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!

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.