Clinical Social Worker vs. Counselor: What's the Difference?

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Updated September 27, 2023 · 4 Min Read

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Learn about the similarities and differences between counselors and clinical social workers to decide which path is right for your career.

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Counselors and clinical social workers both require a master's degree for licensing and provide counseling to clients. However, the roles are unique. Explore clinical social worker vs. counselor similarities and differences to make the right choice for your career.

Clinical Social Worker vs. Counselor Job Description

Clinical social workers and counselors both provide counseling to their clients and help them identify and address issues that affect their well-being. Both counselors and clinical social workers perform their jobs in a variety of settings and can work as part of a larger organization or as independent practitioners. They use many of the same communication skills and require cultural competence. Many professionals specialize in a particular type of population, such as older adults or teens, or a particular issue, such as substance use disorders.

There are also major clinical social worker vs. counselor differences. Clinical social workers not only provide counseling, but often help clients navigate other parts of social support systems, such as job placement assistance, connections to healthcare, or housing support. Counselors, instead, focus almost entirely on delivering counseling.

Job Duties

Clinical Social Workers

  • Maintain documentation and case files
  • Advocate for clients
  • Assess client needs and potential risks
  • Develop treatment plans in collaboration with clients and other care or service providers
  • Lead individual, group, and couples therapy sessions
  • Teach life skills and strategies
  • Refer clients to other social services as needed
  • Help clients understand themselves, their situation, and available resources
  • Intervene in crisis situations
  • Maintain professional and ethical relationship with clients, follow ethical and legal guidelines

Counselors

  • Maintain documentation and case files
  • Help clients access resources
  • Assess client needs and potential risks
  • Diagnose clients and discuss treatment options
  • Lead individual, group, and couples therapy sessions
  • Teach life skills and strategies
  • Refer clients to other mental health professionals as needed
  • Help clients develop insights into themselves and relationships
  • Intervene in crisis situations
  • Maintain professional and ethical relationship with clients, follow ethical and legal guidelines

Skill Sets

Clinical Social Workers

  • Assessment of client needs: The ability to measure a client's needs across multiple dimensions, including social, economic, and health needs, as well as mental health needs.
  • Communication: Communicate clearly and with empathy, delivering information and counseling in a way that the client can understand
  • Connection and referrals: Broad knowledge of available services and providers for other needs, such as housing, medical care, job training or placement
  • Cultural competence: The ability to connect and communicate effectively and respectfully with people from all backgrounds and with different needs
  • Interpersonal skills: The ability to encourage, motivate, and support others, while maintaining appropriate boundaries

Counselors

  • Assessment of client needs: Use standardized tests or other instruments to assess client needs and mental health conditions and help clients set goals.
  • Communication: Communicate clearly and with empathy, delivering information and counseling in a way that the client can understand
  • Connection and referrals: Recognition of when a client may need other mental health care, such as psychiatric care, and refer client
  • Cultural competence: The ability to connect and communicate effectively and respectfully with people from all backgrounds and with different needs
  • Interpersonal skills: The ability to encourage, motivate, and support others, while maintaining appropriate boundaries

Clinical Social Worker vs. Counselor Education

Aspiring clinical social workers and counselors can pursue almost any undergraduate degree, although most programs require or prefer a major or at least a strong background in the social sciences. One clinical social worker vs. counselor difference is that there are many bachelor of social work (BSW) programs available, while most counseling programs are only available at the master's or doctoral level.

If you already have a BSW, you may be able to finish your master of social work (MSW) in one year, while most master's in counseling programs require approximately two years for full-time students. While you can earn a social work or counseling license with a master's degree, a doctorate can prepare you to teach or to lead a department or agency.

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Clinical Social Worker vs. Counselor Licensing Requirements

Each state has different requirements for licensing, but in general, you must complete your master's degree, pass the relevant national examination, and complete supervised practice hours under a licensed counselor or clinical social worker. Check with your state for specifics.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Typically, a licensed clinical social worker must have an MSW from an accredited program, 2,000-3,000 hours of supervised practice in clinical social work, and a passing score on the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) clinical examination. You must maintain your license through continuing professional education.

Licensed Professional Counselor

Typically, a licensed professional counselor must have a master's degree in counseling from an accredited program, 2,000-3,000 hours of supervised practice, and a passing score on the National Counselor Examination (NCE), National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE), or Certified Rehabilitation Counseling Examination (CRCE). Check your state regulations for the specific requirements.

Salary and Job Outlook for Clinical Social Workers vs. Counselors

In general, the salaries for a clinical social worker vs. counselor are similar. Your experience, any additional certifications, local demand, location and cost of living, and workplace setting all affect income. While salaries are low, many government positions offer attractive benefits packages, including a pension.

Salary for Clinical Social Workers vs. Counselors
Occupation Median Salary (2022)
Child, Family, and School Social Workers $50,820
Healthcare Social Workers $60,280
Mental Health and Substance Misuse Social Workers $51,240
Substance Misuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors $49,710
School and Career Counselors $60,140
Rehabilitation Counselors $39,990
Source: BLS

While job growth for rehabilitation counselors, school and career counselors, and child, family, and school social workers is fairly slow, other categories of counseling and social work jobs are growing much faster. As more healthcare organizations try to address social determinants of health, healthcare social worker jobs are growing, and as the opioid crisis continues, the need for substance misuse treatment is also growing fast.

Job Outlook for Clinical Social Workers vs. Counselors
Occupation Projected Job Growth (2022-2032)
Child, Family, and School Social Workers +5%
Healthcare Social Workers +10%
Mental Health and Substance Misuse Social Workers +11%
Substance Misuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors +18%
School and Career Counselors +5%
Rehabilitation Counselors +2%
Source: BLS

Frequently Asked Questions About Clinical Social Work vs. Counseling

Is it harder to become a clinical social worker or a counselor?

Whether it is harder to become a clinical social worker or a counselor depends on your strengths. Both fields require a master's degree, passing a national examination, and supervised experience hours. Social work programs cover a broader range of topics, including social determinants of health and advocacy, while counseling programs are more focused on counseling specifically.

Do clinical social workers make more money than counselors?

Whether clinical social workers make more money than counselors depends on your specialty, the workplace, and local demand. In general, clinical social worker salaries are fairly close to counselor salaries.

Can clinical social workers provide therapy?

Clinical social workers are licensed to assess mental health conditions and provide therapy. This is one of the major differences between a licensed social worker and a licensed clinical social worker, as only clinical social workers can provide therapy.

Should I become a clinical social worker or a counselor?

Whether you should become a clinical social worker or a counselor depends on your personal and professional goals and interests. Both degrees lead to a helping career and require generally equivalent education. If you want to assist clients with more holistic needs, then a clinical social worker career might be a better choice. If you want to focus on a narrower type of counseling, then a counseling degree might be better. You can make the clinical social worker vs. counselor decision by research, talking to guidance or admission counselors, or interviewing practitioners.

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