What Is the Difference Between a Social Work Degree and a Psychology Degree?

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Social work and psychology are similar fields in many ways, so it’s no wonder students who have a desire to help others often feel drawn to these disciplines. Despite their similarities, there are important distinctions between the fields of social work and psychology in terms of the perspective of the fields, professionals’ work functions and environments and income potential.

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One of the first differences between psychology and social work is that of perspective. Although both psychology and social work are fields devoted to helping people who struggle with mental health issues and other problems, they approach this goal from different viewpoints.

Psychology is the academic field that focuses on the mind and behavior. This science emphasizes the brain structures and mental processes that occur within an individual’s body and consciousness. Social work, on the other hand, is inextricably linked to social welfare and social environments. While a psychologist may approach the treatment of a troubled individual from a perspective of looking for brain function abnormalities or disordered thinking patterns, a social worker is more likely to look at the function of the person in all of his or her environments and relationships.

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Of the two degree paths, psychology is the science. While some experts view psychology as a social science, due to its focus on thought and behavior, others see it as a natural science, based on its investigation of how the brain works and its extensive use of the scientific method in research. Social work, on the other hand, is typically considered a social service profession.

Neither perspective is better than the other, but one may be a better fit for you. Is it the influence of the brain and thought processes on human behavior or the influence of environments and social relationships that most interests you?

Job Function and Work Settings

Despite some overlapping responsibilities, psychologists and social workers fulfill different job functions and often work in different industries or environments. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) classifies social worker as part of the community and social services occupational group but psychologist as one of the life, physical and social scientist roles.

In both career paths, there is a great deal of variance in the possible job duties and specializations. Social worker jobs are often divided into macro and micro. Macro social work involves working to develop social policies, services and programs, often without much emphasis on direct client service, the BLS reported. Micro social work involves providing direct services to clients – individuals and families – who need help accessing resources such as healthcare, social services and affordable housing. Clinical social work, which typically falls under the category of micro social work, can involve diagnosing clients with mental illnesses and treating them through counseling.

Clinical, counseling and school psychologists make up most jobs in psychology. A small number of psychologists – just 1,700 – are classified as industrial-organizational psychologists, and 17,400 psychologists fit into other categories, like forensic psychologist and rehabilitation psychologist. The number-one employer of psychologists is elementary and secondary schools, which make up 27 percent of jobs. Ambulatory healthcare services account for 18 percent of psychologist roles, with the government making up another 10 percent and hospitals, seven percent, the BLS reported.

Among the most popular kinds of psychology jobs are clinical psychologist and counseling psychologist. Both types of psychologist use psychotherapy to help clients, but clinical psychologists focus more on the pathology of severe mental illnesses, while counseling psychologists use a more client-centered approach to help clients who are troubled by life events or who present with less severe symptoms of mental health disorders.

Psychologist is a much smaller occupation, accounting for just 166,600 current jobs, compared to 682,100 jobs for social workers, the BLS reported. Almost half of all social workers fit into the category of child, family and school social workers, with healthcare social workers being the next most common field, followed by mental health and substance abuse social workers. Just 64,000 social workers hold roles that don’t fit into these categories. The largest employer of social workers is individual and family services, accounting for 18 percent of jobs. State government roles make up 14 percent of jobs, and local government entities and ambulatory healthcare services both account for 13 percent of social worker positions. Another 12 percent of social workers are employed by hospitals. The life of a social worker can be hectic, especially in understaffed areas, the BLS reported. Traveling to see clients or move between schools or facilities is common for social workers.

Almost one-quarter of all psychologists are self-employed, primarily in their own private practices, the BLS reported. Self-employed psychologists face additional job duties in their work compared to traditionally employed psychologists, including administrative tasks.

Earning Potential

There is a big discrepancy in income potential between social workers and psychologists. The BLS reports a median annual wage of just $49,470 for social workers as a whole. Mental health and substance abuse social workers are the lowest paid, with a median salary of just $44,840, followed by child, family and school social workers, who earn a median wage of $46,270. For psychologists, the median salary is $79,010, the BLS reported. Collectively, clinical, counseling and school psychologists earn a median wage of $76,990. Industrial-organizational psychologists earn a median wage of $97,260, while psychologists in other fields enjoy a $100,770 median salary.

The employment field with the highest pay rates for social workers is hospitals, which pay a median salary of $60,100. For psychologists, the government pays the best wages, with a $96,410 median salary.

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