Masters in Psychology vs. Masters in Social Work
November 28, 2021 10:23 AM   Subscribe

I am a 58 yo male planning on going back to get my Masters in either Psychology or Social Work. I'd like some feedback re: the + and - of each. Some basics I've learned so far from a friend....

Psychology - M.F.T., More fun in getting degree, less insurance options, less work options/flexibility, more

Social Work - L.C.S.W., , More work in getting degree, better insurance coverage, more work options/flexibility

I am looking for a program in the Cal State system. Is there a benefit to looking into a college like Antioch (subtracting out tuition costs)

I prefer the M.F.T. degree. It interests me more and I feel I am best suited it. My friend emphasizes the LCSW degree as it allows for more work flexibility and financial stability.

Any other random suggestions and advice appreciated...
posted by goalyeehah to Education (9 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a BSW/MSW/LCSW. Your MSW field placeent will be 900 hours of unpaid work. Then LCSW is an additional 3000 hours in California. Licensure was a 2 year process with about $1500 in associated costs and would have cost an additional $10,000 for supervision if my employer hadn't covered it. I chose social work over psychology because I was more interested in the macro and mezzo aspects--program development, resource sharing, etc. I'll likely never do exclusively therapy--I want just a sprinkling of direct therapeutic work. This is perfect for me; I would not have been as happy or as well-suited to being a psychologist or MFT. That said, there are LCSWs who do exclusively therapy.
Pro: You will likely have more job flexibility in CA with just the MSW than with just the Masters in Psychology. Since there's no masters-level license for social workers, just the whole LCSW enchilada, there are lots of jobs that don't require licensure.
Con: Will these be jobs you enjoy or are well-suited to? You can't do therapy without the LCSW and you won't be able to get that until at least 2 years after you finish your Masters program, so with admin and life-happening-time, you're looking at 5 years at least until you can do that.

If the psychology and therapy aspects are what drives you, if you feel you're more interested in the MFT that. This is a career path where listening to yourself is important, so start with this choice.

As far as programs, both the MSW and the couseling (clinical psychology) programs at San Jose State have been highly recomended by friends and colleagues. Also have known folks who attended CSU Hayward and Humboldt State. All three are CSUs, all have distance programs now I believe.
posted by assenav at 10:39 AM on November 28, 2021

Another pro I forgot til now--I'm not sure if this is true for psychology programs as well, but in my MSW program there were a lot of older/non-traditional students. I don't think any of us had done a direct undergrad-to-grad-school route, and a lot of folks were in their 50s and making career shifts. This was also a part-time/online program which I'm sure increased that likelihood, but many of my colleagues have shared that this was true for them in more traditional programs as well.
posted by assenav at 10:45 AM on November 28, 2021

This is a hot debate where I am because generally counselors generally get better training in doing therapy, while a chunk of the training for an SW is in navigating the welfare system. Things may be different legally in CA.

Here in the East, SWs are an older job title and the profession has more clout. That means SWs can section, and counselors can’t. SWs can take Medicare, and counselors can’t. In real life this means that it’s hard to go up the ranks as a counselor. There are lots of doctorate and SW CEOs, and basically no counselors at that top tier. It also means it’s harder just to get a job overall, but the sheer desperation for MH workers has rendered this negligible except at places like the VA.

FWIW, I knew about this issue before choosing my own degree, and I went the counseling route—in part because I may go back for my doctorate some day, and it’s a straight line from my masters program.

Most social workers who want to improve their clinical competence over time can eventually get just as good as a counselor, but in my experience, I’d say I’m years ahead of most comparative SWs I’ve worked alongside, and they will probably not catch up unless they do some serious extra training.

Honestly, I expect more parity soon as our govt is frantically trying to get more MH specialists in agencies, but most counselors I know are doing just fine on their own and see no major reason to go work for less money where they’re seen as second class.

Tl,dr; if you want to climb the mental health agency corporate ladder, or you want to work with the elderly, get a SW. If you want to be a good clinician and intend to do private practice and don’t care about Medicare, get a counseling degree.
posted by executive_dysfuncti0n at 10:48 AM on November 28, 2021

If you ever think you may move from California, the MFT is not used at near the same level outside of the west coast. It's around, but just not nearly at the same popularity. You also would need to consider transferability of the license too. From what I hear, transferring out of CA with an LCSW is relatively easy because the requirements for licensure are some of the highest in the nation.

