Social Work vs. Nursing: Which Industry Is Right for You?

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A social worker and their young client speak while seated across from each other.The fields of social work and nursing are crucial to promoting health and well-being among individuals and communities. Those with a strong desire to help people improve their lives might be drawn to both of these professions and may be having trouble deciding which career path is right for them. While both social workers and nurses strive to help their patients and clients live healthier, more fulfilling lives, they do so in very distinct ways.

Earning an advanced degree, such as a Master of Social Work (MSW), is a great option for individuals who find that the responsibilities and duties of social workers align with their professional goals.

Social Work and Nursing: Two Distinct Helping Professions

For those who want to make a positive impact in others’ lives, the helping professions can be rewarding career choices. A helping profession is an occupation that aims to improve the quality of life for individuals and groups by addressing their physical, intellectual and/or emotional well-being. Both social work and nursing fall in the helping profession category.

Social Work

Social workers are trained professionals who help vulnerable individuals, families and communities improve their lives. Most social workers help their clients meet their material needs by connecting them with resources such as housing benefits, employment services or child welfare services. Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) can also provide counseling and therapy.

Social workers work in a variety of settings, from health care facilities to prisons. Wherever they work, they are advocates for their clients’ needs.

Social workers who work in health care help doctors, nurses and other medical staff better understand the social and emotional aspects of their patients’ conditions. They also help patients and their families understand and cope with diagnoses, facilitate communication between patients and their families and medical staff, and educate patients on the roles different medical staff play in their treatment.

School social workers work with students to support their academic success and social development. They also provide support to parents and guardians by helping them navigate the educational system, assisting them in finding and taking advantage of school and community resources, as well as guiding them on the best ways to help their children adjust to school.


Nurses are a crucial part of the health care system. Like social workers, they work in a variety of settings, from hospitals and outpatient clinics to schools. They provide direct care to patients and promote health through education.

Nurses who work in health care facilities use their expertise and training to assess patients, perform diagnostic tests and interpret the results to assess their patients’ health needs. They may also teach patients how to conduct home care routines and help them understand their medical reports.

School nurses provide students with direct care for injuries and acute illnesses. They assess and treat students the same way that nurses who work in hospitals or other traditional health care settings assess and treat their patients. When students have individualized health care plans, nurses collaborate with their pediatricians to make sure the plans are followed.

Similarities Between Social Workers and Nurses

Both social workers and nurses are charged with improving the lives of others. They often work in similar settings, including hospitals, clinics and schools. Wherever they work, they both play a key role in helping patients or clients and their families understand their options.

Though the two fields have different educational prerequisites — nursing requires individuals to hold at least an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), though many hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), and social work requires individuals to hold a bachelor’s degree in a related field — many people in both fields choose to pursue an advanced education. Earning an MSW can open the door to working as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), and earning a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) can lead to a career as a nurse practitioner. In both fields, an advanced degree can lead to enhanced responsibilities, higher earnings and career advancement opportunities.

Differences Between Social Workers and Nurses

While there are some broad similarities between social workers and nurses, these professions are quite different in many other ways.

Nurses generally focus on clinical care, addressing their patients’ immediate physical condition and needs through diagnosis and treatment. Social workers, on the other hand, help clients cope with life challenges, such as unemployment or divorce. LCSWs help clients overcome mental, behavioral and emotional problems by providing therapy and connecting them with services, which may include referrals to other mental health providers.

While nurses generally work in medical settings, like hospitals or clinics, social workers can work in government agencies or nonprofit organizations to help their clients access housing or assist them during the adoption process. Social workers also help families experiencing domestic conflicts like spousal or child abuse.

Professional requirements for the two fields also differ. Both social workers and nurses are required to hold a college degree. However, while all registered nurses need to hold an active nursing license, not all social workers are required to be licensed.

A role that combines aspects of nursing and social work is that of a health care social worker. Health care social workers are advocates for patients and their families. They work directly with health care providers, including nurses, to help patients cope with terminal or acute diagnoses. They may provide clients with information about services that can help them manage their medical condition, such as home health care or support groups. This may be an ideal option for BSN graduates or registered nurses who are considering a career change.

Social Work vs. Nursing: Choose the Career Path That’s Right for You

Both social work and nursing are professions that change lives, though they do so in different ways. Social workers help their clients navigate the complex systems and challenges that arise throughout their lives, and support their mental and behavioral health needs.

If you’re interested in pursuing a role in the diverse field of social work, consider earning an advanced degree. The University of Nevada, Reno’s comprehensive online Master of Social Work program offers two tracks: an Advanced Standing program designed for students with a Bachelor of Science in Social Work (BSW) and a Traditional program specifically designed for students with a Bachelor’s degree in another field. Find out how the University of Nevada, Reno can help you embark on a rewarding career in social work.

Recommended Readings

5 Careers in Corrections for MSW Graduates

How to Become a Social Worker

How to Deal with Ethical Dilemmas in Social Work


Chron, “What Are the Benefits of a Degree in Nursing and Social Work?”

GBMC Healthcare, “What Does a Hospital Social Worker Actually Do?”

Indeed, “What Are Helping Professions? (Industries and Job Titles)”

Indeed, What Is a Registered Nurse (RN)? (And What Do They Do?)

National Association of Social Workers, Types of Social Work

National Association of Social Workers, “Why Choose the Social Work Profession?”

School Social Work Association of America, Role of School Social Worker

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered NursesU.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers