What are the Differences MFT vs MSW (LCSW) Degree

Many students who are interested in employment in mental health and psychotherapy look at earning one of two graduate degrees: the Master of Social Work and the Master of Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT). The MSW results eventually in the student becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), while the MFT results in a career as a marriage and family therapist.

Each career path bears similarity to the other. However, there are substantial differences in the education path and focus of treatment.

MSW and MFT Differences

A clinical social worker takes more a person-in-the-environment perspective. This point of view encompasses everyone from employers, to educators, to society overall. Clinical social workers often are working with families who are in crisis. They often offer more counseling and less casework than a regular social worker.

On the other hand, marriage and family therapy is approached from more of a systemic point of view and usually is focused on family and other close personal relationships.

Also, professionals with an MSW degree tend to have broader, community-oriented training, while professionals with the MFT receive more specialized psychotherapy training.

If you are thinking about a career in mental health, you should learn about the MSW vs MFT extensively. Armed with plenty of information, then you can make an informed choice about which master’s program to pursue.

What Is the MSW?

A MSW is a graduate level social work degree that takes at least two years of study after earning your bachelor’s degree. A student can have a bachelor’s degree in a different field other than social work, but having some social work-related classes at the bachelor’s level could help make the MSW degree program easier.

The MSW degree provides the learner with a complete education in the social work field. Students will study diverse subjects such as social work and policy practice, research in social work and theories of human behavior.

MSW Online Degree Program

Today there are numerous high quality, online MSW degree programs that allow the ambitious student to complete their education in less than two years in some cases. For example, the University of New England offers an innovative two-year MSW program that includes the following courses:

  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment
  • Social Work Research I and II
  • Social Work Practice I and II
  • Social Welfare Policy and Programs I and II
  • Contemporary Theory of Social Work Practice
  • Administration and Supervision
  • Community Organizing and Social Inclusion

Most MSW programs mandate that the student complete at least 60 credit hours in the classroom to earn the degree. In the program, the student will cover patient assessment, client engagement, improving social welfare, how to find community resources, and comprehensive case management skills.

In the second half of the MSW program, the student is required to complete a fully supervised clinical internship to practice their advanced social work skills. This internship may consist of up to 2,000 of supervised clinical social work.

One of the advantages of this type of internship: The student will be working in a real social work setting for at least one or two semesters. If the student does good work, many internships often turn into full-time jobs upon graduation.

MSW Program Accreditation

One of the most vital aspects of choosing an MSW program is checking that it is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). This is the premier accreditation organization in the field of social work. Seeing CSWE accreditation gives the program you choose instant credibility in the eyes of potential social work employers.

Becoming a LCSW

After graduating with the master’s degree in social work, the student then can become a licensed clinical social worker, or LCSW. As an LCSW, the student is qualified to work with clients and patients who have mental health and/or emotional problems. The LCSW can get certified and specialize in several subspecialties:

  • Mental health
  • Public health
  • School social work
  • Marriage counseling
  • Child and family therapy
  • Alcohol and drug abuse

An LCSW most often works in a social work setting at a state or local government organization, or possibly in various mental health organizations.

Generally, the LCSW places emphasis on psychosocial diagnosis, assessment, and treatment. Also, she stresses advocating for the client, finding resources in the local community to help the client and research. This type of mental health professional is actually the most common in the US.

The clinical social worker tends to treat the patient as part of a larger community system. This is often different than an MFT, which assesses client’s’ mental health needs individually, rather than in a broader social context. However, people with an MFT degree are qualified to treat couples, groups and work with entire families.

What Is An MFT?

A marriage and family therapist works with individuals as well as couples and families to resolve conflicts. They tend to bring a family-focused perspective to the treatment program. MFTs look at family roles and development and understand better how the family of the client affects mental health. The relationships themselves are treated, not just the individual clients.

A marriage and family therapist is required to have a master’s degree in psychology with a focus in this area. A professional who graduates with an MFT degree is qualified to diagnose and treat mental and health issues for individuals, families, and couples. MFTs earn a psychology degree at the master’s level that provides extensive training in psychotherapy and family systems.

The MFT degree trains the student to devise a theoretical approach to treating clients and patients; this is often referred to as ‘systems theory.’ Graduates are trained to provide therapy that is focused on relationship mechanics as they relate to the individual, marriage or family.

Professionals who are interested in the MFT degree should seek a program that has been accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs.

MFT Program Accreditation

It is advised that potential MFT students should choose an MFT program that has been accredited by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy or AAMFT. This is the most respected accreditation agency for US MFT programs.


Both the MSW and MFT degree allows the dedicated professional to work with people who have mental health and/or family issues that need addressing. Both career paths have excellent growth potential.

The employment of marriage and family therapists is expected to climb by 19% by 2024, which is much faster than average. The employment of clinical social workers also is expected to increase by 19% in the same timeframe. So both career paths are excellent choices.

The direction the student takes largely depends if he or she wants to focus mainly on the individual, couple and family, or on the broader social and community context? Both careers involve mental health counseling and helping people, but the emphasis is different.