I'm very happy with my LCSW and it's flexibility. But I'm also not doing individual therapy at the moment.
posted by AlexiaSky at 12:53 PM on November 28, 2021

I'm an (relatively young in my career) LMFT in CA, and have never regretted choosing the MFT track. In my experience so far, a lot of the conversation around an MFT license being less flexible or less easy to make a career with has been overblown or outdated. Covid changed the field in ways that are still being explored, but since March of 2020 I've been running a full-time private practice from my home over telehealth, and I've never been more in demand. Most therapists in my area are LMFTs, and I know a handful who have successfully moved states with their licenses. My impression is that it is best to move states either immediately after graduation, before you start accruing hours, or after you are licensed. If you move partway through accruing hours, it is possible you could lose some of them based on the licensing process in the state you move to.

The licensing process is long and expensive (mostly because your income will be low). Many people rely on their partner's income during these few years, and the people I knew who did it single and/or raising young kids tended to take a little longer to finish because they needed associateships that paid well or time to have another job. From the beginning of grad school until licensure took me a few months shy of 5 years, which in my circle was about average. I did agency work my entire training, and moved into private practice soon after licensure (sooner than expected due to a several factors). I take CenCal, but no other insurance and find it a good balance. My schedule is incredibly flexible, my overhead is low, and after years of agency work I honestly can't believe how easy things are.

There is so much more that I could say about this process, but I honestly think that if this is work you enjoy and find meaningful, you will end up in the same place no matter which degree you get. Make the choice that creates a smoother path towards licensure so that you can enjoy life along the way!
posted by Otis the Lion at 2:32 PM on November 28, 2021

Great discussion - I'm Ph.D. in the clinical field, but teaching BA and BS students who have these same questions. I don't have much to add, other than to say there are other masters-levels clinical degrees in California
(See the BBS for details)

Important: if you want to get licensed in X, make sure your graduate program will prepare you for X.
posted by soylent00FF00 at 6:19 PM on November 28, 2021

Also, I failed to address a bit part of your question, which is "I am a 58 yo male planning on going back".

Society needs more helpers, so I applaud you for this. And if you are going to go back as a "non-traditional" (read "old") student, doing a relatively short degree is smart as hell.

Many masters programs will like you, as long as you can present yourself with wisdom and maturity - this will give you an advantage over teh 20-year olds applying. It's not fair, but it's true.

All graduate programs want applicants to have a compelling life story - take care to spin your situation appropriately. It would be much better to say "I'm old, but in 3 years, I can see myself having _____ (specific job) working with ____ (specific population) and making a big difference" - If you approach it like "I'm not sure, thinking about changes, not sure what I want to do" I think that won't go over well at all.
posted by soylent00FF00 at 6:25 PM on November 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

I got my MSW at a program with an emphasis on clinical training. I loved it. I’m now in private practice. Based on my interactions with fellow therapists with a variety of educational backgrounds and licenses, I have to say… I don’t know that there’s a compelling reason to get a social work degree if you don’t want one. I have yet to meet a non-social worker whose career was hindered by their choice of MFT/LPC/etc. Grad school is a lot of work, it’s expensive, and it’s stressful. If you’re excited about a program and it’s accredited, do that. Talk to graduates of the program if you’re worried about unforeseen downsides. But don’t do a grad program you’re not excited about.
posted by theotherdurassister at 11:36 AM on November 29, 2021

One thing I'd suggest right off the bat is to not factor out tuition costs, especially if you go the social work route. Social workers are undervalued and underpaid and you should pay as little as possible for your degree. School prestige is not a thing in hiring and a lot of your education will be in your placements.

Addressing a response marked by impressive bias and self-regard:

Most social workers who want to improve their clinical competence over time can eventually get just as good as a counselor, but in my experience, I’d say I’m years ahead of most comparative SWs I’ve worked alongside, and they will probably not catch up unless they do some serious extra training.

I might edit this a teeny bit to say "Most psychologists who want to improve their clinical competence over time can eventually get just as good as a social worker, but in my experience, they will probably not catch up unless they spend years dealing with people's range of life experiences in a substantial way and get outside the 'brain=box of tinker toys' model."

But if you think the DSM is a sort of scripture of human experience, definitely bypass MSW programs. Mine had plenty of coursework in various therapeutic modalities but they were probably really dumbed down for people like me.
posted by less-of-course at 11:55 AM on November 30, 2021

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