Master of Social Work Versus Master of Psychology

So you have already earned your bachelor’s degree and have decided to pursue the next stage of academia — the master’s degree. You’re interested in direct practice and helping individuals, families, groups, and communities to improve their well-being and achieve success in areas of their lives where they may be struggling. You may be torn between getting a master’s degree in psychology or in social work, and are wondering what each degree can do for you.

Each one can provide a highly rewarding career path, but it’s important to educate yourself about the background and training required for each in order to make an informed decision.

Master of Social Work

So what can you do with a social work degree? A Master of Social Work (or MSW) allows you to improve the well-being of individuals, families, groups, and communities through evidenced-informed practices. If you wish to practice independently, you will be required to obtain advanced licensure. In some states this is an LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) or an LICSW (Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker). It takes about one to two years to earn an MSW, depending on your previous social work credentials (such as a Bachelor of Social Work degree) or if the program is online or on campus. If you pursue your MSW as an extended student, you may take additional time to complete your degree. You will also need to complete a minimum of 900 hours of practice in the field, according to Council of Social Work Education (CSWE) standards.

A master’s degree in social work can prepare you for direct practice in a specialized field, or you may elect to engage in generalist practice. An MSW prepares you to work with diverse groups of people who are in stressful situations and dealing with behavioral, mental, medical, and social challenges. Those who want to earn an MSW will gain valuable critical thinking, time management, problem-solving, interpersonal, and listening skills. In addition, there are many specialized routes you can choose from when earning an MSW, so if you’re looking for a more versatile degree that requires a smaller time commitment than a psychology degree, an MSW may be the right fit for you.

How to Earn a Master of Social Work

If you are interested in earning a master’s degree in social work, you must hold a bachelor’s degree, but it does not have to be a degree in social work. Many programs offer different concentrations and specializations, depending on how you want to effect change, so it is important to research different programs to find the one that best fits your goals and interests. If you do not have a bachelor’s degree in a related field, it is very important that you get some volunteer or work experience in Human Services or Social Services. This will strengthen your candidacy for an MSW program. It will also help you discover whether or not a Master of Social Work is the right choice for you.

Job Opportunities in Social Work

Social workers are found in every community — in schools, military bases, mental health clinics, corporations, residential treatment facilities, and health care settings. Some examples include, but are not limited to:

Health care social worker: Social work jobs in the health care field are projected to grow 20 percent between 2016 and 2026. 

School social worker: Social workers with an interest in education can work in schools, acting as a mediator between the school and the students’ families in order to connect a student’s education and personal life and foster a beneficial educational setting.

Military social worker: Those who are interested in military social work can provide support to military personnel, veterans, and their families to help them cope with daily struggles like post-traumatic stress disorder.

Master’s Degree in Psychology

Compared to the one- to two-year commitment of an MSW, it usually takes two to three years to earn a master’s degree in psychology. You can earn either a Master of Arts or a Master of Science degree — depending on whether you would like to become a clinical psychologist or an experimental psychologist. Course requirements vary based on the program, but many schools offer what is known as a terminal psychology degree, which prepares graduates to use their degree in a professional setting after graduate school.

If, however, you want to work specifically as a research psychologist or a clinical psychologist, you will need to earn a master’s degree and a doctorate degree. You will need to look at the specific program of your choosing to see a full outline of the courses you will take. A master’s degree in psychology involves scientific study and application, so if you are more interested in helping people with psychological stress, then this may be the degree for you.

How to Earn a Master’s Degree in Psychology

Requirements vary from program to program, but many require you to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and have some type of undergraduate experience studying or learning about psychology. If you are interested in earning a master’s degree in psychology, it’s important to figure out which programs you would like to apply to and what the application requirements are.

Job Opportunities in Psychology

What you choose to focus on during your graduate studies greatly affects the type of job opportunities you will have — different jobs require different concentrations. For example, a master’s in clinical psychology is a terminal degree, which requires no further schooling and allows you to provide psychotherapy under the supervision of a licensed clinical psychologist.

A master’s in experimental psychology is a degree that leads to more schooling and jobs in research-based psychology such as research assistants, market researchers, and lab management. Master’s degrees can lead to teaching positions on a college level as well as jobs with local, state, or federal governments, including drug specialists and parole officers. You may also get a job in the health care field as a behavioral counselor or a group home coordinator, or in a business setting as a human resources manager.

Ultimately, either a master’s degree in psychology or a master’s degree in social work can lead to many opportunities and options. A degree in psychology offers you a medical model perspective, while a social work degree offers a broader scope of practice for you to help diverse groups of people. Decide what’s best for you by doing your research and examining what prerequisites you may have already completed. Once you figure out the best path for you, you will be accomplishing your next career goal in no time.

Citation for this content: SocialWork@Simmons, the online Master of Social Work program from the Simmons School of Social Work.