Marital family therapists do more than counsel couples going through rough patches. MFTs, as they’re sometimes called, are highly trained mental health professionals on par with other types of clinical therapists and licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs). They work with individuals, couples, parents and children, siblings, and entire families to address a wide variety of family situations and mental health disorders. They can treat everything from clinical depression to substance abuse.
Surprised? Don’t be. The marriage and family therapist degree programs that MFTs complete before they’re eligible for licensure are comprehensive and challenging. To graduate, marriage and family therapists have to have a thorough understanding of diagnostic and therapeutic theory… and hundreds of practicum hours under their belts.
In this guide to marriage and family therapist degree programs, we’ll cover.
Clinical psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, and licensed mental health counselors can all practice forms of marriage and family therapy. As a result, several degrees can lead to a career in marital family therapy. A graduate degree in psychology or a Master of Social Work (MSW) can prepare you to obtain the state licensure required to work as Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).
The best degree for aspiring marital family therapists, however, is the Master of Family Therapy (MFT). These marriage and family therapist degree programs go by various names, like Master of Marriage and Family Therapy, MS in Marriage and Family Counseling, or MS in Marriage, Couple, and Family Counseling.
There are a couple of significant practical considerations:
- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification
Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:
- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)
Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. ( )
A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. ( )
- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees
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Both LMFTs and LMSWs can provide clinical therapy, and both are held to strict licensing requirements. Students in both disciplines earn master’s degrees after two years of study. The training they receive can be very different, however, because the philosophies and clinical approaches they use in their practices tend to be different.
The most significant difference between marriage and family therapist degree programs and master of social work programs is that the curriculum in MFT master’s degree programs tends to be more focused; the curriculum in MSW programs is broad. Social workers can work in marriage and family therapy, but they’re also able to provide other kinds of clinical therapy or work in advocacy, policy, and social services. Master’s degree programs for clinical social work therapists reflect how diverse a social worker’s professional responsibilities can be. Marriage and family therapist degree programs are narrowly focused on developing clinical skills and providing MFTs all the training they need to treat, individuals, couples, and families.
The curriculum in marriage and family therapist degree programs dives deep into mental and emotional health issues and their treatments, as seen through the lens of family systems. Students in these programs devote their credit hours to:
MFT students must also typically take multiple practicum courses and complete one or more internships in clinical settings, where they receive hands-on training from licensed therapists. These provide aspiring marriage and family therapists opportunities to work with actual clients in a clinical setting.
To practice clinically, MFTs need at least a master’s degree. Many colleges and universities offer programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE). Students who graduate from non-accredited marriage and family therapist degree programs are still eligible for licensure if they attend an accredited university.
There are some compelling reasons to apply to COAMFTE programs first, however. It may be easier to obtain an MFT license in a new state if you graduate from a COAMFTE program. Some employers will only hire COAMFTE-accredited degree holders. And you won’t be able to participate in specific student loan reimbursement or forgiveness programs if you didn’t attend a COAMFTE-accredited degree program.
The following schools offer COAMFTE-accredited programs:
Yes, there are online marriage and family therapist degree programs that can make it easier for working professionals and parents to earn a degree. Studying online can make it slightly harder to meet practicum course and internship requirements, because you may have to arrange your own opportunities for this hands-on experience. Otherwise, the education you’ll receive when you choose a distance learning program will be the same as you’d get in an on-campus program.
Unfortunately, there are only a handful of COAMFTE-accredited online MFT programs, including:
Most marriage and family therapist degree programs take two years of full-time study to complete. In comparison, earning a graduate psychology degree takes at least three years. That means that getting a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy is one of the faster educational pathways for aspiring clinical therapists.
Graduating from a two-year marriage and family therapist degree program doesn’t mean you’re qualified to work one-on-one with patients or open a private practice, however. All 50 states require MFTs to complete two years of clinical experience work supervised by an LMFT, licensed clinical psychologist, or LCSW before they can apply for a license with their state licensing board and take the state licensing exam or the Association of Marital & Family Therapy Regulatory Boards‘ MFT National Examination.
Add it all up, and becoming a marriage and family therapist can take eight years or more (when you factor in the time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree).
The answer to this question depends on what school you choose and whether you study in-state or out-of-state, on-campus or online. Many colleges and universities charge non-resident students higher tuition, and online students may have to pay technology fees that make studying remotely more expensive. Part-time students sometimes end up paying more over time than full-time students. Becoming a marriage and family therapist will probably require an investment of about $40,000 to $60,000. Top marriage and family therapist degree programs, like the one at Syracuse University, can cost more than $80,000.
Marriage and family therapists typically work with clients coping with complicated family relationships or working through transitions that involve relatives or a spouse. However, they can also treat clients suffering from acute mental health issues. Studies show that marriage family therapy is effective in treating most mental and emotional disorders. That’s why clinicians who graduate from on-campus and online marriage and family therapist graduate programs can be found in:
Some open their own private practices and offer both marriage counseling and psychotherapy to clients who need help to deal with grief, depression, anxiety, behavioral children, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median pay for LMFTs is about $50,000 per year. ZipRecruiter paints a rosier picture, indicating that the average marriage and family therapist salary is $74,000. How much you can make with an MFT degree will probably depend less on your degree and more on the setting you work in. LMFTs who work in state government agencies tend to make the most, according to the BLS, while marital family therapists in individual and family services make the least.
The job outlook for marriage and family therapist degree holders working as clinical therapists is good. Employment opportunities for MFTs are projected to grow 22 percent from now through 2028, which is more than three times faster than the growth rate for other US occupations. Thanks to growing awareness of the importance of mental health and changes to healthcare policy that have made counseling more accessible, more people are seeking out the help of marriage and family therapists. US News & World Report even includes MFTs in its list of 10 Businesses That Will Boom in 2020.
More importantly, most people who seek out the services of an MFT are happy with the care they receive and able to end treatment successfully. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, “Almost 90 percent of clients report an improvement in their emotional health, and nearly two-thirds report an improvement in their overall physical health. A majority of clients report an improvement in their functioning at work, and over three-fourths of those receiving marital/couples or family therapy report an improvement in the couple relationship. When a child is the identified patient, parents report that their child’s behavior improved in 73.7 percent of the cases, their ability to get along with other children significantly improved and there was improved performance in school.”
You might see plenty of client turnover when you launch your career with a marriage and family therapist degree, but that’s a good thing in this line of therapy. Don’t sweat it: there will always be somebody new knocking at your practice door.
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