Question: What is the difference between a Master of Social Work (MSW) and a Master’s in Counseling?

Answer: Both the MSW and the Master’s in Counseling prepare students to work with clients in need of mental, emotional, and behavioral support. In particular, Master of Social Work programs with a specialization in Direct Practice/Clinical Social Work typically have the most overlap with Master’s in Counseling programs, in terms of course content and training. However, Master’s in Counseling programs and MSW programs are nevertheless distinct in terms of the scope of their work. MSW programs focus on a person-in-environment approach that trains students to support clients in other areas connecting to their physical, mental, and emotional well-being, such as connection to health care support, human services, and community resources. On the other hand, Master’s in Counseling programs tend to be highly focused on counseling methods and patient psychology, and are therefore suited for individuals who wish to work exclusively with individuals and small groups in psychotherapeutic settings.

According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the “primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.” This mission encompasses counseling work with clients and supporting individuals as they navigate complex systems, such as social welfare, health care, social services, educational assistance, and the criminal justice system. Furthermore, inherent within the social work profession is the consideration of the cultural, sociopolitical, and financial contexts impacting people’s experiences, perspectives, and behaviors.

While Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs, or LPCCs in certain states) are also trained to view clients’ challenges within the context of their environment and experiences, their responsibilities towards their clients are typically narrower in scope, in that they usually do not provide case management services, assistance in navigating systemic challenges or accessing community benefits, or general political and social advocacy for vulnerable populations. Similarly, Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs) work with couples and families on their relationship challenges, as well as the mental, emotional, and behavioral barriers to effective communication and connection with others. The scope of work for MFTs typically overlaps with but does not cover all that is within the purview of social work, because MFTs do not generally work in the social justice, case management, or program development arenas.

Master of Social Work vs. Master’s in Counseling Programs

The distinctions and overlaps between the social work and licensed counseling professions are reflected in the differences and similarities in the graduate programs preparing students for these respective careers. Master’s in Counseling programs prepare students to work one-on-one with individuals suffering from mental, emotional, and behavioral challenges that are impacting their relationships and/or ability to function in their daily lives. Depending on the program they choose, students of Master’s in Counseling programs may be able to specialize in counseling specific populations, such as members of ethnic minorities, individuals in correctional institutions, military personnel, people struggling with addictions, and victims of trauma.

Master’s in Social Work programs have a foundation in human psychology, development, and behavior that is similar to Master’s in Counseling programs. However, the core coursework in an MSW program focuses on the broader social and political issues that cause and/or perpetuate the mental, emotional, financial, and social challenges that vulnerable populations face. Additionally, and as a distinguishing factor from Master’s in Counseling programs, many MSW programs also offer macro social work specializations, such as those in Social Justice Advocacy and Policy, Community Program Development, and Leadership of Human Services Organizations.

To help illustrate the distinctions between MSW and Master’s in Counseling programs, below is a table outlining some of the distinguishing features of each type of degree program.

 Master of Social WorkMaster's in Counseling
Possible Specializations
  • Direct Practice/ Clinical Social Work
  • Advanced Generalist Social Work
  • Child and Family Welfare
  • Substance Abuse and Addictions
  • Trauma and Abuse
  • Adult Mental Health and Wellness
  • Military Social Work
  • Macro Social Work
  • Community Program Leadership
  • Social Justice Advocacy
  • Social Work and Human Services Administration
  • Entrepreneurship in Social Work and Social Justice
  • Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • Substance Abuse Counseling
  • Adult Mental Health and Wellness
  • School Counseling
  • Trauma and Abuse
  • Grief Counseling
  • Counseling Military Populations
  • Counseling in Correctional Settings
Program DetailsTypically requires two years of full-time study and the completion of 40-60 course credits Typically requires two years of full-time study and the completion of 40-60 course credits
Sample Courses:
  • Human Psychology and Development
  • Foundational Theories of Social Work Practice
  • Social Work Research
  • Social Welfare Policy and Institutions
  • Clinical Social Work Modalities
  • Introduction to Psychiatric Social Work
  • Criminal Justice Social Work
  • Military Social Work
  • Human Services Administration and Leadership
  • Diversity, Prejudice, and Social Justice
  • Foundational Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy
  • Counseling Research Methods
  • Psychopathology
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Ethical and Legal Considerations in Counseling
  • Diversity in Individual and Group Counseling
  • Human Psychology Across the Lifespan
  • Marriage and Family Counseling
  • Counseling and Psychotherapy in Correctional Environments
  • Grief and Trauma Counseling
Field Education/Internship RequirementsAt least 900 hours of supervised practicum experience in relevant social work setting(s)700 hours of supervised practicum/internship experience in relevant counseling setting(s)
Accrediting OrganizationThe Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)*The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)**

As the above chart illustrates, many MSW programs have specializations that overlap with those available in Master’s in Counseling programs, such as Clinical Social Work/Counseling, Adult Mental Health, and Substance Abuse and Addiction, as well as specializations focusing on children and adolescents, people in the military, and those involved in the criminal justice system. However, MSW programs with these specializations typically also contain courses that help students understand how they can help empower and support the people with whom they work within larger medical, social, political, and economic systems.

