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Social Work vs. Psychology: Which Degree Program Is Right for You?

A degree may open the door to a variety of opportunities and diverse career paths. The degree programs offered at CTU will not necessarily lead to the featured careers. This collection of articles is intended to help inform and guide you through the process of determining which level of degree and types of certifications align with your desired career path.

You might think of social work and psychology careers as two sides of the same coin, as both fields are focused on helping others—and for anyone with an interest in guiding and assisting people as they work through different problems or challenges, pursuing a career in social work or a career in psychology could be a good fit. Nonetheless, it’s important to realize that despite their commonalities, these are in fact distinct fields with important differences.

Therefore, before choosing a path forward, it’s a good idea to compare the types of opportunities you might pursue upon graduating from a social work vs. psychology degree program — doing so can help you better understand where these fields align and converge and will also alert you to any important education and licensing requirements that may come into play. With that in mind, let’s begin our discussion.

What Does a Social Worker Do?

A good place to begin our exploration is with the question, “What does a social worker do?” Social workers, generally speaking, help people solve problems and learn how to deal with the issues that confront them in their daily lives.1 A hallmark of social work careers is that they are focused on improving the lives of the more vulnerable members of society, such as those living in poverty or who also belong to marginalized groups (i.e. women, children, or the mentally ill).2 Social workers help such people work through difficult life challenges, refer and advocate for the use of community resources to help alleviate a client’s burdens, and follow up with clients to track their progress (and hopefully, improvement) over time, and clinical social workers are even licensed to diagnose and treat mental, emotional, and behavioral problems. 1

Some of the more widely known social work careers are in child and family services, substance abuse, and school social work. But social workers can also be found working with the elderly, the unemployed, and the developmentally disabled.3 Some provide care directly to clients in one-on-one or small group situations, while others engage in macro social work, collaborating with organizations and policymakers to design or improve programs, services, and policies.1

What Does a Psychologist Do?

Now to the next question: What does a psychologist do? In general, psychologists aim to understand and explain human thoughts, feelings, and behavior by observing and assessing how individuals interact with each other and their environments. Perhaps the best-known type of psychologist is a clinical psychologist—a professional who assesses, diagnoses, and treats mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders.4 At first blush, this sounds almost exactly like the type of work clinical social workers do; however, unlike clinical social workers, psychologists do not necessarily focus on improving the mental health of society’s most vulnerable. Another distinction between the two career paths comes down to differences in their educational requirements and focus, which we will discuss momentarily.

But of course, not everyone with a psychology background chooses to pursue a master’s or doctoral degree in psychology and/or a career as a clinical psychologist. As it turns out, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology could lead one to a career in the business world. Understanding the basics of human psychology and how to apply the rules of consumer behavior and organizational behavior can be useful skills for marketing, training and development, and human resources roles.

How to Become a Social Worker vs. How to Become a Psychologist

Social Work

How to become a social worker depends on the type of social work you want to engage in. To pursue entry-level administrative roles, a bachelor’s in psychology or sociology may sometimes be sufficient depending upon the specific employer and position, but a bachelor’s in social work is often required. Additionally, social work licensing requirements vary by state, which means that licensure or certification may be necessary even for nonclinical roles such as these.1

Clinical social workers, on the other hand, must possess at least a master’s degree in social work (MSW). The good news for anyone interested in this career path is that a bachelor’s degree in social work is not generally a prerequisite to pursuing an MSW program; in fact, a bachelor’s in psychology or related social science program is not uncommon. Additionally, aspiring clinical social workers must acquire two years of experience in a supervised clinical setting after completing their master’s program in social work before becoming eligible to take the clinical exam for licensure.1

Psychology

Entry-level business career paths requiring knowledge of consumer behavior (behavioral psychology) or organizational behavior include certain marketing, training and development, and human resources roles. These positions tend to require applicants to have both relevant work experience and a bachelor’s degree in a respective field, although completing a bachelor’s degree program in a social science like psychology could also provide the foundational knowledge and skills needed to pursue these career paths.5, 6, 7

How to become a psychologist depends upon what you wish to specialize in and the state in which you practice, as psychology licensing requirements vary by state. A doctoral degree in psychology (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) is needed to pursue a career as a counseling, research, or clinical psychologist. Completion of an internship, one to two years of supervised work experience, passage of the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology, and, often, continuing education courses are required for counseling and clinical psychologists to legally practice—and on top of all of this, many choose to become certified as well. School psychologists, who contend with both the educational and mental health needs of students, must also possess an advanced degree (Ed.S., Ph.D, or Psy.D.) and certification or licensure to work. Pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Psychology program could serve as an important, early steppingstone for those interested in such psychology careers.4

Social Work vs. Psychology Degree: Which Path Will You Choose?

One of the great things about a bachelor’s in psychology degree program is the flexibility it offers. Whether you decide, upon graduation, to seek out careers in the business world that will enable you to utilize the psychological principles and knowledge you acquired as an undergraduate student, pursue a master’s or doctoral degree in psychology, “give back” to society by pursuing certain entry-level social work careers, or earn an advanced degree in social work, the point is that you have options. No matter what you decide, there are many opportunities to choose a path that feels rewarding to you.

Learn more about Colorado Technical University’s Bachelor of Science in Psychology program options today.


1 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, “Social Workers,” https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm (last visited 9/9/2020).
2 Social Work Policy Institute, “Poverty,” http://www.socialworkpolicy.org/research/poverty.html (last visited 12/18/2020).
3 National Association of Social Workers (NASW), “Types of Social Workers,” https://www.socialworkers.org/News/Facts/Types-of-Social-Work (last visited 9/9/2020).
4 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, “Psychologists,” https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm
5 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, “Market Research Analysts,” https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/market-research-analysts.htm#tab-4 (last visited 12/18/2020).
6 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, “Training and Development Specialists,” https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/training-and-development-specialists.htm#tab-4 (last visited 12/18/2020).
7 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, “Human Resources Specialists,” https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/human-resources-specialists.htm#tab-4 (last visited 12/18/2020).

CTU cannot guarantee employment, salary, or career advancement. Not all programs are available to residents of all states. REQ1622640 1/21

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