The Differences Between a Social Worker and a Psychologist

When comparing social workers vs. psychologists, it’s important to note that both are subdisciplines of the human services field. Human services professions are jobs that exist to improve the lives of disadvantaged members of society through the delivery of essential social services.

Social workers contribute to the human services field by providing holistic solutions to the social, behavioral, economic or health problems faced by their clients. Psychologists, on the other hand, focus their efforts specifically on helping their patients address potentially damaging mental health issues.

Individuals contemplating a career as a psychologist or social worker need to consider many different factors, such as each role’s responsibilities, educational requirements and career outlook.

Social Worker vs. Psychologist: What Do They Do?

While social workers and psychologists have overlapping areas of focus, they serve their clients from different perspectives. As a result, their methods are aimed at achieving different goals.

What Do Social Workers Do?

Social workers seek to enhance the well-being of individuals and communities, particularly those who are marginalized, oppressed or impoverished. Social work is a broad profession that encompasses a variety of specializations and societal issues, including substance misuse, child welfare, schools, elder care, community access to health, welfare and educational services, and more. Regardless of their field of expertise, successful social workers must be able to draw from a range of interdisciplinary skill sets, including psychology, counseling and education.

Although many social workers are employed through dedicated human services agencies, a range of institutions, such as schools, prisons and hospitals, also offer social work services. Clients in each of these settings have unique needs, and social workers must be able to adapt their treatment strategy on a case-by-case basis.

For instance, when social workers work with children who are suffering from neglect or abuse, they typically need to take a radically different approach than if they were working with families who only need financial assistance. In both cases, social workers conduct a direct assessment of the client’s needs, followed by the development of an action plan. The steps taken to create those plans change based on the client’s specific circumstances.

The services offered by different social work agencies vary, but some common ones include diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues, advocacy for jobs and housing, and future planning.

What Do Psychologists Do?

Clinical psychologists generally work with a medical team to treat individuals who are dealing with mental health conditions. They use their advanced understanding of the mind to develop and implement interventions that can stimulate changes in a patient’s mental state.

Some psychologists may opt out of clinical psychology and instead focus on research into behavior and brain function. There are many options for specialization, including the following:

  • Cognitive psychology focuses on understanding how people process information by investigating a person’s ability to think, communicate, remember, and learn.
  • Social psychology explores how other people can influence a person’s state of mind. It can be used to help understand the role that social interactions play in governing someone’s feelings, thoughts, and emotions.
  • Developmental psychology, sometimes referred to as human developmental psychology, has an expansive scope. It focuses on the study of mental structures that humans develop over the course of their lives, from infancy to old age. This often entails deeply examining how external factors, such as the environment, shape a person’s mental state at any age.

Social Worker vs. Psychologist: Career Outlook and Salary

The career outlook for both social workers and psychologists shows promising growth. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that the employment of social workers will grow by 9% between 2021 and 2031, adding approximately 64,000 new jobs. For social workers in the mental health and health care fields, demand is expected to grow 11% over the same period.

Employment of psychologists is expected to grow 6% between 2021 and 2031, the BLS reports. Clinical and counseling psychologists will see slightly higher job growth of 10%.

How Much Do Social Workers Make?

Compensation for social workers depends on several factors such as education level, years of experience and field of practice. According to the BLS, the median annual wage for social workers in 2021 was $50,390. Health care social workers and social workers who worked in government earned the highest median wages of around $61,190.

Demand for Social Workers

Demand is based on a number of factors. According to the BLS, as the U.S. population ages, communities, hospitals and assisted living facilities will need the skills of social workers to help the elderly live in safe and healthy conditions. Growing demand can also lead to some surprising opportunities.

  • Telehealth and solo practice — With the rise of telehealth, licensed social workers have the ability to treat patients online without incurring the overhead of a physical office.
  • Corporate responsibility — Corporate attention to social responsibility has created demand for social workers who can lead corporate strategy to engage in community causes.
  • Macro social work — The growing field of macro social work focuses on research and policy development. Government agencies and think tanks are likely drivers of demand for macro social workers.

A smiling social worker in their office.How Much Do Psychologists Make?

The median annual wage for psychologists was $81,040 in 2021, according to BLS data. Industrial-organizational psychologists, who focus on human issues and productivity in the workplace, saw the highest median compensation at $105,310. Clinical and counseling psychologists earned a median wage of $82,510.

Demand for Psychologists

The American Psychological Association (APA) has identified several factors that impact the demand for psychologists. These include:

  • Hospital admissions — The need for psychological services in hospitals was illustrated by the high number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care who suffered from mental health issues.
  • Cultural competence — Psychologists who are Hispanic or Black are in particularly high demand, as these and other minority populations are often underserved.
  • Elderly population — As with social workers, the aging of the population also drives demand for psychologists to treat the elderly.
  • Regional shortages — The South — in particular states such as Mississippi, South Carolina and Louisiana — has a shortage of psychologists to meet the needs of local populations.

How Do Social Work and Psychology Relate?

Social work occupations entail a wide range of human services, while psychology emphasizes administering mental health treatments. Despite their different points of emphasis however, the fields are inherently similar in some ways.

Both social workers and psychologists treat individual behavioral and mental health issues. Social workers and psychologists both conduct assessments to develop a complete understanding of their clients’ needs. This includes recognizing when it is necessary to get another mental health professional involved in treatment.

Above all else, social workers and psychologists share a similar goal — helping people achieve healthier and more productive lives. By earning a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree, human services professionals can equip themselves with the expertise to tangibly improve their clients’ lives through a diverse range of services that extend far beyond just helping them cope with mental health issues.

How to Become a Social Worker

The path to become a social worker often starts with earning a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). This degree allows graduates to legally qualify for jobs that involve working with larger groups of people in publicly run community organizations, or to provide casework services to select populations. With this level of education, social workers are typically prohibited from administering direct one-on-one psychotherapeutic services.

After graduating from a BSW program, it helps to complete social work-related internships and earn industry-specific certifications. But to truly accelerate career advancement, BSW-educated social workers should continue their education by earning an MSW degree, such as the degree offered by the University of Nevada, Reno. Completing graduate-level curriculum can qualify professionals for more advanced jobs that involve performing in-depth clinical assessments and administering evidence-based social interventions.

With an MSW degree and two years of practice, professionals can sit for the Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) exam. Passing this exam allows them to provide therapy directly to individuals and smaller groups, such as couples or families.

Social Worker vs. Psychologist: Your Choice Matters

Now that you’ve learned how to become a social worker, it’s time to explore your next steps. To help you expand your technical expertise and acquire the advanced skills to further your professional growth in the field of social work, find out more information about the University of Nevada, Reno’s online Master of Social Work program.

Recommended Readings

Understanding the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work

11 Important Social Work Theories and Methods

What Does a School Social Worker Do?


AJMC, “Risks of Developing Delirium in ICU Patients With COVID-19”

Mind Your Society, “6 High Paying AND In Demand Social Work Jobs in 2021: Including Jobs w/ $60k-100k Annual Salaries!”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Psychologists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers

Verywell Mind, “Major Branches of Psychology”