A degree in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) consists of an extensive curriculum on the theories and psychotherapeutic practices that goes into treating individuals, families, couples, and children as it pertains to family dynamics. Online MFT programs offer flexibility in coursework offerings and a variety of practicum (clinical training) sites that would better suit individuals balancing other daily obligations. Many MFT programs are graduate level, with most major higher educational institutions in the United States offering Master’s in MFT programs. While online program offerings have been around for over a decade, since 2020, many more universities have made the availability of degree programs more accessible to distance learners, opening up a vast number of options for you to find the right program for your educational and career endeavors. In pursuing an education in MFT, you can practice as a therapist as either a master’s or a doctoral-level clinician.
Why are MFTs important?
The demand for educated and experienced mental health experts is on the rise, especially as the complexity of the world continues to develop. Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs) are mental health professionals specializing in the assessment, analysis, and treatment of an intersection of issues within the family system and the mental health of parties involved. MFTs work in a variety of mental health treatment settings including private practice, hospitals, in-patient and outpatient treatment centers, schools, and rehabilitation centers, to name a few. A Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) is different from other mental health professionals such as a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), or a Licensed Psychological Associate (LPA), as LMFTs focus on interpersonal and family dynamics, and how the two intersect to influence the functioning of individual members and the family unit. Marriage and Family Therapy is brief and solution-focused, where treatment is based on successful goal attainment at the end of therapy. Typically MFTs see clients for about ten to twelve sessions working towards realistic and attainable goal/s for the family unit.
Types of MFT Degrees
Bachelor’s Degrees in Marriage and Family Therapy
Pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology is oftentimes the first step most people take in their career to become an LMFT. Most universities do not offer a bachelor’s level degree specializing in marriage and family systems. While a degree in the field of psychology is not a requirement for entrance into an MFT graduate program, it would provide you with a basic understanding of psychological theories and practices that would set you up for what to expect at a graduate level. Bachelor’s degrees in psychology include courses that provide a basic understanding of MFT principles, and it is always a recommendation to pursue research projects or internships that exposes you to an MFT environment and material.
Master’s Degrees in Marriage and Family Therapy
Master’s degree programs in MFT are typically designed to prepare you for licensure post-graduation. Most programs consist of 60 credit hours, where the coursework curriculum and training take on average two to three years to complete. Depending on the program you decide to apply for, you may have the option of completing a thesis track (e.g. Auburn University) where you would conduct academic research within the field. Other programs may require an applied paper (e.g. Texas Tech University which is based in Texas) in which you would be assessed for your in-depth application of theory and conceptualization of a clinical case.
Another consideration would be whether your program of interest offers a Master of Science (MS) or a Master of Arts (MA) degree. An MS in MFT typically has a stronger focus on science and research. These programs would be more likely to offer a thesis track as a part of the program and promote academic research in the field (e.g. Brigham Young University in the state of Utah). An MA in MFT would emphasize liberal arts where the clinical aspect of MFT would be the center focus (e.g. Syracuse University). The choice of a program is entirely dependent on your interests and what skills you hope to develop for a career in MFT.
Doctoral Degrees/Ph.D.’s in Marriage and Family Therapy
A Ph.D. in MFT consists of a three to four-year program that specializes in MFT, typically 72 credit hours, at the end of which you would have to complete clinical training hours and a dissertation in the area of focus (e.g. Texas Woman’s University). Most doctoral students already have a master’s degree in MFT and pursue a Ph.D. as a means of further specialization as it offers extensive training to developing clinicians, and an in-depth understanding of research methodologies. A doctoral degree does not offer a difference in the level of licensure, but graduates are set up to earn the recognition being both, a Ph.D. and an LMFT. Ph.D. qualifications do, however, provide more opportunities in terms of jobs, including academia and careers in practicing as an LMFT.
For those that are pursuing or have graduated with a clinical degree and would like to specialize in MFT, some institutions offer MFT certificate programs that include coursework and training to be eligible for licensure as an LMFT. These certification programs often are typically eight weeks and require students to be currently pursuing or hold a graduate degree in psychology (e.g. Pepperdine University, Capella University). One major advantage of a certification program is that you can most times, earn the credentials and complete the program completely online.
