MFT vs. MSW: Which Path Is Right for You?

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Online Master of Social Work

A social worker is making a home visit to a client in a wheelchair.The desire to help people in need is a defining characteristic of humanity. For some of us, the urge to come to the aid of our neighbors in distress sets us on a path to a career in service to others. Two career options that highlight the growing need to help alleviate the suffering in our communities are social workers and marriage and family therapists.

The first step toward either of these careers is earning either a Master of Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) or a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. While considerable overlap exists between the two degree programs, students choosing between an MFT  sus MSW need to know what distinguishes each degree and how each prepares them to meet their career objectives.

By understanding the similarities and differences between the MFT and MSW curricula, certificates and licensing, career paths, salaries, and job outlooks, students can decide which degree best matches their goals.

MFT vs. MSW: Comparing the Curricula

The primary difference between the curricula for MFT versus  MSW degrees is the focus of the MFT curriculum on families and marital relationships. By comparison, the MSW curriculum takes a broader approach and covers topics such as social environments, human behavior, and ways to address structural inequities in society. However, many specialty areas are available in both degree programs that entail a considerable amount of overlap in the topics they cover.

MFT Curriculum

MFT degree programs teach students how to diagnose, assess, and treat mental illness. The courses include instruction in such areas as counseling principles and methods, marriage and family relationships, and psychotherapeutic techniques that bolster couple and family relationships. Among the topics covered are families in crisis due to addiction and domestic violence, couples counseling, divorce, cross-cultural psychology, and marital and family therapy theory.

MSW Curriculum

The broader approach of MSW degree programs provides a general background in the policy along with intervention approaches for individuals, families, and groups. Coursework in various MSW specializations includes clinical, administrative, and rural social work, as well as working with children and adolescents in individual and group settings. The MSW curriculum covers:

  • Social welfare policy
  • Social work practice with groups and communities
  • Human behavior in social environments
  • Direct practice with children, adolescents, adults, families, and groups.

MFT Career Paths

Marriage and family therapists work with families and couples to identify and address psychological issues that may affect their relationships. They provide direct support through one-to-one therapy, couples therapy, and other approaches. They also help families connect with support resources in the community, and they coordinate with doctors and other health care professionals to determine the best treatment options.

The first step to becoming a marriage and family therapist is to earn a master’s degree in psychology, marriage and family therapy, or a related field of mental health. Counseling programs are accredited by several organizations, including the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE), and the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC).

Marriage and family therapists are licensed by the state where they practice. To qualify for a state license, candidates must have earned a master’s degree and completed a certain number of hours of supervised clinical work, which is typically between 2,000 and 4,000 hours for most states. In addition to passing the state-issued exam, marriage and family therapists must complete continuing education requirements. The Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB) explains the licensing requirements for each state.

Marriage and Family Therapist Salary and Job Growth

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecasts that employment of marriage and family therapists will increase by 16% between 2020 and 2030, much faster than the average growth projected for all occupations in the period. The median annual salary for the position was $51,340 — ranging from $33,140 for the lowest 10% to $92,930 for the highest 10% — as of May 2020.

While many marriage and family therapists establish private practices, others are employed by outpatient clinics, health practices, and other health care providers. Common career paths for marriage and family therapists are transitioning to mental health therapy and serving as clinical directors.

MSW Career Paths

While some administrative social worker positions are available to those with only a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), employment as a clinical social worker requires an MSW degree and at least two years of experience in a supervised clinical setting. Clinical social workers focus on one of three practice areas:

  • Working one on one in a clinical setting with families and individuals
  • Counseling large groups, typically groups of people at risk or clients facing similar challenges
  • Supporting large groups of people via work at the municipal, county, state, or national level

Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) are mental health professionals who provide a range of services to individuals and families, including the following:

  • Psychological counseling
  • Assisting clients in securing and maintaining a home and a job
  • Helping clients navigate the basics of everyday living
  • Soliciting and addressing the concerns of clients
  • Coordinating each client’s care with health care, occupational, and other services

Clinical social workers are licensed by their states, and the requirements for earning a license vary by state. The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) maintains a database that explains the requirements for licensing, supervised experience, and continuing education in each state.

The largest employers of social workers, according to the BLS, are individual and family services (18%);  local governments, excluding education and hospitals (14%); ambulatory health care services (14%); and state governments, excluding education and hospitals (14%). Among the job titles of MSW graduates are:

  • Substance abuse counselor
  • Geriatric social worker
  • Crisis counselor
  • Child protective services caseworker
  • Group therapist
  • Nonprofit executive director
  • Community outreach specialist
  • Director of corporate social responsibility.

Social Worker Salary and Job Growth

The BLS forecasts that the number of jobs for social workers will increase by 12% between 2020 and 2030, faster than the average for all occupations. The most in-demand roles for social workers in the period are child, family, and school social workers; health care social workers; and mental health and substance abuse social workers.

The median annual salary of social workers was $51,760 — ranging from $33,020 for the lowest 10% to $85,820 for the highest 10% — as of May 2020. The salary survey site PayScale states that the most popular skills for LCSWs are case management, patient counseling, crisis intervention, and group therapy.

Laying the Groundwork for Careers in Service to Others

A career as a marriage and family therapist or a clinical social worker begins by earning an MFT or MSW degree from an accredited program, such as Ohio University’s online MSW. The program teaches the skills to qualify for positions that directly address the obstacles underserved communities must overcome to access the support services they need. Find out how the Ohio University MSW program prepares graduates to help make a change in their communities.

Recommended Reading

4 Types of Therapist Roles to Pursue with an MSW

In Pursuit of Racial Equity: The Social Worker’s Role

Mental Health Social Worker Career Overview: Salary, Job Description & More


Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards, State Requirements

Association of Social Work Boards, Laws and Regulations Database

Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education, Accreditation Process at a Glance

Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, Understanding Accreditation

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

Indeed, Social Worker Job Description: Top Duties and Qualifications

Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council, Benefits

PayScale, Average Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) Salary

PayScale, Average Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Salary

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

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers