MSW vs MFT: Which is Right for You?

MSW vs MFT: What’s the Difference?

Choosing the right career path can be overwhelming, especially when deciding between similar yet distinct professions, such as clinical social work and marriage and family therapy. In this article, we will dive into the key similarities and differences between obtaining a Master of Social Work (MSW) and a Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) degree, exploring aspects such as salary, job outlook, curriculum, and more.

MSW vs MFT: Similarities and Differences

What is MSW?

An MSW, or Master of Social Work, is a graduate degree that prepares students for advanced social work practice. MSW programs typically focus on macro, mezzo, and micro levels of practice, providing a broad understanding of social systems and how they impact individuals and communities.

It prepares you for various areas of practice, including healthcare, education, and law. There are also online MSW programs that provide flexibility for students who are working or need to balance other responsibilities.

What is a MFT?

An MFT, or Marriage and Family Therapist degree, is a graduate program focusing on relationships within families and couples. MFT programs typically train students to assess, diagnose, and treat mental health issues impacting relationships within a family system. Licensed MFT graduates can work in various settings, including; non-profit organizations, healthcare organizations, educational organizations, and private practice.

Key Similarities

While Master of Social Work (MSW) and Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) degrees lead to different career paths, they share several key similarities:

  • Client Focus: MSWs and MFTs work directly with clients, employing therapeutic skills to help them navigate personal and interpersonal challenges.
  • Understanding Human Behavior: Both fields require a deep understanding of human behavior, including social, cognitive, emotional, and environmental influences.
  • Counseling Skills: Whether they’re working with individuals, couples, or families, both MFTs and MSWs use counseling skills to help clients understand and manage their issues. This could include cognitive-behavioral strategies, solution-focused techniques, or psychoeducation.
  • Empathy and Communication: Both professions require a high degree of empathy and strong communication skills. This allows practitioners to build rapport with clients, empathize with their experiences, and effectively guide them toward their goals.
  • Advocacy: MFTs and MSWs often advocate for their clients, striving to ensure they have access to the resources, support, and rights they need.
  • Ethics: Both fields are governed by strict ethical guidelines to prioritize clients’ well-being. This includes confidentiality, informed consent, and respect for clients’ autonomy.
  • Continual Learning: Whether pursuing an MSW or an MFT, students will be expected to continue learning and professional development throughout their careers. This keeps practitioners up-to-date with the latest research and best practices in their fields.
  • Licensing: MSWs and MFTs require licensing to practice independently in most states, ensuring practitioners have the necessary training and experience to provide safe and effective care.

While these similarities exist, the way these elements manifest can differ significantly based on the scope and focus of each field.

Key Differences

While MSWs and MFTs share some similarities, there are key differences that prospective students should consider:

  • Focus of Study: MSW programs usually have a broader scope, examining individual, community, and societal issues. On the other hand, MFT programs primarily focus on the dynamics and psychological health of families and couples.
  • Treatment Approach: While both MSWs and MFTs provide counseling services, their approaches often differ. MFTs typically approach issues from a relational or systemic perspective, looking at how issues affect the entire family unit or couple. MSWs, on the other hand, might focus more on how social issues impact an individual’s mental and emotional health.
  • Scope of Practice: MSWs often work in various roles and settings, from hospitals and schools to government agencies, and may work with individuals, families, groups, or entire communities. MFTs primarily work with couples or families, often in private practice or outpatient mental health centers.
  • Social Justice and Advocacy: While both professions involve advocacy, MSWs often engage more directly in social justice work, advocating for policy changes or systemic reforms to address broader social issues.
  • Career Options: While there’s overlap in the roles MSWs and MFTs can fill, some differences exist. MSWs may work as clinical social workers, policy analysts, or community outreach workers, among other roles. MFTs often work as relationship or family therapists, though they may also work in research or policy roles related to family health.
  • Accreditation Bodies: MSW programs are usually accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). In contrast, MFT programs are typically accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) or the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

These differences can have significant implications for your career path and day-to-day work, so it’s essential to consider them when deciding which degree to pursue.

Clinical Social Workers vs Marriage and Family Therapists

Clinical Social Workers (CSWs) and Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs) are essential mental health and wellness professionals. Still, they approach their work in distinct ways and focus on different aspects of client support.

Clinical Social Workers (CSWs)

CSWs often focus on helping clients handle daily challenges, cope with personal and career changes, and improve their well-being. They may provide psychotherapy, help clients navigate social systems, and connect clients with necessary resources. Their work can include:

  • Individual Counseling: CSWs often provide individual counseling, working one-on-one with clients to help them manage mental health issues like depression, anxiety, or trauma.
  • Resource Connection: A significant part of a CSW’s role involves connecting clients with resources, such as government aid programs, housing assistance, or healthcare services.
  • Advocacy: CSWs often advocate for their clients, ensuring they have access to the services they need and that their rights are respected within various systems.
  • Team Collaboration: Many CSWs work as part of a multidisciplinary team, collaborating with doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals to provide holistic care to clients.

Marriage and Family Therapists

MFTs, on the other hand, are specialists in interpersonal dynamics. They primarily work with couples and families, helping them navigate relationship challenges and improve their communication and problem-solving skills. MFTs often focus on the following:

  • Relationship Counseling: MFTs are specialists in helping couples navigate their relationships. They provide tools and techniques to improve communication, resolve conflicts, and strengthen bonds.
  • Family Dynamics: MFTs often work with entire families, addressing issues that affect the family system. This can include helping families navigate significant changes, like divorce or the death of a family member.
  • Mental Health: Like CSWs, MFTs provide mental health support but often do so within the context of a couple’s or family’s dynamics.
  • Group Therapy: MFTs may offer group therapy sessions, providing a supportive environment where family members or couples can share their experiences, learn from others, and develop new skills.

Remember, both professions require compassion, active listening skills, and the ability to communicate effectively.

 Both fields are also focused on helping people improve their quality of life. However, the choice between becoming a Clinical Social Worker or a Marriage and Family Therapist often comes down to whether you’re more interested in working with individuals and communities (as a CSW) or focusing on the dynamics of relationships (as an MFT).

MSW vs MFT Salary and Job Outlook

MSW Salary

As of May 2021, the median salary for a social worker with an MSW was around $50,390 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The same report showed that the lowest 10 percent earned less than $36,520, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $82,840.

Below are the median annual salaries for MSW based on the area of specialization as of 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

And the median annual salary may vary based on the industry. See below;

  • 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

However, you should know that salaries can vary greatly depending on the area of specialty, geographical location, and years of experience.

MFT Salary

Marriage and Family Therapists have a median annual wage of around $49,880 as of May 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The statistics showed that the lowest 10 percent earned less than $37,050, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $96,520. Like with social workers, income can vary based on location, specialty, and experience.

Here is a breakdown of MFTs annual median earnings based on industry according to the BLS May 2021 statistics.

  • 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

Master of Social Work Job Outlook

The job outlook for MSWs is favorable. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a growth rate of 9% from 2021 to 2031, which is faster than the average for all occupations.

 According to the BLS, 74,000 openings are available annually over the decade. Meanwhile, many of these openings resulted from occupation change, exit, or retirement. Some social work specializations predicted to be high in demand include; child and family social workers, health social workers, and mental health and social abuse social workers.

Marriage and Family Therapist Job Outlook

The job outlook for MFTs is also robust. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a 14% growth rate from 2021 to 2031, which is way faster than the average. According to BLS, an average of 6,400 openings was projected yearly over the decade. And with increasing recognition of the importance of mental health and relationships, the demand for MFTs is expected to grow.

MFT vs MSW Education & Curriculum

What Degree Do I Need to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist?