Length of MFT Programs
Masters level MFT programs consist of a 60-credit hour curriculum which may take up roughly two to three years. Ph.D. programs are typically three to six years with a minimum of 90-credit hours completed that are beyond a baccalaureate degree level. Ph.D. programs also have a heavier emphasis on research methodology and practice as a requirement for graduation. The length of the program would depend on (a) whether or not you choose a thesis track (at a master’s level), (b) the length of clinical practicum (generally 12 credit hours) required by the program, and (c) the course load taken per semester. Certification programs are offered as supplemental qualifications to assist in licensure as an LMFT and include coursework, clinical practicum, and continuing education credits that are required by the state board. These programs can range from eight weeks to one year in length.
What are Accredited Marriage and Family Therapy Masters Programs?
In choosing an MFT program, it is important to look for one that is accredited by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT). Accreditation means that the program requirements are in accordance with those of AAMFT and your state licensing board. This ensures the quality of coursework completed, and the appropriate training necessary to be a competent MFT once you are ready to seek licensure and begin practice in the field. Most states require that candidates graduate from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE), or by the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). These commissions are specialized and recognized accreditors for counseling programs across the nation.
The COAMFTE accreditation board ensures that the master’s programs they accredit, meet the regulations and guidelines that would enable graduates to meet licensing requirements with ease. This accreditation is specific to MFT programs. Some employers such as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also require employees to graduate from a COAMFTE accredited program. COAMFTE accreditation is widely recognized, and accredited programs offer graduates the preparation and versatility they would need for the next step in their careers.
CACREP MFT Accreditation
The CACREP accreditation board is a globally recognized entity that encompasses several mental health counseling programs including MFT, addiction counseling, clinical mental health, child and adolescent counseling, rehabilitation counseling, and school counseling. The board ensures that accredited programs meet the professional milestones necessary for programs to produce competent graduates in the field of mental health.
University Regional Accreditations
Graduate program accreditations encase the regional requirements by state licensing boards to which graduates would typically seek licensure. For example, graduates from Texas A&M University, a CACREP accredited institution, would have met all the requirements set by the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council (BHEC), the licensing board of Texas. Programs are required to provide information on their accreditation on the program website, and this is indicative of the quality of education you would receive, should you decide to pursue that program.
What are the General Requirements to Enroll in an MFT Graduate Program?
Bachelor’s Degree and Prior Education – MFT programs are flexible in the educational background of their applicants. While you need not have a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field, a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university and the completion of at least 12 semester hours of psychology courses is generally required. Minimum Grade Point Average (GPA) requirements range from 2.5 to 3.5, depending on the program you apply for. Typically, entrance into a Ph.D. program requires a higher undergraduate GPA. A bachelor’s degree may play a role in your decision to pursue an MS degree vs. an MA degree or a Ph.D.
Application – The submission of applications is typically based on an online format where applicants would enter all personal, educational, and professional information via a portal account. You may be asked to answer a series of questions specific to the program, how past experiences have influenced your decision to pursue an MFT program, and the completion of a program-specific essay is likely. In addition to providing educational and career information, you would provide information and request for (usually) three references and letters of recommendation, and lastly, submission of the application fee.
Transcripts – Programs require official transcripts to be sent directly from your previous educational institution(s). More universities accept electronic formats in recent years.
Personal Statement (program dependent) – A personal statement may be required depending on the program. This typically is a two-page essay outlining your intentions of pursuing an MFT degree in that institution, background information that would make you a good fit, and an opportunity for you to highlight specific faculty under which you would like mentorship, along with reasons for your decision. Essentially, the personal statement is a personalized opportunity to convince the admissions committee that you would be a good fit for the program.
GRE – The requirement for the completion of a GRE test depends on the program you apply to. While some programs have waived the GRE requirements (if you have other qualifications) the ones that do, typically look for a GRE score around 315 (verbal ~ 160, quantitative ~ 155). Some programs may require the completion of GRE subject tests. Scores would be submitted with the application.
