Becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist or a Clinical Social Worker?

Becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist or a Clinical Social Worker?
Image from Pexels
Nedda Gilbert profile
Nedda Gilbert April 9, 2018

What’s the difference between a Marital and Family therapist, and a Clinical Social Worker who works as a Marital and Family Therapist?

Article continues here

An Overview – The Therapist Is In

Marital and Family Therapists (MFT’s) are highly trained mental health professionals who specialize in diagnosing and treating a range of marital and family problems. In fact, you might consider them relationship specialists. Marriage and family therapists work in a variety of settings, including private practice, and deliver psychotherapy and address mental health issues. Some of the more common problems they treat are:

  • Grief and loss
  • Depression and Anxiety
  • Domestic Violence
  • Marital Conflicts
  • Relationship Conflict with Children
  • Child and Adolescent Behavior Problems
  • Infertility
  • Infidelity
  • Substance and Alcohol Abuse

There are many educational and career paths to becoming a marriage and family therapist. However, a minimum requirement is you must hold a master’s degree. MFTs can pursue masters in counseling, psychology, or clinical social work on the path to this specialty. You can also complete a certificate programs in Marital and Family Counseling. But again, the prerequisite to these programs is to have earned the masters.

Like other regulated professions, MFTS are held to strict licensure requirements. That licensure is intended to protect the public by ensuring that therapists adhere to national standards of conduct, ethics, and training. This means there is a strong measure of quality control and oversight. MFTs can dramatically impact the individuals they treat so this is an important requirement of this profession.

As part of that regulatory process, all 50 states require the MFT pursue an additional two years of post-graduate clinical experience. This must be supervised by a trained licensed mental health professional. Fortunately, this training can take place while working in a salaried, full-time job. After the completion of this training, MFTs are eligible to take state examinations and become licensed.

The requirements for MFT licensure vary by state. It’s best to contact your state licensing board to learn of the specific process involved. It may also be helpful to contact the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) at their website. They make recommendations on state licensure and are a primary resource for MFT professionals.

Social Workers interested in becoming licensed as a MFT, must pursue licensure to practice as Licensed Clinical Social worker. To learn about this process, you will need to contact your state’s Association of Social Workers Board, (ASWB). This board actually offers the licensing test you will take. For more information about the career paths, areas of practice and licensing for socials workers, contact the National Association of Social Workers, (NASW). They are the primary resource for social work professionals.

Of note, some forward thinking states have formed a combined licensing authority: The Counselor and Social Work Board. These state boards oversee accreditation and licensing for both groups of these professionals. The State of Ohio is one of these states. Again, you will need to do your homework and learn what is required in your area of practice and state and if such a combined board system is in place.

So now you know, the formula for becoming a fully-credentialed MFT, one who can open their own private practice, requires a significant investment of time and study:

The Masters + 2 years of Supervised Post-Graduate Clinical Work = The Therapist Is In.

Marriage and Family Therapists versus Social Workers: Which Track is Right for You?

If you’re ready to tackle the combination of Masters Study and additional training required for this career path, you will need to decide which path best matches your interests, timeline and career goals.

Marriage and Family therapists, and social workers are both mental health practitioners. Although they emanate from different approaches and disciplines, they do share many fundamental skills. And their practice areas overlap. Despite the differences in training, both degrees well position you to become a MFT.

As we said, one of the toughest challenges may be picking which of these tracks appeals to you most.

It may be worthwhile to learn what the primary differences are between a masters in counseling versus a masters in social work. The biggest difference between the two is in their education, and in the scope of practice. It may also be worthwhile to think about which degree and scope of practice appeals to you most. If career flexibility is important, it is likely the Masters in Social would offer you more career options given the larger footprint of the degree and the broad set of skills it provides.

The MFT Track

The straightforward MFT track – pursuing a master’s program in counseling or psychology – offers a narrowly focused course of study which develops your clinical, therapeutic skills. On this track, the focus is on the mechanics in family and marital relationships, and then developing a treatment plan. Coursework helps students advance their skills as expert clinicians and provides instruction on how to be responsive to the emotional and mental health needs of their patients.

The Masters of Social Work MFT Track

The Masters of Social Work degree also positions you to become a MFT, but offers you a broader skillset which can be applied in diverse settings. This degree may potentially provide you greater career options.

The differentiator is that social workers learn what is known as a person-in-their-environment approach. For example, they become well versed in and can perform case management which allows the MFT/Social Worker to consider outside impacts, and in some cases make interventions in those environmental situations. The other MFTs cannot. And social workers take many classes on subjects such as: social welfare, diversity and social justice, human services, community organization and policy advocacy. It’s easy to see how social work study goes beyond just the realm of marital and family counseling.

The very nature of social work trains graduates to pursue positions in a range of health care settings, and also in the human service area such as hospitals. MFT work van be performed in these settings. But again, MFT’s on the other degree track, typically do not work in these same settings, and may not be qualified to be hired in these positions.

One option a Masters of Social Work student may pursue while is school is a specialized certificate in Family Counseling.

Social Work training offers you both depth, and breadth. You can learn more about what clinical social workers do.

You may also want to consider the investment of time and money into the master’s program you choose. For example, if money matters, how many years can you afford to be out of the workforce?

Graduate psychology programs typically take three years to complete. Social Work degrees vary, but can be completed in as little as 18 months. Masters in Counseling programs vary, but share similar timelines to the Social Work degree. With prior relevant field work experience, called “advanced standing” the social work degree can be completed in just one year. But to get credit for advanced standing in any social work masters program, you will need to contact each school for their requirements.

Both tracks will provide you a rewarding career where you can have an impact on reducing suffering and improving lives. Both will require you pursue state licensing, or in the case of the Masters in Social Work, become a licensed clinical social worker.

(Updated on January 23, 2024)

How useful is this page?

Click on a star to rate it!

Since you found this page useful...mind sharing it?

Questions or feedback? Email

About the Author

Ms. Nedda Gilbert is a seasoned clinical social worker, author, and educational consultant with 25 years of experience helping college-bound and graduate students find their ideal schools. She is a prolific author, including The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and Essays that Made a Difference. Ms. Gilbert has been a guest writer for Forbes and a sought-after keynote speaker on college admissions. Previously, she played a crucial role at the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company and was Chairman of the Board of Graduate Philadelphia. Ms. Gilbert holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University and is a certified interdisciplinary collaborative family law professional in New Jersey.

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

To learn more about our editorial standards, you can click here.


You May Also Like To Read

Categorized as: PsychologySocial WorkNursing & Healthcare