Family counseling is a growing specialization within the larger fields of therapy and psychology. As the smallest common social unit, and one which is constantly evolving with the world, families are incredibly important in human society. As we continue to better understand the human mind and social interaction, family counseling degree programs grow in size and number, with many professionals choosing to work with their clients in family units.

Family counseling programs prepare students for careers as therapists in a growing field, which generally requires at least a master's degree. Some go on to earn their doctoral degrees as well, intending to teach, focus on research, or better master their field of study. This guide is designed to help students decide if a Ph.D. is the right path for them.

Should I Get a Doctorate in Family Counseling?

Doctoral programs require a dedication to the field which goes beyond that of other degrees. Ph.D. programs in marriage and family therapy are filled with people who have already decided to dedicate their lives to working as therapists and advancing the field. Considering that many states require only a master's degree in order to become a licensed therapist or counselor, the Ph.D. is left to those who wish to contribute more to the field, often as researchers or professors teaching the next generation of therapists.

The research and writing requirements, as well as opportunities to work alongside long-established professionals, attend conferences, and publish work can be a huge boon to a career. For Ph.D. programs in marriage and family therapy, making connections and becoming a specialist in a narrow aspect of the field allows practitioners to contribute more than they likely could working in private practice. Those who have taken the time to garner additional experience and advanced degrees are taken more seriously and have a better chance of being read and influencing the field, allowing them to help more people.

What Can I Do With a Doctorate in Family Counseling?

A doctorate in family counseling can lead to a variety of careers based on psychoanalysis, counseling, and working with individuals and groups to improve their quality of life. Many doctoral candidates will already have careers in the field, but for those who move directly to their Ph.D., five example careers have been included below. These sample careers can help to inspire doctoral candidates in their choice of concentration or research interests, help them determine which schools they might want to attend, and provide insight into the income a Ph.D. can offer.

Marriage and Family Therapists

These professionals work with clients who face challenges in one or more of their relationships. They may work specifically with married couples or more broadly with families and other group structures. They help their clients overcome problems and work through issues with the people in their lives.

Median Annual Salary: $48,790*


These professionals may work directly with clients, making extensive use of psychotherapy to help them overcome challenges they face in their lives. They might also do research to help inform other practitioners and work independently or as part of a larger organization, such as a hospital or school.

Median Annual Salary: $77,030*

School and Career Counselors

These professionals work in schools to help students overcome learning challenges or personal problems, advise faculty on how to deal with students, and help students plan for the future.

Median Annual Salary: $55,410*

Postsecondary Teachers

Also known as professors, these professionals teach college courses related to their degree and research. Most professors have a doctorate or equivalent degree, and those working at larger universities are usually involved in actively researching and writing. Professors are often required to produce original research in order to maintain their positions.

Median Annual Salary: $76,000*

Substance Abuse Counselors

These professionals work with clients who are struggling to overcome substance abuse or dependency, helping them to adopt lifestyle changes which can benefit them and their loved ones. Work can include the involvement of a client's family and friends, who can often be affected by the client's actions.

Median Annual Salary: $43,300*

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

How to Choose a Doctoral Program in Family Counseling

Ph.D. programs in marriage and family therapy can vary in many ways, including cost and time to completion. Making the choice between an on-campus and online program is matter of preference. By the time a student has decided to get a Ph.D., they should be aware of the ways in which these factors can vary.

Students will be working closely with faculty, even as peers in some cases, so it is important to know who you might work with at a given institution. Students with a specific focus or specialization in mind should look first for faculty with similar research and teaching interests. Students should contact potential faculty, read their work, and take every opportunity to get to know faculty at the institutions to which they apply.

Most doctoral programs will give accepted students a chance to meet with faculty and other students before accepting, which allows everyone to determine if the program is a good fit. Only after a student has decided if a school can offer them the experience and education they want should they bother considering other issues like cost, location, and funding.

Accreditation for Doctoral Programs in Family Counseling

Accreditation is the process by which institutions prove they are capable of teaching students and awarding degrees. Institutions as a whole can be accredited by a regional or national board, depending on the kind of school in question.

