How hard is it to become an MFT? I’d like to hear your story.

It’s expensive and takes a long time, but job prospects are good. Is that enough?

Hurdles (Scenes from a Track Meet)While the job outlook remains good for MFTs — one of the reasons family therapy continues to be rated among the top careers to go into — the barriers to entry are high and getting higher. Graduate school tuition costs are rising (and it’s often hard to get accurate information about graduate tuition); pre-licensed, post-degree therapists (called “associates” in some states and “interns” in others) typically work under supervision for several years, often for little to no money, even though some unpaid MFT internships may be illegal; and these days in California, even after you finish your supervised experience you have to wait seven months or more for the licensing board to get around to your application to take the exams.

Is it all worth it?

I would say yes, but then, of course I would say yes. I’ve made, dare I say, a relatively good and stable career of being an MFT, and it is work that I love. At the same time, the environment when I came into the profession was different than it is today, and I was lucky in many ways. I got my bachelor’s degree without student loan debt, for example, which is today the exception and not the rule. California’s MFT curriculum requirements were not as tough then as they are now, requiring many to spend more time in school and pay more in tuition. (I’ve never needed to take a second job outside of the therapy world to pay the rent.) And when I applied to take the licensing exams, I didn’t have to twiddle my thumbs for another half-year waiting. So I only know my own experience, and I’m not in a good place to speak to how it is for new therapists. That’s where you come in.

In today’s environment, is it worth it to go through the struggle to become a family therapist? I was inspired to ask by a pair of articles making the rounds online: One arguing that Generation Y is made up of whiners with entitlement issues, and a counterpoint arguing that GenY is drowning in debt and poor prospects for improving their lives. Both are good articles. And Generation Y is made up of those born between roughly the late 1970s and the mid 1990s — so if you are in graduate school now, there’s a good chance you are part of that generation.

I would love to hear your stories of the struggles and rewards of becoming an MFT. If you’re new to the field and a part of Generation Y, what joys and struggles have you experienced so far, and what are your future expectations for success, salary, and happiness? If you’re an MFT veteran who is not part of that generation, how would you advise the GenYers coming into the field today? Post in the comments below or by email to me at ben[at]bencaldwell[dot]com.

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Bear in mind that by sharing your story, you’re granting permission for me to use it, with your name and with some editing if needed, here on the blog. I might also use it in other projects (as one example, I might forward it to AAMFT-CA for consideration in their work), with proper attribution of course. Thanks!

California MFT program rankings: The best license exam preparation

The best MFT program on this measure isn’t one I expected.

Caldwell Rankings draft coverAs regular readers here are aware, a few weeks ago I released California Family Therapy Program Rankings, a guide to 34 of the state’s biggest and best MFT programs. The book includes top-10 rankings based on cost, graduates’ success on license exams, and research productivity.

A couple of weeks ago, I revealed the top-ranked MFT program based on cost. Today, I reveal who’s number one in MFT program rankings when it comes to success on California’s MFT license exams.

For this particular set of rankings, I looked at the most recent three years of available California MFT licensing exam data (2009-2011), and for each program, took their graduates’ pass rate among first-time test takers on the Standard Written Exam and averaged it with their graduates’ pass rate among first-time test takers on the Written Clinical Vignette.

As usual, a number of cautions here. The fact that the exam data is from 2009-2011, and would thus largely include people who graduated from their degree programs from about 2003-2010, means that there’s been some time in between for programs to get better or worse in quality. Almost every program has meaningfully changed their curriculum in the past couple of years, thanks to a state law that required all programs to provide at least 60 semester units of instruction (the prior minimum had been 48). Finally, while the school you attend does seem to impact your chances of success on MFT licensing exams, even as those exams take place years after graduation, the graduate program is certainly not the only thing that would have an impact on your passing or failing the exams.

Holding those cautions in mind, what do the numbers tell us?

  • The big winner here is Fuller Theological Seminary, which can claim an impressive 93% pass rate among graduates taking the state’s MFT licensing exams for the first time. That’s the best of all 34 reviewed programs, and actually a few solid percentage points above even the second-ranked program, which came in at 89%.

