Should I get an MA in Counseling or a really expensive MSW?
July 5, 2006 12:14 PM   Subscribe

Should I get an MA in Counseling or spring for the super expensive MSW?

I tried an MSW program at an Ivy League-ish university right out of college and felt disappointed in the intellectual caliber of my classmates, so I dropped out and switched my studies to communications. I work in marketing now (after my MA) and no longer like working on the ideas of things without following through with grassroots implementation of that idea.

Now I realize that not everyone is perfect and grad school is not like undergrad, so I'm willing to give it another try. But the MSW program here costs more than $40K a year and an MA in Counseling program at the local university will, in total, costs less than $10K.

I would like to attend a local MSW or MA Counseling program (I now live in DC), but the cost is depressing for the former.

I would like to work in a school setting with kids and adolescents with academic problems. I'd also like to do it on the cheap part time. Should I just go with the MA in Counseling program? I would also like to work on research on the side.
posted by onepapertiger to Education (13 answers total)
Hi, I'm an MSW who got mine while I was living in DC, although not in DC.

The short answer is that I'd go with the MSW. It's a much more flexible degree, with many more job possibilities. It also, and here my bias is blatant, does a better job, I think, of situating the person in the environment, and since extra-therpuetic changes account for the bulk of people in mental distress getting better, is, I think, a better degree for counseling.

That said, social work schools are professional schools with all of the drawbacks that that entails, chief among them a lack of intellectual curiosity in many of the students and even professors. In addition, social work itself is in a strange position as a profession, on the one hand relying on unjustified and mushy concepts like trauma to explain too much, and on the other hand ceding authority to the unjustified and mushy concepts of other disciplines (like biological psychiatry) which conflict with the basic evidence actually done into psychotherapy. I think that being an intellectually engaged social work student is a bit of a trial.

(I'm not at all convinced that being an intellectually engaged counseling student is any easier, however.)

My email is in my profile if you have any further or more specific questions. I know some things about the social work community around the DC/Baltimore area.
posted by OmieWise at 12:29 PM on July 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

The Master's program I'm considering for counseling also offers a specialization for school counseling. Do you have that option available to you, or would it be a general all-encompassing counseling program?
posted by occhiblu at 1:26 PM on July 5, 2006

You don't get paid much with a MSW, so you may be better off economically with the MS.
posted by radioamy at 1:53 PM on July 5, 2006

I hate to make it sound like something other than money might actually matter, but I think the bigger question is ultimately more simple: can you get the job(s) you want with the MA, or do you need an MSW to do it? You admit that you feel like you already made a mistake once when you first gave up the MSW, and thus had to spend some years doing something else. Don't make a similar mistake now, by deciding on the degree based on money alone and end up either a) finding out you need to get the MSW after all, and thus having wasted the $10K on the MA, or b) once again ending up doing something you aren't really interested in.
posted by robhuddles at 2:07 PM on July 5, 2006

Two things:

a. Talk or write to people doing the kind of work you'd like to be doing and see which degree they have, and/or which they see as most saleable for the field.

b. Check into any applicable licensure/credentialing laws in your state (these can vary by locale).

As occhiblu pointed out, there are indeed specialized Masters programs in school counseling, which would probably be the best prep for the career path you describe. Check with students in the program you're considering, though; I did a degree in a "Counseling and Student Personnel Psychology" program and it really had very little training or coursework relevant to the "student personnel" side of things, focusing instead on psychotherapeutic counseling.
posted by Kat Allison at 2:17 PM on July 5, 2006

Here in NYC, there are a LOT more jobs for MSWs. As far as I can tell, the pay is better, too. It's a lot more flexible and there's more room for upward mobility (administration, etc) and private practice.
posted by chelseagirl at 2:24 PM on July 5, 2006

The MSW may be more expensive, but you get what you pay for. With all due respect to those with degrees in counselling, for whatever reason these MA programs do not enjoy a reputation for being academically rigorous. Of course it depends on the school.
posted by Crotalus at 3:37 PM on July 5, 2006

Response by poster: The MA in Counseling does have a specialization in school counseling available, but it isn't accredited by CACREP, which I'm told is important for people wanting to be school counselors.

This is all complicated by the fact that I would like to move to the West Coast eventually and need to make sure I can be licensed in other states and countries (Canada).
posted by onepapertiger at 3:39 PM on July 5, 2006

From what I understand, counselling degrees and licenses are fairly new, and counseling licenses and licensing programs don't actually exist in many states, which may explain why many of the programs aren't particulary good (or rigorous).

California has a license for Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT), and Master's in Counseling programs here follow the educational requirements for state licensing and national certification. You'll often see job listings requiring either an LCSW or an MFT. Either license allows you to set up a private practice. In many areas, they're fairly interchangeable (obviously there are institutional settings where a social worker would be more appropriate than a counselor).

But I don't think this is the case in all states, so as Kat Allison says, check into the licensing offered by the program and required by the state you want to live in.
posted by occhiblu at 3:59 PM on July 5, 2006

Also, I've been led to understand that research requires an MA or PhD in psychology, not counseling or social work, but someone with more experience or knowledge should correct me if I'm wrong.
posted by occhiblu at 4:02 PM on July 5, 2006

I think that if you're only interested in being a therapist and you can say with certainty that that's all your ever going to be interested in in the field, then either degree is just fine. However, what I said above about more opportunities for MSWs refers to both the breadth of things that social workers do (from comm. organizing to therapy) and the administrative possibilities available for MSWs which are often predicated on that breadth. MSWs, for instance, are often viable candidates for directing non-profits, while I've seen fewer MACounselors doing that kind of thing.

It can be hard to think about the length of a career at the outset of grad school, but it bears some thought. Private practice can be an expensive proposition, certainly doable, but much easier when it's supported by the pay and benefits that go along with an agency job somewhere, even if that job isn't doing therapy. A lot of social workers late in their careers have split jobs like this, some kind of clinical adminstration at an agency which forms the backbone of their compensation and benefits, as well as a private practice. It's more common as insurance companies restrict payments etc. Counseling may well have those opportunities as well, but I haven't seen many counselors in the kinds of admin jobs I'm talking about.
posted by OmieWise at 4:32 PM on July 5, 2006 [2 favorites]

I think OmieWise is giving great advice.

I am another MSW who will attest to the flexibility of the degree. After the first year in my MSW program I realized that counseling was NOT for me. So I switched to a management emphasis, and have been very happy with my decision.

I just ended five years at the national office of a large women's health organization where I worked in development and operations management. I am currently having about a 25% interview rate for the resumes I send out (evenly split between large and small orgs). I think that is in large part to have the MSW. And my pay range is comparable to, if not higher than, counseling jobs.
posted by kimdog at 7:17 PM on July 5, 2006

I have a friend who finished a msw at tulane a few years back, was recruited by a firm in London and is living it up...they seem to love american social workers there....this is what little i know.
posted by jamie939 at 9:09 PM on July 5, 2006

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