Marriage and family therapy – degrees, programs and course overview


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HomeMarriage and family therapy overview

What is marriage and family therapy?

Marriage and family therapists (MFT) focus on identifying and altering harmful relationship patterns in couples, families and groups. They seek to create a positive change by helping to reduce behavior patterns that are detrimental to the relationships and to the individual family members, for example domestic violence, or addictions. They can also guide their clients through difficult phases that often include issues around infertility or the death of a family member. As such, intervention by MFTs is usually short-term, with an average of 12 sessions assigned to seeing a client.

They are mental health professionals who are trained to analyze and treat various mental health and emotional disorders, dysfunctional relationships, and problematic health and behavioral issues. MFTs focus on relationship dynamics, rather than simply on the individual, and adopt a more holistic approach than what is usually required for individual counseling.

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), indicates that MFTs should have graduate training, either to master’s or doctorate degree level, in MFT and a minimum of 2 years of clinical experience.

Is MFT the right choice for you?

Generally, a degree in psychology attracts people who are tough but optimistic. You should be solution-focused and able to maintain a positive perspective while working with clients who are depressed, angry, and confused.

According to AAMFT, almost 90% of clients reported improved emotional health, and 73.7% showed improvements as noted in cognitive tests and behavior assessments on children in the families receiving professional help from an MFT. Unlike many other professionals, MFTs don’t get to see the tangible results of their work as changes can occur so slowly that the patient themselves might not even be aware of the progress they’ve made.

It’s important to remember that real change is up to the client. Not every person is in therapy for the right reason. MFTs use the available therapeutic tools to try to bring harmony to the family dynamic.

For those willing to take on the study program and who have the fortitude to work with people with these kinds of issues, the payoff is worthwhile. Salaries for MFTs range from $38,170 to $63.300, with the average being $57,314.

What you need to become an MFT?

In general, to become a licensed MFT you will need to have a at least a master’s degree. This involves being committed to completing years of higher education and practical experience in the field.

Bachelor’s degree

Students aspiring to pursue MFT typically enter bachelor programs and study psychology, social work, or counseling. This 4-year undergraduate degree can develop a basic level of understanding of the assessment and treatment processes needed to treat clients suffering due to interpersonal conflicts and psychological disorders. Accredited bachelor’s degrees usually have a minimum requirement for hours of fieldwork within the course duration.

Entry requirements for these bachelor’s degrees generally include a high school diploma or GED, 2-5 letters of recommendation, academic transcripts, a personal statement of intent, a writing sample, and ACT or SAT scores that vary according to the individual program.

Master’s degree

To be licensed as an MFT, you’ll need to earn a master’s degree from a graduate program that has incorporated topics such as human development, research methods, and family systems. To earn this degree you will have to do around 3,000 hours of supervised field work.

To apply for admission to a master’s program, you will need transcripts from an undergraduate or graduate degree in a similar discipline, your curriculum vitae, 3 or 4 personal essays, and 2 to 5 letters of recommendation. The acceptable GPA for the program will vary based on the college.

Graduate marriage and family therapy programs are often not very specific about subject requirements. Students can be accepted from accredited programs in many psychology-related fields and disciplines. However, some states have particular requirements for subjects like human development, counseling, or research methods. Some programs may even require that students study certain law courses to meet requirements.


Although a doctorate isn’t necessary to become a licensed MFT, it can increase the opportunities and positions available to you in the field. For example, a doctoral degree can lead you to a role as an educator or supervisor for prospective MFTs, as a researcher in a specific topic in a similar study area, or to handle more niche issues.

Typically students apply for their Ph.D. after completing their master’s degree. Some people can be accepted into doctorate programs after completing their bachelor’s degree if they have a track record showing that they can keep up with the coursework and behave professionally. These combined programs may be longer than your regular Ph.D. programs, as students will most likely have to earn their license before being allowed to graduate.

There are 25 Commission of Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education, COAMFTE, accredited doctoral programs in this field. Read below to find out why accreditation and regulatory boards are essential for student and client safety.

Standard Ph.D. programs include 1,000 hours of internship, 500 hours if you have completed your master’s degree. Requirements can vary, but typically you may need to complete a research project and a dissertation. Students can focus on specific fields and study particular populations with distinct problems.

Studying online vs. on campus

Online programs

Studying online suits students who prefer to learn in their own time due to family, work or other commitments. This option is also popular with practicing counselors who want to further their studies or renew their licenses.

Online classes are often recorded, which is a significant help for students who can take their time listening to and understanding the course content. Recorded classes can also make revision easier and save you some time. If you have the discipline and the resources, online learning can be an ideal way to earn your degrees.

AAMFT offers online courses internationally for current or aspiring marriage and family therapists, professional counselors, or certified social workers to start or continue their journey in their dream careers. You can continue working on a previous degree or add to previous hours you have completed on their website, and earn your licensing through these programs.

On campus programs

On-campus or in-person studying may be better if you prefer learning through personal interactions with educators and peers. The teaching is often individualized and structured, which can help many students reach their goals more effectively.

Classes full of people create a friendly competitive atmosphere that can push students to do their absolute best. However, in-person learning is often more expensive than online, partly because of actual cost of running a university campus.

Another reason many people are switching to online courses is that it can be a challenge to find affordable accommodation close to their university, and public transport may not be regularly available.

University accreditation

Accreditation is defined as the quality control process that colleges, universities, and programs should undergo to ensure they meet a strict, recognized, standardized set of rules.

In the context of MFT, boards and associations such as the AAMFT ensure every licensed MFT operation and service is of equally high quality. Accreditation provides access to federal funding for the industry and maintains client confidence in the level of education and skills of MFTs.

The main body for accreditation for MFT is the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy (COAMFTE). The AAMFT created COAMFTE to ensure only the highest standards are upheld in this field.

Course overview

Typically it takes students 4 years to complete their master’s in MFT or a related field and earn their license. Each state has its coursework requirements. Subjects you can expect to find include:

  • Spousal abuse
  • Child abuse
  • Aging and long term care
  • Chemical dependency and alcoholism
  • Human sexuality
  • Psychopharmacology
  • Psychological testing
  • Professional ethics and laws

What can MFT programs focus on?

Most graduate programs for MFTs cover the following courses:

Many institutions offer even more specialized courses that focus on particular groups. These programs can include anything from rural populations to distinct mental health or specific relationship issues.

Each of the different specifications in the coursework can provide new opportunities and a broader knowledge base to further your career.

Certificates in MFT

If you are pursuing or have already earned your graduate degree, the next step to becoming a licensed MFT could be to consider a certificate program in the field. Before becoming licensed, MFTs must complete 2 years of supervised clinical experience. Certificate programs can further enhance your knowledge and skills and possibly go towards your licensing requirements.

MFTs must also sit and pass an exam before gaining licensure. In addition, they should be committed to completing continuing education programs when they are working as MFTs. For more information, visit the website for the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Board. Be sure to check their requirements before applying for any courses.

What does it cost?

The average fees for a 4-year undergraduate course for in-state students in 2020 is approximately $10,000 at a public university and just over double that figure for an out-of-state university. At private universities, the average cost of tuition and fees in approximately $35,000. The cost of accommodation, travel, books, and a social life will all need to be figured into your cost estimations.

Is financial aid available?

Various institutions offer scholarships, assistantships, federal loans, and state grants to qualifying students. For all information about financial support for students, visit the website for Federal Student Aid. Here you can also complete and submit the free online form for student aid, FAFSA, which will determine your eligibility for financial assistance.

Licensing and certification

To practice as an MFT, you need a license or certificate. The process is as follows:

Complete a 4-year bachelor’s degree in a related field. It’s best to choose a degree in psychology, family studies, or something related, although some schools will accept a major in a different area as long as you have the appropriate knowledge and demonstrate it in your course and tests.

Complete a 3-year master’s degree in MFT or a closely related field. Some states have precise coursework requirements for you to earn your license. Most only require for your program to be certified by COAMFTE.

Complete 2 years of supervised experience under an LMFT. In a few states, it’s okay for a licensed mental health professional to do this supervision. However, in most cases, it will need to be an LMFT. You’ll most commonly be required to do around 3,000 hours of experience to be eligible for the final exams.

Complete and pass the national MFT exam, which can take from 6 months to a year. Note that California is the only state with its own exams.

What can you do with an MFT degree?

A degree in MFT can make you eligible for careers in the following:

  • Public mental health agencies
  • Community mental health
  • Private practice
  • Specialty practice
  • School-based mental health

MFTs can handle a wide variety of particular issues in the family context. They can work in various positions, including as counselors, therapists, coordinators, and social workers. Specialized fields include eating disorders, child behavioral disorders, and depression. They can’t, however, write prescriptions.

As mentioned above, you need to be certified, and sometimes a course doesn’t meet state requirements for this. Post-graduate programs can help you earn all the qualifications you need to become a licensed and practicing MFT.

Can you go further?

With your knowledge and experience, you can go on to get your doctoral degree in MFT. You may even consider moving to a different field within psychology.

If you pursue a Ph.D., you will study the same topics as a master’s program but focus on a much smaller and more specific population. This is mainly a research degree and only includes 500 hours of the internship if you already have a master’s degree. The program allows students some freedom regarding the specific topic of their dissertation or project.

With this degree, you can be eligible to pursue careers in educational psychology, clinical psychology, forensic psychology, family psychology, MFT, and many more. There are various other paths that you can follow with this degree, and most focus on psychology in a family or community setting.

Employment statistics

Staying up to date with employment statistics in your chosen field is essential to help gain an idea of national estimates for job percentages and wages. The Bureau of Labor Statistics offers detailed information on these points. The website also lists possible careers you can pursue with this degree and their relative popularity.

American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy

The AAMFT is the professional association for family and marriage therapists in the U.S., Canada and abroad. You can visit the MFT licensing Boards section of the AAMFT website for specific information on your state licensing requirements and relevant bodies.  

International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors

The IAMFC and the American Association of Sexuality, Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT) are involved in creating high training and operational standards. These standards ensure every client is treated respectfully and to the best of the counselor’s abilities.  

American Counseling Association

ACA is a licensure and regulatory board that provides mental health and substance abuse help to Americans.   Additional marriage and family therapy resources.

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