Can Someone With a Social Work Degree Become a Psychiatrist?

What relationship exists between psychiatrists and social workers? Simply, a psychiatrist is a doctor whose specialty is mental illness. Social workers, especially CSWs (clinical social workers), participate in many of the same kinds of treatment as psychiatrists, but their positions are really quite different. Essentially, individuals with social work degrees can become psychiatrists, but so can people with English degrees, or history degrees or any other undergraduate degree. Psychiatrists attend medical school because they are doctors, while social workers are not. What these professions share is that both are helping professions, and that fact should be uppermost when considering either career path.

Education

Persons wishing to enter the social work field obtain either a bachelors or a masters degree from an accredited institution. On the other hand, a psychiatrist must go to medical school and earn either an M.D. or a D.O. Thus, after completing their formal education, the would be psychiatrist must also serve a residency. In total, a psychiatrist’s educational commitment is at least 12 years, while a social workers may be four, for a bachelors degree, then an additional two to four for a masters degree. Those individuals who earn a social work doctorate, because they are Ph. D.s not M. D.s, often teach and the doctoral degree adds another two to four years. So, though the amount of time spent receiving their educations can be quite comparable, the courses of study and earned degrees are different for the psychiatrist and social worker.

Settings

The setting in which each can be found only serve to emphasize the difference in education/training. Most often, psychiatrists work in medical settings, hospitals, outpatient sites, and private practice. The social worker’s choice of setting is much more varied. People with social work degrees may be found in alcohol and substance abuses centers, hospitals, community outreach centers, all levels of schools and a number of other setting types. A person who wants the opportunity to work in a variety of settings should consider a degree in social work.

Perspective/Outlook

The differences in education grew out of the differences in each field’s focus. A doctor’s, and hence a psychiatrist’s, focus is on treatment of the individual body and mind. The social worker’s focus can be seen most clearly in the CSWE’s (Council on Social Work Education) Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards which states, “The purpose of the social work profession is to promote human and community well-being.” So, quite often, the professional outlooks of the two professions differ.

Both career paths offer individuals the chance to improve their client’s mental and emotional health, and can be very rewarding in that regard. Psychiatrist’s are empowered to treat and prescribe medications, while social workers refer clients they believe could benefit from a treatment course that includes medications. So, the two careers share some aspects in common, and often interact, their differences often mean they appeal to different types of people.

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