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

Updated June 30, 2023

MSWs and MFTs are degrees that can lead to careers focused on providing emotional support for various social groups. However, each degree focuses on different groups and aspects of care. Understanding what these two degrees are and what careers they may lead to can help you decide which degree suits you best. In this article, we define each degree, list the similarities and differences between an MSW and MFT and offer tips to help you decide which degree is right for you.

What is an MSW?

A Master of Social Work (MSW) is an advanced degree that prepares students for a career as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). This degree requires at least two years of additional education after you've earned a bachelor's degree in social work or a related field. Only schools accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) can offer an MSW program.

Related: What Is a Social Worker? Types of Social Workers and Social Work Environments

What is an MFT?

A Master of Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) is an advanced degree that trains students in psychotherapy and performing psychotherapy duties for family units. Graduates with an MFT often become marriage and family therapists (MFTs), counselors or other mental health professionals. The most popular accreditation for universities in the U.S. offering an MFT degree is the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT).

Related: How To Become a Marriage and Family Therapist

Similarities between an MSW and MFT

Though an MSW and MFT often lead to two different careers, these degrees also share similarities, which include:

Bachelor's degrees

Both MSW and MFT degrees require a bachelor's degree in related areas, allowing you to choose your specialization when applying for your advanced degree. You can focus on either family therapy or social work during your undergraduate studies, and these subjects relate closely enough that you can choose your master's degree in either. These similar courses can also help you learn more about your chosen focus before moving on to graduate school.


While an MSW student's education has a broader focus than an MFT student's specialized work with families, their training follows a very similar path. Typically, both degrees require two years of supervised clinical training, often through an internship. This allows trainees to work with an established professional as they learn how to perform daily duties for their respective careers and apply concepts from their college coursework.


Though professional LCSWs earn a little more than MFTs, their salaries are roughly similar. Marriage and family therapists earn an average of $62,746 per year, while licensed clinical social workers earn an average of $68,947 per year in the U.S.

Differences between an MSW vs. MFT

Those earning an MSW or MFT follow similar educational and training paths, but these degrees offer different benefits and career opportunities. When deciding between earning an MSW or an MFT, consider the following differences:


During college, MFT students learn about many specific aspects of families, family systems and family psychology. Their education gives them a strong background in topics that relate directly to their chosen specialization, which might include:

  • Family crises, such as addiction and domestic violence

  • Divorce

  • Cross-cultural psychology

  • Couples counseling

  • Marital and family therapy theory

Those seeking an MSW can also choose a specialized focus for their practice. However, their formal training and education include a broad, generalized collection of subjects relevant to social work. Topics typically covered in an MSW student's education include:

  • Social welfare

  • Social environments

  • Human behavior

  • Systems of oppression

  • Strategic planning

Related: How To Become a Social Worker: Guide to Education and Training Requirements

Licensure and certifications

Each state has its own license requirements for both social workers and family therapists. Those graduating with an MSW need to earn a license in order to practice as a social worker. The most popular license for a social worker is the LCSW, which can allow them to diagnose and treat clients with psychological issues. Most states only require a license if a clinical social worker plans to open their own practice. Many states also require LCSWs to earn continuing education credits in order to keep their licenses.

Most states require licensure from all clinical MFTs. The most popular license is the Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) license. Many states require practicing MFTs to have direct contact with clients in order to get their licenses, and not all states require continuing education credits.

Related: LCSW vs. Psychologist: What's the Difference**?**

Areas of focus

Social workers can choose between three areas of focus when practicing in their field. These areas are:

  • Micro: Social workers mainly perform one-on-one clinical work with individuals and families.

  • Mezzo: Social workers mainly perform counseling for large or at-risk groups experiencing similar issues.

  • Macro: Social workers support large groups of individuals at the county, state or national level.

Practicing MFTs typically work only at the micro level, focusing on supporting individual families in a one-on-one capacity.


Because of their broad areas of study, MSW degrees usually allow graduates to decide between many career paths. Those going into social work can choose to specialize in one area of practice, such as:

  • Children and families

  • Mental health

  • Substance abuse

  • Healthcare

  • School social work

Because of the narrow focus of an MFT degree, the primary job options for MFT students are often choices between different work environments. However, you can choose to focus on facets of family care, such as families with special needs children or families experiencing personal tragedies.

License portability

Though most states maintain their own licensing requirements for an LCSW, these requirements are often similar across states. This means transferring your license between states usually requires little to no additional requirements.

Because of the varying requirements each state has for LMFTs, transferring your license between states can sometimes require you to complete additional training hours, pass an exam or fulfill other requirements, such as background checks or board examinations.

Tips for choosing between an MSW and MFT

When trying to decide whether an MSW or MFT degree fits you best, consider some following factors:

Who you want to support

Deciding what types of people you hope to support during your career can help you decide what degree works best for you. For those who prefer to help families solve their issues together, earning an MFT can be a great first step. If you prefer supporting groups who need help with non-family social issues, such as those facing discrimination for their race or gender, an MSW degree might work best. If you're undecided, an MSW can also give you a wide range of knowledge and experience to help you make your decision.

Your state's requirements

You might find it helpful to understand your state's requirements for each license to decide which is more appealing to you. If you plan to work in a different state than where you attend school or get your license, understanding which licensing requirements can transfer to your new state can help you determine which license is best for you.

The topics that interest you

Becoming either a social worker or a family therapist requires years of schooling, training and licensing, so it can be helpful to determine which you're more interested in before you pursue your career. If a focus on family sounds more interesting, you might decide to earn an MFT. If you hope to learn more about a variety of social and psychological topics, an MSW might suit you best. Taking courses in either family therapy or social work during your undergraduate studies can also help you decide which master's degree you want to pursue.

Disclaimer: Please note that none of the organizations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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