Marriage and family therapists (MFTs) enjoy the rewarding career of helping people with various mental health issues and emotional concerns. They can provide diagnostic assessments and offer effective interventions to support their clients in making positive changes.
MFTs come from many diverse backgrounds, and they can work in numerous settings. Similarly, these professionals are in high demand with faster-than-normal career growth over the next decade.
Are you interested in pursuing this dynamic career path? Let’s get into what you need to know.
What does a marriage and family therapist do?
An MFT offers mental health support for individuals, families, couples, and groups. They may treat specific mental health diagnoses, like depression or anxiety. Subsequently, they can also provide support for emotional concerns related to self-esteem and healthy relationships.
Treating mental illness
MFTs receive extensive training in assessing, diagnosing, and creating specific objectives to help treat mental illness. Many times, MFTs focus on helping clients reduce unwanted symptoms and replace unwanted behaviors with more adaptive ones.
Therapists often work with people struggling with low self-esteem or self-worth. Therapy offers a safe and nonjudgmental environment for clients to process their emotions and explore their needs. As a therapist, you will provide encouragement and validation to support clients in living more meaningful lives.
Offering support for life stressors
Therapists offer guidance, validation, and coping skills for people navigating difficult life circumstances. These circumstances can include events like breakups or divorce, having children, changing jobs, or grieving a significant death.
Improving relational dynamics
Most therapists receive systemic training, which means they identify how an entire system can affect a person’s development. MFTs frequently work with couples and families to help strengthen boundaries, improve communication, and increase relational satisfaction. As a relationship therapist, you will examine how each member plays a unique part within a greater dynamic.
No two jobs look exactly the same. In a typical day, an MFT might,
- Provide direct therapy for their clients.
- Offer psychoeducation about pertinent mental health topics.
- Teach other therapists in academic settings.
- Facilitate therapeutic groups.
- Conduct or assess academic research.
- Collaborate with other mental health professionals.
- Coordinate wraparound treatment to ensure their clients’ needs are met.
MFTs work in various environments, including schools, hospitals, nonprofit facilities, correctional facilities, private mental health organizations, and private practice. While many therapists work full-time, it’s also possible to work in part-time or contracted positions.
How do you know if you should become a marriage and family therapist?
Working as a therapist can be rigorous, demanding, and difficult. At the same time, this position can be incredibly gratifying and meaningful.
Good therapy isn’t just about giving advice or listening well. As a therapist, you must also think critically, work well in a team, and practice flexibility in the workplace.
Every therapist has different strengths, but most good therapists:
- Consistently enjoy reading and learning new information.
- Enjoy learning about human behavior.
- Like interacting with people from different backgrounds.
- Can handle complex boundaries and confrontation.
- Regularly address their own mental health concerns.
Keep in mind that it’s normal to feel skeptical about your ability to succeed in this field. Most therapists struggle with some uncertainty when starting their journey. Speaking with your professors, connecting with colleagues, and meeting with a personal therapist can make a valuable difference.
How to become a marriage and family therapist
Your career to become a therapist starts with your education.
Most therapists receive bachelor’s degrees in relevant undergraduate concentrations, such as psychology, sociology, or social work. If you have an undergraduate degree in an unrelated field, don’t despair — many therapists pursue this path as a second or third career!
All MFTs must meet specific graduate-level requirements to work in the field. You will need at least a master’s level of education. Fortunately, many private and public universities offer MFT master’s programs.
Applying to graduate school
Selecting the right school can like a daunting process. You will want to consider the following when applying to various programs:
- Tuition costs (private universities tend to cost much more than public universities)
- Specific state requirements, especially if attending an online program
- Acceptance rates (how many students are accepted vs. how many apply)
- Length of the overall program
- Performance outcomes (how many students obtain internships or pass licensing exams)
To get a feel for the program, you may want to talk to different professors beforehand. You can also meet with current students and ask about their experience.
Although each school has different expectations, you should be prepared to submit the following when applying to programs:
- College transcripts
- At least two letters of recommendation
- An essay answering a specific question about your intentions for this work
- GRE scores (if applicable)
Keep in mind that many programs interview potential candidates during the enrollment process. During these interviews, you will answer questions about your past experience and future career goals. This opportunity also provides you with time to interact with potential professors and colleagues, giving you a better perspective of what to expect in the program.
Accreditation can be important for finding success in your career path. Aim to find a program that has accreditation by a national organization, including:
- Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
- Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC)
- Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE)
Accreditation guarantees that a school meets quality standards. To receive accreditation, a school must undergo routine program assessments. Some internships and workplaces require that therapists graduate from accredited schools.
Master’s degree vs doctorate degree
LMFTs can obtain either master’s degrees or doctorate degrees.
For students who wish to pursue a doctorate, PsyD programs tend to be a popular choice. PsyD stands for Doctor of Psychology, and these curriculums focus on applied clinical practice. Unlike PhD programs, which typically focus on research and teaching, most PsyD programs do not require a formal dissertation.
Some PsyD programs combine masters-level education within their coursework (meaning you will obtain both your master’s and doctorate in the same program). Other times, therapists return to school to receive their doctorate after working in the field for a few years.
In general, most master’s programs take about two to three years to complete. The PsyD program takes about four to five years.
Marriage and family therapist requirements
Each state has specific requirements for MFTs. That’s why it’s imperative to research your particular state’s requirements when pursuing this career. It’s possible to obtain licensure in multiple states, but you will need to meet a set criteria in order to do so.
In addition to graduating from an approved program, you will also need to complete supervised internship hours. These hours can range anywhere from 1,500 to 4000, and therapists typically take between two to four years to achieve them.
Internships can take place in many diverse settings. Some therapists become paid employees at an internship site after completing their training hours.
As an intern or associate, you will work under a licensed clinician who can provide you with either group or individual supervision. During supervision, you will discuss client cases, learn about various interventions, and strengthen your clinical skills.
After completing the designated amount of hours, you will submit your experience to your state’s licensing board. After their approval, you will sit for your board exams. These exams will test your knowledge about:
- State laws and ethics
- Clinical theory and intervention
- Diagnostic assessment
- Treating crisis situations
Upon passing these exams, you will be licensed. To maintain licensure, you must continue accruing continuing education units, adhere to all board rules, and pay recurring fees.
Many therapists pursue advanced certification or training in specific areas of focus. Each certification is independent and has its own requirements.
Having expertise in a particular topic can help you stand out when applying for jobs — it can also be a valuable asset if you decide to work in private practice.
Career and salary outlook
With more and more people seeking mental health treatment, there will likely be a continued need for qualified providers in the future.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for MFTs is growing much faster than average. They estimate the expected percent change in employment from 2019 to 2029 will rise by 22 percent. There is currently a high demand for therapists working in comprehensive, integrated care settings like treatment centers.
Salaries vary according to region, experience, and specific job requirements. In 2020, the median therapist pay was about $51,000 annually or $25 per hour. Annual salaries tend to be highest in private practice settings and state government.
Today, many therapists have the option to work remotely. Telehealth has surged in popularity over recent years, and it has become even more widespread during the COVID-19 pandemic. With more and more people seeking mental health treatment, MFTs will continue to provide much-needed support in their communities.
As an MFT, you will spend much of your working day supporting, guiding, and helping other people. It’s both a challenging and rewarding career, and no two days will feel the same.