Should you pursue a doctorate in MFT?

Have you considered pursuing a doctorate in marriage and family therapy? There are at least three good reasons why you should.

Like many programs, where I teach (Alliant) we offer both masters and doctoral degrees in marriage and family therapy. Many of our masters students spend significant time in their second year weighing out this question:

Will pursuing a doctoral degree in MFT be worth the time, energy, and money it takes to get all the way through it?

Obviously, it is a decision that needs to be made with careful consideration of individual circumstances. Not everyone will benefit the same way from getting a doctorate in MFT. And it is highly unlikely to be a good investment if you start a doctorate and do not finish it. But depending on what you want to do with your career, completing a doctoral program could be the best investment you ever make. Here are three reasons why.

  • You can do more with a doctoral degree than a masters. With a doctorate, you may be more likely to secure a university teaching position, either full-time or as an adjunct faculty. In clinic settings, MFTs with doctoral degrees may be more likely to be elevated to supervisory or program-director roles. For tasks that an MFT can do only with additional training, such as psychological testing (laws differ on this from state to state), doctoral programs may provide that training. Finally, depending on the specifics of your state and the type of doctorate you pursue (i.e., Psychology with an emphasis in family therapy versus simply MFT), you may be able to license as a Psychologist, which can offer a broader scope of practice.
  • You are likely to make significantly more money with a doctorate than with a masters degree. The gap in MFT salaries between those with masters degrees and those with doctorates in the field is growing significantly, at least in California. I’ve referenced this previously, but it is worth repeating:

    The incomes of MFTs at the masters level have been effectively flat since 2002, rising only from $47,851 to $50,689. This increase is less than what would be expected from inflation alone. Doctoral-level MFTs, however, have seen their incomes grow significantly – including in the current economic downturn. I’ve turned CAMFT’s data since 2004 into a graphic to show the difference:

    Since 2004, while masters-level MFTs have seen little to no increase in income from the profession, those with doctoral degrees have seen their annual incomes rise by almost $10,000, from $62,885 in 2004 to $72,165 in 2010. [See my cautionary notes about this data here.]

    This may be because MFTs with doctorates are performing different tasks and roles, as noted above, or it may be that MFTs with doctoral degrees are getting paid more even when in the same roles as colleagues with masters degrees. Here are two reasons why the latter is at least a possibility: (1) If you license as a psychologist (see above), insurers may reimburse you at a higher rate; (2) In private practice settings, regardless of your licensure, private-pay clients may be willing to pay you more because they see “PhD” or “PsyD” or “DMFT” after your name.

  • Better clinical understanding. When I began my doctoral program, it was not to make more money or to work my way into a teaching position. It was because I wanted to be a better therapist. There is no doubt in my mind that my doctoral program helped me to do just that. My understanding of theory, and ability to effectively apply it in session, both improved by leaps and bounds. Even if I had sought out a career specifically in private practice, I would have served my clients far more effectively with my doctorate than I would have with a masters. And that would have been enough for me to call it a good investment.

    Since then, a number of professional doors have opened to me as a result of the doctorate that would not have otherwise, and I’m thrilled that things have turned out the way they have! But even if they had not, I still would have been wise to get my PsyD.

Of course, as I said above, a doctoral degree is not for everyone. If what you want to do with your career is get into the mental health workforce, get licensed as quickly as possible, and focus on delivering effective clinical services, the clinical-skill benefits of the doctorate may or may not ultimately be worth the investment. On the other hand, if you have any interest in teaching or doing research, a doctorate will help you significantly. And if you have any other motivations to seek (or avoid) the doctorate, take them honestly into consideration. Only you can decide what is the best path for you.

Riemersma, M. (2010). The typical California MFT: 2010 CAMFT member practice and demographic survey. The Therapist, 22(4), 28-36.