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Master of Social Work vs Master of Counselling

Discover the differences and similarities between a career in social work and counselling to determine which master’s degree to pursue.


Are you passionate about making a meaningful impact on people's lives or considering a career change that involves working closely with individuals navigating challenges? If so, you may be considering the idea of enrolling in a social work or counselling course.

Before deciding to study a Master of Social Work (Qualifying) or a Master of Counselling, it’s important to consider your future pathway. Understanding the roles and responsibilities within each profession and identifying what resonates with you can be pivotal in deciding the right course of action for your career.

Master’s programs in social work and counselling offer valuable opportunities for experienced professionals and those considering a career change. These programs allow students to learn advanced skills, gain practical experience through hands-on placements and expand their theoretical knowledge in the field.

Keep reading to understand the differences and similarities between a Master of Social Work (Qualifying) and a Master of Counselling to help you decide which course is right for you.

How do a Master of Social Work (Qualifying) and a Master of Counselling compare?

If you are currently facing the decision of choosing between a Master of Social Work (Qualifying) and a Master of Counselling, chances are you are seeking a career where your passion for helping people is at its core. A key distinction between social workers and counsellors is their approach to helping people. Social workers advocate for their clients and direct them to resources. In contrast, counsellors tend to provide direct care to clients. Let’s take a closer look at what is involved with a Master of Social Work (Qualifying) and a Master of Counselling to help you make an informed choice.

An overview: Master of Social Work (Qualifying)

In Australia, social work is a self-regulated profession and the AASW is advocating for social workers to be included in the National Registration and Accreditation Scheme (NRAS). Social workers cannot practise in the field until they have completed an accredited undergraduate or postgraduate qualifying social work degree. Master of Social Work (Qualifying) programs are accredited by the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW). Graduates will be eligible to become a member of the AASW to work as a qualified social worker. Students completing a Master of Social Work (Qualifying) must complete supervised field education placements to complete the course.

It typically takes two years of full-time study or four years of part-time study to complete a Master of Social Work. Many universities require students to have completed a bachelor’s degree in a related discipline with units in social and behavioural science to complete a master’s degree in social work. Alongside proof of prior relevant education, some universities also require evidence of relevant work experience in social work. Under exceptional circumstances, if you have not studied a bachelor’s degree but have relevant qualifications and working experience, you may be accepted into a Master of Social Work (Qualifying) program.

A Master of Social Work (Qualifying) may benefit someone with an undergraduate degree in a related field who is seeking a career change and additional skills.

An overview: Master of Counselling

Counselling is an unregulated profession in Australia, meaning anyone can practise as a counsellor without qualifications or training. In saying this, employers are more likely to hire a counsellor with qualifications, training and experience. Counsellors with a postgraduate degree have broader job opportunities and can service a wider range of clients due to their knowledge and expertise.

Master of Counselling programs are accredited by the Australian Counselling Association (ACA) Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA). If you’re looking to become a registered counsellor and expand your job prospects, you will be eligible to become a registered counsellor with the ACA or the PACFA after the completion of your master’s degree. Similar to qualifying social work master’s degrees, Master of Counselling students work closely with supervisors to complete student placement hours.

A Master of Counselling typically takes two years of full-time study to complete or four years of part-time study. GlobalHealth Education partners with leading Australian universities, including Edith Cowan University and the University of Canberra, who offer part-time accelerated online Master of Counselling courses so students can graduate in two years. The entry requirements for a Master of Counselling vary between universities but many Australian universities require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree, either in a related area or any discipline. Alternatively, some universities will accept students who have not completed tertiary education but have at least five years of relevant counselling experience.

A Master of Counseling could benefit someone who works in a related field such as social work, psychology or nursing and wants to gain a professional counselling qualification.

Job responsibilities

What are the responsibilities of a social worker?

Social workers play an important role in society by providing support to people who are in a vulnerable position. Social workers are crucial in improving social justice and development by working with clients who face mental illness, social injustice, domestic violence and homelessness. These professionals help people seeking financial support, emergency accommodation and health and legal services. The day-to-day responsibilities of a social worker include:

  • liaising between clients and community services
  • assessing health, welfare and housing resources
  • conducting interviews with individuals and groups to determine the severity of a client’s situation
  • assembling reports and case records
  • keeping in contact with clients to monitor their progress
  • providing information to clients and referring them to community services

What are the responsibilities of a counsellor?

Counsellors provide short-term support to people experiencing things like life changes, low self-esteem, career stress, grief, depression, anxiety, addiction, abuse, and relationship struggles. These mental health professionals can work in private practice, schools, community health centres, hospitals, universities, government departments and not-for-profit organisations. Counsellors are responsible for:

  • communicating with clients to understand their concerns and provide support
  • presenting strategies to clients to help them work through their concerns
  • developing treatment plans for clients
  • writing professional case notes to meet industry standards
  • providing resources to clients to access additional resources

Job opportunities

Careers in social work

Social work is a broad field. Professionals have the opportunity to work with individuals as well as communities across casework, counselling, advocacy and community engagement. Common areas for social workers to gain employment include the criminal justice system, disability services, mental health facilities and child protection. Roles available to social workers include:

  • case worker
  • case manager
  • community development officer
  • community support worker
  • mental health clinician
  • youth and family support worker

Careers in counselling

A career in counselling offers many opportunities, allowing professionals to work in various settings in the public, private and non-profit sectors. Most counsellors work in client-facing roles but there are also opportunities for counsellors to work in research and academia.

