If you care about helping individuals and families, you may be interested in becoming a marital family therapist. If so, there are two well-traveled paths to a career in this field. Both require a master’s degree. Because the field of marital and family counseling is regulated, both paths also require you to become licensed in the state in which you plan to practice.
Two degree options for anyone wanting to become a marital and family counselor are the Master’s of Family Therapy (MFT) and the Master’s of Social Work (MSW). There are other degrees which may lead to a career in marital family therapy, such as a graduate degree in psychology, but two of the most common paths are the MFT and the MSW.
Marital family therapists are considered highly trained mental health professionals. They specialize in evaluating, diagnosing and treating a range of marital and family problems, including those between spouses, partners, parents and children, and siblings. Although marital family therapists may be known as relationship specialists, the work they do is often focused on individuals within relationships. For this reason, marital family therapists must also be clinically trained to identify and treat underlying emotional and social problems. In the course of treating a couple struggling with intimacy, for example, a therapist might discover that one partner is showing signs of depression. Addressing this issue then becomes part of the therapist’s treatment plan.
In layman’s terms, the services a marital family therapist provides may be referred to as "therapy." But the term “therapy" is really a catchall for a range of services. In terms of licensure, the term psychotherapy has no standing here, even though it may be the very term both therapists and patients use in describing their treatment. Licensure is pursued either as an MFT, or as a Licensed MSW — not as a psychotherapist.
The clinical tasks that MFTs and MSWs perform often overlap, and both degree holders work in similar settings, but their training, philosophies and clinical approaches are somewhat different.
Both the MFT and MSW require only two years of graduate study. So both degrees offer a short time frame from which to be launched as a therapist. By comparison, the longer track – earning a graduate psychology degree – is a three year academic undertaking. As mentioned previously, marital and family therapy is a regulated profession, so therapists are held to strict licensure requirements. In this way, the MFT and MSW share equal status.
For both MFTs and MSWs, the professional licensure requirement protects the public by ensuring that marriage and family therapists adhere to national standards of conduct, ethics, and training. This is a necessary measure of quality control and oversight, because marital and family therapists can dramatically impact the individuals they treat.
As part of the regulatory process, all 50 states require that any marital and family therapist pursue an additional two years of post-graduate clinical experience. This must be supervised by a trained and licensed mental health professional. Fortunately, candidates can complete this training while working in salaried, full-time jobs. After the completion of their training, counselors are eligible to take state examinations and become licensed.
While the MFT and MSW tracks share some common ground in educating future marriage and family therapists, there are distinctions between the two approaches.
First, MSWs pursue different licensure than MFTs. An MSW who hopes to become a clinician in marital and family therapy must pursue credentials to practice as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). As an LCSW, any social worker can work in a clinical capacity evaluating the emotional and relational dynamics of family struggles.
Note, however, that although they are working in the field of marriage and family therapy, social workers stay tethered to their professional identities. They become licensed clinical social workers, not licensed marital and family therapists. Social workers can specialize in that particular area, however, with an LCSW.
Because the LCSW is required, there are two key steps to selecting an MSW program for marriage and family therapy. The first step is to choose a graduate program that offers a clinical concentration. The second is to establish a fieldwork placement that will further develop those clinical skills. Fortunately, this kind of training is considered the bread and butter of social work. Many MSW programs offer strong clinical tracks.
Another point of difference between the MFT and the MSW is that the social worker receives broad training across many traditional social work practice areas. All accredited MSW programs share a core set of competencies that dictate a foundational curriculum. This is what social work education is about: a broad foundation that is diverse in scope.
From a career perspective, this foundation potentially advantages the MSW over the MFT. It gives MSWs greater versatility in the workplace. MSWs are well positioned to work in many different jobs. They may be able to seek employment in a greater variety of therapeutic settings and than their MFT counterparts. As an academic discipline, the MSW exposes students to a broad range of practice areas. These include social policy and change, family and children’s services, substance abuse, advocacy, community work, and health care. Furthermore, MSWs tend to be in high demand on the job market. They are favored by many employers and in health care settings, because they are often preferred for reimbursements by Medicare and Medicaid.
A drawback to this versatility, however, is that some MSWs may feel less prepared to be clinicians. If you are considering an MSW for marriage and family therapy, it is important to research programs and ensure that specialized skills in this field can be developed. At some MSW programs, a stand-alone certificate in marital and family counseling may be offered. Additionally, in order to become licensed clinical social workers, MSWs must complete 3000-4000 hours of supervised clinical work. Much like medical school students who pursue a residency after they graduate, MSWs aspiring to be licensed in particular fields will find that these additional hours lead to strong expertise.
The final distinction of the MSW is that clinical social workers utilize a particular clinical philosophy. They treat patients through the concept of a person-in-their-environment (PIE). Social workers believe that individuals are strongly impacted by their environments, and so their therapeutic interventions consider influences beyond a person’s mental health.
To learn about the specific steps involved in becoming an LCSW, you should contact your state’s Association of Social Workers Board, (ASWB). This board offers the licensing test that you will take. For more information about the career paths, areas of practice, and licensing requirements for socials workers, contact the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). This is a primary source of career information for social work professionals.
By design, the MFT, which may also be known as the master’s of science in marriage and family therapy (MSMFT), offers very narrow and specific training. There is no additional academic agenda other than to singularly develop expertise in this vocation.
Here, the focus is on developing clinical skills in treating couples and families, including addressing parent-child relationships and sibling relationships. Because the MFT offers a highly specialized course of study, there is no need to seek out additional certificates or clinical experiences.
Like the MSW, the MFT involves some hands-on training. A 400-500 hour practicum is integrated into most programs, and allows students to have a supervised clinical counseling experience. Again, post-graduate supervised clinical work is required of any MFT seeking licensure. Most states require roughly 2000- 3000 hours. After the completion of this training, MFTs are eligible to take state examinations and become licensed.
After earning their master’s, most MFT graduates will take the Marriage and Family Therapy National Exam to become licensed marital family therapists (LMFTs). The requirements for LMFT licensure vary by state, however. To learn the specific process involved in your area, it’s best to contact your state licensing board. It may also be helpful to contact the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Regulatory Board (AAMFTRB) as well. AAMFTRB makes recommendations on state licensure, and is a primary resource for MFT professionals. You might also contact the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) for more information on specific programs.
The MSW will expose you to a greater variety of populations and problems than the MFT. The payoff may be that you will be able to pivot more easily to a new job, and will have greater career options, including opportunities for leadership positions in the field.
The Marital and Family Therapist degree, on the other hand, may offer you the in-depth study that you’re seeking. This degree provides singular academic focus, without the distraction of other practice areas in which you must also become proficient.
Ultimately, the decision to become a Marital and Family therapist is a personal and professional one; choosing one graduate degree over another should be as well.