A master's degree in marriage and family counseling prepares you to work as a licensed therapist, helping couples and families tackle relationship challenges and strengthen interpersonal skills. Master of marriage and family therapy (MFT) programs typically take two years to complete as a full-time student. You may expedite graduation by enrolling in accelerated online MFT programs. These intensive tracks operate four- and eight-week classes year-round and allow you to graduate in as little as one year.
As a graduate counseling student, you learn how to diagnose patients and develop individualized treatment plans. Academic training also entails internships and clinical residencies. This guide covers program structure and admission requirements to help you find the master's program in marriage and family counseling that fits your needs. It also outlines career options.
What Is Marriage and Family Counseling?
Marriage and family counseling is a mode of psychotherapy that identifies and analyzes the behaviors of family members. This specialized counseling form addresses how interpersonal dynamics influence individual behaviors and the relationships among families. To these ends, counselors offer short-term, solution-focused treatment plans divided into individual and group therapy sessions according to client needs.
Healthy marriages bolster the emotional and physical well-being of all members within the unit. Unfortunately, nearly 50% of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, according to the American Psychological Association, and the divorce rate is even higher for subsequent marriages. While marriage and family therapists treat a variety of disorders (including substance abuse, developmental disorders, and mental illness), treatment centers operate on the theory that getting all family members involved in the therapeutic process yields better solutions. To work as a skilled therapist, you need to earn graduate credentials, complete about 3,000 hours of post-degree clinical training, and apply for state licensure.
Consult the in-depth degree page below to learn more about the MFT field. On top of detailing the best online marriage and family therapy master's programs, the guide covers financial aid and student resources.
What You Can Do With a Master's in Marriage and Family Counseling
Graduates of marriage and family therapy master's programs can pursue jobs directly related to marriage and family therapy or within other areas of counseling. For example, they may find positions in the fields of substance abuse counseling, school counseling, career counseling, and mental health counseling. MFT graduates secure meaningful work within a variety of locations, including at community health centers, mental health clinics, adoption agencies, schools, and domestic violence shelters. Graduates can also go on to earn their doctorate in a related field, such as psychology, counseling education, or social work, opening up higher-paying clinical positions.
- Marriage and Family Therapist
Marriage and family therapists work with couples and families experiencing problems or conflict. They may guide clients through important decision-making processes, help couples work through trying transitions like divorce, or help families cope with difficult situations such as death or layoffs. MFT counselors need a master's degree.
Median Annual Salary: $50,090
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 22%
- Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, or Mental Health Counselor
These counselors help clients with emotional, behavioral, and/or cognitive disorders. Substance abuse counselors work with individuals battling drug or alcohol abuse, while mental health counselors help people with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or other mental health problems. These positions typically require at least a master's degree.
Median Annual Salary: $44,630
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 22%
- Social and Community Service Manager
Social and community service managers coordinate community organizations and service programs. They may organize outreach activities, apply for funding, identify and implement changes to increase efficiency, and supervise social service workers. Most work for nonprofit organizations or government agencies that provide a specific community service.
Median Annual Salary: $65,320
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 13%
- School or Career Counselor
School counselors help students achieve academic goals, often working with pupils who suffer from academic, emotional, and/or behavioral problems. Alternatively, career counselors help people identify and pursue career goals, such as applying for jobs or transitioning into a new career. School and career counselors typically need a master's degree.
Median Annual Salary: $56,310
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 8%
Psychologists can work as clinicians or researchers. Clinical psychologists identify and diagnose mental health or behavioral disorders and some may supervise professional counselors. Research psychologists study emotional, cognitive, and behavioral processes and report their findings. Most psychologist positions require a doctorate, and some fulfill this requirement by earning a doctor of psychology in marriage and family therapy. Positions within schools or industrial organizations may require only a master's degree.
Median Annual Salary: $79,010
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 14%
You can discover additional job opportunities in marriage and family counseling by exploring the following career guide. The page contains information on therapy specializations and relevant certification and licensure. You will also receive valuable insight from an experienced counseling professional.
What to Expect in a Master's in Marriage and Family Counseling Program
You can complete online MFT programs in 1-2 years depending on degree format and your prior academic preparation and work experience. The curriculum typically totals at least 30 credits and focuses on current concepts in psychotherapy, with emphasis on how socioeconomic factors (like systemic poverty and ingrained cultural pressures) impact the ways families build and sustain relationships. Most higher education institutions offer clinical and nonclinical tracks to suit your individual career goals.
Required coursework often includes advanced client diagnosis, treatment of mental health disorders, and multicultural counseling. Students examine the ethical standards and laws that guide how mental health professionals interact with peers and treat clients. MFT online programs also train you in research and evaluation methods for evidence-based practice. The list below provides additional details on graduate classes.
Nonclinical programs generally end with a capstone project, while clinical tracks often require you to complete a 500-hour practicum. Due to the specialized nature of online MFT programs, most graduates go on to work as licensed marriage and family therapists. However, you may also pursue careers in addiction, rehabilitation, pastoral, or school counseling.
- Diagnosis and Case Management: This foundational course covers the management and analysis of abnormal personalities and behaviors. Students learn the diagnosis categories of the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) and how to create effective treatment plans and intervention strategies.
- Principles of Family Therapy: In this core class, students explore the major theories of family therapy, including experiential, structural, Bowenian, contextual, and narrative models. Candidates apply these concepts to treat problems within a systems framework.
- Advanced Psychopharmacology: Students learn the general principles underlying the use of psychoactive medications to treat major mental illness classes. Topics include drug selection, dosage, toxicity, and side effects.
- Child and Adolescent Counseling: Marriage and family therapists often engage with children. This course offers a social-cultural context for assessing and treating young clients. Students also delve into common childhood and adolescent disorders.
- Trauma in Diverse Populations:< This advanced class focuses on trauma disorders and treatment strategies across the lifespan of survivors and offenders. In addition to evidence-based recovery plans, students examine the cultural context of trauma risk factors and prevalence.
Jeni Woodfin is a licensed private practice marriage and family therapist in San Jose, CA. She serves as the clinical director of a residential substance abuse treatment center. She specializes in supporting women and men considering or recovering from separation or divorce, couples interested in infidelity recovery, and those struggling with addiction or codependency. Jeni obtained her bachelor's degree in psychology from Marian College in Indianapolis and her master's from John F. Kennedy University. She completed a fellowship through the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis sponsored by Stanford University.
- Why did you choose a degree in psychology over similar degrees that prepare you for clinical practice (e.g., a degree in counseling or social work)? What, specifically, does a counseling psychology degree offer?
Prior to starting graduate school, I knew my goal was to create a private practice that centered on supporting high-functioning individuals and couples who are interested in changing longtime wounds and patterns. My understanding at the time was that a degree in social work would most likely lead to working in an agency setting that was not conducive to providing "real" therapy, but mostly case management.
Now, having known many social workers, I realize they also are able to work in private practices offering psychotherapy. However, social workers tend to be trained in a "systems" approach, i.e. how is the client affected by all the factors of their environment, whereas a counseling psychology degree looks more at the individual's experience of their environment and more psychological theory. This foundational difference in how to conceptualize lead me to pick a counseling psychology master's.
- What were some of the most crucial skills you gained throughout your master's program? Were most of these skills learned in class or through internships?
The most valuable skill, and one I believe I continue to develop during my career, is to meet the client where they're at. Learning to let go of your own agenda, preferences, biases, and values while in session is crucial to allowing yourself to be open to your client's experience. This openness is what allows your client to feel accepted enough to bring all the bits and pieces of themselves into the therapy. For me, this openness allows clients to have a reparative experience in a relationship.
This skill was drilled into our heads as students in grad school, but until you're in the room with clients you can't begin to feel it. So, the concept was taught in class, but the practice began during my internship, in the room with clients.
- What was the job search like after completing your degree? Did you feel fully prepared to make the transition from school into practice?
I began my job search prior to graduation and found it fairly painless. I was fortunate enough to have been working at a group practice during grad school as an administrator, but also interviewed at a few local county-funded agencies. I found each agency interview experience to be similar: usually a group interview, with questions regarding my theoretical orientation, populations of interest, and vignettes. In the end, I was offered every job I applied for and found each agency eager to hire new interns.
At the beginning of my internship, I was nervous! I experienced a healthy dose of imposter syndrome that (I believe) I was able to mask, except in supervision. For the most part, I felt prepared to make the leap from student to intern, although I clearly remember sitting in a particularly difficult session one day, early in my internship, and [catching] myself thinking about my client, "You need to see a therapist," then realizing with a massive feeling of anxiety, "I AM the therapist."
- What are some of the greatest day-to-day challenges you face in your practice?
The challenges in a sole clinician private practice are a little different from those in a group practice or agency. One of the challenges I find myself very aware of is loneliness. It sounds a little strange to be lonely after sitting with people all day, but it's a very one-sided relationship with clients. I've found it important to have other therapists to meet for coffee, meet during classes, and attend consultation with in order to prevent feeling too isolated.
A second challenge is the stress of how unpredictable your income can be. Marketing yourself is a large part of having your own private practice, but even the best marketers can have slow times. Your clients will all go on vacation over the summer, want to take holiday weeks off, or magically all be cured at the same time! Being aware that you may need to plan for the ebbs and flows of income can help.
- What advice would you give to bachelor's students who might be on the fence about earning a graduate degree in psychology?
