While a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) might sound like two ways of saying the same thing, each occupation is in fact distinct. LMFTs and LCSWs perform different functions, have unique qualifications, and receive varying compensation. Below, we review these distinctions and the similarities between both professions.

What is an LMFT?

A Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist is a state-certified health-care professional who assists individuals, couples and families address problems in their relationships through talk therapy, guidance, references and other techniques. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are 55,300 LMFTs employed in individual and family services, offices of other health-care practitioners, outpatient centers, state government and self-employed settings. LMFTs typically work full time and sometimes weekends to meet clients’ schedules.

What do LMFTs do?

LMFTs help their clients address problems in their relationships. Many LMFTs apply cognitive behavioral therapy, which the American Psychological Association describes as a form of treatment that involves clients recognizing problematic patterns of thinking and gradually changing them through better coping techniques. According to the BLS, LMFTs are employed in the following work environments:

  • Individual and family services: 30%
  • Offices of other health-care practitioners: 20%
  • Outpatient care centers: 12%
  • State government: 9%
  • Self-employed settings: 9%

What is an LCSW?

A Licensed Clinical Social Worker is a state-certified mental health-care worker who diagnoses and treats mental, behavioral and emotional issues. LCSWs are a specialized group of social workers who can diagnose and create treatment plans. While the BLS does not collect statistics on LCSWs, it does collect them for social workers in general. According to the BLS, there are 707,400 social workers employed in individual and family services, local and state government, walk-in health-care services and hospitals. Social workers typically work full time and sometimes evenings, weekends and holidays to meet clients’ needs.

What do LCSWs do?

LCSWs diagnose and treat mental, behavioral and emotional issues among individuals, couples, groups and families. They provide therapy, develop treatment plans, and refer clients to other resources. LCSWs must earn a Master of Social Work (MSW) and seek state certification, which distinguishes them from entry-level social workers. According to the BLS, social workers are mostly employed by:

  • Individual and family services: 18%
  • Local government: 14%
  • State government: 14%
  • Walk-in health-care services: 13%
  • Hospitals: 11%

Differences and Similarities Between LMFTs and LCSWs

LMFTs and LCSWs differ in the nature of their work, with the former concentrating on relationship issues and the latter on mental health disorders. But the two professions have some similarities, too, such as their use of therapy and references and similar work environments. Other differences and similarities include the necessary education, job outlook and salaries.


LMFTs and LCSWs both require master’s degrees. An LMFT must hold a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT), which trains graduates in cognitive behavioral therapy and other therapeutic techniques, or a related field, such as psychology. An LCSW must hold an MSW, which prepares students to diagnose and treat mental health, behavioral and emotional disorders. Both an MFT and an MSW may be pursued as online degrees without sacrificing quality or credibility. Learn more about marriage and family therapy programs and master’s in social work programs.

Job Outlook

LMFTs and LCSWs both enjoy positive job prospects. According to the BLS, employment of marriage and family therapists should grow by 22 percent from 2018 through 2028, while employment of social workers should grow 11 percent.


LMFTs and LCSWs are both compensated better than the average for all occupations, but LMFTs earn slightly more. According to the BLS, LMFTs earned a median annual wage of $50,090 as of May 2018. The BLS estimates LCSWs earned $49,470 during the same period.

How to Become an LMFT

According to the BLS, requirements to become an LMFT include:

  1. Earning a bachelor’s degree to qualify for a master’s program.
  2. Earning a master’s in marriage and family therapy or related subject.
  3. Completing 2,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience via an internship or residency based on state requirements.
  4. Passing a state-recognized exam for licensure.
  5. Obtaining licensure from a state board in the state  you wish to practice.

Learn more about how to become a marriage and family therapist.

How to Become an LCSW

According to the BLS, requirements to become a LCSW include:

  1. Earning a bachelor’s degree to qualify for a master’s program.
  2. Earning a master’s in social work.
  3. Completing two years of supervised experience.
  4. Passing a state-recognized clinical exam for licensure in the state you wish to practice.
  5. Obtaining licensure from a state board in the state you wish to practice.

Learn more about how to become a social worker.

So, Which Degree is Better?

It’s impossible to say which degree, an MFT or an MSW, is better in absolute terms. Students must decide for themselves what they want from their careers, which will help them determine which degree to pursue. Those interested in helping clients with their relationships may wish to pursue their MFT. Those looking to help people suffering from mental health disorders may be more interested in an MSW. If compensation is the deciding factor, an MFT may help you earn slightly more than an MSW. The decision ultimately rests with the priorities of the student.