Here’s a glance at each degree:
An MFT, or Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy, teaches techniques in psychotherapy and prepares graduates to give therapy to individuals, couples, and families.
An MSW, or Master of Social Work, focuses on teaching the skills needed to develop programs that tackle social issues, such as poverty and domestic violence, as well as deliver counseling and referral services.
Read on to learn about:
- Differences between the degree programs
- Licensure requirements in each field
- Career opportunities and salaries
Consider a Featured Online Counseling Program
|School and Program Information||Online Program?|
Master of Social Work
No GRE Required
Syracuse University’s CSWE-accredited online Master of Social Work program is preparing the next generation of social work leaders through an emphasis on digital innovation and social justice.Learn More
|Case Western Reserve University|
Master of Social Work
No GRE Required
Case Western Reserve University’s online Master of Social Work program prepares the next generation of social work leaders to become change agents who meet the needs of their communities.Learn More
|University of Southern California|
Master of Social Work
Accredited by the CSWE
✔ Campus, Online
No GRE Required
Tailor your degree with specializations in mental health, children and families, or social change and innovation.Learn More
MS and PhD Therapy, Psychology and Social Work Programs
GRE Scores Not Required
Program Specializations include Military Family Therapy, LGBTQ Couple & Family Therapy, General Family Therapy & MoreLearn More
|University of Denver|
Master of Social Work
CSWE accredited. Designed to adhere to CACREP standards.
✔ Campus, Online
No GRE Required Minimum GPA 2.5
Earn an MSW in as few as 18 months with the advanced standing program, if you have obtained a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) at any point in time.Learn More
*Sponsored Counseling Programs
Online CACREP Accredited programs | Online MPCAC Accredited programs
MSW vs. MFT: What’s Unique About Each Degree?
While both an MSW and MFT will prepare you to empower clients to overcome their challenges, each degree has a unique direction and focus.
What’s an MSW Degree?
An MSW is a professional degree that prepares you to engage in a wide range of activities designed to help individuals, families, and communities overcome adversities and thrive. The degree explores issues central to social work, including how to:
Reduce economic inequality
- Advance social justice
- Work toward equal opportunity
- Close the health care gap
- Address domestic violence
Typically, MSW programs require two years of full-time study, though some schools can accommodate part-time study over a longer period of time. A signature of the MSW degree is field education. MSW students participate in two years of hands-on supervised practicums in which they put their classroom learning to work in the real world.
The MSW curriculum aims to develop key knowledge and skills that social workers need to perform direct social work services, clinical social work, and organizational social work.
Direct social work services involve face-to-face dealings with clients and providing support, guidance, and referrals to social assistance programs and vital resources. Case management and assessments determining a person’s eligibility for services also make up direct social work.
Clinical social work focuses more on addressing mental health needs, diagnosing and providing psychotherapy to treat emotional and psychological problems.
Organizational social work involves developing and administering programs that provide social work services.
Accreditation standards from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) shape the curricula of MSW programs. Throughout your MSW studies, you can expect coursework that covers:
- Studies and theories on human behavior
- The history of social work policy
- Organization building that addresses community needs
- Policy advocacy and analysis methods
- Advanced case management, needs assessment, and intervention strategies
- Methods to identify, analyze, and implement research-informed interventions
- Research methodologies
In addition to general coursework, an MSW gives you opportunities to focus on what you feel most passionate about. Consider some specialization options available:
- Child and family social work, helping families provide nurturing and safe environments to protect children and youth from neglect and abuse
- Gerontological social work, helping older adults manage different aspects of everyday life, including the physical, social, psychological, and economic components
- Justice and corrections social work, providing services in the courts, prisons, police departments, and rape crisis centers
- Public welfare social work, engaging in the organizing and administering of social work programs, supervising and leading staff, and setting and assessing standards
- Developmental disabilities social work, advocating for people with developmental disabilities and helping to identify special services
- Clinical social work, assessing, diagnosing, and providing therapy to those with addictions and mental illness
What’s an MFT Degree?
MFT degrees train students to become mental health practitioners who deliver marriage and family therapy. The therapy involves helping individuals, couples, and families make important changes to improve how they cope with their lives.
Marriage and family therapy is:
- Short term
- Solution driven
- Focused on reaching specific therapeutic goals
- Structured to reach an endpoint
If you choose to enroll in an MFT program, plan for two years of full-time study to complete your degree.
To meet standards set by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE), the national accrediting body for MFT programs, you must complete supervised clinical hours to graduate. The number of hours varies by state.
MFT programs offer courses that train students to deliver therapy that addresses a range of clinical problems, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, marital problems, conflict between children and parents, and individual psychological conditions. Students learn methods to engage in family intervention, group therapy, and marriage counseling.
An MFT prepares you to counsel individuals, couples, and families using various psychotherapy techniques, with an emphasis on family systems. The family systems approach focuses on the interactions between family members or couples. It views the problems or symptoms of a client within the context of those relationships instead of focusing on individual pathologies.
To develop the skills and knowledge required to engage in marriage and family therapy MFT programs provide coursework that covers:
- MFT theories, philosophies, and conceptual foundations
- Treatment approaches designed for individuals, couples, and families
- Evidence-based practices for counseling same-sex couples, children and adolescents, older adults, and interfaith couples
- Research and evaluation
- Ethics and laws governing MFT practice
- Human sexuality and family development
- Assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health conditions
Your MFT studies also give you a chance to focus on an area of specialization by taking classes that go into depth about effective therapeutic approaches for:
- Grief and loss
- Separation and divorce
- Adolescent issues
- Childhood trauma
- LGBTQ issues
- Eating disorders
- High-conflict relationships
- Family dysfunction
- Managing physical health problems
MSW vs. MFT Licensure
After completing an MSW or MFT, graduates must be licensed before they can practice. States determine the licensure and registration requirements, as well as the use of professional titles.
