What’s the Difference Between an MSW vs. MFT

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Demand for mental health care is high among Americans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 out of 5 people experience a mental illness each year, and roughly 50% of the population will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lives.

A licensed clinical social worker sits across from a client and listens to them speak.

One of the biggest challenges to addressing the growing need for mental health care is that there aren’t enough mental health providers to meet patient demand. A 2022 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association revealed that 60% of psychologists reported they don’t have the bandwidth to accept new patients. This means many individuals seeking mental health support don’t get the care they need, which can exacerbate their conditions and symptoms.

Students who have an interest in working with people who need help with their mental, emotional or behavioral health will find that an advanced education is often the best way to get started in the profession. Two common paths are a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree and a Master of Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) degree.

While these degrees and the careers they lead to share some similarities, there are many more distinctions between them. Individuals considering a career in mental health care should compare and contrast the MSW vs. the MFT to determine which path is right for them.

MSW vs. MFT: What Are They?

Students who are serious about pursuing a career that focuses on mental health and wellness are encouraged to learn about both degree paths. Understanding what an MSW program entails compared to an MFT is the best way to make an informed decision.

What Is an MSW?

An MSW prepares a student to pursue one of the many roles in social work. MSW students develop advanced interpersonal skills that allow them to engage with clients in meaningful ways. Additionally, they learn how social work can help individuals, families and communities who are facing adversity. Courses in the University of Nevada, Reno MSW program include:

  • Structural Oppression
  • Social Work Methods with Individuals
  • Social Work Methods with Groups
  • Social Work Methods with Couples and Families
  • Therapeutic Interventions with Families
  • Social Work History and Social Welfare Policy

MSW graduates may pursue a career in social work in a generalist capacity or select a specialty that allows them to work with a certain demographic or focus on a specific issue. Examples include child welfare, individuals with disabilities, employee assistance, family services, health care services, the homeless and individuals with mental health issues.

What Is an MFT?

An MFT degree prepares students for a career as a marriage and family therapist capable of performing therapeutic interventions with clients. Students in an MFT program learn how to counsel couples and families who are dealing with substance misuse, marital issues, domestic abuse and other issues. Some of the concepts that students learn about in an MFT program include:

  • Foundations in Psychopathology
  • Couples Counseling
  • Family Therapy
  • Psychopharmacology
  • Group Counseling
  • Substance Abuse and Recovery
  • Law and Ethics for Marriage and Family Therapy

MFT graduates are positioned to pursue careers as marriage and family therapists; however, they also have the option to focus on couples counseling or family counseling.

Similarities Between MSW and MFT Degree Programs

MSW and MFT programs bear some similarities. Both programs require students to have a bachelor’s degree in a related area. They also both take approximately the same amount of time to complete — between two and three years. Further, both degree paths generally require students to undergo multiple years of supervised clinical training to qualify for more advanced roles, such as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

From a salary perspective, there’s little difference between the two occupations. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for marriage and family therapists was $49,880 in 2021, while social workers made a median of $50,390.

The other major parallel between the two roles is the type of work graduates will engage in. Broadly speaking, careers in both fields are geared toward helping people overcome challenges in their lives and addressing issues that cause harm to clients and their relationships.

Finally, MSW and MFT graduates can pursue state licensure. Earning licensure confirms an individual’s skills and knowledge base via a formal exam. MFT graduates must obtain licensure in their state to practice. MSW graduates must obtain licensure if they wish to provide clinical social work services, such as diagnosing and treating those with mental health disorders. Once licensed, most states have requirements in place so that licensure can be maintained, such as additional training or continuing education.

Differences Between MSW and MFT Degree Programs

Although there are several similarities between the MSW and MFT, students considering these programs and the careers they can lead to need to be mindful of their differences as well. One of the primary distinctions is in the philosophy behind each degree. Social work is based on a social justice perspective and approaches interventions with a person-in-environment lens, while marriage and family therapy is based on family systems.

Work environment is another area where the two roles can differ. Both social workers and marriage and family therapists can be found in hospitals, substance abuse treatment centers, mental health facilities and private practices. However, social workers may also work in child services, government agencies, nonprofits and schools. Additionally, a social worker may be required to conduct home visits.

The two roles often serve different clients as well. Social workers support a wide range of people in overcoming personal challenges such as unemployment, illness, loss of a family member, homelessness and mental health issues. Marriage and family therapists work specifically with couples and families and focus on resolving relationship issues.

Another area where social workers and marriage and family therapists diverge is licensure. The MFT license isn’t recognized in every state, whereas clinical social work licensure is recognized across the country and many states have interstate compacts, allowing LCSWs to practice in multiple jurisdictions.

Social workers and marriage and family therapists can also have very different responsibilities and duties. While many LCSWs conduct therapy with clients, others work on issues on a more macro scale, developing or implementing policy and advocating for vulnerable groups. By comparison, marriage and family therapists generally work on a micro level, guiding couples and families through issues that are causing strain in their relationships.

Choose the Degree That’s Right for You

When making the MSW vs. MFT comparison, it’s important to identify what differentiates the two so you can make an informed decision about your educational path. The concepts these programs cover and their respective career options, work environments, responsibilities and the demographics of people MSW and MFT graduates work with are quite distinct.

If you want to make a difference in social work, consider investing in a high-quality education. The University of Nevada, Reno’s online Master of Social Work program teaches students the concepts and skills necessary to become effective, ethical social workers. The program’s focus on advanced generalist practice can prepare students for a wide range of roles. Find out how an MSW can lead to a rewarding career.

Recommended Readings

5 Careers in Corrections for MSW Graduates

Homelessness in America: Statistics, Resources and Organizations

How Early Intervention Can Help Solve Childhood Obesity in America


American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, About Marriage and Family Therapists

American Psychological Association, “Increased Need for Mental Health Care Strains Capacity”

Association of American Medical Colleges, “A Growing Psychiatrist Shortage and an Enormous Demand for Mental Health Services”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, About Mental Health

Indeed, “LMFT vs. LCSW: Career Descriptions Plus Their Main Differences”

Indeed, “MSW Degrees vs. MFT Degrees: Definitions, Similarities and Differences”

Indeed, “What Is a Social Worker? Duties, Types and Requirements”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Marriage and Family Therapists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers

The Washington Post, “Therapists Say They Can’t Meet High Demand as Anxiety, Depression Linger”