What will You Learn in an MFT Program?
In completion of the required 60-credit-hour curricula, most MFT programs are designed to fulfill the course requirements for state licensure of where the university is based. The following outlines some courses general to most programs. You will learn how to assess issues within the family system using established theoretical guidelines, diagnose individuals based on criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and provide evidence-based treatment to diverse populations that may seek mental health treatment. Clinical training typically occurs during the last year of the program where you would receive in-depth supervised clinical experience working with individuals, couples, and/or families. Here, you would accumulate practical knowledge of creating treatment plans, report writing, and other processes that go into the daily work of being an LMFT.
Most programs structure course offerings based on licensing requirements in the state where the program is located. Since accreditation boards are assigned by AAMFT, general competencies in specific courses are required and these are common to most MFT programs. The following is an outline of those courses:
Theoretical foundations of marriage and family therapy – A comprehensive understanding of the development and foundations of MFT theories, contemporary theories, and applying theoretical conceptualizations in treatment in marriage and family therapy.
Human development, family studies, multicultural and gender issues – Theories of human development and approaches to the stages of development. Family systems theory and applicability in treatment. Multicultural competence, theory, and practice. Gender issues on sex and gender identity or relevant issues, the intersection of family systems with sex and gender.
MFT assessment and treatment – Treatment modalities, techniques, and approaches that would be explicitly used in therapy with diverse populations. This would include individuals, families, couples, and children. Topics covered include (but are not limited to) relationship therapy, crisis intervention, sex therapy, sex and gender issues, interfaith couples, parental issues, multi-cultural issues, and therapy for the elderly.
Professional ethics – Professional identity accompassing the duties and roles of a marriage and family therapist. This includes the therapist’s scope of practice, ethical obligations, professional affiliation with organizations, procedure on licensure and certification, and ethical issues pertaining to practicing therapy with individuals, couples, and families.
Professional research – Includes a comprehensive understanding of evidenced-based research in the field of marriage and family therapy. The mechanics of conducting scientific research, and the process of consuming and applying evidence-based research in clinical practice. This also includes a comprehensive understanding of effective research evaluation methods and tools beneficial for practice in marriage and family therapy. While some master’s programs may offer the option of pursuing a thesis track, Ph.D. programs require the completion of academic research and the successful defense of a dissertation.
Treatment of addictions and management of crisis – Theoretical conceptualizations of the process of addiction and its influence on marriage and family systems.
Psychopathology – Theoretical and clinical competence in the assessment and diagnosis of pathology using psycho-diagnostic categories and criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Assessment and screening based on evidence-based tools and practices.
Supervised clinical practicum/internship – Completing supervised clinical experience.
MFT Program Specializations and Concentrations
As you proceed through the MFT program, you will have several opportunities to further specialize your focus within the field of MFT. The program itself may offer concentrations in areas such as child and adolescent therapy, therapy for military families, a specialization in trauma, or a general focus on MFT. Beyond the set tracks by the program, you would be able to identify the population you are drawn to during the clinical practicum. This provides an opportunity to gain insight into what kind of work environment falls in line with your needs.
A Career in Therapy After Graduation
As you near graduation, the next step would be to consider what life would look like as a professional in the field. To practice as an MFT, you would have to be licensed by your state board as appointed by the AAMFT. You would need to complete the required coursework, prior to graduation, and complete the licensing examination as regulated by the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB), after which you would receive a probationary license as an LMFT- Associate. To receive full licensure as an LMFT, you would have to complete about two years of supervised clinical experience, after which you would be able to practice independently as an LMFT.
The clinical practicum/internship completed as a part of the program requirements would be an opportunity for you to gain insight into the type of work environment that fits your needs. Typically, universities provide you with a list of practicum placements where previous students have been placed, however, the general requirement is that the placement you choose offers clinical supervision by a board-approved, appropriately licensed supervisor and that you would be set to accrue the necessary hours to meet the requirements of the program, and ultimately licensure.