Many professional fields offer accreditation for specific programs as well. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs and the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education are two such organizations. Programmatic accreditation means that a specific program has gone the extra mile to ensure that the degree offered meets a higher set of standards.

Doctorate in Family Counseling Program Admissions

Most students will apply to multiple marriage and family counseling degree programs before choosing one. The number can vary from one student to the next, but with the extensive research recommended before choosing a program, this number is usually small. Graduate admissions is about finding students who are a good fit for the department and school. Students are accepted in part based on their perceived ability to work well with faculty and other graduate students and by their interests as researchers or specialists.

Letters of recommendation, personal essays, and writing samples are more important than transcripts or test scores (though these are still required).


  • Degree: Doctoral programs require that applicants complete at least a bachelor's degree, and some may require a master's in a specific or related field.
  • Professional Experience: Not all programs require experience working in the field, but even if they do not, such experience can help an application immensely and is worth mentioning.
  • Minimum GPA: Applicants must often have a 3.0 GPA or higher. Some schools require at least a 3.5 GPA.
  • License: Some programs may require an applicant to have received a license before applying, but this is not common. These programs generally have a professional experience requirement as well.

Admission Materials

  • Application: This is generally an online form covering contact information and degrees held. Sometimes a personal statement will be required as well.
  • Transcripts: Transcripts can be sent from one institution to another, usually for a nominal fee. Official transcripts are usually required either electronically or through mail.
  • Letters of Recommendation: These should come from professionals with whom the student has worked, either in the field or the academy, who can speak to their skills and strengths.
  • Test Scores: The GRE is usually required, but different programs may require other standardized tests and have different score requirements.
  • Application Fee: This fee exists largely to ensure that the applicant is serious about the process. Getting this fee waived is rare.

What Else Can I Expect From a Doctoral Program in Family Counseling?

No two Ph.D. programs in marriage and family therapy are the same due to the various specializations and concentrations available, though there are some factors which are common among them all. Below are some examples of concentrations, the kinds of classes seen in many programs, and notes about the length of the average program.

Concentrations Offered for a Doctorate in Family Counseling
Concentration Description Careers
Drama Therapy Drama therapy focuses on using roleplay, movement, and story to help clients make sense of their issues and find ways to deal with them. It posts a therapeutic use for playing pretend that allows clients to put concerns or fears into words and work through those anxieties in a safe space. Therapist
Art Therapy A popular method of getting clients to express themselves and their more guarded issues, art therapy makes use of various visual mediums, such as painting or sculpture. Therapists are able to give clients a place to give form to their issues in order to come to a better understanding of them through tactile senses. Therapist
School Counseling Dealing with children and adolescents in an educational setting can provide unique challenges and requires specific training. Students with problems in class often have deeper issues that must be addressed. This concentration leads to work within schools and school systems to help educators and students make the most of the classroom. School counselor
Clinical Counseling This concentration is geared toward work within mental institutions, wherein therapists work with patients who have been separated from the public for some reason. This environment creates unique challenges for both therapists and patients that must be taken into consideration for successful treatment. Clinical psychologist
Corrections Therapy The prison system makes use of counselors to help inmates both during and after their incarceration. Helping prisoners adapt to a new life provides distinct challenges for the therapist and client, and the realities of the prison system are unlike those of the public, requiring a specific body of knowledge. Corrections counselor

Courses in a Doctoral Program in Family Counseling

Below are five courses found in many Ph.D. programs in marriage and family therapy. Though the details will vary from one program to the next, these are common topics that many students will be introduced to during their doctoral education.

Multicultural Counseling

This course focuses on counseling in an increasingly multicultural world, both in dealing with clients of different cultures and in relationships which include people of multiple ethnic groups, religions, and sexual orientations. These courses give students a grounding in the techniques and methods used to ensure cultural awareness and sensitivity.

Psychological Testing

Courses such as this explore the various assessment tools used in therapy. Students explore the administration, scoring, interpretation, and reporting of various common tests used to help clients. Students will become familiar with the strengths and failings of such tests and learn how to adapt them to individuals and groups.

Premarital Therapy

These courses explore the uses of therapy before marriage or other relationships develop, helping clients deal with upcoming changes and preparing them for new challenges. Students may also explore how to help clients deal with the end of relationships and develop new ones.