Licensure Requirements After an MSW
After earning an MSW, many social workers go on to become licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs). Although some states don’t demand licensure, most social work activities require a license. If you want to pursue clinical social work, licensure is mandatory in all states.
Specific requirements vary by state, but to become an LCSW, you must:
- Hold an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program
- Apply for a license
- Pass the clinical social work exam
- Complete supervised practice (number of hours vary)
To obtain a nonclinical social work license, check with the state where you want to practice. Most states have different license categories, which recognize various practice scopes. The steps for getting licensure as a nonclinical MSW are similar to those for LCSWs, except not all states require supervised practice.
You can learn about specific state requirements for licensure by referring to the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB).
Licensure Requirements after an MFT
As with social work licensure, states establish the specific rules and requirements for a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) license. Regardless of state differences, all licensed MFTs must:
- Complete a COAMFTE-accredited MFT program
- Fulfill supervised field experience (number of hours required before sitting for exam varies)
- Pass the appropriate MFT licensing exam
In most cases, you’ll take the MFT National Examination that the Association of Marriage and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB) administers, but check with your state to verify.
Career Opportunities: MSW vs. MFT
Both an MSW and MFT can lead to fulfilling careers in the helping professions. Depending on your professional goals and work setting preferences, you can choose from an array of options.
MSWs use their knowledge and skills in many environments. While you may envision social workers in government agencies advocating for abused children, supporting veterans, or assisting the homeless, you may also find social workers in other settings. For example, MSWs work in private practices, adoption agencies, and the courts. Health clinics, addiction centers, and residential homes for the elderly or disabled also employ social workers, as do schools and community-based organizations.
Additionally, many large businesses rely on social workers to direct their corporate social responsibility programs, assist in improving corporate culture, and guide human resources departments.
MSW careers generally fit into the categories of clinical, direct care, and educational social work. Clinical social work includes delivering counseling, psychotherapy, and substance abuse support. Direct care social work includes managing cases, connecting clients to resources, and mediating. Educational social work involves working with students in schools or conducting research.
Additionally, with an MSW, you can choose to work at the organizational level of social work, coordinating programs, shaping policies, and supervising other social workers.
Here are some careers you might explore as a licensed social worker:
- Director of corporate social responsibility, supervises the development and implementation of corporate social responsibility programs
- Clinical social worker, diagnoses and treats mental health and behavioral problems
- Social work policy analyst, advocates for policy reforms on social issues
- Social work administrator, shapes an organization’s policies toward the communities it serves and oversees its programs
- School social worker, provides students and schools with mental health and positive behavioral support and consultations to create conducive learning environments
- Child welfare social worker, protects children from mistreatment by investigating accusations of abuse and supporting families to create safe environments
- Veterans social worker, supports veterans with counseling, discharge planning, and referrals for financial assistance and housing
- Health care social worker, helps people dealing with acute or terminal illness and disease
While careers in social work can lead in multiple directions, MFT careers focus on counseling. Nevertheless, counseling is far from monolithic.
When choosing an MFT career, think about:
- The type of work environment that appeals to you
- The client populations you want to work with (ages, backgrounds, mental health conditions)
Those with an MFT have various options in where they work. Hospitals, mental health facilities, substance abuse treatment centers, and state governments all employ MFTs. You can also find MFTs working for businesses within their employee assistance programs (EAPs). Additionally, many MFTs choose to go into private practice.
Other places MFTs practice include the following:
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers
- Schools and universities
- Correctional facilities and courts
- Health maintenance organizations
With an MFT, you may also collaborate with teams of health care practitioners to provide clients with well-rounded, comprehensive treatment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 21% of MFTs work in the offices of other health care professionals.
You may feel a calling to work with a particular group of people. For example, perhaps your own family experience draws you to work involving elderly clients dealing with dementia, or, maybe you’re fascinated by childhood development and want to concentrate your career on work with young children.
Consider the following areas where you may focus your counseling career:
- Bipolar disorders
- Domestic violence
- Marital problems
- Adjustment to disease
- Emotional and behavioral disorders
- Childhood and adolescent conduct disorders
- Distress-related disorders
- Personality disorders
- Sexuality issues
MSW vs. MFT Salary
Salaries for MSW and MFT careers can vary considerably depending on where you choose to work and your position. Nevertheless, BLS salary data can offer a good idea of income ranges in each field.
Salaries for MSWs
As of May 2020, social worker salaries ranged from $33,020 to $85,820; the median annual salary was $51,760. Health care social workers earned the most, and social workers in local governments (excluding hospitals and schools owned by local governments), also earned salaries higher than social workers in other industries.
Salaries for MFTs
As of May 2020, MFT salaries ranged from $33,140 to $92,930; the median annual salary was $51,340. Overall, MFTs working for state government agencies, excluding state-owned schools and hospitals, earned more
than others, as did MFTs working in outpatient care centers.
Explore Your MSW Vs MFT Career Options
Whether delivering therapy that saves a marriage or connecting clients to critical resources during their time of need, both MSWs and MFTs have the opportunity to change people’s lives. By examining the differences between MSW vs. MFT degrees and career options, you can find the path that meets your professional goals.