A lot of people struggle to make the distinction between a master’s in social work and a master’s in psychology. This is because they deliver very similar mental health therapy and they work with very similar diagnostics procedures. However, there are some significant difference between the two on various levels. It is very important to understand these differences if you are considering a career in either social work or psychology.
Let’s explore some of these differences after getting an overview of the two separate disciplines.
The History of the Specialties
In the summer of 1898, the very first social class was offered at Columbia University. Since then, social workers have been at the forefront of helping people in need. They still to this day address the holistic needs of society, and they ensure the world is aware of the social problems that exist in society.
Today, we are able to enjoy a range of privileges that we take for granted, but which we only have thanks to the work of social workers. They have been inspirational to others, taking action against social injustices and speaking out against abuse and neglect. Some of these privileges include:
- Civil rights that are universal, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or faith.
- Insurance against unemployment, including Social Security.
- Humane treatment for people with development disabilities or mental illnesses.
- Medicare and Medicaid for the poor, elderly and disabled.
- The elemination of the stigma around mental health.
The profession of social work existed for 100 years in 1998. In that same year, a strong emphasis was placed on some of the greatest social workers during that history. These included Jane Addams, one of the first women to ever receive a Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. She created immigrant settlement houses and was a famous peace activist. Another was Frances Perkins, who was the secretary of labor under Roosevelt. She was responsible for the 1940s New Deal legislation. Then, there is Whitney M. Young, Jr, who was the ED of the National urban League and who focused strongly on American race relations. He was also the inspiration for the War on Poverty started by President Johnson.
Psychology, by contrast, has existed for well over 2,000 years. Since the beginning of times, there have been questions around how the human mind works, why we feel certain things and why we behave in certain ways. Although the first psychological experiment took place around 600 B.C. in Egypt, it did not actually become a discipline until the 19th century. However, much of the knowledge and many of the theories we still use today in psychology had already been developed then. The great Greek thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle and French philosophers such as Rene Descartes had already done much of the work on the nature vs nurture debate and more. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that a distinction was made between philosophy and psychology, which was mainly thanks to German Wilhelm Wundt. He started to use scientific methods to measure human psychology, which culminated in his 1874 Principles of Physiological Psychology book. He also opened the world’s first psychology laboratory in Leipzig in 1879. It was at this time that psychology became an accepted science, and the world has grown from there.
1- The Duties
The first major difference between social work and psychology is the duties. As a psychologist, you will look into, record and interpret the way people and animals relate to each other, stimuli and their environment. To do this, you may perform interviews, provide psychotherapy and do diagnostic tests. Generally speaking, you will not be able to prescribe medication without further education, although New Mexico and Louisiana do allow clinical psychologists to prescribe.
Social workers, on the other hand, create plans to improve overall personal well-being. They also refer their clients to programs such as health care and food stamps. As a social worker, you can study on to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), which is where your duties start to more closely resemble those of a psychologist. Here, you will refer to mental health services and you will also be able to counsel and provide therapy to families. However, your focus is on holistic care, which includes physical, emotional and mental well-being.
The next main difference between the two disciplines is education. If you wish to become a clinical psychologist, you will need to study towards a doctorate degree in psychology, as well as complete a one-year internship. You are then able to become licensed and certified. As a social worker, on the other hand, you only need to hold a BSW (Bachelor in Social Work) or MSW (Master in Social Work), although additional education will be required for you to become an LCSW.
3- Skills and Characteristics
Both social workers and psychologists must have excellent communication skills and they must like to work with people. They have to be true problem solvers in order to be able to identify the most appropriate treatment for various mental health problems, as well as the social issues their patients may be dealing with. They must both be trustworthy and have real compassion. Social work clients and psychologist patients both need to receive emotional support, and they have to know that anything they disclose will be confidential. Furthermore, both disciplines will require the ability to read body language and interpret behavior. As such, in terms of skills and characteristics, the two are very much the same.
4- Salaries and Job Outlook
The salaries do show significant differences. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report that social workers can see great variations in salaries depending on where they work and what they have specialized in. Those who work in child, family or school settings have a median salary of $44,410. Those who work in health care earn more at $50,500. Finally, substance abuse and mental health social workers earn less at $42,650. These are almost always LCSWs, whereas those who work in different fields can earn up to $54,220. Psychologists, on the other hand, earn a median annual salary of $73,090, which is much higher.
In terms of job outlook, both can expect to see significant growth. Indeed, it is expected to be above the national average for all other jobs. However, there are significant variations in specific areas of specialization.