To become a licensed MFT therapist, you will need a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, counseling, psychology, or a related field. Meanwhile, consider a doctoral degree to dive into the teaching or research field.

Some students pursue an online master’s degree in counseling for flexibility. It is after you’ve obtained at least a Master’s degree in Marriage and Family therapy that’s when you can take the licensure examination.

MFT Curriculum

Marriage and Family Therapy programs are designed to provide a deep understanding of human relationships and the dynamics within families and couples. The curriculum of an MFT program generally includes some common courses for subjects.

  • Couples Therapy: This course explores the dynamics of romantic relationships, including conflict resolution, communication techniques, and interventions to enhance connection.
  • Family Systems Theory: This foundational course introduces students to the various theoretical models used to understand family dynamics, from structural to strategic to systemic models.
  • Human Sexuality: This course covers the psychological, biological, and social aspects of human sexuality, often discussing topics like sexual orientation, sexual disorders, and sex therapy.
  • Child and Adolescent Therapy: This course focuses on the specific therapeutic needs and strategies for working with children and adolescents within a family context.
  • Psychopathology: This course delves into the study of mental disorders, including their classification, diagnosis, and treatment, emphasizing how these disorders affect family dynamics and relationships.
  • Ethics in Family Therapy: This course explores ethical issues and professional standards in marriage and family therapy, including confidentiality, informed consent, and professional boundaries.
  • Research Methods in MFT: Students learn how to understand, evaluate, and conduct marriage and family therapy research.

These courses provide the knowledge and skills necessary to understand the complexity of family systems and provide effective therapy to couples, families, and individuals. Each course aims to blend theory with practical applications, often including case studies, role-playing, and other hands-on learning opportunities.

This is a general overview; specific programs might have different requirements or offer various courses. Always check with the particular institution to understand their curriculum.

MSW Curriculum

The curriculum for a Master’s in Social Work (MSW) program provides a well-rounded education in social work theory, methods, and skills. Here are the core courses typically found in an MSW curriculum:

  • Social Welfare Policy and Services: This course provides an overview of social welfare policy in the United States, focusing on how policy impacts social work practice and how social workers can influence policy development.
  • Human Behavior in the Social Environment: This course explores how human behavior is influenced by various factors, such as biological, social, cultural, and economic factors. The aim is to better understand human behavior’s complexity to assist clients in different social work settings.
  • Research Methods in Social Work: This course introduces research methods in social work, equipping students with the knowledge to evaluate and apply research findings in their practice and conduct their research.
  • Social Work Practice with Individuals, Families, and Groups: This set of courses (usually taken in a sequence) provides practical skills for working with different population groups. This includes counseling techniques, intervention strategies, and ways to support clients navigating life challenges.
  • Field Education: Field education or practicum placements offer hands-on experience in social work settings. This is where students can apply what they’ve learned in their courses, working directly with clients under the supervision of experienced social workers.
  • Ethics in Social Work: This course examines the ethical issues that social workers face and provides a framework for ethical decision-making. Topics include confidentiality, informed consent, and the social worker’s responsibility towards clients and society.
  • Specialized Electives: Many MSW programs allow students to specialize in a particular area of social work, such as child and family social work, mental health, school social work, or community development. These specialized electives allow students to gain in-depth knowledge in their chosen area.

Remember, this list provides a general overview, and the exact curriculum may vary depending on the specific program and school. Always check with the particular institution to understand their curriculum.

MFT vs MSW Accreditation

MSW Accreditation – CSWE

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is a national association that accredits bachelor’s and master’s level social work programs. It promotes and maintains high educational standards for these programs, ensuring students receive a quality education that prepares them for the profession.

CSWE accreditation involves a thorough review process where programs must demonstrate their adherence to the CSWE’s Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards. These standards cover program mission and goals, curriculum, faculty, resources, and student support services.

