Are you thinking about becoming a marriage and family therapist? Do you have a passion for impacting and inspiring others?
Even if you feel optimistic about your choice, it’s normal to question your decision and experience some uncertainty about making the right move. After all, you need to account for several years of graduate school and clinical experience. Subsequently, you want to make sure that you’re making the best decision for your future.In this guide
- What is an MFT master’s?
- MFT degree requirements
- Online MFT
- What does an MFT do?
- Mental health trends
- Careers and salary
- Expert advice
Understanding the MFT master’s degree is the first step towards your long-term career success. This guide will help you know what to expect, the differences in various programs, and the current career outlook. Let’s get into what you need to know!
What is a master’s in marriage and family therapy?
A master’s degree in marriage and family therapy prepares you for becoming a licensed therapist. Many private and public universities offer these programs within their counseling or psychology schools.
Your master’s degree is the first step towards obtaining licensure. As a licensed therapist, you will assess and intervene with clients. These clients may include individuals, families, couples, or groups. Often, these clients come to therapy struggling with issues related to:
- Interpersonal relationships.
- Specific mental health diagnoses.
- Significant life transitions.
How long does an MFT program take?
MFT programs vary in length, depending on whether you enroll as a full-time or part-time student. Moreover, some schools offer fully year-round coursework, and others do not. Typically speaking, most programs average between 2 to 3 years.
How much do MFT programs cost?
Like all graduate programs, tuition costs can vary drastically, depending on your location, the type of institutional setting, and whether you receive in-state tuition benefits.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a universal method for discovering the actual cost of a program. You will need to research each program independently. Grants, student loans, and other financial aid options can help subsidize graduate school costs.
Research shows that the average cost of a master’s degree was just under $25,000 in 2016-2017. However, tuition costs have increased each year, and prospective students should take all extraneous financial considerations, such as student loan interest, lost working wages, and the potential costs of childcare, into account.
Continuing on to a doctorate
The MFT master’s degree is generally considered terminal. Terminal refers to being the highest degree in a specific field.
That said, many students or working therapists advance their education by pursuing a doctorate degree. Doctorates either receive a PhD or PsyD, and these programs often add another 3 to 5 years of schooling.
Like master’s-level therapists, these graduates typically work in clinical settings providing therapy services. However, they may also work in roles conducting research, teaching, or administration.
MFT degree requirements
Each school has specific requirements students must meet to graduate. These requirements coincide with state board regulations, which you must adhere to for obtaining licensure and maintaining good standing as a therapist.
Typical graduate school coursework
Every state has slightly unique curriculum requirements needed for licensure. However, generally speaking, the master’s degree includes coursework in various disciplines and topics, including:
- Theories of marriage and family therapy
- Laws and ethics
- Family therapy
- Cross-cultural considerations
- Couples therapy
- Group therapy
- Human sexuality
- Research methods
- Therapy with children and adolescents
- Therapy through the lifespan
- Professional therapy career development
Typical graduate school fieldwork
Along with professional lectures and workshops, all students must complete a designated number of fieldwork hours to graduate. Fieldwork (also known as a traineeship or internship) consists of providing direct therapy to clients.
During a practicum class, students will discuss and review client cases with a licensed therapist (their supervisor) and other cohort members. Practicum provides an excellent opportunity for strengthening your clinical skills.
What about online MFT programs?
Online graduate programs have become increasingly popular in recent years. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, research from the National Center for Education Statistics showed that nearly seven million students took distance learning graduate-level courses.
Online MFT programs undoubtedly offer flexibility, accessibility, and convenience to many students. While in-person studies provide more dynamic, face-to-face interaction, many students find that online coursework aligns better with their schedule and career goals.
For instance, students may be able to work while being enrolled in school. Similarly, if they live in a more rural area, they will not have to relocate to a physical class.
Accredited online MFT programs must adhere to the same rules and regulations as any other university. You will be expected to complete your coursework, participate in your fieldwork, and pass any exams or finish a thesis.
Are there downsides to online MFT programs?