  • There is indeed a meaningful correlation between the program you graduate from and your chances of passing the licensing exams on the first try, or at least that’s the impression I get from eyeballing the data. Among the 34 programs reviewed, pass rates ranged from Fuller’s 93% pass rate all the way down to 56% at the lowest-performing school reviewed. Again, you can’t presume that pass rate equals instructional quality, so take all of these numbers with a grain of salt, and recognize that they are group numbers. They might help predict whether Joe or Jane Average would pass the licensing exams on their first try (and even that is debatable, since programs enroll different sets of students, creating what researchers call selection effects), but the numbers are certainly limited in terms of predicting whether you specifically would pass. After all, there’s a lot you can do to control that beyond just which school you choose to attend.

On family therapists who oppose using the DSM-5

Doctor discussing diagnosis with patientOkay, a bit of a rant today. In the family therapy world, I often hear criticism of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the diagnostic guide published by the American Psychiatric Association and currently on its fifth edition (DSM-5). This usually comes from students first learning about the DSM and its history, and in those students the criticism is often based more on anxiety than on any real substantive problem with the book.

Students are understandably anxious when confronted with the complexity of diagnosis and the power that comes with being able to diagnose a client as mentally ill. Unfortunately, I see too many MFTs who never get past that initial anxiety, and use it as an excuse for avoiding the DSM well into their professional careers. I don’t begrudge anyone their anxiety, I just wish people would own it for what it is (kind of like with licensing exams), instead of making up or latching onto an easily-refuted argument against learning and using the DSM appropriately.

The arguments against DSM use that I hear in the MFT world tend to reflect poor understanding of both the DSM and family therapy. Those arguments typically fall into three groups, listed here with their easy counters:

  1. “The DSM is based on individuals, and I work with families.” The DSM offers labels for common sets of symptoms. That is, it gives you a quick name for sets of problematic behaviors that often occur together. It is agnostic about the source of those symptoms. It does not, contrary to some therapists’ opinions, make a presumption that the source of suffering lies within the individual. The way the DSM is written, depression could be caused by something within an individual, by problems in couple or family functioning, or by aliens. You’re free to maintain your systemic ideas about how depression often originates and is sustained (ideas I agree with, just so we’re clear) without any concern that these ideas conflict with the DSM. They don’t. Furthermore, a good systemic therapist does not ignore individual functioning; indeed, one needs to be keenly aware of how individuals are functioning within a system in order to understand the system itself.

  2. “A diagnosis is just a label, and I don’t like labeling people.” Nonsense. Any time you call someone by their name, you are using a label for them. Labeling is a good and healthy and awesome thing that we do in human societies to keep language relatively efficient. If you really hate labels, and prefer to capture the whole essence of things (many of those I have heard say they avoid the DSM say that they do so to better capture the “whole person”), then when you go home tonight I want you to announce to whomever is close by that for dinner you will be having semolina, flour, eggs, and water, all formed, cut into long needle shapes, and dried, and then resoftened in boiling water for a few minutes, topped with pulverized tomatoes that have themselves been heated and mixed with spices and possibly some kind of meat or cut mushrooms. Served steaming hot! Then you can take pride, when they tell you “um, that’s spaghetti,” that you have captured the entire essence of the pasta. You’ve also needlessly wasted everyone’s time.

    Listen, use of a label doesn’t constrain you to only using that label, nor does it mean the label is all there is of someone. I hope that when doing therapy, you really do maintain a thorough sense of your clients’ strengths and resources and personalities far beyond what you can gather from a simple diagnosis. But use the label too. It is essential for other health care providers, who may need to know the nature of someone’s symptoms very quickly (like in an emergency), that you know enough about symptoms and diagnoses that you can tell them, without taking the next 15 minutes to describe someone’s essence as a human being.

  3. “The DSM is pathologizing, and I try to focus in therapy on depathologizing behavior.” I have the most empathy for this argument, as family therapists are particularly inclined to see even diagnosable behaviors as adaptive to their context. But it still falls pretty flat. Yes, the DSM is pathologizing, insofar as it describes symptom clusters as mental disorders. Expanding criteria for mental illness contributes to what Szasz labels the medicalization of everyday life. And there is much to be said about the misuse of DSM diagnoses across cultures.

    But go back to the first argument here. Remember, the DSM is agnostic as to the source of symptoms. The fact that the behaviors that together add up to a diagnosis of, say, depression are actually adaptive responses to family dysfunction does not make the diagnostic label incorrect — the individual really is displaying those symptoms — and it doesn’t mean that the individual should not receive treatment. Indeed, one of the upsides of broadening diagnostic criteria is that they allow people to receive treatment, often paid for by their insurance company, when they previously could not have. In other words, that individual diagnostic label (which, again, is just a description for a symptom set, not a theory about the cause of the symptoms) is often the very thing that allows you to treat the system.

