workers, all other industries: $64,210

For clinical mental health counselors working in the following industries:13

  • Governmental facilities: $54,070
  • Hospitals; state, local, and private: $50,460
  • Individual and family services: $47,580
  • Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers: $45,960
  • Residential mental health and substance abuse facilities: $40,560

Education: Social worker vs counselor

To become either a social worker or clinical mental health counselor, you need to pursue specific degrees and certifications, however the amount of education required is the same.

Individuals interested in becoming social workers for any clinical setting (and required by many employers in any case) must attain a master’s in social work (MSW). The MSW typically takes about two years to complete and includes an internship or practicum experience followed by the appropriate licensure exams, which are required in all states.

Those interested in clinical mental health counseling should earn a master’s degree in counseling which takes roughly two years to complete and also includes internship and practicum experiences. Look for a program that’s accredited by The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), a program that has good opportunities and support for finding appropriate internship and practicum partners and which will prepare you for licensure exams and requirements in your state.

Build a foundation with impact at Marquette University

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects that the need for behavioral disorder, mental health and substance abuse counselors will grow by 25 percent by 2029.14 Across the country, counselors with the understanding to work with unique individuals and groups are in demand.

The online Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Marquette offers the same course work as the on-campus CACREP-accredited master’s program so you can earn your degree without hitting pause on the rest of your life. Marquette faculty and staff are committed to helping you find internship and practicum opportunities that suit your career interests, in the Milwaukee area or wherever you’re located. With a 75% pass rate for the NCE, and a 3-year pass rate for the NCE of 89%,15 Marquette counseling graduates leave the program ready for licensure exams and, based on data from a survey of graduates who were actively seeking employment, 100 percent of clinical mental health counseling graduates obtained positions within 150 days of receiving their degrees.15 Apply today to start your change-making career in counseling.

  1. Retrieved on January 8, 2022 from socialworkers.org/Careers/Career-Center/Explore-Social-Work/Why-Choose-the-Social-Work-Profession
  2. Retrieved on January 8, 2022 from cacrep.org/for-students/
  3. Retrieved on January 8, 2022 from self.com/story/therapy-vs-counseling
  4. Retrieved on January 8, 2022 from www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm#tab-2
  5. Retrieved on January 8, 2022 from www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-behavioral-disorder-and-mental-health-counselors.htm#tab-2
  6. Retrieved on January 8, 2022, from verywellmind.com/what-is-a-mental-health-counselor-4157925
  7. Retrieved on January 8, 2022, from zippia.com/family-counselor-jobs/what-does-a-family-counselor-do/
  8. Retrieved on January 8, 2022 from socialworkers.org/Portals/0/Images/_News/sw-month/2020-SWM/infographic-school.jpg
  9. Retrieved on January 8, 2022 from schoolcounselor.org/getmedia/ee8b2e1b-d021-4575-982c-c84402cb2cd2/Role-Statement.pdf
  10. Retrieved on January, 8, 2022, from oxfordre.com/socialwork/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199975839.001.0001/acrefore-9780199975839-e-1002
  11. Retrieved on January 8, 2022, from work.chron.com/prison-counselor-do-21972.html
  12. Retrieved on January 8, 2022, from www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm#tab-5
  13. Retrieved on January 8, 2022, from www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-behavioral-disorder-and-mental-health-counselors.htm#tab-5
  14. Retrieved on January 8, 2022, from www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-behavioral-disorder-and-mental-health-counselors.htm#tab-1
  15. Retrieved on January 8, 2022, from marquette.edu/education/graduate/cecp-masters-assessment.php