Marriage and Family Therapist Career Guide

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Marriage and family therapists are mental health professionals that provide psychotherapy services and support to individual clients as well as couples and families. These healthcare providers work in a variety of settings, including schools, hospitals, outpatient care facilities, substance abuse treatment centers, and in private practices. Marriage and family therapists address a range of client issues. They may treat children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, adolescents with eating disorders, adults with posttraumatic stress disorder, couples dealing with infidelity, and families struggling with divorce. As a result, this line of work can be interesting, challenging, and rewarding.

Becoming a marriage and family therapist may be the right choice for you if you feel passionate about helping people overcome obstacles and navigate dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors in order to live happier and more fulfilling lives. In addition to the impact you can have on others' lives, you may also be motivated to enter this field because of the rapid pace at which it is growing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects jobs for marriage and family therapists to grow by 23% between 2016 and 2026. This can be a lucrative career, with a median pay of $48,790 per year.

If you decide this is the career for you, your first step is to earn a master's degree in marriage and family therapy or a related field. Use this page as your guide to explore the process of becoming a marriage and family therapist.

Becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist

Degree Requirements

To become a marriage and family therapist, you must earn at least a master's degree in marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, psychology, or other field related to mental health. A master's degree is the minimum requirement for this specific type of job because graduate-level work is much more in-depth than undergraduate studies in this field. A student in a marriage and family master's program learns about more than just the fundamentals of human cognition and behavior. Master's students acquire the knowledge and techniques necessary to provide psychotherapy to individual clients as well as couples and families. They receive training in the particular needs of these different populations in addition to training on how to diagnose mental health disorders and when a clinician is ethically obligated to refer a client to another professional.

Though a master's degree satisfies the educational requirement for licensure in all states, some prospective marriage and family therapists choose to further their education and pursue a doctoral degree. This may be the right choice for you if you desire a career in research or academia. Whether you choose to earn a master's or doctoral degree in marriage and family therapy, you will likely have the option of completing your education online. Many students find that distance learning offers them the flexibility and affordability they desire.

Clinical Experience Requirements

Generally, students in marriage and family therapy degree programs must complete a fieldwork component for their graduation requirements. Degree candidates can choose from a list of acceptable clinical facilities or can often secure their own practicum site approved by their instructor or program administrator. Online students can find a local clinic or facility that agrees to provide them with access to clinical client hours.

Once students graduate, they must complete post-degree clinical experience to become a licensed marriage and family therapist. The number of clinical hours they need varies depending on the requirements of the state in which they hope to practice. Most states mandate between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience after you earn a degree and before you are awarded your license. Graduates often earn their post-degree clinical hours working at community mental health facilities, schools, hospitals, or in private practice. A certain proportion of your required hours must come from face-to-face work with clients, while other hours can come from clinical supervision with a licensed, approved therapist. Other forms of client-related work can also count toward your hours requirement, such as client chart notes, writing of treatment plans, and observing the sessions of other mental health professionals. Each state has its own unique requirements and regulations, so check with your state's department of health or licensing board to determine what you have to do during and after your program to become a licensed marriage and family therapist.

Licensure and Certification Requirements

Marriage and family therapists need a license to practice in all 50 states. However, the requirements for a license vary by state. All states mandate that licensure applicants have a master's degree in marriage and family therapy or a related field. Applicants must earn a passing score on a licensing exam recognized by the state in which they hope work to secure licensure. State regulations differ in how many hours of clinical experience and supervision candidates must accrue to qualify for licensure. Once a license is granted, marriage and family therapists must attend continuing education courses to keep their licenses active. Visit this link to learn more about the specific license requirements for marriage and family therapists in your state.

If you plan to practice as a marriage and family therapist, you need a license that is awarded by the state in which you work. Though a certificate in the field of marriage and family therapy won't qualify you for a license or to practice clinically, it may still be a good option to consider. Postgraduate certificates in marriage and family therapy may help fill any holes in your master's degree curriculum that cause you to fall short of the licensure requirements in your state. You may be able to bolster your degree and qualify for licensure with additional coursework in the required areas with a postgraduate certificate. Additionally, many licensed marriage and family therapists supplement their education and training with a certificate program to help build their expertise in a specialty area.

