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You want to be an advocate for others by helping them with their problems and offering steps of support, encouragement, and treatment.
So which career path is the right choice—counseling, clinical psychology, or social work?
While these professions overlap in some ways, each has specific educational and licensure requirements—and each offers varied career opportunities. Here’s a comparison of the three fields, including licensure requirements and potential career paths.
How clinical psychology, counseling, and social work are different
What makes each of these fields unique?
Psychologists hold a PhD or PsyD and treat people with mental and emotional problems. They also study and encourage behaviors that build wellness and emotional resilience on an individual, group, or organizational level.
All states require a doctoral degree in psychology that meets specific coursework and clinical training requirements and is conferred by a regionally accredited university. Many states also require that the university has American Psychological Association accreditation.
In addition to a qualifying degree, all states in the U.S. whose boards of psychology are members of the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB) require applicants to pass the Examination for the Professional Practice of Psychology (EPPP), developed by ASPPB. The American Psychological Association provides an overview of what you need to know to get licensed.
Counseling focuses on preventing or treating specific mental, emotional, and relational problems for individuals, couples, or families and can be found in specific work settings such as schools, clinics, or government agencies.
Counseling professionals have obtained a graduate level degree (MS). Each state provides its own licensure requirements for each of the specializations in the field, as well as requirements for which accredited graduate education programs will be accepted as part of the licensure process. Accrediting bodies include the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) and the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) and school counseling accreditation in the EPP accredited through the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP).
Professional certifications and counseling specializations are also available, though not required. These provide professional designations, but do not grant authority to practice in any state. For example, the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) and the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC) both provide certifications for counseling professionals.
The American Counseling Association provides links to state licensure boards, professional associations, and certification organizations—plus an overview of the differences in counseling license requirements and professional certifications.
Additional valuable associations
Although these groups do not provide licensing and accreditation themselves, they’re excellent resources for continuing education, information about licensing, networking, and employment information.
The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) has a model for license portability, which is the process of applying to have licensure from one state accepted in another. AAMFT also has a robust slate of continuing education online courses and webinars, as well as an annual conference focused on marriage and family therapists.
The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) offers local and national professional development opportunities and partners with other organizations to train members in ethics and career counseling, among other topics. Network and career resources are available, and the group is also involved in advocacy.
Social work improves the wellbeing of individuals and communities through intervention, advocacy, and practice. In addition to individual therapy, social workers may also spend time helping to adapt work, school, or home environments to improve a client’s prospects.
Social workers may hold various levels of licensure that allow them to work with clients in different ways. For master’s-level or clinical social work licensure, which allows a social worker to provide therapy or counseling services, a master’s degree from a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)-accredited program is required.
The Association of Social Work Boards offers a list of social work license requirements by state. After earning a CSWE-accredited master of social work (MSW) and completing all required professional experiences as outlined by the state, one may apply for a social work license.
How clinical psychology, counseling, and social work are similar
What do these professions have in common?
As the similarities show, there can be many levels of overlap and collaboration between the fields depending on the type of clients and situations professionals encounter. Let’s explore the areas of commonality.
How they work together: collaboration between clinical psychology, counseling, and social work
Even though collaborations between these three fields can take many forms, an umbrella theme is the concept of teamwork. Clinical psychologists, counselors, and social workers have complementary areas of expertise, and professionals in all three fields work together to help the client. This integrated behavioral health approach is different from previous generations, where one specialist would hand off the client to another, who might then hand off again. With an integrated approach, the specialists work in tandem to address the client’s situation.
Which field is right for you? Explore resources to support your career choice
Because these three fields are similar and offer a variety of opportunities for collaboration, it’s important to carefully evaluate which path suits you best before you proceed to choose one. Here are some resources to help:
Each of these organizations provides information, mission statements, and codes of ethics for their respective fields. Spend time on these sites to see which career path is in line with your goals.
*Note that in almost all states, in order to work as a school counselor, school psychologist, or school social worker, you must be appropriately licensed or certified by the state department of education or equivalent agency. In order to earn this type of license or certification, you generally must complete a state-approved graduate program for preparation in that role.
Multiple factors, including prior experience, geography, and degree field, affect career outcomes, and Capella does not guarantee a job, promotion, salary increase, or other career growth.