Professional Challenges

This course prepares students for the challenges they will face outside of therapy sessions, such as finding work, starting a private practice, or the legal and ethical factors involved in therapy. Courses like this are designed to prepare students for managing their careers.

Research Methodology

Research is a significant factor in the pursuit of a doctoral degree and in work done after graduation. Methods courses allow students to develop the research skills needed to complete their dissertations and to continue doing research as a working professional.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Doctorate in Family Counseling?

Ph.D. programs in marriage and family therapy can take anywhere from four to seven years. Students entering a program with a related master's degree can sometimes shave time off earning their Ph.D. by building upon their existing knowledge. The number of courses a student takes per term can have an effect as well, but research toward a dissertation is the most significant factor.

Depending on the project that a student chooses, researching, writing, and defending a dissertation can be a time consuming process. Longer Ph.D. programs tend to be those which feature longer research and writing timetables, and predicting how long this will take can be difficult. However, faculty want to see students succeed and embark on their careers and will often take steps to help limit the time needed to complete the program when possible.

How Much Is a Doctorate in Family Counseling?

Because graduate degrees require more work and investment per credit hour, those credits are generally more expensive than their undergraduate counterparts. While the credits needed to complete the degree vary, paying for additional credits in order to stay enrolled while working on a dissertation is not uncommon. Many doctoral students teach at the universities they attend to help defray these costs.

Beyond the cost of tuition, it is important to consider housing and other costs of living, such as travel for research and conferences. Graduate students working on a doctorate are expected to contribute to their fields while pursuing their degree, which can contribute to the cost of earning that degree. While scholarships, grants, and assistantships can help, planning ahead and finding ways to reduce these costs can make paying for a doctoral degree much easier.

Certifications and Licenses a Doctorate in Family Counseling Prepares For

Marriage and Family Therapy License

All 50 states and the District of Columbia regulate marriage and family therapy through licenses to practice. Though each state has different requirements, they all require at least a master's degree and regulate at the private practice level. Licenses are generally not transferable from one state to the next.

Licensed Psychologist

Psychologists are licensed at the state level and can work as therapists or researchers. Some states provide different levels of licensure for holders of master's or doctoral degrees, but generally only a master's degree is required. Doctoral degrees with such licensure more often work in research or a clinical setting.

Resources for Family Counseling Doctorate Students

Behavioral Health CE

This website hosts continuing education courses for a variety of fields related to behavioral health. The site and its courses are accredited by associations such as the American Psychological Association.

Psychology Jobs

This website is a useful source for mental health professionals searching for jobs. It hosts jobs from across the country and ensures that those jobs are directly relevant to the field.

New Therapist

New Therapist is published bimonthly and is devoted to covering current issues in therapy.

The Practice Institute

TPI provides resources, tools, and consulting services to help therapists manage their own private practices.

Therapist Aid

This site provides a wealth of tools and resources for therapists, including worksheets, videos, and interactive tools designed to help therapists work with their clients.

Professional Organizations in Family Counseling

Professional organizations can benefit working professionals and those still earning a Ph.D. in marriage and family therapy. They provide a variety of networking, professional development, and funding opportunities. Researching professional organizations related to one's field of study is an essential exercise in developing as both a practitioner and a professional.

American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy

AAMFT was founded to promote the practice of marriage and family therapy as well as the development of its practitioners. The group represents over 50,000 therapists globally.

International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors

Chartered in 1989 as a branch of the American Counseling Association, IAMFC is a multicultural organization dedicated to supporting families and fostering the professional development of therapists.

National Council on Family Relations

Since 1938, the NCFR has been bringing together professionals across disciplines to study family structures and relationships. Through conferences and peer-reviewed journals, the organization promotes research and professional development.

American Family Therapy Academy

Founded in 1978, AFTA is a collection of academics, practitioners, students, and others who collaborate on research in order to advance the field of family therapy.

International Family Therapy Association

A global organization founded in 1987, IFTA promotes networking and collaboration across national and disciplinary lines in order to promote family therapy as a practice and a profession.