Individuals looking for help during a time of crisis often call their health insurance providers who, in turn, ask them to choose between a social worker with a master's degree and a psychologist. While there is considerable overlap between the two professions, learning the fundamental differences will help you to make one decision easier at a time when your life seems like it's falling apart.
Years of School
Although there are exceptions, psychologists tend to have more education than do MSWs, and are likely to have completed more practicum hours. A psychologist, who typically has a doctoral degree, has completed a five or six year program, with between 1,000 and 2,500 hours of "hand's on" experience working with clients in a variety of settings. An MSW has completed a master's degree, which takes about two or three years, with one or two semesters of field work.
Focus of Work
Psychologists tend to focus their practice on the diagnosis, assessment and treatment of the seriously mentally ill. The 2010 Bureau of Labor Statistics report indicates that, unless they have a clinical specialty, social workers tend to work in direct care, helping people "solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives." MSWs are experts on pairing people with community resources. While many psychologists have specific expertise in administering and interpreting psychological tests, MSWs generally do not.
While both psychologists and MSWs must complete an ethics examination, licensing test and pass a background check, psychologists tend to have more stringent licensing requirements than do MSWs. In Minnesota, for example, there are four levels of licensure for MSWs. Licensed Graduate Social Workers do not have to complete any period of clinical supervision prior to getting their licenses, while Licensed Independent Social Workers must complete 100 hours. Licensed Independent Clinical Social Workers must complete 200 hours. Licensed Psychologists complete 2,000 hours of supervision before they are allowed to practice.
While there is considerable overlap between work settings, LPs tend to work more independently and with more flexible hours than do MSWs because about 34 percent are self-employed, according to the 2010 BLS report. Social workers, by contrast, tend to work in settings including hospitals and clinics, nursing homes, community mental health clinics, schools and hospitals. They frequently work weekends and holidays to accommodate clients' schedules. The median salary of LPs in 2010 was $68,640, according to the BLS, while the median salary of an LSW was $42,480.
- Psych Central: Distinctions Between Therapist Degrees
- Beth Isreal Deaconess Medical Center: Mental Health Practitioners: Who’s Who?
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Social Workers
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Psychologists
- University of Michigan: MSW program
- University of Pennsylvania: Psychology Department Information for Applicants
- Minnesota Board of Psychology: Licensure Check List - Revised 2008
- State of Minnesota Board of Social Work: A Student's Guide to Licensing in Minnesota
Brenda Scottsdale is a licensed psychologist, a six sigma master black belt and a certified aerobics instructor. She has been writing professionally for more than 15 years in scientific journals, including the "Journal of Criminal Justice and Behavior" and various websites.