There's an old joke that the concept of marriage and family counseling began shortly after Eve handed Adam the proverbial apple in the Garden of Eden. In other words, the need for counseling that targets the unique interpersonal dynamics and often complicated emotional, behavioral and psychological stresses of family life is very likely as old as the institution of marriage itself. What's changed over time is the body of knowledge available to marriage and family therapy (MFT) professionals, and the effectiveness of the training programs that prepare aspiring practitioners for a career in the field.
Like other areas within the larger field of psychology and professional counseling, marriage and family therapy requires:
- A clear competency in the psychological theories and practices that relate to human behavior
- An ability to use that base of knowledge in a clinical psychotherapeutic setting
- Well-honed interpersonal communications skills
In addition, marriage and family counseling involves cultivating a deeper, solution-based understanding of the particular problems that develop between couples and within the family structure. This guide outlines future MFTs' career and training paths and highlights several MFT schools and degree programs. Know that students who intend to become licensed MFTs must typically earn at least a master's degree — one that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE).
Marriage and family therapy certificates and degrees
Marriage and family therapy is itself a specific area of specialization in the larger realm of counseling and psychology. Further specialization generally isn't something that's available as part of a marriage and family counseling, family counseling or couples and family counseling degree program. In fact, it's not uncommon for a degree to be part of a larger program in counseling or clinical counseling. Fortunately, there are still several campus-based and online MFT programs. This page outlines marriage and family therapists' career and training path and highlights some notable MFT programs.
Certificate and non-degree awards in marriage and family therapy
Certificates in marriage and family therapy can serve many functions, but all strive to enhance one's knowledge of the field. For instance, some post-baccalaureate or post-master's MFT certificate programs are designed for future or even practicing MFTs want to advance their educations or become more specialized. In fact, one of the biggest benefits of MFT certificates is that coursework may satisfy continuing education requirements in states where license renewal is contingent upon them.There are other certificate programs, however, that help professionals in related fields, like health care or social work, better understand or relate to the people they serve. Because both audiences tend to include working professionals, online MFT programs are common.
Generally speaking, MFT certificates introduce or reinforce key psychological and behavioral concepts that shape and impact families and couples. It is not uncommon for pre-professional MFT certificates to require a balance of core coursework with supervised clinical training. The length of study MFT certificates require vary by purpose and program, not to mention one's course-load.
Notable marriage and family therapy certificate programs
Certificate from Drexel University
Drexel University is known for both its online and campus-based programs: in 2016, U.S. News and World Report ranked the University among the top national, online, and psychology schools, the latter of which includes MFT and other counseling programs. Drexel University says its Post-Master's Certificate in Couple and Family Therapy is for related professionals who want to specialize in the field. Students enrolled in the two-year program study both classical and postmodern family therapy theories using several culturally-sound, evidence-based frameworks. Drexel offers other marriage family therapy programs, including a Ph.D. in Couple and Family Therapy.
- Department: Couple and Family Therapy Department
- Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Online Options: Though none of Drexel's MFT programs are available online, the University does offer a 100 percent online Bachelor of Science in Psychology, which could serve as a stepping stone to its marriage and family therapy graduate programs.
Certificate from the University of Georgia - Gwinnett
The University of Georgia - Gwinnett offers a Pre-Professional Graduate Certificate in Marriage and Family Therapy. Unlike some other MFT certificates, this program is designed specifically for graduate students who want to work in applied marriage and family therapy, including graduates of UGA's College of Education, College of Family and Consumer Sciences, and School of Social Work. This 21-credit-hour is divided into 15 hours of core courses and six of practicum. U.S. News ranks UGA highly among the nation's top universities and public colleges. The same is true of its psychology programs.
- Department: School of Social Work
- Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia
- Online Options: UGA offers several online courses in areas like psychology and sociology. It does not currently offer online MFT programs.
Associate degrees in marriage and family therapy
Associate-level MFT degrees hold a number of advantages for future MFT professionals. While no state requires licensed professionals to earn them, associate degrees in MFT, psychology and counseling are an affordable, efficient way to test the field's waters before committing to a lengthier program. Studies also indicate that students who begin their educational careers at two-year colleges tend to save hundreds to thousands of dollars. Associate MFT degrees are exceedingly rare; psychology programs are both prevalent and appropriate for aspiring therapists.
Some schools design associate degrees specifically for students who intend to transfer to in-state universities while others focus on practical skills one could use in the aforementioned professions. Graduates with associate degrees in an area like psychology may qualify for positions assisting addiction specialist or psychiatric nurses, or serving as youth counselors in community programs.