There are larger debates to be had about the role of the DSM in mental health care, and even more broadly, how our entire health care system is structured around diagnosis and dysfunction rather than a foundation of keeping people well. And there certainly is plenty to criticize about the DSM. But for where we are now, let’s all agree that (1) diagnosing is important enough that it’s okay to be anxious about it, and (2) the act of assessing and diagnosing an accordance with the DSM is in no way inconsistent with family systems work. In fact, it’s a requirement for doing that work well.

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Your comments are welcome. You can post them in the comments below, by email to ben[at]bencaldwell[dot]com, or on my Twitter feed. You’ll also find a some very insightful comments on this article over on my Facebook page.

Proposed new MFT accreditation standards eliminate vague religious exemption

If adopted, the draft COAMFTE standards would require all programs to teach LGBTQ-affirmative practices.

W-classroomThe public comment period closes Wednesday on the draft version of new accreditation standards for graduate programs in marriage and family therapy. The Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) is proposing some major changes from current standards:

  • The draft standards would restore the 500-client-contact-hour requirement for practicum. Under the current, version 11.0 standards, programs can require fewer hours as long as they have evidence to show that their practicum results in students being competent to practice at the master’s level. This vague standard has left different accredited programs using different experience requirements, which can be confusing to state licensing boards who want to know how much practical experience they can reasonably expect to be included in graduate degrees.

  • The draft standards separate accreditation requirements into “eligibility standards” and “accreditation standards.” As it is now, the Commission makes its decisions based on the full scope of information presented to them. Programs that meet most but not all standards may still be granted accreditation, with stipulations — requirements that the program comes into full compliance with the standards within a year. This proposed split into eligibility and accreditation standards arguably makes the accreditation bar a bit higher: Programs that fail to meet even one of the eligibility standards would not be eligible for accreditation, regardless of their performance on the other standards.

  • The draft standards would go back to a singular, mandatory core curriculum for all accredited programs. Of course, programs would remain free to add on to this core curriculum as they see fit, but all accredited programs would be required to have the same core set of coursework.

  • Perhaps what is most notable in the draft standards is what is missing: The draft standards remove COAMFTE’s current vague, blanket exemption for religious programs. The exemption, present in the current COAMFTE standards (p. 3), says

    Religiously affiliated institutions that have core beliefs directed toward conduct within their communities are entitled to protect those beliefs.

    It has never been clear to me what that is supposed to mean in practice, but the way I read it, any religious-based program that wants COAMFTE accreditation but isn’t in tune with any part of the standards was free to ignore that part of the standards, as long as they could tie their objection to their religious beliefs. Under the proposed new standards, not only would that clause go away, but the required curriculum would include at least three semester units on

    diversity, power, privilege and oppression as they relate to race, age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, disability, health status, religious and spiritual practices, nation of origin or other relevant social categories throughout the curriculum. It includes practice with diverse, international, multicultural, marginalized, and/or underserved communities, including LGTBQ affirmative practices. [emphasis in original]

    It is much clearer what the new standards would mean: Every COAMFTE-accredited program would need to teach its students how to work with LGBTQ clients in a positive, affirming way, and an appreciation for the harm such clients suffer from living in a heterosexist society.

To me, these are all good and necessary changes. First, as to the hours and curriculum changes: I hear chatter among MFTs around the country that licensing boards haven’t known what to do with the current COAMFTE standards. Those current standards are so flexible that licensing boards don’t necessarily know what they’re getting when someone comes to them with a COAMFTE-accredited degree. The draft standards, if adopted, would bring back greater consistency in content across programs and could restore state boards’ confidence in maintaining COAMFTE accreditation as the standard educational requirement for licensure.

Second, as to the removal of the religious exception: I’ve written previously about the struggles some religious therapists face when trying to work with LGBT clients, and the debate there is far from settled. But accredited programs can and should teach affirmative practices. The debate here should be restricted to how a therapist balances their values with client needs in the therapy room, not about whether the therapist can be exempted from exposure to affirmative techniques or to the suffering LGBTQ clients genuinely experience.

There’s only one thing COAMFTE didn’t included that I wish they would: Require MFT programs to be more transparent about cost.

COAMFTE will be reviewing comments on the proposed changes this fall. If adopted, the new standards would likely take effect in 2014 for new accreditations and be phased in for those programs already accredited.

How long does it take to get an MFT license?

State laws vary, but typically, you need a two-year masters degree and two more years of full-time, supervised experience. Here are the steps to becoming a licensed family therapist.


2010-07-20 Black windup alarm clock faceIf you are planning or considering a career as a marriage and family therapist, it is important to give thought to the time and money it will take to work your way to licensure. The timing of steps along the way could impact your choices for when to get married, have children, or maintain employment in another field.

Presented here are the typical steps to an MFT license and some common timeframes. The steps and timeframes listed here do not account for individual circumstances or the many state-to-state differences in licensure laws. You should check the web site of your state MFT licensing board (AAMFT offers a handy directory of state MFT licensing boards) to learn the specific requirements of the state where you want to license. I have some emphasis on California in this post because it is the state I call home, and because about half the MFTs in the country are here.

Note that a “typical timeframe” here means a common amount of time needed for those who are accomplishing that step through full-time work or study. If you build your career in MFT through part-time work or study, to allow you to balance family responsibilities, maintain outside employment, or for any other reason, naturally your timeframe will be longer.

Progression to licensure as a marriage and family therapist usually follows these steps:

  1. Complete a bachelor’s degree in psychology, family studies, or a related field. Many schools will be OK with a major in a different field if you can demonstrate adequate base knowledge in psychology and family development, through specific prerequisite classes, GRE subject test scores, or other means. Typical timeframe: 4 years.
  2. Complete a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, counseling psychology with an emphasis in MFT, or a closely related field. Note that some states, like California, have specific requirements for what degree titles will make you eligible for MFT licensure. In most states, you will need to demonstrate that your master’s degree program was accredited by COAMFTE (the accrediting body for MFT programs), or is equivalent to COAMFTE standards. I’ve written in the past about the benefits of attending a COAMFTE-accredited program, and I’ve also offered tips for admissions interviews at MFT programs. You might want to consider a doctorate in MFT, though it will take longer. Typical timeframe (masters degree): 2-3 years.
  3. Complete additional supervised experience under a licensed MFT. In some states, including California, other licensed mental health professionals can supervise you as well; check with your state to see what their supervision standards are. Note that some states require your pre-licensed experience to be under an AAMFT Approved Supervisor. (A directory can be found here: Find an AAMFT Approved Supervisor.) During the time between graduation and licensure, while you are working under supervision, your state may call you an “intern” or an “associate” depending on the state. A few states use other titles. Most states require a total of 3,000 hours of supervised experience for you to be eligible to sit for licensing exams; there is some variability here, too, however. (Pennsylvania’s governor just signed a bill reducing that state’s requirement to 3,000 hours from 3,600.) Some states simply phrase this as two years full-time experience or the equivalent. Also note that in California, some hours gained within the master’s degree program can count toward the 3,000 total needed for licensure. (Other states tend not to allow this.) Typical timeframe: 2 years.
  4. Pass your state’s licensing exam(s). California is the only state that uses its own exams rather than the National MFT Exam. Many states require a state law and ethics exam in addition to the national exam, since state laws vary in key areas like child abuse reporting requirements. While an exam itself is over in a day, the licensing board needs time to process your MFT exam eligibility application, you need time to prepare, and you will need to schedule an appointment with a nearby testing facility. I’ve previously offered tips for preparing for MFT licensing exams, four myths about MFT licensing exams, and some discussion about whether MFT exam prep courses are worth the money. Typical timeframe: 6 months – 1 year. Longer if you need multiple attempts to pass.

Once you make it through that last step, congratulations! The state can now make you fully licensed as a marriage and family therapist, able to work independently in a private practice if you choose.

Overall, it’s good to plan for a total of at least 4-5 years from the start of your masters degree all the way through to licensure. Your time may be longer based on your circumstances; it would be possible (at least in CA) but unusual for your time to be any shorter.

In most states, the timelines for masters-level licensure are similar among clinical social workers, counselors, and MFTs. California is a noteworthy exception there: Only MFTs can count pre-degree hours of experience toward the 3,000 hours required for licensure, so it tends to be faster to get an MFT license in California than the other masters-level licenses. Licensing as a Psychologist requires a doctoral degree (typically 5 years, sometimes as short as 4) plus a postdoctoral internship (in California, 1,500 more hours, or about another year of full-time work) for a total of 5-6 years. Again, though, your individual circumstances may make your time longer.

Ed. note: This post originally published March 26, 2012. Some links updated June 11, 2018.

Four myths about MFT licensing exams

Go ahead and be anxious about your licensing exam process — it’s a big deal! But don’t buy into grumbling falsehoods about it. Test items are written by actual MFTs, and there are no trick questions.

