What is an LMFT Degree Program
Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) is a specialization within the field of mental health that focuses on family systems, dynamics, and their interrelationship with individuals within the family unit. The process to become a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) is rigorous and takes years of education and training, beginning with pursuing a graduate (master’s level or higher) degree in MFT.
While in graduate school for MFT, students gain education on theoretical and applied knowledge relating to the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of individuals, couples, and families within a family unit. Pursuing an MFT degree is advantageous as it is a specialized area leading up to specialized licensure, therefore making the area a high-demand occupation.
How to choose the right MFT program
The first step in pursuing a career in MFT is to pick a graduate program that best fits your needs and goals. Things to consider include, are you wanting to practice as a master’s level clinician? Or pursue future education at a doctoral level? The difference between the two is that those wanting to pursue a doctoral program would be better set up with a master’s program that emphasizes involvement in academic research alongside clinical training.
Another major consideration would be if your program of interest has accreditation from a recognized institution that has been approved by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT). An accreditation institution acts as a governing body that ensures the programs adhere to the standards and guidelines set, so competent clinicians ready to pursue licensure are produced by the educational institution.
The national accrediting body that is highly recognized and recommended is the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE). Pursuing a program that is accredited is important because you would have the assurance that you are completing the coursework and clinical training that meet the requirements for licensure upon graduation.
Some positions require that the candidates hired be trained in a COAMFTE-accredited program (e.g. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs). Programs like Texas Tech University (MS) and Auburn University (MS) are great examples of COAMFTE-accredited programs that offer students a number of opportunities to excel academically and clinically.
While a COAMFTE accreditation is preferred, it is only specific to MFT programs. Some graduate programs can be accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). This is a globally recognized accreditation body for mental health and counseling programs that also enforces rigorous guidelines and standards to be met by accredited programs.
Other considerations for choosing the right MFT program could come down to how well you feel a fit with the faculty and students in your program of interest. After all, the mentorship you would receive would play a significant role in clinical training and practice.
What are the educational requirements to complete an MFT program?
Marriage and family therapists come from a wide range of backgrounds, including psychology, psychiatry, and social work. According to the AAMFT, MFT is recognized as a core mental health profession, and licensure as an LMFT is recognized in all 50 states.
To pursue licensure as an LMFT, the first step would require the completion of a graduate program at either the master’s or doctoral level of education. The master’s programs typically span two to three years, while a doctoral program spans four to six years. The main difference between a master’s and doctoral program is that at the doctoral level, there is a heavier emphasis on academic research and preparation for a career in an academic setting whereas most master’s programs are more clinically focused, preparing graduates for a career in the field as clinicians.
While academic requirements for licensure may vary by state, the following outlines a general idea of the core educational requirements for licensure as an LMFT.
Course content includes:
- Theoretical foundations of marriage and family therapy – highlighting the development and empirical foundations of MFT
- Assessment and treatment in marriage and family therapy- treatment approaches specific to the assessment and treatment of individuals within a family unit.
- Human development, gender, multicultural issues, and family studies – competence in working with diverse populations and client base.
- Psychopathology – fluency in psycho-diagnostic categories as included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
- Professional ethics – the professional identity of the marriage and family therapist, fluency in ethical and professional obligations, boundaries, job duties, and limitations.
- Applied professional research – research evidence relating to MFT and competency in using evidence-based treatment and evaluation.
- Supervised clinical internship – typically 12 months or 9 semester hours of which
- At least 150 direct clinical contact hours
- Of the 150 at least 75 hours much be direct contact with couples and families
Upon the completion of a graduate degree, you would then look at pursuing licensure as an LMFT-Associate. This process requires the submission of required documentation to your state board, along with the completion of the AMFTRB (Association of Marriage and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards) national licensing examination. Successful completion of this examination and the other requirements will grant you licensure as an LMFT-A.
Licensure as an LMFT-A is a temporary probationary license. This means that you are licensed under the premise that you engage in clinical practice under the supervision of a fully licensed supervisor until the accumulation of typically:
- 3000 hours of supervised clinical experience of which
- 1500 are direct clinical contact hours
- 500 of the 1500 hours are direct clinical hours with couples or families
Upon accruing the required hours, you would then be able to apply for licensure as an LMFT, which entails proof of the completion of hour requirements, adequate supervision, and the completion of continuing education requirements being submitted to your state board. With licensure as an LMFT, you would be able to independently practice without needing a clinical supervisor. Licensure renewals typically happen every three to six years, depending on your state.
Should I pursue an online MFT program?
Pursuing a graduate degree is a big decision, regardless of which field you have an interest in. Since COVID-19, the availability of distance education has grown substantially, allowing access to programs without the hassle of being in a specific geographical location. The options of attending graduate school in-person or online each come with their own set of advantages and disadvantages. Highlighted below are some considerations that may help your decision.