In most states, earning a degree from a CSWE-accredited online MSW program is usually required for licensure as a social worker. This accreditation reassures students, employers, and the public that the program meets nationally accepted standards for social work education.

MFT Accreditation

Here are some bodies in charge of MFT accreditation;


The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) is an independent accrediting body that ensures counseling programs meet the highest educational and professional standards. While CACREP accredits a range of counseling programs, it does include specific criteria for Marriage, Couple, and Family Counseling programs.

Programs receiving CACREP accreditation have rigorously reviewed their curriculum, faculty, resources, and student outcomes. This ensures that students receive a quality education that prepares them for professional practice.


The Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) is the primary accrediting body for marriage and family therapy programs. It sets the standards for graduate and post-graduate programs and doctoral programs.

COAMFTE-accredited MFT programs are recognized for their commitment to preparing qualified marriage and family therapists. These programs have demonstrated their adherence to COAMFTE’s stringent standards, which cover areas such as the program’s mission, curriculum, faculty, student support, and outcomes.

Choosing a program that CACREP or COAMFTE accredits ensures that the education received meets the high standards set by these organizations and is essential for licensure in many states.

Licensure for Clinical Social Workers and MFTs

Both professions require licensure to practice independently. The specific requirements can vary by state but typically involve a master’s degree from an accredited program, a certain amount of supervised clinical experience, and passing a licensing exam. Therefore, you can go online to check the specific licensure requirements for your state.

Career Options for MSW and MFTs

MSWs and MFTs provide valuable services to individuals, families, and communities. However, the specific roles professionals in these fields might fill can vary significantly.

MSW Careers

Professionals with a Master’s in Social Work have a wide range of career options available to them, including:

  • Clinical Social Worker: In this role, you’ll provide mental health services to individuals, groups, or families. This includes diagnosis, treatment, and ongoing management of mental health issues.
  • School Social Worker: Here, you’ll work within educational settings, helping students navigate social, emotional, and behavioral challenges that may impact their academic success.
  • Healthcare Social Worker: In this role, you’ll work within healthcare settings, assisting patients and their families in navigating health-related challenges, from understanding a diagnosis to accessing necessary healthcare services.
  • Child and Family Social Worker: In this role, you’ll work primarily with children and their families, assisting with various issues, including child welfare concerns, family conflict, and navigating social service systems.
  • Community Social Worker: You’ll work at the community level, advocating for social change and coordinating community services to meet local needs.

MFT Careers

Professionals with a degree in Marriage and Family Therapy also have several career paths available:

  • Marriage and Family Therapist: In this role, you’ll provide counseling services to couples and families, addressing various relationship issues and helping improve communication and conflict resolution skills.
  • Child and Family Therapist: Here, you’ll specialize in working with children and their families, addressing family dynamics that may impact a child’s well-being and development.
  • Group Therapist: In this role, you’ll facilitate group therapy sessions, providing a safe environment for individuals to share experiences, learn new skills, and find support.
  • Relationship Coach: Here, you’ll guide and advise couples looking to strengthen their relationships. This can involve premarital counseling, relationship education, and ongoing coaching.
  • Clinical Supervisor or Educator: With additional experience, MFTs can also take on supervisory or teaching roles within their organizations or at academic institutions.

Remember, the specific job you can get with an MSW or MFT degree can depend on other factors, such as your work experience, any additional certifications or licenses you hold, and the specific needs of your local job market.

Tips for Choosing Between an MFT and MSW

Consider your career goals, interests, and the population you want to serve. If you are interested in broader social issues, policy, or community-level work, an MSW might be the right fit. An MFT could be better if you’re more interested in interpersonal relationships and family dynamics.

Remember, both professions require empathy, communication skills, and a passion for helping others. No matter your path, you’ll enter a rewarding field with the power to make a difference in people’s lives.

Whether you’re leaning towards an MSW or MFT, we wish you the best in your journey toward a fulfilling career. Always remember the best choice is the one that aligns with your personal goals and passion.

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