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Psychology vs. Social Work: How Are These Fields Different?

Written by: Wilson College   •  Jan 9, 2024
A mental health counselor meets with a patient.

Psychology vs. Social Work: How Are These Fields Different?

Individuals who are drawn to a career that aims to improve the lives of others often gravitate toward social work, psychology, or both. Despite these fields overlapping in their overall goals of assisting people, their methods and focus differ.

Social work focuses on the external circumstances that affect people’s lives by offering holistic support and connecting clients with helpful resources. External circumstances may involve poverty, conditions with home or family, struggling with mental health issues or addiction, or any number of other factors. On the other hand, psychology professionals help patients directly by learning about the brain and human behavior and treating mental illnesses through therapy and medication.

Understanding the differences between psychology vs. social work is critical when choosing the right degree program. As education is a critical step for pursuing careers in both fields, interested individuals should consider the benefits of each degree program in helping achieve their career goals.

What Is a Psychology Degree?

A bachelor’s degree in psychology is an undergraduate degree focused on preparing students for a career or continued education of the fundamentals of human behavior and brain function. An undergraduate psychology degree can be either a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.). A B.A. in psychology offers a more holistic coverage of the psychology field, covering general courses outside of the major such as humanities and sociology. A B.S. in psychology prioritizes the technical aspects of the major, offering greater depth but without as much focus on subjects outside of the field. 

For example, those only looking to focus on technical or medical psychology roles may prefer a B.S., but those looking to gain a broader understanding of psychology and potentially pursue roles in teaching, organizing, or management, may prefer a B.A.

For many careers, a bachelor’s in psychology is a critical first step. For example, both psychologists and psychiatrists require pursuing a graduate degree after completing a bachelor’s program.

What Will I Learn in a Bachelor’s in Psychology Program?

Most bachelor’s in psychology programs will offer courses covering areas of human behavior, research methods, the history of psychology, and social psychology. In a B.A. program, courses may include a variety of optional electives or additional required courses outside of the major, such as sociology, healthcare, and small business management.

How Long Does It Take to Earn a Bachelor’s in Psychology Degree?

A bachelor’s in psychology typically takes around four years to complete. Some programs may offer accelerated tracks or to transfer credits from previous education that allow students to complete their undergraduate education faster.

What Is a Social Work Degree?

A bachelor’s in social work is an undergraduate degree focusing on foundational knowledge involving social work, giving students an opportunity to learn the fundamentals of the human condition. 

Courses typically cover subjects involving ethics, sociology, and social justice. Programs often teach how to better understand, empathize, and provide resources for people experiencing challenges such as poverty, addiction, or domestic violence. 

What Will I Learn in a Bachelor’s in Social Work Program?

A bachelor’s in social work typically covers the profession’s fundamental aspects, including social work theory, the history of human rights, human behavior, sociology, and psychology. These aspects can help lead to an entry-level career in the social work field or as the first step toward becoming a licensed social worker (LSW).

How Long Does It Take to Earn a Bachelor’s in Social Work Degree?

A bachelor’s in social work can be completed in around four years, typical of most undergraduate degrees. Some programs may offer means to complete the program in a shorter time, through accelerated courses or by applying transfer credits from an accredited institution.

Psychology vs. Social Work Careers and Salaries

Determining what career path is most appealing can be a determining factor when deciding on a degree option between psychology vs. social work. 

Bachelor’s degrees provide key foundational knowledge that can lead to pursuing advanced education for more technical careers. While the career outcomes for students pursuing either psychology or social work degrees may overlap, both programs give students a variety of opportunities. Here are a few careers that each degree can support through the knowledge and skills they offer.

What Can You Do with a Psychology Degree?

Many who earn a psychology degree go on to become psychologists or psychiatrists, but these careers may require additional advanced education. There are several alternative careers for psychology majors that don’t require the same level of education, and may align better with their personal interests and career goals. Here are a few careers a psychology degree can lead toward.

Mental Health Counselor

Mental health counselors help treat individuals and groups who present with various mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and stress. They work with their clients to help develop treatments tailored to specific needs. This may include recommending psychotherapy, providing referrals to social assistance or other professionals, and educating clients about how to manage their mental health. Mental health counselors may work with individuals and families or focus on specific demographics, such as children or young adults. 

The median annual salary for mental health counselors was $49,710, as of May 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Market Research Analyst

Market research analysts use their understanding of human behavior and marketing strategy to analyze and predict consumer purchasing trends. They work with companies to help them tailor their products and marketing campaigns to be most receptive. The median annual salary for market research analysts was $68,230 as of May 2022, according to the BLS.

What Can You Do with a Social Work Degree?

Social work degrees can lead to a variety of career options. While licensed social workers require additional advanced education, there are plenty of options for those who only seek a bachelor’s degree. Here are a few careers worth considering after completing a social work degree program.

Social Worker

Social workers work with individuals, groups, or larger communities to help educate, counsel, and provide resources for those experiencing various challenges such as trauma, disability, poverty, addiction, and other causes of inequity. They counsel their clients on an individual basis, looking at their specific living situations to best understand their needs. They also offer holistic care, often working with other professionals and specialists to provide the best care. Additionally, they regularly offer education and resources. The median annual salary for social workers was $61,420 as of May 2022, according to the BLS.

Healthcare Social Worker

Healthcare social workers provide counseling to help patients who are facing medical issues and trauma caused by chronic, acute, or terminal illnesses. They work with patients and their families to educate, create healthcare plans, help manage treatments, or provide resources. Healthcare social workers perform in environments such as hospitals, hospice care centers, residential care facilities, or private practice. The BLS reports healthcare social workers earned a median annual salary of $60,280 as of May 2022. 

Follow Your Career Goals

There is overlap regarding psychology vs. social work careers, with both serving to better understand people to improve communities and organizations. If you find seeking to understand human behavior and the brain appealing, consider the benefits of the Wilson College Online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology program.

The curriculum helps you study the basics of psychology and human behavior, helping you understand why people make certain decisions. Learn different research methods and how to apply findings to real-world scenarios while maintaining a highly ethical approach. As an online program, courses can be completed asynchronously and on your own schedule, allowing you to choose to learn when it fits your availability.

Discover what path you’ll take on your career journey with Wilson College Online.

Recommended Readings

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How to Be a Successful Entrepreneur

Online Therapy vs. In-Person Therapy

Sources:

Indeed, “6 Steps for How To Become a Clinical Social Worker”

Indeed, “How to Choose Between a B.A. and B.S. Degree”

Indeed, “Psychology Degrees: Definition, Types and Specialties”

Indeed, “Should I Be a Social Worker or Psychologist? 6 Things to Consider”

National Association of Social Workers, “Types of Social Work Degrees”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Healthcare Social Workers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Human Resources Specialists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Market Research Analysts

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

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