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Psychology, nursing or social work?


Hi Footnotes,

I want to study towards something that will give me a reward career working with people, and I’ve thought of a few option so far…

Psychology – I’m really interested in how the brain works, but it psych takes a long time and I’m not sure if it will be worth it. Are the statistics subjects difficult?

Nursing – I’ve heard that this is very demanding, both physically and mentally, and I’m not sure how long I’m going to be able to do that for. I think I would be ok with the *gross* things.

Social work – I would like to be able to help people get through difficult times.

Any advice?

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For this round table discussion we called in:

  • Expert one: Jack of all Health Education Trades (B. Health Sciences / B. Education Graduate)
  • Expert two: Nightingale (Third Year Nursing Student)
  • Expert three: Psych-regrets (Fourth Year Psych Student)
  • Expert four: Psych-adelic (Psych Grad working in Organisational Psych)
  • Expert five: Little Miss Social Work

The Footnotes:

Who wants to go first?

Jack of All Health Ed. Trades:

I was thinking about similar options before I went back to uni to change careers.

I did a double degree B. Health Sciences/ B. Education majoring in health education and promotion. I done a lot of work with not-for-profits doing things like running education programs for specifics groups or illnesses, facilitating professional development for health professionals, designing e-learning, developing health promotion resources, doing health promotion activities and doing research with consumers. At the moment I am working in the innovation department of an aged care organisation.

The great thing about health promotion is that I work in the prevention space a lot. I also like that I am not in a clinical profession, and am currently doing a Masters in Applied Gerontology now as I have realised I really like working with older people, with the bonus that ageing and aged care is a growing area for jobs. 


Not to be biased as a third year nursing student, but I think that if you want most rewarding I would say nursing.

Mental health nursing could be a great idea, although it can be hard to manage when you deal with such challenging patients, who may not actually be suffering from something treatable.

Dementia and other neurocognitive diseases are on the rise and so mental health, especially the aged sector, will need more staff. A Masters in Applied Gerontology sounds interesting!


Unless you’re quite academic, I would probably rule out psychology. You also need to be extremely motivated and put in place some really good support networks to help you through. It’s a long, long road that is very expensive and competitive. You could get to the end of your undergraduate degree and then not get into the post-grad program. Nursing and Social Work would be half the study time!

Psych also takes a lot of resilience. You are taking on other peoples problems as your own.I ended up in Org Psych because I knew I didn’t have the emotional resilience required for clinical. You really need to know yourself and your limits.

Oh and Stats isn’t as bad as you think, my degree was very scaffolded in its learning of stats and it’s given me a good grasp of the subject.

Little Miss Social Work:

I love social work. There is broad application of the degree, not as competitive and difficult to get into, and it’s not as clinically intensive. The psychologists I know are flat out and stressed! What about Public Health?

To note, social work has very onerous placement requirements. Two lots of 3.5 months of study, full time, unpaid.

7 months all up.

Lots of variety to the work, great field and very portable – but very demanding, sub-par pay in most areas and intensive placement requirements.

Minimum of four years if you don’t have a Bachelor degree already, if you do it is a two year qualifying masters (same as Bachelor, essentially) with the same placement requirements.


Probably depends a bit on how long you plan to be working for. Psychology is six years study, nursing is three, social work is four.

I think all three have scope to be both rewarding and/or stressful, depending on which area you end up in. Nursing comes with shift work for a while, but then offers a wide range of career options and you will never be short of employment opportunities.

I’m 4 years into psych and kind of wishing I’d done social work. My grades are good enough for the postgrad years but I’m not sure I’ll stick it out.

As for statistics subjects, they definitely aren’t fun, but I survived and am certainly not a “maths person”.


Psych has more options, private practice for instance, that can earn more dollars. But nursing shifts or senior roles are high paid too. I think it depends a bit on mindset. Psych is very individual focused, especially at the undergrad level (minimal clinical psych, mostly other, research areas). Social work is more like sociology, focused on systems and societal level forces and resources. Nursing, obviously, is medical. Perhaps speak to the person in charge of the programs you’re thinking of applying for?


Black hat again sorry, but I wouldn’t do psychology. The first three years are quite dry and boring; don’t get me wrong I loved my psychology degree but it takes motivation to keep going in subjects you aren’t remotely interested in but nevertheless need a great grade in to keep up your average. You need first class honours and work experience to even get an interview for postgraduate psychology. Even once you get into postgraduate psych it’s still a lot of work with placement, thesis and coursework.

I would choose between nursing and social work. Nursing is more medical and social work more focused on social issues and injustice/inequalities.

One piece of advice I would give is not to choose a career based solely on wanting to help people because there is more to nursing and social work than just helping people.

Little Miss Social Work:

I have studied both psychology and have a masters in social work, but the reason why I chose social work over psychology is that I enjoy being a case manager and having the ability to work in a wide range of fields rather than than being a “specialist” in the one area. I have been working in state government roles now for 20 years and there is never a dull moment and I have great work conditions and relative job security compared to many psychs I know.

Jack of all Health Trades:

What about having a look at Occupational Therapy? It is a very diverse degree with so many different employment options. I met an OT the other day who works as a private mental health therapist. So it’s a career with a lot of scope.


Me again, but I would choose nursing. Psychology would be fascinating, and it is a wonderful career, but I hear it is difficult to get graduate employment at the moment.

Social work would also be rewarding and can be a great career, but again it’s difficult to secure employment after your degree.

Nursing will always be in demand, and there’s great flexibility in your hours.

Many people go into it thinking, it’s all bedpans and call bells. There is that, but there is more to it.

Personally, I feel you need to have a good level head, be able to respond rationally in high intensity situations, and have a good grasp of things. It is a high stress job, and physically demanding. If you do choose it, make sure you have some coping strategies in place beforehand. I’ve seen many students struggle in many different ways, only to drop out realising it was too hard, not suited to them.

Obviously nursing is broad, and there are lots of job opportunities, and while shift work is terrible to manage sometimes, there are opportunities to get out of shift work.

Many nurses have done further studies, and I think the vast majority of people don’t appreciate that nursing as a profession is more than helping people, many of us are highly skilled and trained in our chosen fields.

Little Miss Social Work:

I used to do clinical management in public mental health service – we all work towards the same criteria even though we are all different allied health professionals. My colleagues are mainly psychologists, social workers and nurses! Frankly we are all very stressed and vicarious trauma is pretty much a given – I’ve worked in both forensic mental health and child and adolescent.

OT is a really cool profession – have you thought of that? Or speech pathology? One of my friends is a speech pathologist and loves it – her clients range from babies to geriatrics and there is a really wide variety of work.


Nearly every career path helps someone in some way, and could be considered rewarding.

Of those three you’ve listed, nursing and psychology (more nursing) are the ones that offer the most direct help to the client.  Social work is less helping someone, and more empowering them to make their own changes, as well as standing up for people with regard to social inequalities and injustices.

Take a step back and think about what inspires and drives you, and where your passions lie.  If you can, do some volunteer work, there’s plenty of places you can volunteer within a nursing and social work environment (not sure about psych).  You’ll know pretty quickly if it’s for you or not, before you commit to a degree you might hate. Best of luck!


You heard Psych-regrets, now find some work experience opportunities..

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