Be prepared to learn a little about a whole lot. Your undergraduate degree gives you a little taste of what you'll learn in graduate school and professionally. Getting a sneak peek into the patterns of human behavior is amazing and can leave you wanting more, which leads to the advice of: Be prepared to go to graduate school.
Unfortunately, a bachelor's in psychology rarely opens doors into a career in mental health. If your goal is to work as a therapist or counselor, be prepared to get your master's or doctorate. But once you've got that, the doors open wide.
- Any additional advice you'd give to students considering a master's degree in psychology?
Do your own work! Learning to be a therapist and then being a therapist stirs up all kinds of emotions that it's important to process. Going to therapy and showing all your messy bits to a stranger is tough! Being in your own therapy helps you remember how vulnerable your clients might be feeling. Also, you'll need somewhere to process your own feelings that come up in session. Spending your days with people who are struggling can be draining and self-care, which includes therapy, is vital to avoid burnout.
Consider grad school and your internship your initial foray into networking. The people in your graduate school cohort, your professors, your supervisors, and fellow interns are the people you'll be referring to and, hopefully, [who will be] referring to you if you open your own practice. The impression you give off during grad school and internship will be the very beginning of your professional reputation. Present yourself as the therapist you plan to be.
And, finally, don't let anyone tell you it's impossible to make a good living in private practice. If you network, keep working on yourself, and hang your shingle, the clients will come.
How to Choose a Master's in Marriage and Family Counseling Program
To confer valid degrees, colleges and universities need to maintain national or regional accreditation. Postsecondary schools becomes nationally accredited through authorities supported by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. They gain regional accreditation from one of six organizations, depending on their location.
If you want to earn a master's in marriage and family therapy online, programmatic/specialized accreditation is also an important consideration. Schools that possess this stamp of approval meet industry standards for skill development and career preparation. Online MFT programs gain specialized accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education. They can also pursue this form of accreditation through the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs.
Here are some other important factors to consider when choosing the best fit for you.
Cost and Financial Aid
You can minimize student loan debt by attending a university that offers low tuition prices and adequate financial support. Many online master's programs deliver fixed and affordable tuition regardless of your residency status.
The right MFT program should directly support your academic interests and career objectives. Consider characteristics such as course offerings, concentration options, and internship and practicum experiences.
The best colleges and universities deliver personalized academic advising, research guidance, and tutoring services. You should also look into career resources, including internship opportunities and job search assistance.
Master's in Marriage and Family Counseling Program Admissions
Enrollment criteria for online marriage and family therapy master's programs vary by school. However, you should expect to demonstrate a satisfactory GPA and standardized test scores. Some graduate programs also require applicants to display at least one year of professional counseling experience. The college admission process can prove overwhelming, so do not hesitate to enlist the help of your school's counselors. In general, however, the three most common considerations are:
- Minimum GPA
- Prerequisite coursework
- Professional experience
- Completing applications requires a significant amount of time, and students should start filling out their applications early -- at least a few months before deadlines.
- Applicants must send transcripts from all previous undergraduate and graduate schools where they earned credit. Students can contact a school's registrar's office to request transcripts. Most schools send unofficial transcripts for free but charge a small fee for official transcripts.
- Letters of Recommendation
- Most programs require applicants to submit 1-3 letters of recommendation. These letters typically come from a previous professor or professional supervisor who can attest to a student's academic and/or professional ability. Try to ask your recommenders for these letters at least two months before an application, and don't be afraid to send them a reminder.
- Test Scores
- Many MFT programs require that applicants submit their GRE or MAT scores; however, some waive this requirement for students who hold an especially high GPA. Schools that use test scores for admissions typically require that students achieve a "satisfactory score," meaning they test at or above the 50th percentile.
- Application Fee
- Application fees vary widely depending on the school. Although these typically hover around $50, they can cost upwards of $100. Students who demonstrate financial need can often apply for a fee waiver.
Resources for Master's in Marriage and Family Counseling Students
A nonprofit organization, NIRE develops and teaches relationship enhancement skills. Therapists and laypeople alike can find helpful articles, books, and educational programs related to creating and maintaining healthy relationships. NIRE offers workshops and certification programs for counselors and counseling services for the general public.
A mental health awareness and therapy network, Theravive connects individuals, couples, and families to licensed therapists, counselors, and psychologists. It also hosts lists of local therapists as well as therapists who practice by phone and online.
This nonprofit organization promotes healthy relationships through therapy, research, and education for therapists. It offers professional development opportunities, such as continuing education classes, conferences, and post-graduate certification programs.
This website -- curated by a marriage and family therapist -- offers an eclectic selection of articles and tools related to emotional health, therapy, and relationships. Article subcategories include singlehood, intimacy and sex, and trauma.
This institute provides a variety of courses, retreats, and workshops to help married couples overcome conflicts. It also offers a blog that covers topics in marriage and relationships.