Social Services Careers

by Blake Huggins
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Aspiring social workers and counselors can launch careers in social services, empowering them to make an impact through advocacy and clinical practice.

Social services workers use their advanced interpersonal skills and clinical knowledge to connect clients with the necessary resources to increase their quality of life. Social workers and counselors play a vital role in helping people maintain their well-being during crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Empathetic and advocacy-minded individuals make great candidates for social services careers, including roles in social work, psychology, or corrections. This guide examines each profession, explores job outlook and salary data, and considers social worker vs. counselor similarities and differences.

Is Social Services the Right Career for Me?

Social services work revolves around a shared set of values and combines insights from cognitive science, advocacy, psychotherapy, and public policy. While most programs cultivate the hard skills you need to succeed, it's important to assess your interests to see if they align with the tenets of social services.

You Might Enjoy a Social Services Career if You:

Enjoy interacting with diverse groups of people and possess a strong sense of respect and self-awareness. Understand boundaries and empathize with each client's current state. Are a clear and effective communicator and active listener. Excel at working independently when necessary and can easily manage your time. Possess a lot of patience and are committed to ethical action. Enjoy advocating on behalf of the vulnerable and inspire others to do the same.

Types of Social Service Careers

Degree-seekers and aspiring professionals interested in social services can pursue career paths in psychology, healthcare, counseling, and social work. The information below details some of the most prominent professions in this field, along with their education requirements. Some of these occupations may require licensure or certification, which vary by field and state.


Social and Human Service Assistant

Degree Required: Certificate or associate

People in this entry-level role usually work under the direction of psychologists or social workers. They help connect clients with services and assist in implementing concrete tasks within treatment plans. Depending on their specialties or employers, these assistants may work with children and families, veterans, immigrants, the formerly incarcerated, and people with disabilities or mental illnesses. Most assistants work full-time in offices, hospitals, or clinics.


Mental Health Counselor

Degree Required: Bachelor's

Mental health counselors support the cognitive and emotional well-being of their clients by offering clinical guidance and recommending coping strategies. They work with groups and individuals, often focusing on specific populations or conditions, including children and families, aging, stress, or addiction. Some mental health counselors have bachelor's degrees, but most hold master's degrees in counseling or related fields.


Probation Officer or Correctional Treatment Specialist

Degree Required: Bachelor's

These criminal justice professionals coordinate rehabilitation efforts for legal offenders, including individuals in custody or on probation. They connect clients with social services programs, like job training or group counseling, and report progress to court officials. These professionals may conduct drug screenings or provide substance abuse counseling. They typically work full time in office settings, with extended on-call hours.


Health Education Specialist or Community Health Worker

Degree Required: Bachelor's

Community health workers promote healthy behaviors and communicate with healthcare providers on behalf of residents. They collect data, identify useful programs, and implement them to scale. Health education specialists fulfill similar roles while focusing on education and learning. They manage health education programs that inform the public and promote healthy living.


Social and Community Service Manager

Degree Required: Bachelor's

These social services professionals manage and coordinate community outreach programs. They usually work for nonprofits or local government agencies and focus on services tailored to specific populations or issues, such as children and the elderly or homelessness and hunger. Community service managers evaluate existing programs and gather data to measure program success. Depending on the role, some may manage budgets or secure funding.


Addiction/Substance Abuse Counselor

Degree Required: Bachelor's or master's

Assistance and substance abuse counselors offer assistance to individuals with substance abuse or addiction challenges. In addition to providing advice and behavioral insight, they also develop treatment plans and administer preventative care. In therapy sessions, these professionals identify strategies that help their clients navigate adjustments and other challenges. Addiction and substance abuse counselors work full time in private practice and other care facilities.


Marriage and Family Therapist

Degree Required: Master's

Marriage and family therapists combine insights from cognitive science and psychotherapy. They work with couples and families in individual and group sessions. These therapists help clients process their emotional needs as they manage relationship problems, respond to crises, and navigate difficult situations. To become a therapist in this field, each student needs a master's degree and a state-issued license.


Rehabilitation Counselor

Degree Required: Master's

Government agencies, healthcare providers, and social assistance organizations often employ rehabilitation counselors. These behavioral specialists enjoy a broad scope of practice, assisting people with mental, physical, emotional, and developmental challenges. They administer skills assessments and develop treatment plans to increase employability or independent living, often collaborating with and making referrals to other health professionals.


Clinical Social Worker

Degree Required: Master's

Social workers with clinical qualifications can work in medical facilities, psychiatric centers, and private practice. While other social work roles only require a bachelor's degree, clinical social workers need master's degrees. The clinical credential allows them to make diagnoses, develop treatment plans, and build specialized skills and interventions. Clinical social workers perform psychotherapy and connect clients with community programs that meet their needs.


School and Career Counselors and Advisor

Degree Required: Master's

These counselors help their clients build the academic and vocational skills they need to succeed. They identify social barriers or behavioral challenges and offer advice to help clients overcome their issues. School counselors work with teachers, families, and other school staff to enhance learning and increase educational outcomes. In nonprofits and social assistance organizations, career counselors help job-seekers select viable professions and develop achievable goals.


