Social Worker vs. Therapist: Which Career Path Is Right for You?

When facing challenging circumstances such as divorce or family dysfunction, many people seek the aid of psychotherapy specialists — such as social workers and therapists. Both are critical in helping people overcome personal obstacles, yet sometimes those who hope to pursue a career providing psychotherapy services don’t know the differences between the two professions.

The 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. Social worker vs. therapist is a common comparison. The distinctions lie in who they work with, their job functions, educational and licensing requirements, and salary range.

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 possible job duties of social workers, 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 local authorities to intervene. The social worker identifies the root cause of the abuse and can remove the child from that environment, if necessary. Afterwards, 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 them to undergo behavioral changes that could negatively impact their 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. They then develop an intervention plan to help eliminate these issues.

Health Care Social Work

Social workers partner with health care providers to help their patients adjust to 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. A social worker can also help the patient transition from being in the hospital to living at home by helping them access support services, such as in-home health care.

What Do Therapists Do?

Therapists, depending on their education and specific specialty, treat different patient concerns, issues and patient categories. Marriage and family therapists, for instance, 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. Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors focus on advising individuals struggling with mental, behavioral, or addiction problems.

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 impacted 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 and earning additional certifications. A state-issued license may also be required, depending on the nature of the position.

Physical therapists are another group of therapy specialists. They use their detailed knowledge of human physiology 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 begin practicing is by earning a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree.

Unlike social workers, therapists who work in the aforementioned fields inherently focus on treating a limited scope of problems. They can be experts at 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.

social working speaking with client

Social Worker Skills vs. Therapist Skills

When comparing the skills of social workers and therapists, there is significant overlap. Some key competencies include:

Active Listening

Both social workers and therapists work with people who are experiencing difficulties. To understand those issues to the full extent, they must be active listeners. Active listening isn’t simply hearing a person; it’s showing that you are internalizing their needs through expressing reinforcing body language, maintaining eye contact, and recognizing verbal and nonverbal cues.


In addition to being active listeners, both social workers and therapists should be expert communicators. This goes beyond simply conveying information and assuming it has been understood. Effective communication involves confirming comprehension and answering questions. As social workers and therapists both work with people in need, they should establish a rapport and make sure their clients are comfortable being open and honest.


Social workers and therapists see many different patients with distinct needs and issues. It’s important for professionals in both positions to be well organized, taking comprehensive notes and keeping detailed records of their clients.

Critical Thinking

To reach objective opinions about the best ways to aid a particular patient, both social workers and therapists rely on critical thinking.

Those skills that don’t overlap between social workers and therapists are largely dictated by the type of clients they serve. For instance, occupational therapists must have expertise in accommodating disabilities. Social workers, on the other hand, have extensive knowledge regarding state and local programs that are available to their clients.

Social Worker Salary vs. Therapist Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median social worker salary was $51,760 in 2020. Marriage and family therapists earned a median salary of $51,340. The number of positions available in both fields is on the rise. The BLS expects 13% (90,700) more social worker jobs and 22% (14,800) more marriage and family therapist jobs to become available between 2019 and 2029. Yet, it is important to note there were 713,200 social worker positions filled in the U.S. in 2019, while marriage and family therapist jobs were far rarer, with only 66,200 jobs in the 2019 marketplace.

How to Become a Social Worker

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

After a bachelor’s degree, the next step is to earn a Master of Social Work (MSW). MSW programs are not limited to applicants who already hold a bachelor’s degree in social work. Students with a bachelor’s in other disciplines, including psychology, sociology, economics and political science, are also admitted.

The online MSW coursework at University of Nevada, Reno helps professionals understand how to manage social programs and create unique, effective clinical assessment procedures. The advanced generalist practice (AGP) track is designed to equip 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 Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs). With this license, professionals are qualified to provide direct, specialized psychotherapy services to a particular demographic of individuals, groups and families.

How to Become a Therapist

At minimum, becoming a therapist requires a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a similar field. However, the majority of practicing therapists have a master’s or doctoral degree. A master’s degree typically takes a full-time student two years to complete. A doctorate takes an additional four or more years, depending on the program. Different types of therapists follow different educational paths, so it’s important for students to choose a specialty early in their education.

Whatever the specialty, master’s programs usually include supervised clinical hours. This provides students with experience and on-the-job training of sorts that serves as a precursor to treating patients autonomously.

After a master’s degree, aspiring therapists must be licensed by the state in which they practice. Each state and specialty has its own set of requirements and specific licensing board. For instance, occupational therapists seek licensing through the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT), and recreational therapists go through the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC). After certification is complete, a therapist may begin treating patients at a medical facility or in private practice.

Choosing a Career in the Helping Professions

When seeking the best path for career advancement, the choice between a social worker vs. therapist degree program comes down to selecting one of two options: Specialize in helping people mend their interpersonal relationships and improve physical strength as a therapist, or advocate to improve the lives of struggling members of the community through social work.

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

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

Suggested Readings

How to Find Work-Life Balance as a Social Worker

Human Trafficking: A Social Worker’s Role

What Is Case Management in Social Work?C


The Balance Careers, Important Job Skills Social Workers Need

Good Therapy, What Skills Does a Therapist Need?

Positive Psychology, How To Become a Therapist: Requirements, Degrees & Experience

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Marriage and Family Therapists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers