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Master’s in marriage and family therapy program guide

What is marriage and family therapy?

Do you care about people and relationship challenges within families? Are you a clear communicator and an excellent listener? If you have high ethical standards and excel at finding collaborative solutions, a career as a marriage and family therapist may suit you. These skills, along with a master’s degree, could set you on a rewarding and lucrative career path.

Marriage and family therapists play a vital role in the mental healthcare safety network in the United States. With the need for mental health support increasing, there is a high demand for marriage and family therapists. It’s a profession with strong earning potential and job security, and the knowledge that you are working to help others can be extremely rewarding.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects job growth of 22% in this occupational group from 2019 to 2029. This rate is much faster than the projected growth of 4% for all occupations.

This guide looks at admission requirements for master’s programs in marriage and family therapy. It explores degree options and potential careers to help you find the best one to suit your needs. But first, let’s take a look at some of the things you could be doing as a marriage and family therapist (MFT) to see if this is a suitable career for you.

What marriage and family therapists do

MFTs work with individuals, couples, and families. They evaluate the way that clients’ family relationships affect their mental health. Divorce, layoffs, and depression are a few of the acute circumstances these professionals may address. They may treat broader issues such as addiction, psychological disorders, or stress. Therapy sessions may also focus on eating disorders like anorexia, and behavioral disorders in children.

Marriage and family therapists use various psychotherapeutic treatments, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychoanalytic therapy, and humanistic therapy.

If the idea of working with families to improve relationships intrigues you, have a look at a few of the best masters programs in marriage and family therapy.

Is a MFT a psychologist?

Therapists are individuals who provide licensed clinical counseling services. While some therapists are psychologists, others work as psychiatrists, social workers, and MFTs.

MFTs support and guide their clients toward decision making that solves circumstance-specific problems. They generally spend their time analyzing critical events in their clients’ lives.

A psychologist typically works toward diagnosing a more chronic or severe mental health disorder or issue. A psychologist often works with a psychiatrist, who can prescribe medication if needed.

Like psychologists, MFTs can make diagnoses but are not authorized to prescribe medications. An MFT’s work is similar to that of a clinical social worker (CSW), or a clinical or counseling psychologist.

Studying online

Since this degree requires a requisite number of in-person clinical hours, students can’t earn it wholly online. Enrollment in accelerated online MFT programs may allow you to expedite graduation. These intensive programs can offer consecutive classes that run 4- to 8-weeks long all year round. This pace could enable you to graduate in as little as one year.

Admission requirements

A master’s degree in marriage and family therapy prepares you to work as a licensed therapist. This master’s degree is the standard and minimum academic requirement for the MFT license in all states.

Read on to learn about the admission requirements to master’s in marriage and family therapy degree programs.

Bachelor’s degree programs

For potential admission to most master’s MFT programs, candidates can earn an undergraduate degree in any area of study. However, prerequisite undergraduate courses in the following areas are usually necessary:

  • Statistics
  • Counseling
  • Research methods
  • Human development

Many students who wish to become an MFT study psychology.

Students can often choose between a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) and a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Psychology. The B.S. focuses more on math, science, and research, while the B.A. focuses more on the liberal arts.

While both degrees will qualify you for application to an MFT master’s program, a B.A. is usually recommended for MFT candidates. Because of its focus on STEM subjects, a B.S. in psychology could better prepare students who wish to pursue a Ph.D.

To obtain admission to most master’s programs, students need to have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. To gain national accreditation, schools must demonstrate high standards to an outside, independent accrediting agency.

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE), a standardized test, is required for admission to many U.S. graduate schools. Candidates can check with the institution and program that interests them to see if the GRE is necessary for entry.

Masters degree programs and accreditation

MFT master’s graduates will typically earn either a Master of Science (M.S.) degree or Master of Art (M.A.) degree. State licensing boards don’t distinguish between the two.

Alternatively, some students work to attain a master’s degree in counseling psychology with an emphasis in MFT.

There are 3 main areas of study for a graduate degree in marriage and family therapy – Human development, Marriage and family studies, and Marriage and family therapy.

Subjects studied may include:

  • Human sexuality
  • Couple’s therapy
  • Systems therapy
  • Research methods
  • Multicultural counseling
  • Advanced client diagnosis
  • Treatment of mental health disorders

Students may study the laws and ethics that regulate how mental health professionals interact with clients and peers. MFT programs also train you in evaluation methods for evidence-based practice.

Completing a master’s program often takes a total of 2 to 3 years, including the required fieldwork and a thesis. The total credit requirement is generally 60 hours. Some MFT programs are only 45 to 50 credit hours, which will not qualify a graduate for licensure in all states.

alt"currency-dollar-1" Once you have achieved your master’s degree, you will have earned the title of Associate Marriage and Family Therapist (AMFT). The national average salary for an AMFT in 2021 is $42,767.

The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) provides information about accreditation here.

How to become licensed

Graduates with a master’s in marriage and family therapy need to complete 3 more steps to be qualified to practice in the field.