For example, a Master’s in Counseling program with a focus on Correctional Counseling will generally focus on therapeutic modalities that are most effective in working with incarcerated individuals. On the other hand, an MSW with a specialization in Criminal Justice or Forensic Social Work will typically cover these therapeutic modalities as well as several courses that cover issues of diversity, inequality, and social injustice in the criminal justice system.

Internships/Practicums for Master’s in Counseling Programs vs. Field Education for MSW Programs

As with their coursework, the field practicum/internship experiences for MSW programs and Master’s in Counseling programs can have overlap, especially in cases where MSW students and Master’s in Counseling students are pursuing similar specializations.

Master’s in Counseling Program Practicums/Internships

Master’s in Counseling programs typically require students to complete a supervised internship in a setting that allows them to gain experience providing counseling and psychotherapy services to individuals. While specific hours requirements vary, most Master’s in Counseling programs require at least 700 hours of internship/practicum under the supervision of a licensed or certified counselor. In addition, the accrediting body CACREP requires all of its accredited Master’s in Counseling programs to have at least 700 hours of supervised internship/practicum experience. (Note: CACREP makes a distinction between practicum and internship hours, with students being required to complete a 100 hour practicum and 600 internship hours.)

Examples of practicum/internship[ settings for Master’s in Counseling students include but are not limited to mental health care clinics, outpatient behavioral health care centers, women’s trauma and domestic abuse centers, juvenile probation settings, and public and private schools. Master’s in Counseling programs vary in terms of how they handle the practicum placement process. While some programs match students to sites and supervisors that match their specialization or interests, other programs may require students to identify their own practicum locations, seek their own supervisors, and apply for approval from the program once they have finalized their selections. In addition, the number of practicum hours Master’s in Counseling programs require students to complete can vary depending on the program, the student’s selected specialization, the state in which they live, and whether he or she wishes to apply for MFT, LPC, and/or LPCC licensure upon graduation.

MSW Program Field Education

Field education, as the signature pedagogy of social work, is central to all CSWE-accredited MSW programs. In general, students of MSW programs complete one foundational practicum in their first year of enrollment, and one advanced practicum in their second year (for students who are enrolled full-time). MSW programs typically require between 900 and 1200 hours of field education, and the specific number of hours a student is expected to complete varies depending on the student’s chosen program and specialization. For MSW students studying clinical social work or how to provide individual counseling services to children, adults, families, or other sectors of the population, their field practicum sites and responsibilities during their internship may be quite similar to those of a Master’s in Counseling student with a similar academic focus.

As with the internship/practicum for Master’s in Counseling programs, the field practicum for MSW students studying direct-practice social work is an opportunity to integrate all of the concepts, methods, and skills they have learned in their classes to real work with clients. Examples of MSW field practicum sites include child and family welfare agencies, the psychiatric departments of hospitals, community wellness centers, women’s health centers, correctional facilities, and substance abuse rehab clinics.

For MSW students who specialize in a macro social work, such as community program development and administration, social work research, or social justice advocacy, their practicum sites might not overlap with those of a graduate student in direct-practice social work or counseling. For example, MSW students specializing in macro social work might complete one or more of their field practicums in a setting that does not involve direct counseling, but rather allows them to participate in research studies or help plan a wide-scale health education or advocacy program.

MSW programs also vary in terms of how they handle the field placement process. Some programs match students with practicum sites and field instructors, while others require students to locate their own sites and seek their own supervisors. Other schools of social work may help guide students in their search but leave the ultimate decision of practicum site and supervisor to the student. For more information on field education for MSW programs, please refer to our introductory Guide to Field Education.

*Note: The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the only accrediting body for MSW programs in the United States. In addition, it also accredits Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) programs. Prospective students should note that in order to earn licensure in clinical social work from their state’s Social Work Licensing Board, they are expected to have earned their MSW from a program that has been accredited by the CSWE.

**Note The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) is an organization that has been approved by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation to accredit Master’s in Counseling programs in the United States. It has also established academic standards for graduate programs in counseling. While CACREP accreditation is optional for Master’s in Counseling programs, many programs have sought this accreditation to certify that their curricula have met national standards for the profession.