Social Worker vs. Therapist: Understanding The Similarities and Differences

When facing challenging circumstances in their lives, such as divorce or family dysfunction, many people seek the aid of psychotherapy specialists, such as social workers and therapists. Yet sometimes those who hope to pursue a career providing psychotherapy services don’t know the differences between a social worker and a therapist. These two occupations do have overlapping work responsibilities, but there are many ways in which the skills of social work professionals differ from those of therapists, specifically those practicing marriage and family therapy.

What Do Social Workers Do?

A social worker can be employed by a medical institution, school or private firm to help clients overcome life’s difficulties. These issues could relate to physical, emotional, behavioral or mental health. The following are some job duties social workers may be tasked with, depending on their field of employment.

  • Child and Family Social Work:In this field, social workers help families improve their socioeconomic circumstances by assisting them in gaining access to helpful resources, such as childcare, affordable housing or public benefits such as food stamps. Also, if a child shows signs of physical abuse, a social worker has the duty of coordinating with the authorities to intervene. The social worker identifies the root of the abuse and can remove the child from that environment if necessary. Afterward, the social worker focuses on helping the child cope with the damaging effects of abuse by providing counseling or referring the child to another mental health practitioner, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist.
  • School Social Work:A child’s personal experiences in and outside of the classroom may cause him/her to undergo behavioral changes that could negatively impact his or her education. For instance, domestic violence may influence the student to act more aggressively toward his or her classmates. A school social worker coordinates strategies to improve the social development of students to enhance their academic performance. This responsibility includes identifying students who are displaying destructive or aggressive behaviors, such as self-harm or bullying, and developing an intervention to help eliminate these issues.
  • Health Care Social Work:Social workers partner with health care providers to help their patients adjust to both the mental and physical reality of a diagnosis. For example, if a patient is diagnosed with a debilitating chronic illness, a health care social worker can be called in to help the individual cope with the mental or emotional trauma of the diagnosis. The social worker would also help the patient transition from being in the hospital to living at home by helping the individual find out how to access supportive services, such as in-home health care.

What Do Therapists Do?

Marriage and family therapists focus specifically on helping people manage their interpersonal relationships. They use their advanced communication skills and knowledge of psychology to help clients express their emotions and share their experiences in a controlled environment. This can help clients replace harmful thoughts and feelings with a life-enhancing attitude that can positively impact the future of their relationships.

Other types of therapy revolve less around interpersonal communication and focus more on physical treatment. For example, occupational therapists help people with disabilities recover and improve skills that may be lacking due to their disability. A bachelor’s degree in a specific concentration of therapy would suffice to enter this field, but many therapists find greater career opportunities after completing a master’s degree in psychology and earning additional certifications. A state issued license may also be required as well, depending on the nature of the position being applied for.

Physical therapists are another group of therapy specialists. They use their detailed knowledge of the human body to help injured people and those with disabilities improve their body’s strength and mobility using rehabilitation techniques. This is a highly specialized field, therefore the only way to become licensed and practice is by first earning a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree.

Unlike social workers, therapists who work in the aforementioned fields are inherently limited in the scope of problems they are able to handle. They can be experts at a few select tasks — such as helping their clients repair relationships or improve their physical strength — but they are usually not equipped to provide any services other than mental or physical therapy.

How to Become a Social Worker

Entering the field of social work usually starts with a bachelor’s in social work program, which prepares students with the practical skills they need to analyze human behavior and communicate effectively with individuals from various backgrounds. Undergraduate social work students are also taught about social welfare policy so they can help their clients access available resources.

Following graduation from a bachelor’s program, the next step is earning a Master of Social Work (MSW). MSW programs are not necessarily limited to those with a bachelor’s degree in social work. They’re often open to students with a bachelor’s degree in different disciplines, including psychology, sociology, economics and political science.

The University of Nevada, Reno online MSW coursework helps professionals understand how to manage social programs and create unique, effective clinical assessment procedures. The advanced generalist practice (AGP) emphasis equips graduates with the knowledge and skills to work autonomously with individuals, groups, couples and families, as well as serve as members of integrated multidisciplinary care teams.

After earning an MSW and completing at least two years of supervised clinical practice, social workers can then apply to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). With this license, professionals are qualified to provide direct, specialized psychotherapy services to a particular demographic of individuals, groups and families.

Social Worker vs. Therapist: Potential Salary and Job Growth

 According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for social workers was $47,980 in 2017. On the other hand, marriage and family therapists earned a median salary of $48,790. The number of jobs available in both fields is rising. The BLS expects 16 percent (109,700) more social worker jobs and 23 percent (9,700) more marriage and family therapist jobs to become available between 2016 and 2026. Yet it is important to note that there were 682,100 social worker positions filled in the U.S. in 2016, while marriage and family therapist jobs were far rarer, with only 41,500 jobs in the 2016 marketplace.

When seeking the most desirable path toward career advancement, the process of making the social worker vs. therapist degree program choice boils down to selecting one of two options — specialize in helping people mend their interpersonal relationships and improve physical strength as a therapist, or advocate for improving the lives of struggling members of the community through social work.

The online Master of Social Work at the University of Nevada, Reno is structured to help prepare graduates for work in a variety of situations and settings. Whether they choose to work for a private practice, corrections facility, or community organization, graduates are prepared to make a difference across multiple disciplines.

Learn More

To help you expand your technical expertise and acquire the advanced skills important for professional growth in the field of social work, find out more information about the University of Nevada, Reno online Master of Social Work program.


Suggested Readings

How to Find Work-Life Balance as a Social Worker

Human Trafficking: A Social Worker’s Role

University of Nevada, Reno Online Master of Social Work



BLS, Social Workers

BLS, Marriage and Family Therapists