How to Become a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Learn how to become a marriage and family therapist. Research the job description and the education and licensing requirements, and find out how to start a career in marriage and family therapy.

Should I Become a Marriage and Family Therapist?

Marriage and family therapists help enhance communication and understanding among family members in order to remedy such problems as alcohol and drug abuse or marital stress. Treatment usually takes place over the course of anywhere from 12 to 50 sessions and combines individual and family therapy. Marriage and family therapists work at mental health centers, hospitals, treatment centers, government departments and postsecondary institutions. They deal with clients who suffer from severe familial conflicts, so the job is stressful and demanding. Some therapists travel to patient homes to administer treatment.

Aspiring marriage and family therapists will need to be licensed in their state of residence. Typical requirements include a master's degree in a field related to marriage and family therapy. Clinical field experiences are also required, as are passing scores on a state-approved written exam.

Career Requirements

Degree LevelMaster's degree required
Degree FieldsMarriage and family therapy, psychiatry, clinical social work, psychology or related field
LicensureAll states require licensure
ExperienceTwo years of supervised clinical experience required for licensure
Key SkillsGood listening and people skills, compassion, the ability to think critically and solve problems
Computer SkillsProficiency with medical software such as SOS Case Manager and Anasazi Software Client Data System
Salary (2014)$48,040 per year (Median salary)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, Occupational Information Network

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Individuals pursuing a career as a marriage and family therapist must first earn a bachelor's degree in order to prepare for graduate school. Most marriage and family therapy graduate degree programs accept applicants with any major, provided they've completed prerequisite courses in such areas as human development, research methods and counseling fundamentals.

These courses are often available in psychology programs. Curricula introduce students to such principles as how attitudes and opinions are formed and changed, how people think and learn, how memory works and how personality traits are identified. Other disciplines that might be beneficial to prospective marriage and family therapists include sociology, human studies, or another one of the social sciences.

Success Tip:

  • Complete field or practical experiences. In addition to counting toward course requirements for undergraduate psychology programs, these hands-on learning opportunities help students get into graduate school. Some universities report that successful program applicants have work experience in the field.

Step 2: Complete a Master's Degree Program

Marriage and family therapists need at least a master's degree in marriage and family therapy or a related field, such as psychology or clinical social work. Students should select a program that's accredited by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, since this designation ensures that a program adheres to national standards.

Course requirements for these programs cover such topics as couples therapy, human sexuality, developmental science, research methods and systems theory. Curricula will likely take two to three years of full time study, and includes an extensive clinical practicum and a research thesis.

Success Tip:

  • Participate in research activities. Some master's degree programs offer students opportunities to be members of faculty research teams. These experiences enable aspiring marriage and family therapists to identify an area of interest, whether it's young adult behavior, treatment methods for domestic violence, or home-based therapy for couples.

Step 3: Acquire Clinical Experience

Aside from earning a master's degree, all states require marriage and family therapists to complete two years of clinical experience. Marriage and family therapists can meet these requirements by volunteering their services or becoming employed by nonprofit, charitable organizations, colleges, private practices, or any other agency that provides mental health services. A licensed marriage and family therapist, psychologist, or social worker must supervise this type of work experience.

Step 4: Pass the Licensing Exam

Once they've completed their education and clinical experience, aspiring marriage and family therapists can sit for their state's licensing exam. Some states issue their own exam, while others use the Examination in Marital and Family Therapy, which is administered by the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards. This four-hour, multiple-choice exam evaluates candidates' knowledge of such areas as client diagnosis, ethical standards, and the development of treatment interventions.

Step 5: Complete Continuing Education Requirements

Marriage and family therapist licenses typically last for a two-year period. In order to renew these credentials, therapists need to accumulate enough continuing education credits (CEUs). These are available through state-approved workshops, courses, or online training programs. Marriage and family therapists can also earn CEUs for their supervising or teaching responsibilities.

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