Is an MFT Degree Worth It?

It’s common for different struggles to arise in relationships, marriages and families . Disagreements over finances, parenting philosophies, communication, substance abuse and mental and/or emotional disorders are just a few common examples of trials a married couple or family might experience.

Marriage and family therapists (MFTs) help individuals, couples and families work through hardships like these with a variety of psychotherapy techniques. Their job is to help provide all parties involved with a pathway forward and practical strategies to improve their lives and relationships.

There are similarities between MFTs and licensed professional counselors (LPCs)/licensed mental health counselors (LMHCs). Most often, an LPC or an LMHC license requires at least a master’s degree, though requirements can vary by state. LPCs, LMHCs and MFTs all provide mental-health support to their clients. The primary difference is that MFTs have studied family dynamics and systems more extensively and have experience in dealing with more than one client at a time, whether that’s both members of a couple or several members of a family.

Deciding whether an MFT degree is worth the cost and effort may yield different answers for different people. The right answer for you may be the result of your passions, your motivation and, of course, the cost of your degree compared to how much you expect to earn in your desired position.

What Is an MFT Degree?

An MFT degree is a master’s degree in marriage and family counseling, which qualifies graduates to be therapists in individual, couple or family situations.

Common Requirements to Become a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)

While there are some differences from state to state, in general, the common requirements to become an LMFT are:

Pepperdine University is accepting California applicants for their online MA in Clinical Psychology with an Emphasis on Marriage and Family Therapy. Explore the MA program by requesting information directly from OnlinePsychology@Pepperdine

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What does the LMFT curriculum typically include?

Under the umbrella of a master’s in marriage and family therapy, you may choose a clinical track or a clinical/research track. And depending on the university you choose, there are specializations possible in your coursework that may include:

  • Couples therapy
  • Child and adolescent family therapy
  • General family therapy
  • Medical family therapy
  • Trauma-informed systemic therapy
  • LGBTQ couple therapy
  • Military family therapy
  • Systemic sex therapy

In addition to your foundation courses, graduate students in MFT learn systemic perception and assessment, which is the ability to define individual situations in terms of their relationships within couples, families and workplaces.

What Do LMFTs Do?

Marriage and family therapists treat the full range of mental and emotional disorders while addressing how those conditions affect relationships within a couple or family. Unlike regular psychotherapy, which can continue for a long time, most MFTs focus on shorter-term problem-focused work. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) notes that short-term therapy is the norm, with 12 sessions occurring on average and nearly two-thirds of cases completed within 20 sessions.

“Marriage and family therapists treat a wide range of serious clinical problems including depression, marital problems, anxiety, individual psychological problems and child-parent problems,” says the AAMFT site. “Research indicates that marriage and family therapy is as effective and in some cases more effective than standard and/or individual treatments for many mental health problems such as adult schizophrenia, affective (mood) disorders, adult alcoholism and drug abuse, children's conduct disorders, adolescent drug abuse, anorexia in young adult women, childhood autism, chronic physical illness in adults and children and marital distress and conflict.”

What does that look like in the course of a day, week or month on the job?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a typical day for an LMFT may include:

  • Encouraging clients to discuss their emotions and experiences
  • Helping clients process their reactions and adjust to difficult changes in their life, including divorce and layoffs
  • Guiding clients through decision-making, especially about the future
  • Helping clients change their behavior through strategies and skills
  • Helping clients cope with difficult situations
  • Referring clients to other resources or services in the community, such as support groups or inpatient treatment facilities
  • Completing and maintaining confidential files and mandated records

Where Can LMFTs Find Employment?

Many people are familiar with “marriage counselors,” even if it’s just from seeing them in movies or television shows. However, while marriage and family therapists do often work in private practices, there are many other employment opportunities available:

  • Schools: Many students may benefit by working alongside their families with an MFT. Common examples include students who have difficulty learning, are being bullied, are bullying others or have alcohol- and/or drug-related issues. But students who could benefit from working with an MFT certainly aren’t limited to those circumstances.
  • Outpatient care facilities: In facilities geared toward outpatient treatment, MFT therapists provide clinical services and case management, working with children, adolescents, young adults, adults and families dealing with depression, anxiety, other mental illnesses or alcohol and/or substance abuse.
  • Hospitals and inpatient facilities: MFTs become vital members of a patient’s healthcare team, working with doctors, nurses and other staff members. They may work in a department dedicated to mental health or at large in the facility, helping patients work through the emotions and realities of being sick, in treatment or terminally ill.
  • Offices of other healthcare professionals: MFTs employed in these settings may work in conjunction with groups of other mental health practitioners or therapists, or even in offices with physical and occupational therapists who help patients recover from injury or illness.
  • Employee-assistance programs: EAPs are programs that companies contract with to provide services to their employees. Any employee dealing with relationship or family issues, workplace situations, depression, anxiety, alcohol or substance abuse or any other situation that affects their work may seek confidential help from their employer’s EAP.
  • Government and military: Government-employed MFTs are the highest-paid in the industry, according to the BLS. In the military, marriage and family therapists work in clinical settings to support veterans and current service members and their families. They’re instrumental in providing support and counseling for those who suffer from traumatic brain injuries (TBI) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). MFTs are also now employed in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), conducting patient assessments, recommending treatment plans, aiding in crisis intervention and conducting therapy.

