LCSW Vs Psychologist: What’s The Difference?

By Chris Kolmar - Nov. 18, 2020

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Mental health professionals are vital members of the healthcare industry. They assist their clients with mental and emotional health challenges and, as a result, can dramatically improve patients’ quality of life.

These professionals include counselors who can specialize in various fields such as marriage and family, addiction, substance abuse, or trauma, while others choose more general routes like psychology and psychiatry. Still others work in fields like social work to augment the services they provide with mental health support.

If you’re interested in helping individuals identify practical ways to work through the challenges in their lives that affect their mental health, a career as a licensed clinical social worker or psychologist might be ideal for you.

What Is an LCSW?

Licensed clinical social workers are social workers who are specifically trained to do mental health counseling.

LCSWs work with clients to help them identify the challenging aspects of their lives that affect their mental and emotional health and then walk them through finding ways to handle those challenges.

They usually do this by working to understand the individual’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as their work and home environments and the positive and negative aspects of those.

Once they get a better understanding of what is truly going on and causing the mental and emotional distress, LCSWs will then help the clients identify practical steps they can take to work through these challenges or to eliminate them altogether. They often do this in ways that utilize the clients’ natural strengths.

Since they are social work-based, LCSWs provide holistic, practical assistance to their clients. They can and will diagnose mental illnesses, but they also take into account the environmental and relational aspects of clients’ lives and provide assistance with those areas.

They also work to meet their clients’ practical needs, such as transportation to or from appointments or references for medical professionals they should meet with.

Because they aren’t medical doctors, LCSWs work closely with psychologists, psychiatrists, and other doctors to help their clients get the treatments and prescriptions they need.

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What Is a Psychologist?

Psychologists are health professionals whose studies and practice focus on human behavior and mental health.

They work with clients to overcome similar behaviors and challenges that LCSWs do, but they do so in a way that primarily focuses on the mind and its functions. They can perform testing and provide therapeutic treatments, which sometimes include counseling to improve the brain’s health.

Psychologists often work with clients over a long period of time since the battle for good mental health is often an ongoing one. This means that while they need to be interested in the field’s clinical aspects, they also need strong relational and empathetic skills.

While many psychologists work in clinical settings where they interact directly with patients, many choose to focus on researching the mind and human behavior and finding even more effective treatments for the ailments that affect them.

Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist

While the purpose of this article is to compare and contrast psychologists with LCSWs, it’s important to note the difference between psychologists and psychiatrists.

There are many nuances between the two, but the most critical distinction is that psychologists are doctors of philosophy or psychology, while psychiatrists are medical doctors. As a result, psychiatrists can prescribe medications and provide therapy, while psychologists can usually only provide therapeutic treatment.

This is another reason psychologists and LCSWs are similar, as they both provide counseling and therapy-based treatments instead of medical prescriptions.

If you’re interested in pursuing psychiatry, it’s also possible to work as a psychiatric social worker.

Differences Between an LCSW and Psychologist

When considering a career as an LCSW or a psychologist, it’s important to understand some of the key differences between the two.

  1. They approach their clients’ needs differently. While both LCSWs and psychologists work with people facing similar challenges, they approach them differently.

    Since they’re technically social workers, LCSWs, as we said before, focus on the patient’s holistic well-being and work to assist them on a practical level. This means if you’re drawn to social work, and the many ways it helps clients, becoming an LCSW may be the right path for you.

    On the other hand, psychologists take a more clinical approach to mental health. Their doctorate studies focus entirely on the mind, so their treatments will reflect that instead of focusing on the other areas of the patients’ lives as much as LCSWs do.

    Psychologists may help clients find practical ways to change their behaviors or thought patterns, but they’re mainly focused on the factors that impact their clients’ mental well-being. They can also perform tests and treat patients, which LCSWs cannot do on their own.

    Because of this, if you’re interested in studying the science behind human behavior and mental health or doing research, becoming a psychologist might be right for you.

  2. They have different schooling requirements. While most social workers only need a bachelor’s degree, LCSWs are usually required to have a master’s degree in social work, followed by more specialized training that prepares them to pass state board exams.

    Usually, this training includes two years of supervised work experience, but each state has its own requirements, so make sure you look up the ones for where you’re going to be working.

    Being a clinical psychologist, on the other hand, requires a doctorate in psychology. You can provide psychotherapy to clients or be a psychology associate with just a master’s degree. Still, if you’re going to practice in a clinical setting or become a professional researcher or professor, you’ll need a doctoral degree.

    You’ll also be required to complete an internship approved by the American Psychological Association and pass state board exams to receive your license. You may also be required to have two years of experience in the field before obtaining your license. But again, each state has different requirements.

  3. They have different career opportunities open to them. Some psychologists don’t do clinical work. Instead, they may choose to do full-time research or teach at a university.

    LCSWs, on the other hand, mainly work in clinical settings where they can work with their clients on a practical level.

  4. Their work environments can vary. Both LCSWs and psychologists can work in social service agencies and other health care centers, but LCSWs also often work in in-home health care and nursing homes, while psychologists are likely to own their own practices.

    Both can often work remotely as well, which can be beneficial to their clients, especially those who travel or have illnesses that prevent them from coming into an office.

    Each job requires a willingness to be on call and to travel (especially for LCSWs since they usually work for someone else instead of running their own offices), but this also offers relatively flexible schedules. You just have to be willing to also work unusual hours at times, since your clients’ needs don’t adhere to a typical workday schedule.

  5. Their salaries differ. As you might expect, LCSWs don’t necessarily make as much as clinical psychologists since psychologists are technically doctors.

    However, LCSWs can still make a good living, and both professions are in high demand. They will continue to be so for the foreseeable future, as there is a growing awareness of the need for mental health and a shrinking stigma about seeking out help in this area.

    LCSWs make an average of $60,000 per year, while psychologists earn an average of about $100,000 per year, but this depends on your location and work experience.

    As with any career, you should also keep in mind the costs of tuition and schooling for different jobs when you look at future salaries to be sure it’s worth it to you.

Final Thoughts

To help you further clarify the similarities and differences between LCSWs and psychologists, here are summaries of both:

  • Similarities

    • Both can provide counseling.

    • Both work to help clients improve their mental well-being.

    • Both can work in both social service agencies and other health care centers.

    • Both can diagnose mental illnesses.

    • Both need good relational skills to connect and empathize with clients.

    • Both have to pass state board exams in order to practice.

    • Both need hands-on experience in order to become certified.

    • Both can work in the field in some capacity with just a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

    • Both fields have strong projected growth.

  • Differences

    • LCSWs have a background in social work, while psychologists are usually only trained in psychology.

    • Psychologists can prescribe non-medical treatment and perform tests, while LCSWs work closely with medical professionals to get their clients the treatment they need.

    • LCSWs work to provide holistic assistance to their clients by providing support for their physical, mental, and emotional needs, while psychologists focus mainly on their clients’ mental health.

    • Psychologists can have a career studying mental health as well as treating patients, while LCSWs mainly work on the practical level.

    • LCSWs often find jobs in nursing homes and in-home care centers to assist the elderly, while psychologists often have their own practices.

    • Psychologists need to have a doctorate in psychology to practice clinically, while LCSWs need a master’s in social work.

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Chris Kolmar


Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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