Why social work? What sets apart a social work program from other similar graduate programs?

Written by Sarah Smith, MSW Graduate Assistant, Edited by Tam Q. Dinh, PhD, LICSW, Seattle U MSW Program Director
Photography by Chris Joseph Taylor
October 17, 2023


With the world figuratively and literally on fire, the world needs social workers more than ever, particularly social workers to work directly with people in clinical settings. But why clinical social workers? What sets us apart from other clinicians and counselors from Mental Health Counseling, Marriage and Family Therapy, or Counseling Psychology programs?

Like many of you might be, I was initially drawn to social work because of the social workers in my own life. Those social workers had incredibly diverse and interesting careers, from micro social work practice to macro policy work. My mom, who is currently a social worker in another state, obtained her Masters in Social Work (MSW) degree while I was a child. Since then, I’ve seen her work in a variety of clinical areas, including gerontology, memory care, marriage and family therapy, adoption, hospice and grief counseling, and trauma counseling. This ability to work with diverse populations experiencing a wide range of issues in various settings is one key difference between those educated in an MSW program versus other counseling programs.

In addition, although the MSW degree is a clinical degree, many social workers also work outside of clinical settings on mezzo or macro levels, working with larger groups or communities in community building, political advocacy, education, and more. For example, a colleague of my mom, who became a close family friend of ours, centered her social work practice on nonprofit community work with economically disempowered women. A social work degree uniquely benefits social workers with career flexibility to move from clinical to macro systemic change work.

To really learn more about the factors that make each counseling or clinical discipline unique, one should look at the discipline’s history, values, code of ethics, theoretical frameworks, and practice philosophy. Here, I will discuss the 
person-in-environment perspective that is the signature guiding theory of social work and social work’s unique client-centered approach to practice.

During my undergraduate education, I majored in psychology and took a clinical 
psychology course. I loved the idea of working in mental health, but I hit the unavoidable realization that you cannot just “treat” a person in isolation. I felt I would not be able to effectively help clients without taking into consideration the surrounding factors in their lives. Beyond the individual, larger environmental factors such as systemic racism, colonization, patriarchy, and poverty impact mental health and other areas of well-being including physical health, housing, employment, and relationship dynamics in dramatic ways.

The social work person-in-environment perspective posits that an individual is heavily influenced by their environment, which in turn shapes the way that person thinks, behaves, and moves in our world. The person-in-environment perspective also allows social workers to consider the role of historical trauma or systemic oppression experienced by many groups in influencing an individual’s life, which is why social workers are leaders in incorporating social justice into clinical work. Other mental health counselors, marriage and family counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and helping professionals also operate with a person-in-environment perspective. However, the person-in-environment perspective is the core, guiding framework within social work practice, in which social workers strive to contextualize the macro environment into clinical work and meet clients where they are at.

Another aspect of the MSW degree is the focus on a client-centered approach, where the inherent dignity and worth of the client as a person are highly valued and are the foundation of treatment interventions. Other counseling professions may specialize in particular perspectives or schools of thought that lead to favoring certain therapeutic methods and treatments. However, social workers see value in a variety of therapeutic methods and select the treatment model within their competency that most aligns with the client’s situation, strengths, and needs. Rather than focusing on therapeutic treatment interventions or models that might only be effective and relevant for some clients, MSW programs invest more time in educating students on how to build therapeutic relationships with a diverse range of client populations. In addition, MSW programs introduce students to a wide variety of perspectives and interventions, allowing social work practitioners to choose which therapeutic interventions best fit the needs and goals of their clients.

Our world grows more complex and diverse every day, contributing to an increased need for practitioners who can work with a diverse range of populations and who can contextualize the complexities of their clients’ lives in their clinical work. An MSW program will prepare you to work with diverse populations and to best meet the needs of your clients based on their unique contexts and life experiences. The client-centered approach in social work also guides future practitioners to avoid maintaining and participating in systems of power in treatment that have historically affected many oppressed and minoritized communities. I chose social work because I wanted to be in a field that simultaneously works to address problems in our world while also striving to help folks live well in the present moment while centering clients’ voices and autonomy.

I hope this description has helped any potential students who are interested in a social work program and in understanding what makes social work unique. Good luck in your graduate program journey, and keep an eye out for additional student blogs on similar social work topics to come!