Master's in Social Work (MSW) vs. Master's in Counseling

MSW vs LPC in Social Work

Students who want to enter the counseling field can be confused by the different career paths a Master of Social Work, commonly referred to as an MSW, and a Master in Counseling degree can offer. Both degrees can provide training on how to supervise and guide others, but an MSW graduate might work in any variety of social services agencies, while a Master of Counseling graduate would more likely work in  one-on-one or group settings.

An MSW program is often general in focus and may offer more career flexibility than a Master of Counseling. Many schools simply offer a Master of Arts or Science in Counseling degree while others might have degree programs with a tighter focus: the Master of Arts in School Counseling and the Master of Arts in Rehabilitation Counseling are two possible options. Still other degrees might be offered as a Master in Counseling with specific concentrations or program tracks within: elementary school and secondary school counseling and college and university counseling are examples. 

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Finally, the MSW and Master in Counseling lead to different types of certifications, which are required for employment in the field. A graduate of an MSW program might work to become certified as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, or LCSW, whereas a graduate of a Master in Counseling program may seek certification to become a Licensed Professional Counselor, or LPC. Requirements for these licensures vary by state. There is more information on licensure later in this article.

Master of Social Work 

A Master of Social Work degree can lead to employment in public or private social service agencies and work with any number of diverse groups: juvenile offenders, foster children and the elderly are examples. The more difficult part of the job may be managing and resolving difficult cases involving child abuse, family instability, impoverishment or mental illness. In short, the MSW can be a flexible degree that allows graduates to pursue a number of niche programs.

When it comes to choosing a school, students may find that the best MSW programs for them depend on their personal priorities. That said, U.S. News & World Report does offer a list, based on peer reviews of perceived academic quality, of the top MSW programs for 2013 and other years. The top five graduate-level social work programs listed by U.S. News & World Report were:

  1. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  2. Washington University in St. Louis
  3. University of Chicago
  4. University of Washington, Seattle
  5. Columbia University, New York

After completing a master’s degree in social work, graduates may want to work toward LCSW certification in their state. A master’s degree is required for this. Those who have a lesser degree, such as a bachelor’s, may want to work on becoming a Licensed Social Worker, or LSW, and then later complete the education and training that can lead to LCSW certification. In addition to having the master’s degree, graduates will also need to complete clinical supervised work hours to obtain their LCSW. Other certification requirements may include:

  • Continuing education credits
  • Passing a state-administered exam
  • Passing the clinical exam offered by the Association of Social Work Boards
  • Prior state certification as a Licensed Social Worker

However, those interested in a Master of Social Work degree should contact their state or local licensing chapters to find out more about specific certification requirements.

Master in Counseling

The Master of Arts or Master of Science in Counseling can be completed as a general degree or as a degree focusing on specific areas. Depending on the type of academic work completed, graduates could be prepared to work in fields such as career counseling, school counseling, rehabilitation counseling or simply in general practice. They may find employment in hospitals and mental-health clinics or working with active-duty military members or veterans.

After completing their Master of Counseling degree, students may wish to pursue certification. As of 2011, more than 120,000 professional counselors were certified as LPCs in the U.S., according to the American Counseling Association. To work toward certification, a graduate typically needs to seek a provisional intern license that allows them to begin the 1,500 to 3,000 hours of supervised work required for licensure. These required hours may vary by state. Other requirements may include:

  • Passing the National Counselor Exam, or NCE, or a similar state-approved exam. Some states may require passage of the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Exam, or NCMHE, instead.
  • Completion of continuing-education classes

Again, graduates interested in pursuing their LPC will want to be knowledgeable of the requirements in their state. The ACA typically provides links to the various state professional counselor licensure boards on its website.

Final countdown: Both potential winners?

Both the fields of social work and counseling are expected to undergo job growth between 2010 and 2020. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data projects the nationwide job growth in social work to be up to 25 percent between 2010 and 2020.  This growth is considered much faster than the national average, according to the BLS. As for the potential return on academic investment for social work graduates, the 2011 median annual pay of child, family and school social workers nationally was $40,680. Those in the top 10 percent earned $70,050 nationally in 2011 and those in the lowest 10 percent earned $26,190 nationally in 2011, according to the BLS data (, 2012).

The field of mental health counseling is projected to grow nationwide by up to 36 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to March 2012 BLS data (, 2012). The BLS indicates this projected growth is much faster than the national average and falls within the top tier of growing occupations. As for the pay outlook for this field, according to the most recent BLS data from May 2011, the median annual pay of mental health counselors was $39,190 nationally in 2011. Those landing in the top 10 percent of the field earned $65,660 nationally while those in the lowest 10 percent earned $24,840 nationally (, 2012).

Those interested in pursuing an MSW or Master in Counseling degree should note that pay in their career, as in most other fields, can be incumbent on a number of factors, including years of experience, place of business and economic health of the sector.


About MSW programs:

About counseling programs:

Top programs:

About LCSW certification:

On becoming LPC certified:

BLS sources:

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