Social Worker vs. Psychologist: Which Job Is Right for You?

African-American psychologist uses her hands while talking to a white blonde woman in a session

People who become social workers and psychologists are drawn to these professions from all walks of life. However, they tend to share at least one thing in common. They all want to make it their life’s work to help others. Although both fields are focused on helping individuals overcome obstacles, there are some key differences between social work and psychology. Before you decide whether a psychology degree or a social work degree is right for you, you should consider the following factors.

Understanding Psychology

Psychology is a branch of science that seeks to better understand the human mind. Psychologists study how the mind works, which factors affect its functioning and how thought patterns influence behaviors. Some psychologists focus their work on scientific research. They may also teach the next generation of psychologists. Others prefer to work one-on-one with patients.

Clinical psychologists who work directly with patients help these individuals overcome mental, emotional and behavioral challenges. Psychologists can use a variety of assessment, diagnostic and therapeutic tools and techniques. One commonly used technique is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), for example. This technique can help patients develop coping strategies and better regulate their emotions.

There are many opportunities to specialize within the psychology field. Some of these professionals specialize in working with a population. For example, geropsychologists have in-depth knowledge of the mental health needs of older adults. Other psychologists focus on a specific setting. For instance, industrial and organizational psychologists specialize in working with employees, supervisors and executives for the purpose of improving operational efficiency, work and life balance. Other psychological specialties include the following:

  • Forensic psychology
  • Health psychology
  • Human factors psychology
  • School psychology

These are just a few examples. If you decide to become a psychologist, you can choose a specialty to suit your interests.

Exploring the Requirements to Become a Psychologist

The pathway to become a psychologist begins at the undergraduate level. Students should choose a psychology major and may decide to minor in a related field, such as sociology or health sciences. Upon graduation, aspiring psychologists will need to enroll in a master’s degree program. At this level, there are more opportunities for specialization. For example, students might find a master’s program with a focus on forensic psychology or human factors psychology.

A master’s degree is sometimes enough to begin working in this field, particularly for industrial and organizational psychologists. It may also qualify individuals to work as assistants in clinical or research settings under the supervision of a licensed psychologist.

However, in order to become a clinical psychologist, it is necessary to earn a doctoral degree. Aspiring psychologists will also need to earn appropriate licensure in the state in which they plan to practice.

Understanding Social Work

Like psychologists, social workers devote their lives to helping others. However, there are some crucial differences. Whereas a clinical psychologist might work with a range of people from all backgrounds, social workers focus on working with people who are vulnerable, impoverished, oppressed, neglected or abused. In addition, social workers provide holistic services by taking into consideration both the whole person and their environment. By nature, social work centers on fighting for social justice, relieving suffering and improving both human lives and communities.

Social workers provide services across a diverse range of settings. They work in hospitals, schools, community therapy centers, prisons, nursing homes, homeless shelters and substance abuse treatment facilities. It is well known that social workers often help children who have been abused or neglected, but they also work with members of the military who have suffered from trauma, as well as individuals affected by natural disasters. In short, social workers are versatile professionals who want to make the world a better place.

For a social worker, every day brings new challenges and no two days are the same. In general, the following are some common job responsibilities:

  • Assessing the situation, needs, goals and support networks of individuals
  • Helping clients cope with stressors and challenges by providing psychotherapy services
  • Referring clients to social support services, ranging from emergency housing to food stamps to employment assistance
  • Responding to crisis situations, including natural disasters, mental health emergencies, acts of mass violence and child abuse

Evaluating the Pathway to Become a Social Worker

There is no single pathway for becoming a social worker. Many students choose to earn a Bachelor of Science in Social Work, after which they might find entry level positions open to them. However, others major in a related field, such as psychology, counseling, sociology or even political science. They may then choose to earn a Master of Science in Social Work (MSW) degree, which includes the completion of an internship or supervised practicum. An MSW can qualify individuals to work as social workers, although some states also require licensure.

Regardless of whether you choose social work or psychology, Grand Canyon University offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs that are suited to your career aspirations. You can apply to enroll in the Bachelor of Science in Psychology degree or the Bachelor of Science in Sociology with an Emphasis in Social Work program. Use the Request Info button above to begin exploring our dynamic and supportive learning community.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.