MSW vs MFT: What’s the Difference?

Choosing the right postgraduate degree is pivotal for those seeking a fulfilling mental health, social work, or counseling career. The Master’s of Social Work (MSW) and Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) are two of the most prominent degrees in these fields. While each degree opens the door to robust career opportunities, their focus, methodologies, and outcomes may differ.

Therefore, this comprehensive guide will provide insights into these programs, outlining their curricula, accreditation, field education requirements, and potential career paths.

MFT and MSW: What Similarities do they Share?

MFT and MSW may be different graduate-level programs, but they prepare students for rewarding careers in helping professions. Here are some of the similarities they share;

Core Mission

MSW and MFT programs are underpinned by a commitment to help individuals, families, and communities thrive. Professionals in both fields work to provide support to those navigating life challenges, from interpersonal issues to more complex mental health conditions.

Interpersonal Focus

Both fields strongly emphasize understanding and improving interpersonal relationships. Whether it’s an MSW working with a family to navigate the complexities of the child welfare system or an MFT helping a couple enhance their communication and problem-solving skills, the focus is often on strengthening relationships and fostering positive change.

Clinical Practice

MSWs and MFTs can engage in clinical practice, providing therapy and counseling services to individuals, couples, and families. In both fields, practitioners draw from various therapeutic approaches and interventions, thus tailoring their strategies to their client’s unique needs.

Ethical Standards

High ethical standards and principles govern both professions, and practitioners must adhere to their professional codes.

MSW vs MFT: What are their Overall Differences?

Despite the similarities between MSW and MFT, they have their differences. Here are some aspects you’ll notice the differences when doing an MSW vs MFT.

Scope of Study

An MSW program generally offers a broader scope of the study, encompassing various aspects of social work practice at the micro (individual), mezzo (group/community), and macro (societal/policy) levels. On the other hand, an MFT program offers a narrower, more specialized focus on the dynamics within couples and families and the therapy techniques effective for these groups.

Core Focus

MSW programs typically cover various topics, including social welfare policy, human behavior and the social environment, research, and social work practice with individuals, groups, and communities. In contrast, MFT programs concentrate primarily on systemic and relational perspectives to understand and address the psychological issues of individuals, couples, and families.

Professional Roles

With an MSW degree, graduates can work in various roles beyond therapy, such as case management, community outreach, policy advocacy, and administration. On the other hand, MFT graduates primarily work in therapeutic roles, providing counseling services to individuals, couples, and families in various settings.

Accreditation and Licensure

MSW programs are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), and graduates can become Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW). MFT programs are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE), and graduates can become Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFT).

Field Education/Clinical Hours

While both programs require supervised field education or clinical hours, MFT programs typically require more direct client contact, particularly with couples and families.

The choice between an MSW and MFT program ultimately depends on your specific career goals, interests, and preferred method of helping others. By understanding the key similarities and differences, you can make an informed decision about the best path forward for your career in the helping professions.

MSW vs MFT Salary Differences

In the mental health and social services field, salary potential can be influenced by many factors, including educational background, geographic location, experience level, specialization area, and employment sector. Therefore, the earnings of MSW vs MFT can vary considerably.

On average, Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs) often have slightly higher salaries than social workers. This can be attributed to their specialized therapeutic skills and knowledge, which are highly valued in clinical and counseling settings. However, it’s important to note that MSWs working in specific specializations or sectors (like healthcare or private practice), or those pursuing additional certifications, can also command competitive salaries. See the breakdown:

Master’s of Social Work (MSW) Salary

The average annual wage for social workers was $50,390 in May 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS); however, according to BLS, the lowest 10 percent earned less than $36,520, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $82,840.

Here is a BLS breakdown of the average annual wages based on the area of specialization in May 2021.

  • Social workers, all other — $61,190
  • Healthcare social workers — $60,840
  • Child, family, and school social workers — $49,150
  • Mental health and substance abuse social workers — $49,130

Here is a BLS breakdown of the average annual wages based on the employment sector in May 2021.

  • Local government, excluding education and hospitals — $61,190
  • Ambulatory healthcare services — $58,700
  • State government, excluding education and hospitals — $48,090
  • Individual and family services — $46,640

Learn More: Social Worker Salaries

Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) Salary

The average annual wage for a Family and Marriage Therapist is $49,880 in May 2021, according to BLS, which is slightly lower than that of MSW. However, it’s a different case regarding the highest 10 percent earned, more than $96,520, and the lowest 10 percent earned, less than $37,050.

