Master of Social Work’s Brian Rzepczynski reflects on differences between clinical social work and clinical psychology

Brian Rzepczynski of UNE’s Master of Social Work online program
Brian Rzepczynski of UNE’s Master of Social Work online program

UNE Master of Social Work Admissions are frequently asked by potential students what the differences are between clinic social work and clinical psychology.

Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) and clinical counselors (LCPCs) and psychologists have very similar goals in that they all help patients with behavioral disorders, mental illnesses, and personal problems. All are qualified to diagnose these conditions through patient evaluation and offer treatments such as counseling and behavioral modification programs. They all strive to help their patients achieve their greatest overall well-being through clinical assessments and treatments.

However, there are some significant differences in the ideology embraced by licensed clinical social workers versus clinical counselors and psychologists. Social work is deeply rooted in social advocacy. Whether it be individual, group, community, or family work, social work combines clinical knowledge with a strong focus on person-in-environment. This means that social workers pay careful attention to external factors that contribute to a specific set of problems, mental health disorders, community challenges, and treatments, and they applly a strength-based approach to the clients and systems they serve.

Psychologists and licensed counselors place a stronger focus on individual psychological assessment/intervention with heightened attention paid toward a specific set of problems/mental health disorders and evidence-based treatment. 

We recently discussed this topic with Brian Rzepczynski, M.S.W., D.H.S., LCSW, who teaches in UNE’s Master of Social Work online program and runs his own private therapy practice in Aurora, Illinois.

Do you think there is a lot of confusion among potential students when it comes to the difference between clinical social work and clinical psychology?

Very much so. In fact, I struggled with it myself when I went to graduate school and was trying to decide which track to pursue. They are similar in a lot of ways, but the primary difference between the two is the theoretical lens. Psychology is more focused on the individual, the mind, and emotions of the individual. Social work is more focused on the person and their environment, taking into account micro, macro, and mezzo systems. It is more of a holistic, multidimensional approach to working with an individual, whereas psychology is more focused on individual behavior, personality, and development.

What advice do you give potential students who are trying to decide which field to go into?

A lot of students I've spoken with know that they want to help people and want to do clinical work. There are so many different options, and because psychology and social work are similar in their missions in terms of helping people, students can get confused. They really do not have much exposure or know a whole lot about different theories that exist prior to their education. That makes it difficult to create their own clinical philosophy to assist with this decision-making. So, I think being able to counsel and coach students in the differences between the two and help them do their due diligence to make a good decision is important.

Are there are some things that they can do with one degree compared to the other?

The big difference is that if you take the psychology track you are able to perform psychological testing, whereas social workers cannot. However, opportunities are more expansive in social work because of its holistic approach. So, there are a lot of different job pathways that you can take. I tend to be more of an advocate for social work because my theoretical orientation is person-in-environment. As a social worker, I am admittedly biased. However I believe there are so many more job opportunities and possibilities available to someone through social work as opposed to psychology, such as case management, psychotherapy, administration, policy development, advocacy work, etc.

Both social work and psychology require a graduate level degree, field experience, and state licensing. UNE offers two program options for social work, a traditional face-to-face on campus experience and a completely online program that can be completed from anywhere in the world. Both are designed to be flexible for students with a busy schedule.

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