Pros and Cons of Getting a Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy

There are multiple aspects to consider before taking the next step in any educational or career path. You may want to think about which environment you’d like to work in and what the job duties would be like. You may also consider the amount of time it takes to get your degree and how you’ll support yourself while you do, including the student debt you may accrue.

After the MFT Degree - Potential Salary and Student Debt

The amount of student debt you might accrue while pursuing a degree is a difficult thing to measure because it depends on the school you attend, whether you attend part-time or full-time and whether you’re eligible for scholarships or financial aid. Universities tend to vary widely in their tuition. MFT California, an organization that compares MFT programs within the state, ranked estimated total program tuition for California residents at more than 75 universities. About half of the programs fell between $40,000 and $69,000 in 2019. Additionally, many students use part of their student loans to help pay for their living expenses while they earn their degree, making an estimate of how much debt you’ll have even harder to predict. The National Center for Education Statistics’ survey from 2015-2016 (the most recent data available) showed that average graduate student debt after completing a master’s degree was about $66,000 (PDF, 118 KB). Your average debt will depend on the program you choose so make sure to do your research and talk to a financial advisor before making a decision.

If you’re interested in working in a certain area, you may want to think about the potential salary compared to the tuition of your desired school. The BLS estimated the 2019 annual median pay for a marriage and family therapist to be $49,610, but this number varies greatly depending on your workplace and location. The numbers range from $45,150 for workplaces with other practitioners to $72,230 for jobs in state government (excluding education and hospitals).

The top-paying states for MFTs as of May 2019 by annual mean wage are:

  • Utah: $76,240
  • New Jersey: $75,930
  • Maine: $71,730
  • Colorado: $70,800
  • Illinois: $69,900

BLS data also shows 12 states in the $59,040-$76,240 range, 11 in the $49,710-$58,840 range, 13 in the $45,720-$49,700 range and 12 in the $37,180-$45,280 range (not all states have data).

Salaries of LMFTs vs. Mental Health Counselors and Social Workers

In comparison, BLS estimates for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors show an annual median pay of $46,240 in 2019, which is $3,370 less than that of MFTs. Salaries by workplaces ranged from a low of $39,690 in residential mental health and substance abuse facilities to a high of $52,720 in government jobs. These numbers are roughly $5,000 to $19,500 lower than corresponding positions for MFTs. However, some mental health counselors have only a bachelor’s degree, which is a factor. In general, completing a master’s degree in mental health counseling may lead to a higher earning potential and is required by some states for licensure.

The BLS estimates an annual 2019 median pay of $50,470 for social workers, $860 higher than that of an MFT. The range by workplace hits a low of $43,030 for individual and family services and a high of $55,000 in local government jobs (excluding education and hospitals). Social workers who may wish to improve their earning potential may seek to become licensed, which generally requires a master’s degree. Accredited online MSW programs generally allow you to keep working while pursuing your degree.

Job Outlook for MFT Graduates vs. Mental Health Counselors and Social Workers

These jobs will be in relatively high demand through 2029 by BLS estimates. Marriage and family therapists are expected to increase by 14,800, an increase of 22%. Social workers nationwide are expected to add 90,700 jobs, up 13%. And mental health counselor jobs are expected to increase by 79,000, up 25%. All three positions are expected to grow much faster than average, the BLS projects.

Summing It All Up: Should You Get a Marriage and Family Therapist Degree?

It’s an equation with a lot of elements: job description, career outlook, the variety of places you could work, the cost of your degree and your underlying motivations.

For many MFTs, the guiding motivation is the opportunity to help people, and this career path provides that perfect opportunity to do so. According to the AAMFT, research has shown that over 90% of MFTs’ clients reported emotional health improvement, and almost two-thirds actually saw improvement in their physical health. They also reported that a recent study found over 98% of marriage and family therapists’ clients rated their experience as either good or excellent, and consumers were most likely to recommend these types of health professionals to friends.

If helping people is your passion and you have an interest in the world of psychology and therapy, particularly with families and children, an MFT might be the first step to a long, fulfilling career of working with clients to improve mental health outcomes.

Pepperdine University is accepting California applicants for their online MA in Clinical Psychology with an Emphasis on Marriage and Family Therapy. Explore the MA program by requesting information directly from OnlinePsychology@Pepperdine

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Last updated: October 2020