Notable marriage and family therapy associate programs
A.A.S from the College of Southern Nevada
The College of Southern Nevada is unique in that it offers a truly specialized and MFT-relevant associate degree; many other schools only offer associate degrees in counseling or psychology. According to CSN, its Associate of Applied Science Degree in Applied Psychology, Child and Family Services is an interdisciplinary program designed students seeking direct service careers in nonprofit, private mental health and community services. It provides an essential foundation in practical therapy application using a postmodern academic framework that is culturally-sensitive and adheres to both ethical and community standards of practice.
- Department: Child/Family Services
- Location: Las Vegas, Nevada
- Online Options: The College of Southern Nevada's A.A.S. in Applied Psychology, Child and Family Services is not available in an online format, but its Associate of Arts in Psychology is. This could also serve as an excellent choice for future MFTs as they tend to receive targeted training at the graduate level.
A.A.-Transfer from De Anza College
De Anza College ranks highly on top U.S. community college lists, thanks to both its innovative programming and performance metrics: the College consistency posts one of the nation's highest community college graduate and transfer rates. De Anza offers a unique psychology degree called an Associate of Arts-T. An AA-T program is one designed especially for students who intend to transfer to four-year universities, particularly within California State University and University of California schools, many of which offer marriage and family therapy graduate programs. The College's partnership with Palo Alto Universities also allows students to complete their bachelor's degrees at De Anza.
- Department: Psychology Department
- Location: Cupertino, California
- Online Options: While De Anza College currently has no online MFT programs, it does offer a number of lower-division online courses that one could apply to an A.A.
Bachelor's degrees in marriage and family therapy
A bachelor's degree is the first step one must take to become a marriage and family therapist. Fret not if you are unable to find a bachelor's in MFT that fits your needs. It isn't necessary to major in counseling or even a related field in the social sciences, as that's not a prerequisite for admission to a master's program. These programs establish a core foundation of knowledge upon which one can build as a graduate student. Some programs require that students complete approved internships before they can graduate.
Graduates with bachelor's degrees in marriage and family therapy, psychology or a related field can choose to advance to a master's program — the minimum credential required of MFT licensing candidates — or transition into the workforce. Those who do the latter often work in social work, caregiving or corrections, or as psychiatric technicians.
Notable marriage and family therapy bachelor's degrees
B.A. from Azusa Pacific University - University College
Azusa Pacific University's Bachelor of Arts in Applied Psychology is a fully online degree program with concentrations that might appeal to future MFTs, including human services, child and adolescent psychology, and more. This format allows students to develop a broad knowledge of psychological principles while establishing specialized skills they can use in MFT graduate programs and the field at large. Note that while APU - University College is open to students of any faith, its website says it teaches the principles of psychology through a Christian worldview. The University offers also offers an online M.S. in Clinical Psychology in MFT.
- Department: School of Behavioral and Applied Sciences
- Location: Azusa, California
- Online Options: Azusa Pacific University's B.A. in Applied Psychology is a 100 percent online degree program.
B.S. from Virginia Commonwealth University
Virginia Commonwealth University's Bachelor's of Science in Psychology program is a highly customizable training option for anyone interested in the fields of psychology or counseling. Students who would like a broad understanding of psychology can follow the program's standard curriculum, which includes courses in developmental, physiological/learning, applied and social psychology. Students looking for a program more tailored to their goals can request to add one of four concentrations to study in lieu of the standard curriculum. Among them is the Graduate School Concentration designed specifically for learners who intend to go on to advanced degree programs, including marriage and family therapy graduate programs. Note that students interested in master's and doctoral degrees in MFT specifically can apply to Virginia Tech upon graduation.
- Department: Department of Psychology
- Location: Richmond, Virginia
- Online Options: Though VCU's B.S. in Psychology is a wholly campus-based program, the University offers other relevant options online. These include its blended post-baccalaureate graduate certificate in patient counseling, a video-conferencing-supported master's in patient counseling and a fully-online master's in sociology.
Master's degrees in marriage and family therapy
Because marriage and family therapists work in sensitive one-on-one, one-on-couple, or one-on-family situations with clients who are dealing with highly personal issues, and who often require assurances of confidentiality, most states require practitioners to be licensed. And licensure generally requires the completion of a master's degree in marriage counseling, or another field related to psychosocial development and treatment.
Most of the core training in marriage and family counseling takes place at the master's degree level. This is where you'll acquire the skills and training unique not just to counseling, but to working with couples and families in crisis, as well as with children and adolescents. A typical master's degree in marriage and family counseling includes coursework in psychological assessment, human psychosocial development, laws and ethics of counseling, group and family counseling strategies, human sexuality, couples counseling, and psychotherapy with children and adolescents.
Notable marriage and family therapy master's degree programs
M.A. from Syracuse University
In 2016, U.S. News ranked Syracuse University among the nation's best national universities, best value universities, and the best psychology and clinical psychology schools. Syracuse offers not one, but two training options for future MFTs. The first is its Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy. According to the University's official program page, this option is ideal for students with a strong commitment to practicing individual, couple and family therapy and its curriculum was designed to meet all academic requirements for licensure. Students' second option is to enroll in a dual master's program resulting in distinct degrees in marriage and family therapy and social work. Those who want to continue their educations can apply to Syracuse's Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy program, and/or to other New York institutions, including NYU Steinhardt.
- Department: Marriage and Family Therapy Department through the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics
- Location: Syracuse, New York
- Online Options: Syracuse offers several online classes that might be helpful students pursuing a master's in MFT. It also offers a blended Bachelor of Arts in Psychology degree, which would translate well to most MFT graduate programs.
M.S. from Nova Southeastern University
Nova Southeastern University's 60-credit Master of Science in Family Therapy degree prepares students for clinical practice with families, couples or individuals. Future MFTs will gain advanced psychological concepts and research-savvy presented with a mind for cultural sensitivity. Students can complete clinical training requirements on-site at the Brief Therapy Institute. In addition to its M.A. in MFT, Nova offers a Family Systems Health Care graduate certificate, a Ph.D. in Family Therapy, and a Doctor of Marriage and Family Therapy (DMFT), which is devoted to clinical innovation.
- Department: Department of Family Therapy
- Location: Fort Lauderdale, Florida
- Online Options: Nova does not currently offer online MFT programs, but it does offer wholly-online master's degrees in general psychology, counseling and mental health counseling. These alternative programs may be helpful for students who intend to earn a specialized postgraduate MFT certificate or advance to MFT doctoral studies.
Doctorates in marriage and family therapy
There are several reasons students invest in MFT doctoral degrees even when they are not necessary for state licensing. First, candidates with doctorates have an edge over master's-degree-holders when looking for work in hospitals, counseling centers or prestigious research universities. Patients seeking private therapy may also feel more comfortable with a marriage and family therapist with such a degree. One final benefit of earning a Ph.D. or similar degree: appeasing one's intellectual passion through even more specialized training in a particular therapy or area of the field that appeals to him or her most.
Doctorate MFT degree programs can vary significantly by school and focus. Some programs are applied in nature, making them ideal for graduates who are still interested in delivering direct-patient care, such as Nova Southeastern University's Doctor of Marriage and Family Therapy (DMFT) degree. Other MFT doctorates are designed for candidates drawn to research and clinical or therapeutic innovation. In either case, one can expect doctoral training to be research-intensive and culminate with a major project and/or thesis.
Notable marriage and family therapy doctorate programs
Ph.D. - CFT from Michigan State University
Michigan State University offers a Couple and Family Therapy doctorate, or a CFT. The COAMFTE-accredited program is geared toward future researchers or professors and emphasizes critical thinking, self-examination and tolerance. According to MSU, the University views the CFT doctoral program as a "time of apprenticeship," dedicated to intense learning about therapy, research, and oneself. The campus also features a Couple and Family Therapy Clinic that supports students' practical or research training. In 2016, U.S. News gave MSU top-50 rankings among the best public schools, and for its graduate clinical psychology and psychology programs. In fact, the publication named the University no. 76 in the world for psychology and psychiatry education.
- Department: Human Development and Family Studies
- Location: East Lansing, Michigan
- Online Options: At the time of this writing, Michigan State does not offer online MFT degrees.
Online marriage and family therapy degrees
Online colleges and enrollments grew exponentially over the last two decades, bringing the medium squarely into mainstream higher education. Online programs can transcend barriers to traditional campus-based courses, like full-time careers, family obligations and military service. This can make them especially attractive to working MFT students who would like to change fields or develop more expertise.
Online programs have not only become more common but also more innovative. Students pursuing online MFT degrees receive one-on-one mentorship through video chat and other communication tools and, often, complete supervised clinical training within their own communities. Some colleges have developed virtual training simulations for interpersonal fields like social work and counseling in which students can practice direct-patient interaction with peers, an instructor or a "digital" patient.
Notable online programs in marriage and family therapy
Online M.A. from Touro University Worldwide
Touro University Worldwide's online Master of Art in Marriage and Family Therapy degree is a fully Web-based program with multiple concentrations for customization and professional specialization. These tracks: Clinical, Non-Clinical, and Licensed Professional Clinical Counseling, which, as the name suggests, prepares students for licensure and subsequent work in the mental health sector. All curricula focus on delivering foundational principles critical for cultivating couples' and families' well-being.
- Department: School of Health and Human Services
- Location: Vallejo, California
- Online Options: Touro University Worldwide's MFT master's program is available fully online.
- "144 years of marriage and divorce in the United States in one chart," Ana Swanson, Wonkblog, The Washington Post, June 23, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/06/23/144-years-of-marriage-and-divorce-in-the-united-states-in-one-chart/
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