The Differences Between a Social Worker and a Psychologist

When comparing social workers vs. psychologists, it is important to note that, while these professions do have distinct differences, they both are subdisciplines of human services. Human services professions are jobs that exist to improve the lives of disadvantaged members of society through 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. Whereas, psychologists focus their efforts specifically on helping their patients address potentially damaging mental health issues.

For individuals contemplating a career as a psychologist or social worker there are many different factors to consider such as the responsibilities of each role, the educational requirements and career outlook.

What does a psychologist do?

According to the American Psychological Association, psychology is the study of the human mind for the purpose of learning how it functions and influences behavior. 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 to stay out of clinical psychology and instead focus on performing research or conducting scientific studies of behavior and brain function. There are many options for specialization, including the following:

  • Cognitive: Cognitive psychology focuses on understanding how people process information by investigating a person’s ability to think, communicate, remember and learn.
  • Social: Being around other people can influence a person’s mind. Social psychology is a means of understanding exactly how and why this happens. It can be used to help understand the role that social interactions play in governing someone’s feelings, thoughts and emotions.
  • Developmental: Developmental psychology, which is 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.

How to become a psychologist

There are several steps involved in the process of becoming a licensed psychologist. Candidates  must first obtain a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field, and then pursue the appropriate graduate degree.

A Doctor of Psychology or Ph.D. in psychology is a requirement for most clinical and research psychologist positions. These doctoral degrees often include internships so that students gain practical work experience. It should be noted that there are some psychologist positions where a master’s degree is sufficient, such as organizational psychologists who work in business environments and apply their training to improve employee-based challenges or problems.

The final step to becoming a qualified psychologist is passing the Professional Practice in Psychology examination and completing the required work experience necessary to obtain state licensing. All states require that practicing psychologists are licensed.

What does a social worker do?

Social workers seek to enhance the well-being of individuals and communities, particularly those who are marginalized, oppressed or impoverished. By this definition, social work is a broad profession that diverges into a variety of specializations, including substance abuse, child welfare, schools, elderly, community or rural oppression and more. But 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, social work services are also offered by a range of other institutions, including schools, prisons and hospitals. 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 likely need to take a radically different approach than if they were working with families who only need financial assistance. While both of these processes require 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. Therefore, the extent of the services offered in the action plan depend equally on the social worker’s work setting, available resources and the clients’ needs. 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.

How to become a social worker

Woman in office leaning on chairThe path to becoming a social worker 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 with a Master of Social Work degree, such as the degree offered by the University of Nevada. Completing graduate-level curriculum can make them eligible for more advanced jobs that involve performing in-depth clinical assessments and administering evidence-based social interventions.

With a Master of Social Work 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.

Career outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) there are positive career prospects for both psychologists and social workers with the appropriate education and experience.

The BLS states that in 2017 the median annual salary for psychologists was $77,030, and $47, 980 for social workers.

Employment of psychologists is expected to grow by 14 percent from 2016 to 2026. During this same time period, the number of social work jobs available is projected to grow by 16 percent. To claim the higher-paying jobs in these fields, graduates are encouraged to obtain significant work experience and pursue opportunities for continuing education as often as possible.

Social Worker vs. Psychologist: How Do They Relate?

Social work occupations entail a wide range of human services, while psychology emphasizes administering mental health treatments. This does not mean, however, that they are not inherently similar in some ways. For example, when confronted with a mentally distressed person, both a psychologist and social worker will need to conduct an assessment to develop a complete understanding of the client’s needs. This includes recognizing when it is necessary to get another mental health professional involved in the client’s 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 degree, ambitious human services professionals can equip themselves with the expertise necessary to tangibly improve their clients’ lives through a diverse range of services that extend far beyond just helping them cope with mental health issues.

Learn More

Are you interested in taking the next step in your social work career? 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.

Recommended Readings

How to Find Work-Life Balance as a Social Worker

Understanding the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work

Human Trafficking: A Social Worker’s Role


U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

BLS, Psychologists

National Association of Social Workers

American Psychological Association