Difference Between MFT & LCSW Degrees

For professionals trained and educated in helping others get a handle on their personal, behavioral, family or marital problems, the next decade looks to be a bright one indeed from a career perspective. That’s because for both clinical social workers and marriage and family therapists, job openings are projected to grow rapidly and typical wages remain at levels above the median for all jobs.

While the two roles may seem similar at a glance — both work directly with clients in addressing emotional, mental and behavioral concerns — the paths individuals typically take to earn these jobs are quite different, starting with the type of degree earned, whether a degree in marriage and family therapy (MFT) or a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) degree, which is typically earned as a Master of Social Work, or MSW.

The differences include the educational degree but also extend to differences in therapeutic approach, job titles and salaries, and licensure and other requirements. Let’s address the differences it’s most important for potential professionals in this area to understand.

Educational Differences

While the most crucial difference is pretty obvious — one degree specifically mentions “social work,” while the other doesn’t — there is one important similarity: Both the MFT and LCSW degrees are earned at the master’s level.

SEE ALSO: 17 Best Things to Do with an MSW Degree

That’s because every state requires that individuals practicing as licensed clinical social workers or marriage and family therapists must first obtain a master’s degree before they can request the necessary licensure in their state.

So both degrees are master’s degrees, yes, but because they focus on different population groups, the programs differ considerably. For instance, a marriage and family therapist will most often earn a Master of Arts or Master of Science in psychology, and their focus in grad school will be on marital or family therapy (or something similar), allowing them to hone in on a singular focus for their master’s degree. On the other hand, an LCSW will instead earn a Master of Social Work. which may or may not allow them to study in a specialty area. MSW programs tend to provide a broader education than a person would receive if they were working toward an MA in psychology with a focus on family therapy, so generally, those with LCSW degrees are able to work in a broader range of areas within the therapeutic space.

SEE ALSO: How to Get a Masters Degree in Marriage Family Therapy

For those who are weighing which degree to pursue, if you are unsure of what area of psychology or therapy you want to work in, a Master of Social Work will likely provide you with more career freedom than a degree that’s solely focused on MFT. In other words, LCSWs can work as marriage and family therapists, but marriage and family therapists can’t work as LCSWs without a Master of Social Work degree.

As both degrees are master’s-level degrees, the time required to complete your formal education will generally range from two to four years, depending on whether you’re able to attend full-time or not.

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Approach to Treatment

Another crucial difference is the approach taken by the MFT or LCSW. For marriage and family therapists, the focus is a unit, whether a married couple, a parent and child, or some other family unit or group. Their training allows them to identify and help treat behavioral or emotional issues that expand beyond a single person.

An LCSW, on the other hand, more often focuses on an individual, though their work may necessarily involve other people, whether family members of their clients or their clients’ doctors or other healthcare professionals. And while they still may provide group or couples therapy, their training takes a more traditional psychotherapy approach, which focuses on individuals rather than units.

As with the educational differences, it’s important to have an idea of what you want out of your career. Because if you’re sure you want to be a marriage counselor but get a social work degree, you could be missing out on an educational experience that could help you provide treatment for your clients that improves the mechanics of their relationships rather than simply helping them as individuals.

The broader nature of LCSWs means they may also have the chance to work with a more diverse array of clients, with LCSWs working in school settings, healthcare, substance abuse and child services.

Occupations & Salaries

Marriage and family therapists and licensed clinical social workers earn similar salaries, with related job titles averaging out to around $50,000 per year, but job growth is projected to be stronger for marriage and family therapists than for social worker jobs.

Median annual wage by occupation

Social workers, all other$63,140
Healthcare social workers$56,200
Marriage and family therapists$50,090
Child, family and school social workers$46,270
Mental health and substance abuse social workers$44,840

Both occupations are expected to see much faster growth in job openings over the next several years than other jobs.

Projected growth in employment by occupation, 2016-2026

Marriage and family therapists23%
Social workers16%
Counselors, social workers and other social service specialists16%
All occupations7%

For both MFT and LCSW degree-holders, typical salaries and job openings vary pretty widely across the country. For social workers, salaries are highest in Hawaii and the District of Columbia, while marriage and family therapists will find their highest wages in Maine and Hawaii.

Median annual salary by state, top 10

Social WorkersMarriage and Family Therapists
1. Hawaii $85,0601. Maine $86,060
2. District of Columbia $82,6302. Hawaii $75,040
3. Nevada $79,0303. New Jersey $72,450
4. Rhode Island $77,9704. Georgia $68,360
5. Washington $77,4405. Colorado $65,120
6. Massachusetts $76,6706. Utah $60,360
7. Idaho $75,8207. Wyoming $60,200
8. Texas $75,8208. Alaska $59,190
9. Georgia $75,5109. Pennsylvania $58,360
10. South Dakota $73,45010. Nevada $54,430

Job opportunities for social workers are most prevalent in Montana and South Carolina, while marriage and family therapist job openings have their highest concentrations in California and New Jersey.

Employment per 1,000 jobs, top 10

Social WorkersMarriage and Family Therapists
1. Montana 1.3231. California 1.289
2. South Carolina 1.292. New Jersey 1.024
3. Oregon 1.2033. Maryland 0.508
4. Illinois 0.8334. Arizona 0.504
5. Maine 0.7795. West Virginia 0.501
6. Minnesota 0.646. Delaware 0.48
7. California 0.6277. Iowa 0.442
8. New York 0.6178. South Dakota 0.368
9. Wyoming 0.5889. Minnesota 0.361
10. Ohio 0.55510. Pennsylvania 0.357

Licensing & Other Requirements

Another important area of distinction is in licensing requirements. MFTs, like all other clinical counselors, must obtain licensing in their state, but LCSWs with MSW degrees in most must seek licensure only if they intend to establish their own private practice. Still, even for those who seek employment with established firms or other organizations, it’s important to note that many employers prefer to hire LCSWs as opposed to other clinical social workers.

Requirements for licensure vary by state as do requirements for continuing education, which is compulsory in many states.

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For individuals with a calling for helping other people cope with their day-to-day lives, the next decade or so should provide no shortage of career opportunities. MFT and LCSW jobs are simply two of the ones with the highest rate of growth, and while they are similar roles, it’s important for those who would potentially seek employment in the field to understand the differences. That way, they can make an informed decision about which educational options to pursue.