Psychology vs. Social Work

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A psychologist meets with a client in her office.

Life is filled with trials and tribulations, some of which can require the intervention of psychologists or social workers. Although different in many ways, these groups of professionals use their education and experience to provide care, guidance and aid during what may be among the most vulnerable times in a person’s life. The issues psychologists and social workers may address include addiction, mental and emotional matters, life events, parenting and job skills.

Prospective students who are passionate about helping people through challenging times via a career in psychology or social work should consider earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Definitions: Psychology and Social Work

Individuals who are considering psychology vs. social work should first be clear on what each field is.

What Is Psychology?

Psychology is an applied science that focuses on the mind and how it affects an individual’s behavior. The field is multidisciplinary, as psychologists explore how biology, environmental factors and societal pressures can influence a person’s psychology.

Common issues psychologists deal with include depression, anxiety, chronic illness and anger management. They diagnose various mental conditions by implementing a variety of tests that can evaluate “intellectual skills, cognitive strengths and weaknesses, vocational aptitude and preference, personality characteristics and neuropsychological functioning,” according to the American Psychological Association.

What Is Social Work?

The field of social work, on the other hand, enables professionals to advocate for the well-being of their clients. Social workers study the many significant issues that humans may face in their lifetimes and work with clients to help solve these problems. They also advocate for at-risk communities and individuals, and assist them in accessing available resources and social services. These professionals help their clients work through a variety of issues, including substance abuse, domestic abuse, child welfare and adoption.

Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) can specialize in a variety of areas, including marriage counseling, public health and family therapy. If a client’s case or concerns are beyond their expertise, they can refer them to a psychologist or another social worker. For example, a social worker who specializes in marriage counseling might realize that substance abuse and depression are significant factors in a couple’s marriage. They may elect to refer the couple to another social worker who specializes in substance abuse, or to a psychologist who can help the couple manage their depression and abuse issues.

Similarities Between Psychologists and Social Workers

Psychologists and social workers sometimes work together in patient care. They provide guidance and resources to their clients, establishing care plans that help clients reach their goals. Professionals in the fields of psychology and social work also pursue similar educational paths.

General Patient Care

Psychologists and social workers deal with the behaviors, mental health and well-being of their clients. Professionals in both fields work with individuals, families and communities, and use their education and experience to develop unique treatment plans to address the concerns of their clients. Many of the same skills, particularly soft skills, are necessary for psychology and social work, including strong communication and interpersonal skills and advanced problem-solving skills.

Educational Requirements

Those who are seeking careers in psychology or social work generally earn a bachelor’s degree as a foundation for an advanced degree. Those who pursue an advanced degree in social work may choose to get a bachelor’s in the related discipline of psychology. By the same token, students who pursue an advanced degree in psychology may choose to first obtain a bachelor’s in social work.

For the most part, psychologists and social workers both should earn master’s degrees. After completing an advanced degree, professionals in both fields must complete internships or clinical work. Those in psychology will complete a 1-2-year full-time internship supervised by an experienced professional in the field. Social workers must complete 2-3 years of supervised clinical work. The goal of supervised clinical work and internships is to provide new psychologists and social workers with the necessary real-world experience to obtain state licensure.

Differences: Psychology vs. Social Work

Though there are many similarities between psychology and social work, there are also distinct differences. Psychologists and social workers have different areas of expertise, licensing requirements and opportunities to command different salaries.

Specialized Patient Care

Psychologists are trained to diagnose and address clients’ mental health concerns. They work with clients to manage their needs through psychotherapy and the development of treatment plans. As part of those treatment plans, psychologists in some states can prescribe medication to clients.

In contrast, social workers work with clients to address factors that are often more external, such as addiction, financial problems and familial issues. Social workers in government agencies can help foster children find homes and check on the welfare of children who might be abused or neglected. Social workers in hospitals may help clients deal with terminal illness or families cope with a dying relative. Unlike some psychologists, social workers are not allowed to prescribe medication.

Required Licensing

Licensing requirements vary between psychologists and social workers. The latter must complete an average of 3,000 hours of clinical work before sitting for the nationally recognized exam from the Association of Social Work Boards. After passing, social workers are licensed and earn the title of licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

In comparison, psychologists must possess a doctorate degree to obtain state licensure. Doctoral students can either obtain a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) or a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and can choose to specialize in a concentration. The American Board of Professional Psychology offers 15 different specializations, including Behavioral and Cognitive, Clinical Child and Adolescent, Counseling, Couple and Family, Forensic, Organizational and Business, Police and Public Safety and School.

Salary and Job Outlook

Social work and psychology careers both offer many intrinsic and external rewards. The annual median salary for a social worker is $50,470, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The field is expected to grow 13% through 2029 as the U.S. population grows, and as more families and children need access to welfare checks and life skills training. Moreover, schools will see a rise in demand for these professionals to address student needs.

In comparison, the annual median salary for psychologists is $80,370 and the field is anticipated to grow by a more moderate 3% through 2029.

Prepare for a Career as a Psychologist or Social Worker

Pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology is a sound choice for those who are interested in a career in either psychology or social work. The Rider University online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology provides a strong academic foundation and also prepares students to earn advanced degrees in either field.

The in-depth curriculum is designed to prepare students with the fundamental skills and ability to find practical solutions by applying psychological theories. Coursework covers abnormal, clinical, social and criminal psychology, as well as clinical writing, communication and information technology.

Explore how Rider University’s online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology program can prepare you for an exciting and meaningful career.

Recommended Readings

Careers in Psychology with a Bachelor’s Degree
How to Become a Victim Advocate and Provide Empowerment for Victims of Crime
Types of Social Influences and Their Effect on Behavior


American Psychological Association, Psychology Topics
American Psychological Association, “What Do Practicing Psychologists Do?”
American Board of Professional Psychology, Learn About Specialty Boards
The Balance Careers, “What Does a Psychologist Do?”
National Institute of Mental Health, Mental Illness
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Psychologists 
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers
Verywell Mind, “Social Worker Career Profile”
Verywell Mind, “What Is Psychology?”