MFT licensure: Why 3,000 hours?

Whenever I get into conversations about the MFT licensure process, and how it differs from one state to another, similar questions come up. Earlier I addressed the fundamental question of whether license examinations make for better therapists. Another common question I hear: Why do we require 3,000 hours of supervised, prelicensed experience for MFT licensure?

(Making things more complicated, why do some states require more? California uses the 3,000-hour standard. Arizona, like a handful of other states, requires 3,200 hours. Some other states simply say “two years of full-time supervised experience or the equivalent.”)

It’s mostly political

As MFTs have advanced licensure around the country, we have made every effort to cooperate with other professional groups and ensure that licensure really does serve its purpose, which is to protect the public from untrained or unscrupulous professionals. Working with other professions and with the legislatures in each state has required various compromises, and most states have settled on about 3,000 hours of supervised experience as one of the requirements for licensure.

Of course, there’s no evidence that MFTs are unable to practice effectively on their own with 2,999 hours of experience and suddenly experience a magical transformation at the 3,000th hour. But there is a significant growth process, personally and professionally, that takes place during the prelicensed experience. And in most states it has been generally agreed that around 3,000 hours — that is, about two years of full-time, supervised experience — is long enough for MFTs to learn to effectively practice without supervision.

History at work

Of course, 3,000 hours is a fairly arbitrary number. It’s a way of operationalizing the idea that we should be supervised for at least two years prior to going into independent practice. That two-year standard goes back to the early years of psychology in the US — it’s a rule that is now effectively almost 100 years old, as I described in a workshop not long ago:

There is also a gatekeeping role supervisors play during the prelicensed time, as they can help determine whether a supervisee is unfit for the profession. Those within and outside of the profession have generally come to terms that two years of full-time supervision is long enough for that gatekeeping need to also be addressed.

While some states are moving toward standardizing their MFT licensure requirements with others, it’s interesting to note that the current trend appears to be toward making licensure easier in the mental health professions. In California, the Board of Behavioral Sciences (which governs LMFTs, LPCCs, and LCSWs) has streamlined the counting of experience hours for licensure for MFTs and counselors, something I’m proud to have pushed. And psychologists are arguing that they have so much training in their educational process that the postdoc year is not necessary. As of 2014, 13 states had no postdoctoral requirement for psychologists.

Editor’s note: Originally published January 9, 2009. Updated June 27, 2018.