Every person who becomes a licensed marriage and family therapist has to go through an examination process. In most states, that means passing the National MFT Exam. Many states also supplement the national exam with a second exam covering areas of state law (for example, ensuring that therapists are familiar with that state’s requirements for child abuse reporting). In California, the exam process is a bit different; California MFTs must pass two state-run exams, the MFT Standard Written Exam and the MFT Written Clinical Vignette Exam. [Update: The California MFT licensing exams change structure on January 1, 2016.] The overall content and structure of California’s exams are similar to the National MFT Exam — they’re multiple-choice tests that use a combination of factual questions and case-vignette-based questions.

Regardless of what state you’re in, if you haven’t taken the exam(s) yet, you may be dreading them. Even if you have gone through the exam process, you may not have fond memories of it. I hear complaints about the licensing exam process on a regular basis — most of them based on total mythology. It’s as if we (quite understandably) have anxiety-based associations with our testing process, past or future, and then (far less understandably) conjure up rational-sounding but totally baseless complaints about the process in an attempt to justify those fears.

It’s okay to be anxious about the process on its own merits. The exams are high-stakes; if you fail, you typically have to wait several months to try again. That impacts your standing among your peers, your employment options, and potentially your income. I still remember completing California’s Written Clinical Vignette exam and feeling certain I had failed. In a matter of moments, I was mentally planning how I would explain the failure to my employer, and how I would plan to do better next time. It turned out I had passed, but the memory of those anxious moments before getting my results stays with me.

If I had failed, I wanted to blame someone else: How dare that test be too hard for me! It must be the test’s fault! I’m glad I didn’t take much of a walk down that road, but if I had, I would have had plenty of company. Once a rumor has started that serves to explain why the tests feel so frightening and why we feel so unsure of ourselves going into them, it is easy for that rumor to be perpetuated. Such stories are factually wrong, and ultimately do more of a disservice to future test-takers by making the exams look cruel and unpredictable. But to someone who has failed a test (or is worried they might), the stories offer comfort — and someone else to blame. So they live on each year.

Here are the four myths I hear about MFT licensing exams the most:

  1. There are trick questions. Simply put, a licensing exam that uses trick questions would not be legally defensible. Test developers go to tremendous lengths to make sure any potential exam item works well, through several layers of review and pilot testing. If too many people are missing a question, it gets flagged for even more review. If a question appears to be tricking people, either by design or by accident, it is removed.
  2. There is secret knowledge. Test-prep companies make a lot of money perpetuating the mythology that they can provide you with “secrets” or other insider knowledge to help you pass the tests. Nonsense. Both California and AMFTRB (developers of the national exam) offer study guides that say what will be covered on the exams, and they ultimately draw their questions from the same textbooks and journal articles that graduate programs use to teach their students.
  3. They are meant to assess whether you are a good therapist. If I may be blunt, your licensing board does not care whether you are a great therapist or a lousy one. They only care about whether you can practice marriage and family therapy competently enough so as to not be a danger to the public. That’s what the exams are meant to assess. Yes, it is sometimes true that ineffective therapists pass their licensing exams, and effective therapists fail. But effectiveness and potential dangerousness are two different things. If you want an outside evaluation of your quality as a therapist, look elsewhere. (Back in 2008, I examined in more detail the question of whether licensing exams lead to better quality therapists.)
  4. They are written by people who aren’t therapists. Both California and the AMFTRB use licensed therapists to write their test items. In California, you can apply to be a subject matter expert involved in writing the exams. Elsewhere in the country, AMFTRB intermittently recruits MFTs with relevant expertise. Every test item on both the California and National MFT Exams is written by one or more practicing MFTs.

If you’re anxious about your own upcoming exams, instead of buying into the falsehoods above, you’ll likely be better off to do something about that anxiety. Maybe that means simply more studying, or maybe it means more directly addressing the anxiety through meditation, therapy, or other means. (Test-prep programs may be of questionable value overall, but if they can help you feel more knowledgeable and less anxious as you take the tests, they may well be worth your time and money.) Rest assured the exam process, and those who designed it, are not out to get you or to trick you. With the right preparation, you can do well on exam day.

If you know someone else who is anxious about their exams, or even who has failed an exam, by all means, comfort them and empathize with them. Sometimes we just have bad days. But please don’t support any of the mythology above — those ideas just make the testing process look bigger, scarier, and less under your control than it really is.