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The Right Fit: Differences Between Social Work and Psychology

February 05, 2020

It’s a question frequently asked by those who know they want to dedicate their careers to helping others: What’s the best way for me to be of service?

The only way to get to the answer? Dig in and research. Otherwise, you could miss some crucial aspects about each profession. For many considering the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, the question often centers on what is the difference between social work and psychology. While both seem similar on the surface, their education and licensing tracks are very different and lead to very disparate professional goals.

To help you navigate the social worker vs. psychologist discussion, we’ve pulled together the big distinctions between each graduate program and its career outcomes.

What They Do

Social workers have a broad set of responsibilities. In addition to treating individuals, families and groups, similar to a traditional therapist, they also act as an advocate for their clients on both a personal and community level. Social workers take a very holistic view of their clients’ lives, connecting them with local agencies and programs for further help and resources. This includes navigating the local food assistance program or finding affordable treatment for substance abuse. Social workers can work with clients addressing more practical life problems, like financial and employment issues, as well as more fraught ones, such as domestic violence or child abuse. Their work is vital because a social worker is usually the first person someone in the midst of a crisis connects with.1

Psychologists meanwhile occupy a narrower focus: understanding, testing, diagnosing and treating mental illness and disorders. Depending on where they specialize, this involves conducting and writing research on their work.2 They study brain function and look for patterns to better understand behavior, in addition to their one-on-one therapy work with clients.

How They’re Trained

Social workers are required to complete a master’s degree. At Yeshiva University and other social work programs, the focus is on helping the client as well as understanding and addressing the larger sociological issues that impact their lives. The program usually takes about two years to complete and includes a practicum or internship. Although specific requirements and processes vary from state to state, most graduates must spend two years in a supervised environment before they can take their licensure exam.

Psychologists are also required to earn a master’s degree and complete an internship, but for the most part, their training doesn’t end there. Most will also need to pursue a doctoral degree, adding another four to six years to their education. Two of the most common degrees are a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and Doctor of Psychology (PsyD). Normally, those who just earn a master’s decide to practice in schools or to practice industrial organization psychology in corporations and workplaces.

To be licensed, psychologists must also spend one to two years in a supervised environment. Exact requirements vary depending on where you live, though every state requires those in clinical practice to be licensed.3

Where Are They Needed?

Social work is among the fastest growing careers in the U.S.4 With opportunities in healthcare as well as policymaking, they have the opportunity to choose a wide variety of specialties and work environments.5

Psychology is following that trend, with a growing need in clinical settings, schools, the criminal justice system and many other fields.

What Impact Will You Make?

The difference between social work and psychology is something that requires personal reflection, especially in terms of choosing a career. For most, earning a graduate degree in social work means the opportunity to be on the ground sooner, helping both individuals and communities find the support and resources they need.

At Yeshiva University, we educate social workers for any path they choose to take in the field. Our online Master of Social Work is both CSWE accredited and offers an interactive, virtual learning tool, The Heights. Schedule an appointment with a student advisor today, and learn more about how we work to prepare graduates for their licensure exams and their careers.

1 Retrieved on January 23, 2020 from lifehacker.com/how-do-i-select-a-therapist-or-counselor-5874359
2 Retrieved on January 23, 2020 from brandman.edu/news-and-events/blog/social-worker-vs-psychologist
3 Retrieved on January 23, 2020 from bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm#tab-1
4 Retrieved on January 23, 2020 from socialworkers.org/News/Facts/Social-Workers
5 Retrieved on January 23, 2020 from bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm#tab-2