Here is the breakdown of average annual wages for marriage and family therapists in the top industries in May 2021, according to BLS;

  • State government, excluding education and hospitals — $77,960
  • Outpatient care centers — $57,930
  • Offices of other health practitioners — $49,630
  • Individual and family services — $48,340

Regarding MSW vs MFT salary, it is important to note that salary should not be the sole deciding factor when choosing a career path. Both MSWs and MFTs provide essential services that are rewarding in ways that extend beyond monetary compensation. It is crucial to consider your interests, passions, and the kind of impact you want to have when deciding between these two professions.

MSW vs MFT Programs: Studying Master’s of Social Work and Master’s of Marriage and Family Therapy

Both the MSW and MFT programs offer rigorous paths of study and training. However, the specifics of the curriculum, field education requirements, and accreditation standards differ. Let’s compare the study paths of MFT vs MSW programs.

Masters of Social Work Programs

CSWE-accredited online MSW programs offer a comprehensive curriculum encompassing social welfare policy, human behavior, research methods, and specific fields within social work (e.g., healthcare, mental health, child welfare). A critical component is field education, where students complete internships or practicums to gain hands-on experience. Advanced standing MSW programs enable BSW graduates to complete their MSW in less time, utilizing their undergraduate coursework and experience.

Regarding specialization, MSW programs cover areas like clinical social work, children and families, mental health, or social policy, allowing students to focus on their areas of interest. The training also prepares students for roles in micro, mezzo, and macro levels of practice, providing versatility in career prospects.

Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy Programs

COAMFTE-accredited MFT programs deliver a specialized curriculum focusing on family systems theory, couples therapy, child and adolescent therapy, and more. Like MSW programs, field education is integral, requiring students to complete many clinical hours under supervision. Theoretical courses are paired with practical training, equipping students to work effectively with couples and families in therapeutic contexts.

Also, MFT programs typically lead to roles in therapy and counseling settings, working directly with individuals, couples, and families.

Accreditation Process for MSW and MFT Programs

Accreditation is a process of validation in which colleges, universities, and other institutions of higher learning are evaluated. The standards for accreditation are set by a peer review board whose members include faculty from various accredited colleges and universities. The committee aids in assessing the extent to which a given program meets the established standards. Here is MFT vs MSW accreditation process;

Accreditation for MSW Programs

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the primary accrediting body for MSW programs. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) recognize this organization’s accreditation. The CSWE accreditation process ensures that MSW programs meet high academic and professional standards. The curriculum for these programs is usually comprehensive, touching on a wide range of social work topics.

Attending a CSWE-accredited program is crucial for several reasons:

  • It is often a prerequisite for licensure.
  • It indicates that the program’s curriculum has been vetted for quality and relevance.
  • It can influence employment opportunities, as many employers prefer candidates who have graduated from an accredited program.

Accreditation for MFT Programs

The Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) is the crucial accrediting body for MFT programs.

The COAMFTE operates under the auspices of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT). MFT programs with COAMFTE accreditation have undergone a rigorous review process to ensure they meet or exceed the standards set forth by the accrediting body.

Similar to CSWE accreditation for MSW programs, COAMFTE accreditation for MFT programs is essential for the following reasons:

  • It is often required for licensure.
  • It signifies that the program’s curriculum aligns with industry standards and best practices.
  • It opens up more job opportunities, as many employers prefer graduates from accredited programs.

MFT vs MSW Licensure: Licensing Bodies Involved and Requirements

Licensure is mandatory for clinical social workers across the United States, and the specific requirements vary from state to state. However, some common elements are prevalent among most licensing bodies.

Licensure for Clinical Social Workers

After earning an MSW degree, prospective clinical social workers must complete several hours of postgraduate supervised experience. This requirement often ranges from 2,000 to 3,000 hours for about two years.

Once this experience is completed, the next step is to pass a licensure examination. The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) offers a Clinical Exam, which is accepted in most states. The test is designed to measure the candidate’s ability to perform at the level expected of a professional social worker.

Furthermore, maintaining licensure generally requires ongoing continuing education, ensuring social workers stay updated on best practices, ethical standards, and advancements in the field.

