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If you’re interested in working in clinical psychology and making a direct impact on the lives of those you serve, an MFT (Marriage and Family Therapy) degree or an MSW (Master of Social Work) program might be a great fit for you and help you achieve the career of your dreams. But what’s the difference between these two professional counseling programs, and which is right for you?

Both can be richly challenging and rewarding, while also offering some unique opportunities to pursue. However, when debating MFT vs. MSW, there are some major differences to consider  between the professional counseling programs.

While an MFT focuses on specialized training in family systems and therapy, an MSW covers various facets of mental health counseling and intervention. An MFT program delves into counseling psychology and family therapy for you to be a clinical mental health counselor adept at addressing family dynamics and mental health issues. Meanwhile, pursuing a social work education or an online MS in social work (MSW) may lead to licensure as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) or licensed master social worker (LMSW). A social worker can operate not only within family contexts, but also as a mental health professional in diverse settings. Both pathways require supervised clinical experience to hone skills in working with individuals, couples, and families grappling with mental illness and related challenges.

Read on to learn more about the differences between these two programs and which one might be the right choice for you and your counselor career goals.

What Can a Marriage and Family Therapy Degree Do For You?

Want to know exactly what is a MFT degree and what it entails? A degree in marriage and family therapy can help prepare you for a career in individual, group, or family therapy. All relationships, whether they’re platonic, familial, or romantic, naturally have their ups and downs. So what is a MFT therapist and what do they do? A marriage and family therapist works to equip their clients and the people around them with the tools and conflict resolution skills needed to ensure long-term happiness and coexistence.

What Are The Steps Toward Earning a Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy?

As a marriage and family therapist, it’s helpful that you have a solid understanding of the basic tenets of psychology. Aside from that, your family counseling degree program will likely require hours of supervised fieldwork before you can begin your family counseling work with clients. 

Earning your degree in marriage and family therapy may look something like this:

  • Classwork – During your time working towards your marriage and family therapy degree, you can expect your counseling program classwork and additional training to be both uniquely challenging and deeply rewarding. Some classes you might take may include:
    • Research and lab work classes
    • Diversity and the family
    • Group therapy
    • Parent-child therapy techniques
    • Trauma and crisis intervention
    • Couples therapy
    • Dependency and the family
    • Individual and family life cycle
    • Introduction to psychopathology
  • Fieldwork – Students are also typically required to complete hands-on fieldwork by working with clients in a clinical setting. When participating in marriage and family therapy programs like at Alliant International University, you can typically expect to go through 500 hours of direct client contact, 250 supervised hours, and at least 100 hours of professional development. This means that by the time you graduate, you’ll have racked up between 800 to 1200 hours of fieldwork to apply towards your license.

Even with a degree, in order to legally practice as a marriage and family therapist, you need to be properly licensed and accredited. This is why it’s important to make sure that the master's degree program you choose is properly certified. For example, the MFT program at Alliant International University is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education . This certification may help you obtain licensure even if you move to a new state after the program.

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After you graduate from your chosen MFT program program, you can start the process of earning your license, which typically involves passing your state’s licensing exam. 

What Types of Jobs Can I Pursue as a Marriage and Family Therapist?

As the name implies, marriage and family therapists tend to specialize in therapy focusing on relationships. After your school's counseling program, yYou might find yourself working with families, parents and children, married couples, friends, or any other relationship in need of a listening ear. 

In general,as a licensed professional counselor, you’ll work with clients to coach them to overcome strife in their relationships, help them process and overcome their emotions, teach them strong coping and conflict resolution skills, and guide them through major life milestones, like becoming a parent.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2021, over half of all MFTs provide individual or family services either on their own or in the practice of another healthcare provider1. However, there’s a number of environments and positions you may find work in as an MFT.

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For instance, you might find yourself working:

  • For a social service agency
  • In a prison or correctional institution
  • For a substance abuse or residential mental health facility
  • In a private practice
  • For a large corporation’s employee assistance program
  • In a school, whether a kindergarten through high school setting or a college or university

What is a Master’s Degree in Social Work?

Earning as MSW, or Master’s of Social Work, can help you become a more appealing candidate for jobs as a clinical social worker. 

Social workers generally work with the most vulnerable of our population, including the needy, elderly, disabled, and youth groups, to help solve problems and crises in their lives and provide support to those with mental, emotional, or behavioral issues.