Marriage and family therapy is an intensive specialization in mental health that requires meeting rigorous educational and clinical training requirements. The main aspect and most valuable resource we all should consider is the ability to make the time commitments necessary to meet these requirements. Online and in-person classes typically require around the same time commitment to study and complete the necessary training. The distinguishing factor would be the availability of part-time and full-time enrollment options. For example, Manhattan College offers a Master of Arts degree in MFT that is accredited and fully online for coursework, and also offers in-person or virtual modalities for practicum training. Students have the option of choosing between a degree plan as being enrolled part-time or full-time.
Being in graduate school and dedicating time to school is an investment in your future career. However, one must consider the financial implications of being actively enrolled. Choosing to attend an in-person program may require relocation and changes in living costs, an issue online programs do not present. The cost of tuition may remain relatively similar, but typically distance education students pay lesser fees associated with enrollment. Being enrolled part-time and online may offer you the flexibility to attend to other personal obligations that an in-person program may not. You may also be able to work full-time while pursuing your MFT degree which offers more financial stability.
Another major consideration would be your learning style and pace. In-person classes offer individualized personal support and interaction from faculty and peers that some individuals find helpful as they go through the rigors of graduate school. Online programs offer flexibility in the pace at which you engage in the coursework. Some online programs such as Loma Linda University are aiming to mitigate that gap in connecting students and staff by incorporating a mandatory on-campus seminar every other semester.
Depending on your career goals, you may base your decision for a program on the availability of engaging in academic research. While most MFT programs are clinically focused, some do offer a thesis track and even encourage engagement in research, especially for those wanting to further their education at a doctoral level. This may get tricky with the options available for online programs, but programs like Manhattan College offer online and in-person formats to students, along with the option and support of completing a thesis track as a part of the program.
Which fits better?
Deciding on whether an online format or an in-person format is better ultimately comes down to your personal preferences. Individuals more rooted in their current location may find an online program advantageous as they could complete a degree from an institution across the nation. While others may want that feeling of being socially present in a classroom setting. In accredited institutions, both modalities carry the standards and expectations which guarantee excellence in education and training.
LMFT salaries and outlook
Beginning a career as a marriage and family therapist can be a long and enduring process. The field of MFT is a relatively new specialization to branch out in the world of psychotherapy and mental health that came into being in the 1930s after the first world war. With that in consideration, MFT is a rapidly growing area of specialization that is in significant demand that will continue to grow in the next decade.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the majority of marriage and family therapists work full-time, predominantly in private practice or mental health centers. The majority of marriage and family therapists engage in direct individual and family services. As of 2021, the median pay for an MFT was $49,880, with a range of salaries spanning from $37,050 – $96,520. The highest-paying jobs were reported to be in state government positions. Further, those with a doctoral education and dual licensure tend to report a higher wage.
The projected growth for marriage and family therapist occupations is 14% in the next decade, which is much faster than the national average. This rapid growth can be attributed to the use of integrated care, where multiple issues are addressed by a group of specialists. MFTs work with other mental health and medical professionals to address mental health, substance use, neurological, and medical needs as a team.
As you consider a career in MFT, it would be beneficial to assess if your work styles and work values align with what is required for the field. Work styles that promote success include concern for others, integrity towards your patients and the field, self-control of emotions in distressing situations, dependability, and a higher window of distress tolerance. Work values that align with this career include the ability to build and maintain relationships with clients and coworkers, independence; the ability to problem solve in fast-paced situations, and a value for achievement, where individuals strive for growth personally and professionally.
A career as a licensed marriage and family therapist can be thought of as a calling. One must have a sense of passion, curiosity, and drive to engage and continue with this career. The demands to become licensed, and the everyday job duties can be rigorous and taxing, and it takes a special set of skills and motivation to be able to be a great marriage and family therapist.
What sets this specialization apart from other professions is the ability to simultaneously witness the growth and progress of multiple individuals at the same time. You would be a part of bringing couples and families together, which would have long-lasting and wide-ranging ripple effects for generations. Helping a family unit heal from conflict, trauma, and life circumstances brings a sense of fulfillment that other professions may not. This also requires that the marriage and family therapist be able to withstand conflict, and distress, and be a model for healthy relationships and boundary setting. It also requires the unique ability to address each case as a combination for a different puzzle, being able to take perspectives and problem solve. The versatility in choosing what work environment, population, and flexibility in setting your own schedule make this career desirable, and moreover, the fulfillment from making a lasting contribution adds to your ability to have a career that makes an impact.
American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy
Association of Marriage and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards
Bureau of Labor Statistics
Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education
Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs https://www.cacrep.org/
Loma Linda University