Human Services vs. Social Work vs. Psychology: Which Degree is Right for Me?

human services vs social work vs psychology

Not many occupations allow you to build meaningful relationships and improve the lives of others every day you go to work. But you have done your research and know that most jobs that fit this description require a college education.

But you have hit one stumbling point, which major is the best fit for you? As you weigh your options--human services versus social work versus psychology--you find yourself asking one question: What’s the difference? That’s a great question, and can be a tricky one to answer.

Rasmussen College School of Justice Studies instructor Rikkisha Gilmore-Byrd offers a brief explanation: “Human services is sort of an umbrella term. Jobs in social work and psychology can both fall under the larger field of human services.”

That said, there are important distinctions to make between the three degree fields. This guide will provide you important information from the U.S. Department of Labor to help you determine the best option for you. Take a closer look at the most common jobs associated with each degree and picture yourself in these positions.

Human services degree job: social & human services assistants

Common job duties

  • Provide information or refer individuals to public or private agencies or community services for assistance.
  • Interview individuals or family members to compile information on social, educational, criminal, institutional or drug history.
  • Advise clients regarding food stamps, child care, food, money management, sanitation or housekeeping.

As you can see from this sampling of duties, social and human services assistants often act as a liaison between those in need of service and the various agencies that provide assistance. They do interact directly with clients but are not responsible for direct treatment of the problems or issues that ail them.

Education required

Social and human services assistant jobs typically require at least a bachelor’s degree, but some openings may require or prefer a master’s degree.

Job outlook

The growth outlook for these positions is strong, with social and human services assistant positions projected to increase by 22 percent or more through 2022. The 2013 median salary for these positions was $29,230.*

Social work degree job: mental health & substance abuse social workers

Common job duties

  • Counsel clients in individual or group sessions to assist them in dealing with substance abuse, mental or physical illness, poverty, unemployment or physical abuse.
  • Collaborate with counselors, physicians or nurses to plan or coordinate treatment.
  • Refer patient, client or family to community resources for housing or treatment to assist in recovery from mental or physical illness.

The job duties of mental health and substance abuse social workers are somewhat of a mix between human services assistants and psychologists. Not only do these social workers serve as a liaison between those in need of help and the organizations that can assist them, but they also work directly with clients in counseling sessions.

Education required

Most mental health and substance abuse social worker jobs will require a master’s degree. Clinical social workers need two years of post-masters experience in a supervised clinical setting in addition to earning state licensure.

Job outlook

Demand for mental health and substance abuse social workers is projected to remain strong, with an estimated increase of 22 percent or higher through 2022. The 2013 median salary for these positions was reported as $40,970.*

Psychology degree job: clinical psychologist

Common job duties

  • Counsel individuals and groups regarding problems, such as stress, substance abuse or family situations, to modify behavior or improve personal, social and vocational adjustment.
  • Consult with or provide consultation to other doctors, therapists or clinicians regarding patient care.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of counseling or treatments and the accuracy of diagnoses, modifying plans as necessary.

Clinical psychologists work with clients to directly address their problems, and with proper training and education they are able to consult with doctors or other medical professionals on the best course of action for patient care. However, this is not to be confused with psychiatrists, who have the ability to directly prescribe medication to patients.

Education required

You will typically need at least a master’s degree to work as a psychologist. The human psyche is a complex subject to master, so naturally someone directly involved with treating client issues through therapy will need to meet a high educational standard.

Job outlook

Demand for psychologists remains steady with a projected growth rate of 12 percent by 2022. The higher education requirements for these positions are reflected in higher salaries, with the 2013 median salary reported at $67,760.*

Choose your path

A degree in human services, social work or psychology all offer you the opportunity to launch a fulfilling career which allows you to make a positive impact on others in your community. But when comparing human services versus social work versus psychology, it’s important to make an informed decision.

Now that you know the differences in job duties, earning potential and career outlook, you should have a better idea of which option best suits your interests and aspirations.

Think a career in human services is the right path for you? Visit the human services degree page to learn more!.

*Salary data represents national, average earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries and employment conditions in your area may vary.

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Will Erstad

Will is a Sr. Content Specialist at Collegis Education. He researches and writes student-focused articles on a variety of topics for Rasmussen College. He is passionate about learning and enjoys writing engaging content to help current and future students on their path to a rewarding education.


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