Master's Degree vs. Doctoral Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy

Typically, marriage and family therapists must have a master's degree in the field. However, there are advantages to earning a counseling doctorate, including higher salary potential, more career advancement opportunities, and wider and more in-depth counseling expertise. Compare the salaries listed by degree level in the table below to see how earning a doctoral degree in counseling can help you improve your earning potential.

Average Reported Salary for Counselors by Degree Level

Degree Level Average Salary
Master of Arts, Marriage and Family Therapy $47,603
Ph.D., Counseling $77,079
Source: PayScale

Master's Degree

Typically, a full-time student can complete their master's program in marriage and family therapy within two to three years. This generally involves at least a year of clinical practice, which is akin to an internship in that it gives students practical experience in the field under the supervision of a practicing professional. Some programs require master's degree candidates to complete a thesis. While every master's program in marriage and family therapy differs, some offer specializations within the field. Examples of available concentrations include couples therapy, military family therapy, and LGBTQ couple and family therapy. Notably, aspiring marriage and family therapy professionals can also choose to earn their degree in counseling or psychology with a specialization in marriage and family therapy.

In general, a master's degree is the minimum postsecondary education required to become a marriage and family therapist. Earning a master's degree greatly increases job opportunities and opens many doors within the field. Visit this page to discover how you can earn your master's degree in marriage and family therapy online.

Sample Courses

  • The Counseling Process: Covering theoretical foundations of counseling, this course provides students with an overview of the counseling process and highlights legal and ethical considerations.
  • Counseling Through the Lifespan: This course focuses on the different effects life events and personal development issues have on people at various stages of life, from infancy to old age.
  • Psychopathology for Marriage and Family Therapists: Centered around DSM-IV classifications, this course examines theories of psychological dysfunction and the different steps involved in evaluation and diagnosis.
  • Research Methods and Data Analysis for Counselors: This course covers various research processes and examines their appropriateness for certain types of questions. Students also learn about the use of statistics in counseling.
  • Psychopharmacology and the Effects of Substance Abuse: Focusing on the behavioral effects of addiction issues with substances like alcohol, this course explores professional and ethical issues faced by marriage and family therapists in connection with this area of treatment.

Doctoral Degree

A doctoral degree in marriage and family therapy, also known as family counseling, usually takes a full-time student between three and five years to complete. Most of these programs require a master's degree from an accredited institution for admission. Students do not generally need to submit scores from an entrance exam. Doctoral programs in this field often involve a practicum component and a dissertation or culminating project. A dissertation project typically requires a student to conduct original research and defend their work before a panel.

Individuals with master's degrees in marriage and family therapy may choose to further their education and earn a doctoral degree for several reasons. Clients coming to a private practice therapist sometimes prefer a clinician with a Ph.D., so this degree can help with professional opportunities for mental health workers. Employers may look for job candidates with expertise at the top of their field. This credential may also increase your earning potential. Additionally, a doctoral degree enables you to work in academia or research. Visit this page for an overview of doctoral programs in marriage and family therapy.

Sample Courses

  • Trauma and Crisis Intervention: This course focuses on the ways traumatic events and other crises impact mental and emotional health and how therapy can help address the resulting issues.
  • Foundations in Research Methods: Examining both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies in counseling, students in this course learn how to apply different types of research to interdisciplinary science.
  • Scientific Inquiry and Writing: Typically available as an advanced seminar, this course explores conceptualization of scientific research and the particularities of reporting results to the scientific community.
  • Family Theory: Covering major theories of development and family life, this course examines family interaction and the impact it has on individuals and relationships.
  • Attachment, Emotions, and Psychotherapy: Focusing primarily on attachment theory, this course explores the importance of parent-child relationships and their influence on emotional development throughout the lifespan.

Skills Gained in a Marriage and Family Therapy Program

Through different types of programs, on-the-job trainings, and certifications, marriage and family therapy professionals gain and develop many skills that help them work efficiently and effectively with clients and colleagues in professional environments. These competencies include organizational abilities and critical thinking and interpersonal skills, and they benefit marriage and family therapists by expanding their personal and professional development.