Online programs aren’t ideal for everyone. In general, these programs offer far less social interaction. Because social skills are such a vital part of the therapist career, this setback can hinder some students.
Online students need to be self-motivated and accountable. In asynchronous learning formats, you must stay on top of your coursework or reading. A professor isn’t watching you or making sure you’re participating in lectures.
Some people find that physically attending class helps them pay attention and focus. At home, they might feel more susceptible to distractions.
What does an MFT do?
MFTs work in various settings and can provide therapy to a diverse range of populations. Most therapists are systematically trained, which means they focus on how larger systems impact individual functioning.
Couples and marital therapy
Couples or marital therapists help support clients with relationship problems. When meeting with couples, they typically provide strategies for improving communication, strengthening trust and intimacy, and working through difficult life circumstances. Some therapists specialize in specific issues affecting couples, such as infidelity, premarital counseling, or infertility.
MFTs often work with family systems to help improve boundaries, self-esteem, and connection. A family may consist of several members, but it can also include just a parent and child. Family therapists encourage each family member to focus on making individual changes to trigger relational change.
Group therapists facilitate groups for specific issues or general support. Groups can be highly beneficial in helping members feel validated and connected to others. Therapists typically hold groups once a week- some groups follow a specific, time-limited curriculum, whereas other groups are more open-ended.
Therapists can help children struggling with various stressors or mental health concerns. Therapy can be invaluable for assisting children in feeling supported, especially if they don’t feel they have another outlet. Some therapists meet with children individually. Many times, they coordinate treatment with family members and school personnel.
Therapy for specific concerns
Therapists may specialize in specific issues or needs. These concerns can include anything from postpartum support to phobias to personality disorders. It’s not uncommon for therapists to accrue additional certification or training to gain an advanced understanding within a particular niche.
Other therapist roles
Therapists don’t necessarily just provide therapy. At any given time, they might wear multiple hats and engage in tasks, including:
- Case management.
- Paperwork and documentation.
- Coordination of client care.
- Alumni support.
- Teaching (in all education levels).
- Academic writing.
- Research (conducting, assessing, interpreting).
- Clinical directing, managing, or higher-level administration.
MFT and mental health trends
The MFT career outlook looks exceptionally positive, with the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reporting a 22 percent increase in career opportunities over the next decade. To date, states with the highest employment levels are California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and New York.
The increase in mental health concerns
Nearly one in five US adults has a mental illness. According to Mental Health America (MHA), the prevalence of mental illness has continued to rise in recent years. Similarly, people of all ages and demographics are susceptible to conditions like depression or anxiety.
While there aren’t universal cures, our society is increasingly becoming more aware of the risk factors and available treatment options. Today, many people hold a favorable view about therapy and express a willingness to try it.
However, there is a significant, unmet need for mental health treatment- even in states with the greatest access to care, 38 percent of individuals are not receiving adequate treatment.
Increased demand for treatment
People are more accepting and interested in therapy than ever before. Research shows that over half of Americans report seeking or wanting mental health services for themselves or a loved one. Many people who have had therapy indicate having positive experiences.
But despite the desire for treatment, many people report challenges when accessing care. Financial barriers, long waitlists, lack of awareness about care options, and social stigmas are common barriers that often hinder the process of seeking therapy.
Online therapy exploded in popularity during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Online therapy provides remote care to clients using electronic messages or videoconferencing. Large platforms like BetterHelp and Talkspace have streamlined telehealth for millions of users.
As a remote therapist, you can work in any state where you are licensed. Some common benefits of working remotely include:
- Flexible scheduling.
- Less overhead.
- More accessibility to clients, especially if you live in a rural area.
- Convenience (can work right out of your own home).
- Supplemental income opportunities.
MFT career outlook
Therapists will likely continue to be in high demand. According to the BLS, growth will be most prevalent in integrated care settings, such as treatment facilities or community-based mental health centers.
Therapists will still need to accrue clinical hours after graduation before sitting for their board exams. Paid, entry-level positions are common in the following settings:
- Inpatient treatment facilities.