Psychologist

Degree Required: Doctoral (Ph.D., Psy.D., or Ed.D.)

Psychologists can work in counseling or psychotherapy, but most of their work involves scientific study. They examine the emotional, cognitive, and underlying social factors that motivate human behavior. These professionals work independently or within larger organizations. They often conduct experiments that add new knowledge to the field.


Psychiatrist

Degree Required: Medical degree (MD or DO)

Psychiatrists are physicians who focus on the realm of behavioral health. They combine medical science with psychological practice and offer care to patients dealing with mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders. Psychiatrists often rely on counseling or talk therapy techniques, but unlike traditional therapists, they can prescribe medications to treat chemical imbalances and other mental health conditions.

Social Worker vs. Counselor vs. Psychologist

Social workers, counselors, and psychologists share similarities, despite differences in scope and approach. Like social workers and counselors, psychologists can work in clinical contexts, but many fulfill roles in research-based settings.

What about social workers vs. counselors? Social workers provide counseling, but not all counselors perform social work. Social workers draw on a broader skill set that includes case management and crisis intervention, in addition to counseling. Most counselors focus on specialized psychotherapy services. Finally, a counselor can work with a bachelor's degree; a social worker needs a master's degree in social work and licensure to practice.

Social Service Job Salaries and Projected Growth

Most social workers and related professionals enjoy above-average pay — in some cases, much more than the median annual wage nationwide. Aspiring clinicians, counselors, and social service managers can also benefit from a positive job outlook overall, due to aging demographics and increases in local demand.

Social Service Career Information
Career Median Annual Salary (2020) Projected Job Growth (2019-2029)
Psychologists $82,180 3%
Social and Community Service Managers $69,600 17%
School and Career Counselors and Advisors $58,120 8%
Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists $55,690 4%
Clinical Social Workers $51,750 13%
Marriage and Family Therapists $51,340 22%
Health Education Specialists and Community Health Workers $48,140 13%
Substance Abuse, Behavior Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors $47,660 25%
Rehabilitation Counselors $37,530 10%
Social and Human Service Assistants $35,960 17%
Psychiatric Technicians and Aides $33,140 12%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Social Service Career Skills

Social workers, counselors, and other social services professionals need a combination of hard and soft skills. Hard skills are the technical competencies specific to given roles and developed through formal training. Soft skills are more versatile and difficult to quantify. Most learners cultivate them through practical experience over time.

Social Service Skills

Soft Skills

  • Cultural competence
  • Social perceptiveness
  • Creative problem-solving
  • Persuasion and cooperation
  • Adaptability and flexibility

Hard Skills

  • Research and service coordination
  • Counseling and interviewing
  • Vocational rehabilitation
  • Case management
  • Program evaluation

Social Service Professional Organizations

As the world's largest professional counseling organization, ACA has represented and empowered local professionals since 1952. The association sponsors publications, advertises new job openings, and plays a role in policy formation. APA supports over 122,000 psychologists, social workers, and counselors throughout the United States. This association promotes emerging psychology research and maintains an extensive library of academic publications. This organization advances public health efforts by influencing policy efforts backed by science. It hosts professional development events and offers programs that address racial equity from a public health perspective. NASW empowers social workers and counselors through advocacy, conferences, and continuing education. The association awards outstanding achievements in social work and connects local professionals with individuals in need through its job center.

Common Questions About Social Services Careers

true Can I Be a Counselor With a Master's in Social Work?

Yes, graduates with MSWs can become counselors. Some positions, such as school counselor, may require additional training or certification.

true Is an LCSW a Therapist?

Yes. In addition to providing therapy, licensed clinical social workers intervene in crises and connect clients with critical public benefits.

true What Is the Difference Between an LCSW and an LPC?

Clinical social workers enjoy a broader scope of practice. Most licensed professional counselors focus solely on psychotherapy, while LCSWs draw on wider social service resources to promote health and well-being.

true How Much Does It Cost to Run a Private Practice?

The cost of maintaining a private practice depends on location and the size of your business. According to some estimates, 35% of revenue should go to overhead costs.

true Do Counselors Make More Than Social Workers?

Yes — but only for specific roles. As of 2020, social workers earned a lower median annual salary than school and career counselors, for example, but still earned more than substance abuse and rehabilitation counselors.

true How Do I Become an MHC?

Mental health counselors need state-issued licenses. Eligibility criteria and education requirements vary by state. Some states call for only a bachelor's degree, while others may require a master's degree.

Blake Huggins is a Boston-based writer and researcher with roots in north Texas and southern Oklahoma. He holds degrees in religion and philosophy and writes widely on higher education, healthcare, and the humanities broadly conceived. He earned a PhD from Boston University and has taught college courses in philosophy, writing, and composition.

Melissa Russiano is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice who has organically developed a specialty working with helping professionals. Russiano has a proven track record helping professionals avoid burnout by holding clinicians accountable through laughter, tears, blunt (yet very supportive) feedback, and quirky analogies that are grounded in solid theoretical research. Russiano practices solely in a virtual setting in the states of California, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. In addition, Russiano is a professor, teaching in a graduate program through Simmons University online.

Header Image Credit: FatCamera | Getty Images

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