Licensure for Clinical Marriage and Family Therapists

The licensure process for Marriage and Family Therapists is similar to that for social workers but focuses on the specific competencies related to family systems and relationships. After earning an MFT degree, candidates must complete a period of postgraduate supervised experience.

This usually requires about 2,000 to 3,000 hours, with a specific portion of those hours spent working directly with couples or families.

Following the supervised experience, candidates need to pass a licensure examination. The Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB) offers a national exam accepted in most states. The test measures a candidate’s understanding of the theories and practices specific to marriage and family therapy.

Like LCSWs, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs) are typically required to pursue continuing education to maintain their licensure, keeping them up-to-date with ongoing changes and developments in the field.

It’s important to note that while these are typical licensure requirements, the specifics can vary by state. As such, individuals should always confirm the conditions in their particular state before embarking on the path to licensure.

Degrees Required to Become a Licensed Social Worker or a Marriage and Family Therapist

You must have obtained certain degrees before being a licensed social worker or a marriage and family therapist. Learn more below;

Degree Required for Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs)

To become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), one must first obtain a Master’s degree in Social Work (MSW) from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). The MSW degree is generally a two-year program for full-time students. However, part-time, online, and advanced-standing options allow more flexibility. The curriculum for MSW programs includes theoretical coursework in areas such as human behavior, social welfare policy, research methods, and practical components like field education.

Degree Required for Clinical Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs)

For individuals interested in becoming Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs), the entry-level educational requirement is a Master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy or a related field. The program must be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) or meet the state’s educational requirements.

Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy programs typically take two to three years to complete for full-time students. These programs delve into family systems theories, couples therapy, child and adolescent therapy, and more, preparing graduates for therapeutic roles working with couples, families, and individuals.

Whether one pursues an MSW or MFT degree depends on career goals and interests. Both degrees provide valuable training for working in the mental health and social services fields, but each prepares graduates for different specializations and roles. It’s crucial to consider these differences when choosing a degree path carefully.

MFT vs MSW Career Options

MSWs and MFTs have diverse career options in social services, healthcare, and mental health. The career paths available to professionals in these fields largely depend on their specific degree and the work they are interested in. Here are some potential career paths for MFT vs MSW;

Master’s of Social Work (MSW)

  • Clinical Social Worker — MSW graduates can become Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) who provide psychotherapy services to individuals, couples, families, and groups to address mental health and life challenges.
  • Medical Social Worker — Medical social workers operate in healthcare settings such as hospitals, clinics, and home health agencies. They support patients and their families through complex diagnoses, helping them navigate the healthcare system and access necessary resources.
  • School Social Worker —These professionals work in educational settings to help students address social, behavioral, and emotional issues that may affect their academic performance and overall well-being.
  • Social and Community Service Manager —Individuals with an MSW might work administrative roles, such as managing community programs, supervising staff, and directing social service settings.
  • Policy Advocate — Some MSWs work in policy development and advocacy, aiming to influence legislation and social policies to address social justice issues and improve community welfare.

Learn More: What Can You Do with a Master’s in Social Work?

Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT)

  • Marriage and Family Therapist — MFT graduates often work as therapists providing psychotherapy to couples, families, and individuals experiencing relationship issues or other mental health problems.
  • Child and Family Therapist — These therapists work with children and their families, addressing behavioral problems, academic concerns, family conflict, and mental health disorders.
  • Couples Therapist — Some MFTs specialize in working specifically with couples, helping them navigate relationship issues, improve communication, and build healthier partnerships.
  • Group Therapist — MFTs can work with groups, facilitating therapy sessions for individuals who share common issues or experiences, such as grief, addiction, or divorce.
  • Clinical Supervisor or Program Director — With experience, MFTs can take supervisory or managerial roles in mental health agencies or private practice settings, overseeing other therapists and directing programs.

Job Outlook

The job outlook for both professions is promising, with the demand for mental health professionals expected to grow. However, specific growth rates differ based on geographic area and specialization.

MFT vs MSW Resources

For those interested in pursuing an MSW or MFT, various resources are available to help guide their decision. Prospective students are encouraged to review these and COAMFTE websites for more information about accredited programs. Additionally, websites such as offer comprehensive information about various aspects of social work and MFT education and careers.

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