Common counselling roles include:

  • child and adolescent counsellor
  • drug and alcohol counsellor
  • financial counsellor
  • mental health counsellor
  • rehabilitation counsellor
  • relationship counsellor
  • school counsellor

Other career options for counsellors include:

  • aged care worker
  • community worker
  • disability support worker
  • palliative care worker
  • refugee services worker
  • welfare services worker
  • youth worker

Earning potential

Social worker salary

According to Seek, the average yearly salary for a social worker in Australia varies from $90,000 to $100,000. The salary for related roles, such as a community development officer, ranges from $75,000 to $90,000 per annum and between $70,000 to $85,000 per year for youth support workers.

Counsellor salary

SEEK records the average salary for a counsellor in Australia between $85,000 and $95,000 per year. Factors such as location, qualifications, years of experience and the area of counselling you work in can affect salary. For example, the average salary for a relationship counsellor in Australia ranges from $80,000 to $100,000 compared to a school counsellor, where the yearly average salary ranges from $80,000 to $100,000.

Projected job growth for social workers and counsellors

Social work job growth

Labour Market Insights predicts a promising increase of 9,300 social work jobs between 2021 and 2026. With this 23.2 per cent increase, prospective Master of Social Work (Qualifying) students can feel confident that job opportunities will arise after graduation.

Counselling job growth

There are currently over 30,000 counsellors employed in Australia. The demand for counsellors in Australia is expected to increase by 14.2 per cent by November 2026. The demand for counsellors in Australia makes now a great time to get your foot in the door or enhance your skills and work with clients facing complex situations.

Master of Social Work (Qualifying) vs Master of Counselling: what’s the verdict?

Both degrees will allow you to help others, serve the community and provide invaluable services to people in need. Which degree you choose should fit your career goals, skills and aspirations. Whatever course you decide to study, you’re bound to impact the lives of individuals and communities positively.

Master of Social Work and Master of Counselling courses in Australia

The courses below are listed by qualification level, from lowest to highest.

Master of Counselling
Master of Counselling
Accessible, flexible and accelerated Study anywhere, anytime with ECU's flexible online format. This course is delivered in accelerated mode, allowing you to earn your degree and put your skills into practice sooner. Fully supported Be supported throughout your study journey by a personal Student Success Advisor and an online learning community of like-minded students and friendly, accessible staff. Job ready skills, relevant to industry Gain a wide range of skills – identified and designed by industry experts – to meet the complex and evolving needs of individuals and communities. Professional Recognition The Master of Counselling has been accredited by the Australian Counselling Association (ACA). ECU’s online Master of Counselling provides advanced, evidence-based counselling knowledge and skills for professionals who want to make a difference in the lives of individuals, families and communities. Students may study this course to prepare to become a counsellor. Alternatively, they may wish to add to their existing skill set in roles including: Social work Career coaching Psychology Other allied health Human resources Youth work Human welfare roles Local government support/community development roles Case work Disability support work Cognate undergraduate social science or behavioural science
Master's 24 months 12 Units
  • Foundations of counselling practice
  • Theories and techniques in counselling
  • The role of the counsellor
  • Ethics in counselling
  • Counselling in a digital world
  • Trauma informed counselling
  • Child and adolescent counselling
  • Counselling at the cultural interface: Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander peoples and practice
  • Mental health counselling
  • Advanced theories and techniques in counselling
  • Plus Professional Placement
Master of Social Work (Qualifying)
Master of Social Work (Qualifying)
Job ready skills, relevant to industry Extend and enhance practical skills that are identified by industry experts as key to meeting the complex needs of individuals and communities. Dedicated student support Be supported by a learning community of students and academics. Expert placement support Have the opportunity to undertake placements at an approved social work agency. Course highlights Developed to meet the Australian Social Work Education and Accreditation Standards (ASWEAS) governed by the Australian Association of Social Work (AASW) Professional and globally recognised Master of Social Work degree so you can work within Australia or internationally Learn from social work practitioners who are actively involved in the industry Immediately apply your learnings into practice through field education placements Experience dedicated support at every stage Start anytime and study social work online – intakes are open every 2 months
Master's 32-36 months 12 Units
  • Social Work in Global, Regional and Local Contexts
  • Working with Diverse Communities
  • Psychological Health across the Lifecycle
  • Ethical and Legal Contexts of Social Work Practice
  • Research and Evaluation in Social Work Practice
  • Policy Development, Leadership and Organisational Practice
  • Theoretical Approaches to Social Work Practice
  • Trauma Informed Social Work Practice
  • Working with Families, Children and Young People
  • Groupwork Practice in Social Work
  • Field Education Placement 1
  • Field Education Placement 2
Master of Counselling
Master of Counselling
Job ready skills, relevant to industry Extend and enhance practical skills that are identified by industry experts as key to meeting the complex needs of individuals and communities. Dedicated student support Be supported by a learning community of students and academics. Expert placement support Have the opportunity to undertake placements at an approved counselling agency. Course highlights Be supported by a dedicated Student Success Advisor Online and accelerated Apply knowledge and skills immediately Develop industry-relevant skills Start anytime – intakes are open every two months Whether helping others cope with crisis, put challenges into perspective or find a life worth living, guide the way and practise respectful and inclusive counselling. The Master of Counselling consists of research-led content that is delivered via supported and interactive teaching while allowing students to undertake experiential learning. Students will work closely with clinical supervisors while undertaking placement units.
Master's 24 months 12 Units
  • Counselling Theory and Approaches
  • Core Counselling Skills
  • Principles of Ethical Conduct in Counselling
  • Diversity Inclusion Respect
  • Introduction to Placement and Supervision
  • Counselling Skills in Practice
  • Loss, Grief and Trauma in Counselling
  • Understanding Mental Health
  • Next Level Counselling Skills
  • Creative Practices in Counselling
  • Placement A - Putting It All into Practice
  • Placement B - Masters Practicum

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