Both the MSW and the Master’s in Counseling are considered professional degrees, and both require you go to graduate school. In addition, both require you obtain state licensure and become part of a regulated profession. Meeting the conditions of regulation and state licensure is important. These standards ensure that you’ve met the minimum training, education, and experience to operate as a therapist. Without licensure requirements, any individual, regardless of expertise, could throw a shingle on the door and say, "The therapist is in." Getting a master’s and becoming licensed to practice is the key to credibility. It ensure prospective patients that you have a credentialed discipline behind that shingle.   

There are some settings where you can provide one-on-one counseling and act as a "counselor" without a graduate degree. These are usually found in areas such as domestic violence, substance abuse, and gambling. But without professional certification, these counseling roles are limited in scope, considered more junior or informal, and do not allow you to work in higher level counseling positions or in most health care settings.  

Third party reimbursement: another reason to consider a master’s

Another primary benefit of obtaining a master’s degree to become a licensed therapist is that you become third-party reimbursable. This means that the fees charged for counseling can be reimbursed by a patient’s insurer.

While some employers, such as those in educational institutions, may not be impacted by the need for third-party reimbursement, many therapeutic settings rely on these funds to operate. Coupled with the professional standards that licensure confers, reimbursability ensures that the overwhelming majority of counselors working in health care and private practice will sport a master’s. In fact, many health care employers will not even hire a candidate who does not hold that higher level degree.

Choosing between a Master’s in Counseling and a Master’s in Social Work

Now that you know that a master’s is worth pursuing, and likely necessary, the question becomes: Which degree do you choose?  A Master’s in Counseling? Or an MSW? Before you can decide which may be best for you, you should explore how the degrees overlap and differ in preparing students for a career in counseling.

What the Master’s in Counseling and the MSW have in common

Both the Master’s in Counseling and the MSW allow you to provide therapeutic counseling — also known as therapy — to clients in a multitude of therapeutic and healthcare settings. Both degrees prepare you to diagnose and treat patients. And both degrees qualify you to treat the same patients in the same settings. Mental health counselors and clinical social workers alike can go into private practice providing one-on-one therapy. Likewise, both can work in a range of mental health settings. Clearly, when it comes to career outcomes, the two degrees overlap.

How they differ: The Master’s in Counseling vs. the MSW

Though they lead to similar professional outcomes, the MSW and the Master’s in Counseling have fundamental philosophical differences. And, in some cases, a patient or institution may prefer one degree over another.

The MSW may offer more advantages than the Master’s in Counseling, because a social worker’s training is broader by design. And when it comes to working with third-party reimbursement and Medicare, a social work degree is preferred. If you’re looking to work for an organization, it’s likely that the MSW will be highly valued, and possibly favored, over the Master’s in Counseling.

Another reason for this apparent preference is that social workers do much more than therapy. They may focus on a patient’s mental health, but they will also examine other contextual aspects of that patient’s life. This is the particular philosophy of social work: to go beyond an individual’s emotional state of mind and make practical interventions to help them live a better life. An example of this is the hospital social worker who does family counseling and discharge planning, and sets up ongoing treatment for the discharged patient. Again, this broader reach is the realm of a typical social worker.

By comparison, a mental health counselor with a Master’s in Counseling would limit his or her focus to just the patient’s mental and emotional health, without drawing in these other aspects of day-to-day life.

It’s also important to note that as a degree, an MSW may make you more employable. It is seen as highly distinct credential; while MSWs can apply for all of the same positions that Master’s in Counseling graduates apply for, the opposite is not usually true.

Practical considerations for making your school choice

To determine your best fit, you will need to do your homework.

MSW Programs do vary in terms of preparing students for therapeutic counseling work; not all program are created equal. Furthermore, to become a licensed clinical social worker and deliver psychotherapeutic therapy, newly minted MSWs must pursue postgraduate coursework and training — though they are permitted to begin their counseling practices during this time. Master’s of Counseling graduates likewise have to work for a specified period of time before becoming fully licensed.

If becoming a therapist is your end goal, and you have decided to pursue an MSW, it is important that you choose an MSW program with a strong focus on clinical counseling. One option is to seek out an MSW program that offers a stand-alone certificate in individual, couples and family therapy. Click here to browse the many options for MSW programs – including online programs — that offer a dedicated certificate in clinical counseling.

If an MSW is not for you, a Master’s in Counseling is still a great option. This degree offers you narrowly focused preparation as a counselor in a range of specialized settings.

Still deciding which master’s will work best for you? Consider the type of job you will want to pursue with your master’s, both short and long term. It’s possible that the broader scope of the MSW may give you the flexibility you need for your future career.

It’s also important to research state laws regarding reimbursements and licensure. Some states have established mental health counseling as its own license category. Others group a range of mental health counseling professionals together. MSWs generally do not get grouped with mental health licensure, but pursue state licensure as a standalone profession. So while both degrees come with rigorous requirements, both academically and for state licensure, you may find that one degree has an easier go of it in your state than the other.

Ultimately, either degree can result in a fulfilling career helping the most vulnerable among us. But it is in your best interest to do your research on the Master’s in Counseling and the Master’s in Social Work, and to choose the path that will lead directly to your professional goals.

Nedda Gilbert

Ms. Gilbert is a certified social worker and 30 year educational consultant with an interest in helping college-bound and graduate school students manage the process and stress of admissions effectively. She is one of the senior founding managers of the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company, and the author of The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and another book, Business School Essays that Made a Difference (Random House). She is a guest contributor to Forbes Magazine on college and college life. Ms. Gilbert is also certified as a collaborative family law professional in New Jersey. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MS from Columbia University.