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Difference Between a Counselor and Social Worker

Counselors and social workers are two related but distinct professionals who provide human services. They have a wide array of job descriptions and work settings that often overlap as both counselors and social workers are concerned with helping clients obtain optimum psychosocial functioning. Their clients, the communities and other professionals they work with, and the issues they work on are also the same. Both professions are regulated, requiring a degree and license to practice, although minimum requirements differ across nations and within countries.

This article limits the definition of what a counselor and what a social worker is not only by what they do, but more importantly by the training they undergo and their objectives. This is in order to exclude psychiatrists and psychologists, as well as priests, and philanthropists – because they all do counseling and social work. The differences between the two professionals therefore lie within the definitions; what they do, what education and training they undergo, and what their goals are. These two professionals and their differences are discussed further in the following.


Who Is a Counselor?

A counselor is a professional who works directly with their clients to help them deal with problems in living, accomplish mental health and well-being, or to help them achieve their goals in education and career. The main goal of a counselor is to help clients gain the optimal level of mental and emotional health.

Counselors undergo intensive training under supervision as they complete a Master in Counseling degree. There are also doctorate programs for counselors who want to further their education and training. During training, they learn therapeutic techniques such as marriage and couple’s therapy, family therapy, rehabilitation and vocational guidance, and so on. These techniques are often mistaken for psychotherapy. There are distinctions although counselors may also be trained in some forms of psychotherapy.

Counselors work with a wide variety of issues ranging from mental health to education, career, and development. As such, counselors often specialize. For example, mental health counselors are the ones who are commonly called as “counselors” and those in the school settings are the ones who are commonly called “guidance counselors”. Counselors also work in various settings such as hospital and clinics, schools, and government or military institutions; much the same as social workers. A distinct work setting though is private practice, which is common among counselors.

Training programs and practitioners are accredited and regulated by governing bodies in their respective countries or states. For example, the United States has the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), while the American Counseling Association (ACA) is just one of the membership bodies. The United Kingdom has the British Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy (BACP) and the world has the International Association for Counselling (IAC).


Who is a Social Worker?

A social worker is a professional who provides or helps clients gain access to social services. The main goal of a social worker is to specifically help the client function well in the social context and generally to facilitate and effect social change.

A social worker needs to have at least a Bachelor of Social Work degree or an accredited equivalent in order to practice generalist or entry level social work. Social workers may undergo further education and training in a Master of Social Work degree in order to specialize and practice advanced social work. Some specializations a social worker might undertake are community organization, administration, planning, research, or a field of practice such as child welfare or medical social work. One specialization of a social worker is the direct service, also called clinical social work. This specialization is similar to that of a counselor as a clinical social worker is trained and licensed to provide counseling in addition to the other duties of a social worker.

A social worker works with much the same issues as a counselor and in much the same settings. However, social workers, even clinical social workers usually refer clients to other professionals or to other institutions as needed. Social workers do not do private practice as they need to be in touch with other institutions and professionals that provide services that a client might need. Social workers also often do field work. They might go to poor communities or even war zones.

Social workers also have their own governing bodies. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the accrediting body for course programs in the United States while the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) is their main professional organization. The United Kingdom has the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and the world has the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) and the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW).


Difference between a Counselor and a Social Worker


A counselor is a professional who helps clients obtain optimum mental health and wellness, and achieve educational and career goals. A social worker is a professional who provides clients, or helps clients gain access to social services.

Educational Requirement

A counselor undergoes training through a Master in Counseling degree. A social worker has at least a Bachelor of Social Work to practice generalist or entry level social work, a Master of Social Work degree to practice advanced and specialized social work.

Main Objective

The main objective of a counselor is to achieve their clients’ mental health and life goals. A social worker’s main goal is to help clients become socially functional as well as to effect social change.

Job Description

A counselor does advanced counseling and therapy while a social worker provides or connects clients to social services.

Some Specializations

Examples of specialized counselors are mental health counselors and guidance counselors. Some specialized social workers are clinical social workers and social work administration.

Work Settings

Although counselors and social workers share many work settings, a key difference is that a counselor may engage in private practice while a social worker does not.

Associations and Governing Bodies

Counselors are accredited and regulated by governing bodies such as the CACREP, ACA, BACP, and the IAC while social workers have the CSWE, NASW, BASW, IFSW, and the IASSW.

Counselor vs Social Worker



  • Counselors and social workers are human service professionals who have the same clients, share basic job descriptions and work settings, and are both regulated professionals.
  • Counselors focus mainly on psychological functioning while social workers focus on social functioning with the added goal of effecting social change.
  • Counselors need to have a Master in Counseling degree in order to practice while social workers need to have a Bachelor of Social Work degree in order to practice generalist social work and a Master of Social Work degree in order to practice advanced social work or to specialize.
  • Counselors and social workers are regulated professionals in order to ensure the quality of the services they provide.


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  1. This information is not completly accurate. Social Workers are also therapist and can have a private practice just as a Licensed Professional Counselor. A Master Level Social Worker who is an LMSW or an LCSW, Licensed Clinical Social Worker can and do practice in the mental health setting. You can go to psychology today and see many social workers listed that provide therapeutic services. During graduate school students are trained in mental health, diagnosis, therapy group techniques, and individual therapy techniques. Yes they do link people to social services but that is a small part of what social workers do.

  2. This information is wildly inaccurate! With an LMSW you ARE licensed to diagnose mental illness, provide psychotherapy and bill Medicaid. With an LCSW you are licensed to provide therapeutic severices and bill private insurance. Poorly written article. No wonder society believes social workers are burnt out like Mariah Careys character in “Precious” and that they just “take peoples kids away”

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References :

[0]Image credit: https://live.staticflickr.com/268/19664890044_8a55a33f2e_b.jpg

[1]Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dasari_swapnamahesh_social_worker.jpg

[2]Ambrosino, Rosalie, Robert Ambrosino, Joseph Heffernan, and Guy Shuttlesworth. Social Work and Social Welfare: An Introduction, Sixth Edition. Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole, 2008. Print.

[3]Childs, Brian. "Social Work Vs Counseling: Which Degree Is Right For You?" Social Work License Map. April 24, 2012. https://socialworklicensemap.com/social-work-vs-counseling/ (accessed October 2, 2019).

[4]McLeod, John. An Introduction to Counseling Fifth Edition. New York, NY: McGraw- Hill Education, 2013. Print.

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