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MSW vs MFT in Social Work

The debate between these two degrees for people interested in counseling has been going on for decades. The Masters in Social Work (MSW) is one of a handful of degrees in the United States that can lead to a state license for private counseling. The Master of Family Therapy (MFT) is another. For social workers, obtaining a license that qualifies for counseling requires that their MSW studies specialize in one of the clinical areas and that they complete a practicum while in school that involves clinical work. MFT candidates are focused on counseling from the beginning.

Academic Requirements for the MSW

A MSW program requires two years of full time study to complete. A School of Social Work may offer many areas of concentration such as gerontology, mothers and children, community work, social policy, etc. However in most states the licensing for social workers is provided in one of two categories: Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), for those interested in counseling and clinical therapy, and Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) for those interested in program planning, policy, administration, and advocacy.

It's the LCSW that will have a career which may align with the marriage and family therapy profession. A LCSW may open a private counseling and therapy practice as well as provide those services in one of many social service environments. Prior to obtaining that license however, the MSW graduate must complete 3,000 - 4,000 hours of supervised clinical work and pass the LCSW exam required in the state where they intend to work.

Academic Requirements for the MFT

The Masters in Family Therapy is also commonly called the Masters in Marriage & Family Therapy (MSMFT), which more thoroughly defines the nature of the profession. This counseling field focuses on family issues - between spouses, between parents and children, or between siblings. In many cases MFT professionals will also take on solo clients, providing single therapy for a person who is challenged by home life, or by life in general.

It is a two year course of study, similar to the MSW, but it is completely focused on family dynamics and the psychological impact that various interpersonal dynamics may create. Most programs have a 400-500 hour practicum built into the curriculum that provides the initial supervised counseling opportunity to the student. There are no areas of specialization for this degree; it is a graduate degree in counseling with a singular perspective on human interaction.

After completing the degree, a MFT candidate for licensure must take the national marriage and family therapy exam, developed by the Association of Marriage & Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB). Some states such as California have their own exam. Thereafter, most states require 3,000 hours of supervised MFT services, of which some percentage must be direct counseling and of those, perhaps half devoted to couples and family therapy. The result is status as a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist (LMFT).

The Difference?

The MSW - and the LCSW credential - will provide more versatility in terms of career options and counseling options. MSW graduates work in therapeutic settings that range from schools to mental health centers to hospitals to homeless shelters. The marriage and family therapy practice, however, provides an education that delves deeply into family structure and issues, and provides a career working solely in that fascinating and complex field.

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