  • Interpersonal Skills: Because they work so closely with their clients, it's crucial that marriage and family therapists have good people skills. They must know how to relate to people while maintaining professionalism and providing support in an effective and efficient manner.
  • Communication Skills: Communication is at the core of human interaction, so it stands to reason that marriage and family therapy professionals should be able to convey meaning to their clients and properly interpret the messages they get in response. This includes verbal and nonverbal communication, such as spoken words and body language.
  • Listening Skills: Marriage and family therapists must have excellent listening skills because they often spend the majority of their time listening to clients vent frustrations, relate important life events, and discuss their emotions. Before a therapist can provide their expert opinion on a matter or a course of treatment, they must first listen to the client's experience.
  • Organizational Skills: As with any counseling position, it's important for marriage and family therapy professionals to stay organized in their practice. This includes maintaining client files and other paperwork, structuring scheduling practices, and keeping up with continuing education requirements. A lack of organization can lead to a loss of clients, can impact a professional's reputation, and can result in legal ramifications.
  • Critical-Thinking Skills: Counseling is rarely a straightforward process. As such, marriage and family therapists must think critically about their clients' issues and the proper approach to treatment to help their clients reach resolution efficiently. This generally means going beyond the facts to deeply examine clients' life situations and find the root of their issues.

Employment and Salary Outlook for Marriage and Family Therapists

The BLS projects employment for marriage and family therapists to increase by 23% between 2016 and 2026. This is much higher than the projected employment growth for all occupations, which is about 7%, according to the BLS. However, other similar occupations, like school and career counselors, will also see above-average growth during the same time period. This employment increase in counseling can likely be attributed to the growing incidences of integrated care, where therapists work together with other specialists to address clients' issues collaboratively.

Marriage and family therapists can increase their employment prospects by gaining additional certifications in specialized subsets of counseling. This allows them to appeal to a wider client base and demonstrate their commitment to the counseling profession.

The tables below show the industries with the highest levels of employment and highest concentrations of marriage and family therapists.

Industries With the Highest Levels of Employment for Marriage and Family Therapists

Industry Employment Percent of Industry Employment Annual Mean Wage
Individual and Family Services 12,950 0.56% $49,410
Offices of Other Health Practitioners 8,520 0.97% $53,690
Outpatient Care Centers 6,450 0.73% $52,790
State Government, Excluding Schools and Hospitals 4,960 0.23% $70,260
Residential Intellectual and Developmental Disability, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse Facilities 2,340 0.37% $46,600
Source: BLS

Industries With the Highest Concentration of Employment for Marriage and Family Therapists

Industry Employment Percent of Industry Employment Annual Mean Wage
Offices of Other Health Practitioners 8,520 0.97% $53,690
Other Residential Care Facilities 1,290 0.79% $44,370
Outpatient Care Centers 6,450 0.73% $52,790
Individual and Family Services 12,950 0.56% $49,410
Community Food and Housing, and Emergency and Other Relief Services 730 0.43% $47,300
Source: BLS

How Much Do Marriage and Family Therapists Make?

The tables below provide data regarding the salaries for marriage and family therapists by different levels of experience and the industries that pay these professionals the most. The salary for these professionals typically increases with experience in the field. As with most occupations, there are many other factors that can influence these salaries, including location, certification, and job title. For instance, marriage and family therapists who work within the state of New Jersey earn an average of nearly $10,000 more per year than their Arizona counterparts. Earning additional certifications can boost salary by opening up more job opportunities in different settings.

The industry in which a marriage and family therapist works can also heavily impact their salary. Those working in government typically earn more than those working for religious organizations or in private practice.