What does it mean to be a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist?
The Licensing Process
A Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist is a mental health provider who has graduated from an accredited MFT institution and accrued the requirements to hold licensure by the state board to which they belong. The educational requirements are typically overarching across states but an overview of the standard curriculum is listed above. One of the main factors to consider is obtaining a degree with a COAMFTE or CACREP accreditation as it ensures your preparation for licensure upon graduation. As graduation approaches, candidates will begin preparing for the state or national licensing examination that is governed by the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB). Successful completion of this examination is a requirement to be approved for an LMFT-Associate (LMFT-A) license.
Clinical training is vital in being a competent MFT. Almost all programs (online or in-person) incorporate a clinical practicum or internship as a requirement to successfully graduate. This is typically 12 semester hours. Upon graduation and successful completion of the licensing examination, you would have a probationary LMFT-A license. Generally, LMFT-As need 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience working with clients, 1,500 of which must be direct services with patients. Requirements for the number of hours specifically worked with couples and families vary by state.
The AAMFT council is the national entity that governs state boards overseeing MFTs in their specific states. Information on state boards and requirements can be accessed here. State boards set the policies and regulations on the licensing renewal process, requirements, state ethics code, information on board actions and restrictions, licensure limitations, and information on how to file grievances for therapists and clients. Information on programs that are accredited, and board-approved supervisors available in your area for licensing purposes and supervision hours, may be located via your state’s licensing board website.
What is the Career Outlook for Marriage and Family Therapists?
The field of mental health is constantly growing in its versatility within specializations and the improvement in awareness amongst the general public. Therapists within the MFT specialization have seen steady growth over the last few years according to the Department of Labor Statistics, where there is a projected growth of 16% in the next decade. This projected growth is much higher than the average of other occupations in the United States. As of 2021, the median annual pay for MFTs nationally is $49,880, with hourly rates at an average of $24.00, with salaries ranging from $37,050 – $96,520.
Where can MFTs Practice?
Being an MFT offers versatility in your career that other fields do not readily provide. MFTs can thrive in private practices, in-patient residential facilities, outpatient mental health treatment centers, hospitals, schools, rehabilitation centers, academia, non-profit organizations, research centers, and training positions for other MFTs. Seeking an MFT degree from an accredited school is particularly important should you decide to seek employment in a government entity. For example, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs requires that LMFTs that are employed hold a degree from a COAMFTE accredited institution. While most MFTs work full-time, you would have flexibility in setting your schedule in most work environments, and the autonomy to set goals for your patients and career. Pursuing a doctoral degree offers better opportunities, higher wages, and an even wider range of job availability to include teaching, academic research, and clinical training supervision.
What are The Benefits of an Online MFT Program?
Considering a graduate degree is a big step for anyone along with everything else in daily life added to the mix, you would want to weigh the pros and cons of pursuing an online MFT degree. In the last two years, there has been a substantial push toward making online education more accessible while maintaining the standards and quality of education. While you would receive more face-to-face time with your instructor and peers, an online degree would provide you the flexibility to make your schedule and set your own pace. This is beneficial to those who have several other daily obligations to family or work and provides you the ability to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Depending on your learning style, an online MFT program could offer you the focus you need to succeed in your educational pursuit, being free of distractions and unnecessary stressors. Another significant benefit of pursuing an online degree is the cost. You would not have to account for the cost of commuting to class or living expenses to relocate. Further, you would be able to obtain a degree from an institution of your choosing at the convenience of your home. This of course is except for practicum requirements for which even then, you would have more flexibility in sites that are readily available in your area.
As you move forward in your search for the program that is the right fit for you, be assured that an education and career in marriage and family therapy are like no other. While the field of mental health is challenging in many ways, it can be one of the most fulfilling jobs in the sense of personal and professional growth. As clinicians move through their growth as students and then mental health professionals, one thing common to all is the fulfillment of making a real impact in the world.
American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists
Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards
Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education
Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs
GRE General Test
Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council
United States Department of Labor Statistics