Complete 2 years of supervised clinical experience

For licensure eligibility, all states require candidates to complete an internship with a minimum of 2 years or 4,000 to 6,000 clinical hours. Candidates can achieve these hours by working for churches, charities or non-profit organizations. Working in private practices or other enterprises that provide mental health services is also allowed. A Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), psychologist, or social worker must supervise these hours.

Within 90 days of graduation, graduates need to register for an intern number. This number generally takes 60 days to receive. Interns may or may not find paid work while accumulating clinical hours. Private practices and government positions provide the highest salaries for MFT interns. Non-profits usually offer very little compensation.

Attain a license

While you need a master’s degree and clinical experience to become an MFT, to work without supervision, you must also hold a valid license. This license must be from the state where you’ll be practicing. Without a license, an MFT can only do counseling while under the supervision of other psychologists or LMFTs. Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) or psychiatrists may also supervise.

Licensure requirements vary by state, with many states using AAMFT recommendations. Some states use the Examination in Marital and Family Therapy, while others use customized licensing exams. All licensure exams test a student’s knowledge of treatment, interventions, client diagnosis, and ethics.

Earn continuing education credits annually

MFTs must also pursue continuing education credits each year to maintain their LMFT status. They can earn these credits through online training programs or at state-approved workshops. Additional coursework at an accredited institution is also a possibility.

Career options

The average salary for an LMFT employed in the U.S. was $58,094 as of January 2021. With a 22% projected job growth, career prospects look strong in this field.

In 2019, publicly-employed therapists working in state government positions earned the most. This group excludes those working in education and hospitals. Here’s a breakdown of earnings based on job location:

  • Outpatient care centers – $52,140
  • Individual and family services – $45,660
  • Offices of other health practitioners – $45,150
  • State government, excluding education and hospitals – $72,230

Those working in private practice generally earn more than their publicly employed counterparts. According to the American Counseling Association, a privately-run practice could earn an annual income of $126,000. This calculation is based on an average fee of $75 for a 45-minute session, with 35 sessions per week over 48 weeks.

However, the BLS reports that most LMFTs work in the areas of individual and family services.

Some of the many professional positions for LMFTs include:

  • Academic and career counselors
  • Substance abuse therapists
  • Clinical supervisors
  • Mental health consultants
  • Community mental health therapists

LMFTs may work in:

  • Community health centers
  • Mental health facilities
  • Domestic violence shelters
  • Adoption agencies
  • Health clinics

Some LMFTs work in the offices of other health care providers, Employee Assistance Programs, or prisons.

Alternative career paths

There are numerous career paths open to graduates who hold a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy.

A graduate with a master’s degree in social work (MSW) can work unsupervised as a social worker but must obtain a license to conduct clinical therapy. A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) often focuses on positions in public policy, community resources, and therapeutic intervention.

The average annual wage for social workers was $48,055 in 2020. The BLS projects job growth for this occupation to increase 13% between 2019 and 2029.

A licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC) focuses primarily on the needs of patients as individuals. Academic and licensing requirements for both an LPCC and LMFT are the same. In 2020, the average annual salary for clinical counselors was $52,206. According to their projections, job growth for this occupation will be 25% between 2019 and 2029. Here’s a breakdown of job growth projections for varying counselor positions:

  • Rehabilitation counselors – 10%
  • Mental health counselors – 25%
  • Substance abuse counselors – 25%
  • School and career counselors – 8%

Continuing education

Further education through Ph.D. or certification programs could increase your career and earnings potential.

Doctoral degree

To advance your LMFT career or allow for higher-paying academic or research positions, you could pursue a Ph.D. in marriage and family therapy.

Ph.D. holders may find work as:

  • University or college professors
  • Clinical researchers
  • Clinical supervisors
  • Directors

Ph.D. programs in marriage and family therapy can take anywhere from 4 to 7 years to complete.

Postgraduate certification

Postgraduate certification programs can develop expertise in areas not covered in your master’s program. This specialization can enable you to offer diverse types of therapy to your clients.

Increased skills and specialization may help you qualify for jobs that earn higher salaries. Having these programs on your resume can also make you more competitive among other job hunters.

Financial aid

Tuition fees for master’s degree programs at in-state public institutions cost an average of $8,670 per year. Tuition for doctoral programs cost an average of $10,830 per year at in-state public institutions.

The average published tuition and fees for full-time students in the 2020-21 school year are:

  • $3,770 – public 2-year in district
  • $10,560 – public 4-year in state
  • $27,020 – public 4-year out of state
  • $37,650 – private non-profit 4 year

There are numerous federal and state scholarships, grants, and loans available. A free application form for federal student aid opens on October 1st at the Federal Student Aid website. This site provides information on types of assistance, eligibility, and loan repayment options. Grants, scholarships, and loans are often offered by colleges directly. Additional information, including deadlines, is generally viewable on a school’s website.

American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT)

This is a member-based professional association for marriage and family therapy practitioners.

National Council on Family Relations (NCFR)

This is a member-based professional association that works to understand families through research, theory, and practice. This group is the oldest non-profit, professional association with this sole focus.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Outlook Handbook

This is a publication by the BLS with information about becoming an MFT.

U.S. Department of Education

This group oversees the accreditation process for all educational institutions. It provides quick links to check the accreditation status of post-secondary institutions.