You want to be an advocate for others, helping them with the problems in their lives and offering steps of advice, encouragement, and treatment.

Do you choose a career in counseling, clinical psychology, or social work?

While there is overlap among these professions, each has distinct educational and licensure requirements and offers unique career opportunities. Here’s a comparison of the three fields, including licensure requirements and potential careers.

Clinical Psychology, Counseling, and Social Work: Similarities

The three main similarities between these fields are:

  • Each field has state licensure requirements.
  • Professionals in all three fields are trained to help others and offer psychotherapy.
  • All three professions assess, diagnose, and provide treatment to diverse populations.

As the similarities suggest, there can be various levels of overlap and collaboration between the fields depending on the type of clients and situations professionals find themselves in. But before jumping into those examples of collaboration, it’s important to understand the differences between the three areas.

Clinical Psychology, Counseling, and Social Work: Differences

Clinical Psychology

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 whether on an individual, group, or organizational level.

Licensure Requirements

All states require a doctoral degree in psychology that meets specific requirements from a regionally accredited university. Many states require that the doctoral degree holds American Psychological Association accreditation.

In addition to a qualifying degree, all states in the U.S. whose boards 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.

Potential Careers

Psychologists work in varied disciplines and specializations including:

  • Addiction psychology
  • Clinical psychology
  • Developmental psychology
  • Educational psychology
  • School psychology*


Counseling focuses on the prevention or treatment of a specific problem for individuals, couples, or families. Counselors help clients adapt to their environments, and can be found in specific work settings such as schools, clinics, or government agencies.

Licensure Requirements

Each state provides its own counseling licensure requirements, as well as requirements for which accredited graduate education programs will be accepted as part of the licensure process. Such 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).

Professional certifications and counseling specializations are also available, though not required. This provides a professional designation but does not grant authority to practice in any state. 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, and an overview of the differences in counseling license requirements and professional certifications.

Potential Careers

Counselors are mental health service providers who have obtained a graduate level degree (MS) in areas of:

  • Addiction counseling
  • Clinical mental health or community agency counseling
  • Marriage, couple, and family counseling
  • School counseling*
  • Gerontological counseling
  • Counselor education and supervision

Social Work

Social work improves the well being of individuals and communities through intervention, advocacy, and practice. In addition to individual therapy, social workers may also spend time working to adapt work, school, or home environments to improve a client’s prospects.

Licensure Requirements

For master’s level or clinical social work license, 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.* offers a list of social work license requirements by state. Once you have completed a BSW or MSW in social work and completed all required professional experiences as outlined by the state, then you may apply for your social work license.

Potential Careers

  • Child, family, or school case management*
  • Mental health
  • Public health
  • Human services

*Capella University’s Master of Social Work programs are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education’s Commission on Accreditation

Clinical Psychology, Counseling, and Social Work: Collaboration

Collaboration is often an integral part of any type of counseling work. One way to understand the importance of collaboration between the three areas is to apply it to a particular health issue, such as school-based mental health*.

For example, an individual student may be having trouble in class—low grades, difficulties concentrating, and a hard time connecting with friends. The student’s school counselor may be the first point of contact, meeting with the student, providing guidance, and deducing what the underlying causes might be for the troubles. It may turn out that the counselor suspects the student suffers from a mental health disorder, at which point the counselor may reach out to the school psychologist for additional support and diagnosis. In addition to this outreach, the counselor may solicit the partnership of a social worker to work with the student’s family for additional support.

Each of the three professionals in this situation brings different levels of expertise to the situation and are able to provide a comprehensive plan for treatment and follow up.

Research to Support Your Career

Because each of these three fields is intertwined and provides varying types of collaboration depending on geographic regions, you’ll want to further evaluate which path suits you.

The American Counseling Association (ACA), American Psychological Association (APA), and National Association of Social Workers (NASW) all provide information, mission statements, and codes of ethics for their respective fields. Spend time on these sites to see if what they support is in line with your career goals and ambitions.

Learn more about degree programs and potential careers in clinical psychology, social work, and counseling.  

*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.