- Nonprofit or community mental health centers.
- Private group practices.
As an entry-level therapist, you will work under a licensed supervisor. While you are responsible for your clients’ well-being, they help ensure that you adhere to the necessary laws and ethics. They will continue supervising you to help you learn and grow.
Many therapists find entry-level positions through popular job sites like Indeed or Glassdoor. Others may network with faculty members, colleagues, or professional organizations, such as the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT).
Some traineeships or internships offer entry-level positions upon graduation. When searching for your fieldwork site, consider inquiring to see which ones offer this opportunity.
In 2020, the median pay for MFTs was $51,340. Like most professions, pay largely depends on your location, expertise, and type of employment. For instance, research shows that a therapist in Utah earns an average salary of $80,110 compared to a therapist in Florida making $42,460.
There is little data about the average pay grade for an entry-level therapist compared to mid-career MFTs. With that point, most therapists typically make more money after becoming licensed. At that point, you no longer need active supervision, and they can own a practice.
Certain industries within the therapist career tend to pay more competitively. It’s a good idea to stay aware of current salary trends in your area- this information will help you remain competitive when applying for work or negotiating your salary.
MFT career advancement
Therapists can enjoy significant opportunities for growth throughout their careers. Your degree and licensure offer you immense flexibility to work in numerous settings.
Common career advancement paths include:
- Increased specialization in specific niches
- Administration and upper management roles
- Tenure positions as a university professor
- Individual or group practice business owner
At the same time, many therapists can also ‘downsize’ or reduce their workload to accommodate their schedule. This flexibility can be attractive for therapists working in other roles, raising children, or managing different tasks.
While most therapists work full-time, there are many job openings for part-time or contract positions. Additionally, if you work in private practice, you can set your own hours and choose your caseload size.
Becoming a therapist is incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. While the work can be difficult, you will help many different people each day. Moreover, you will continue evolving, learning, and taking risks outside of your usual comfort zone.
As a therapist, you will enjoy the challenge of supporting your clients’ growth and encouraging them to take the steps needed to live a meaningful life.
1. What are the most important factors for students deciding on an MFT program?
2. How can students best prepare for an MFT program?
3. What types of jobs are MFT graduates finding?
What are the most important factors for students deciding on an MFT program?
There are a number of factors to consider and one that is important across the board is to choose a program that is COAMFTE accredited. Accreditation is often directly linked to licensing making it easier after you graduate and allows for more portability of your degree if you decide to move. Also, if you want to work as an MFT with the Department of Veterans Affairs, or if you want to be eligible as an MFT for student loan reimbursement through the National Health Service Corps, you must have a COAMFTE-accredited degree; equivalency is not accepted.
Other important considerations are location, cost, and personal fit. You will develop significant professional networks during your studies with other students and during your internship experience. These connections will contribute to the work you find after you graduate. So where you do your studies or your internship does make a difference. The cost of the program needs to be considered, you want to finish your degree with capacity to begin building your professional career as an MFT. Finally, personal fit is important. Research the program’s faculty, what are their research interests, what have they published, what organizations are they involved with, and how do they describe their work. If you find connections there, it could be a fit for you.
How can students best prepare for an MFT program?
Students can best prepare for an MFT program by being curious about how systems impact the way we live, love, and evolve our communities. An MFT program will help students understand how relationships and systems impact the well-being of individuals, relationships, families, and communities. There are no bounds to our curiosity, no bounds to what we learn about other people and the world we live in so being prepared to explore is important.
Can students take electives, or customize their MFT experience?
This will vary by program and if important, you must research each program individually.
What types of jobs are MFT graduates finding?
Graduates from MFT programs work in hospitals, schools, Veterans Affairs, private practice, community agencies, universities, and other workplaces.
If you had to choose one or two books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, etc. to be included on a required reading list for MFT students, what would it be?
A key resource is AAMFT, https://www.aamft.org/ They have a number of resources including podcasts: https://www.aamft.org/podcast.