What are the Steps Toward Earning a Master’s Degree in Social Work?

In order to become a licensed clinical social worker, it’s beneficial to have a solid foundation of theory and best practices, as well as a wide breadth of research knowledge. It’s also helpful to spend time directly serving clients in the field. 

Your time spent earning your master’s degree in social work may look something like this:

  • Classwork – In your first year, you’ll likely take classes with a broader, more general focus to help you narrow down your chosen area of study in your second year. Some classes that social workers-to be might take include2:
    • Research and lab work classes
    • Introduction to the foundations of social work
    • Marriage and family therapy
    • Substance abuse-focused education
    • Social work for older adults and the elderly
    • Dynamics of racism and oppression
    • Strategic planning for nonprofit organizations
    • Assessing and diagnosing patients
    • Human behavior and the environment
  • Fieldwork – Just like earning your degree in marriage and family therapy, one of the most important parts of your master’s degree in social work can be the practical experience you’ll gain during your time working directly with clients. This work is often supervised by a faculty member or experienced social worker and is a great way to get hands-on knowledge of how to care for patients. Typically, a master’s degree program will require you to complete between 900 and 1200 hours of work in the field. This work is generally completed over 2 years and with 2 different placements.3 Your first placement will be more general and aimed at getting experience working with patients, while your second will be more specialized and focused on the type of social work that you’d like to pursue.

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In your second year, your classes and fieldwork will likely become much more narrowed in on your area of specialization. Generally speaking, you can pursue your choice of specialties. For example, if you’ve chosen to become a geriatric social worker serving our elderly population, you might find yourself working in an elder care facility or in a geriatric hospital ward to give you direct experience working with your chosen patient population. 

Because social workers are needed in a wide variety of environments and patient populations, specialized education can help you find a rewarding career as a social worker. Some specialties that you might choose to focus on include:4

  • Child and family welfare
  • Geriatric social care
  • Trauma and domestic violence
  • Substance abuse issues
  • Medical social work
  • Military social work
  • Forensic social work
  • Human rights and social justice advocacy
  • Social work program development and administration
  • Psychiatric social work
  • Adult mental health

What Types of Jobs Can I Pursue as a Social Worker?

One exciting aspect about becoming a social worker is how broad the field is. Because social work touches across all ages, religions, ethnicities, genders, and socioeconomic classes, your job could look different from the jobs of other students in your master’s of social work graduating class.

Consider, for instance, the following information compiled by the The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. As of 20215:

  • 18% of social workers work in individual or family services
  • 28% work in either local or state government (excluding schools or hospitals)
  • 14% work in ambulatory healthcare services

This shows that, as a social worker, you can find work in a number of settings. Some example settings may include: 

  • Schools or universities
  • Hospitals
  • Government agencies, like your state or local Family Protective Services
  • Prisons or correctional institutions
  • Substance abuse rehabilitation facilities or halfway houses
  • Employment agencies
  • Adoption agencies

Social work programs may even require social workers to help set policy, advocate for the vulnerable, and advance the understanding of social care and its impact on broader society.

MFT vs MSW: Which is Right for Me?

Earning a degree in marriage and family therapy or a master’s degree in social work are both excellent options that can help start you on the path toward your dream career. While an MFT is more focused on providing therapy and counseling and an MSW is more focused on social work, both are a great way to make a positive impact on the lives of others. The best social work and Marriage and Family Therapy Graduate Programs for you will depend on your unique goals, interests, and preferences. 

No matter which you choose, Alliant International University offers a range of online courses that can fit into your busy schedule and get you started on your journey. So don’t wait—request more information today!


  1. “Marriage and Family Therapists.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. September 8, 2021.…. Accessed February 14, 2022. 
  2. “Field Education: Translating Pedagogy into Practice.” Master of Social Work. 2019. Accessed February 14, 2022.
  3. “Master of Social Work Degree.” Social Work Guide. October 8, 2020. Accessed February 14, 2022.
  4. “Master of Social Work (MSW) Specializations: Micro, Macro, and Advanced Generalist.” Master of Social Work. 2019. Accessed February 14, 2022. 
  5. “Social Workers.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. October 21, 2021.…. Accessed February 14, 2022.

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