Salaries for Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists by Experience

Entry-Level (0-5 Years) Mid-Career (5-10 Years) Experienced (10-20 Years) Late-Career (>20 Years)
$50,000 $55,000 $64,,000 $73,000

Top-Paying Industries for Marriage and Family Therapists

Industry Employment Annual Mean Wage
State Government, Excluding Schools and Hospitals 4,960 $70,260
General Medical and Surgical Hospitals 780 $64,600
Religious Organizations 80 $59,790
Local Government, Excluding Schools and Hospitals 1,410 $59,720
Offices of Physicians 640 $55,470
Source: BLS

Top-Paying States for Marriage and Family Therapists

Where you live can impact your compensation as a marriage and family therapist. According to BLS, the five highest-paying states for marriage and family therapists are New Jersey, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, and Arizona. In addition to salary potential, different states offer distinct advantages and disadvantages to marriage and family therapists living and practicing within their purview. The licensing board of each individual state determines the licensing requirements that apply to therapists in that state. Various states or regions may be associated with different levels of quality of life or with unique client populations subject to different risk factors.

Related Careers for Marriage and Family Therapists

The skills gained in the study and practice of marriage and family therapy generally transfer to similar careers in counseling and other related fields. Most notably, interpersonal and communication skills benefit professionals who work closely with people to help them identify and resolve issues in their personal or work life. Graduates of programs in marriage and family therapy can diversify their job prospects to take advantage of these skills by customizing their academic path through degree specializations and by earning niche certifications in counseling or related fields.

Occupation Description Salary Degree Level Required
Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors Addressing many of the same issues covered in marriage and family therapy, these professionals work to address individual problems with addiction and behavior. $43,300 Bachelor's, Master's
Mental Health Counselors These professionals focus on the mental health aspects of personal and interpersonal issues, typically working with individuals rather than couples or families. $43,300 Master's
Rehabilitation Counselors Using many of the same coping strategies as marriage and family therapists, rehabilitation counselors help people manage the mental, emotional, and physical effects of disability. $34,860 Master's
Social Workers While they do deal with emotional and mental health, social workers typically focus on the pragmatic aspects of treatment and helping their clients form a stable existence through job placement, healthcare, and childcare programs. $47,980 Master's
Postsecondary Teachers Working to promote education, these professionals deliver courses to students in various subject areas. They often must consider mental and emotional health issues when dealing with problematic students. $76,000 Doctoral

How to Find a Marriage and Family Therapy Job

In general, the more experience and credentials you have on your resume, the more positions for which you may be qualified. Degrees and certifications in the field of marriage and family therapy indicate to employers that you received education and training at a high level that prepares you to administer services to clients. If you want to work with a particular demographic or client issue, it may be a good idea to pursue certification in that subject area to enhance your expertise and prove your qualifications to employers. As you develop your resume, you may want to consult with your school's career center. These facilities often have resources and counselors who can help you fine-tune your resume for the job you want. These professionals may help you prepare for interviews as well. Career centers may also offer resume-building workshops for particular fields.

Once you earn your degree and your resume is polished and ready to submit to prospective employers, the internet is a prime resource for job postings. Indeed.com, Monster.com, and Glassdoor.com are three valuable sites that job seekers use to find employment. Job fairs are another excellent opportunity for students to find information about jobs in their area and connect to employers looking for career candidates. Consult with your school's career center or conduct a web search to find upcoming local job fairs.

Professional Organizations for Marriage and Family Therapists

  • American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy: AAMFT focuses on education, advocacy, and networking for marriage and family therapists. Their efforts include developing standards for graduate education, training, clinical supervision, ethics, and clinical practice.
  • International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors: Established in 1989, IAMFC promotes a multicultural approach to marriage and family therapy. The organization offers members access to various counseling publications, networking events, and continuing education opportunities.
  • National Council on Family Relations: NCFR supports a thorough understanding of families and their needs by facilitating research, education, and practice. The organization publishes three scholarly journals, sponsors an annual conference, and hosts a job board.
  • American Family Therapy Academy: The mission of AFTA is to promote research and awareness of family therapy. The association facilitates the collaboration among mental health practitioners, medical professionals, and any other individuals working in service of families and family therapy.
  • Delta Kappa: Delta Kappa is the international marriage and family therapy honor society. The goals of this organization are to train the future leaders in the field of marriage and family therapy, contribute to the professional education of those working in the field, and acknowledge the contributions made by individual marriage and family therapists and scholars.
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