Making sense of the 2010 CAMFT “Typical MFT” survey

CAMFT came out last month with their biannual “Who Is the Typical California MFT?” article, summarizing a survey of hundreds of members about themselves and their careers. The article is presented largely as narrative, without much in the way of interpretation – the way a good summary of results should be. To me, three things stood out in this year’s numbers. Bear in mind with all of these that, because it is just a survey of California folks, when I say “MFTs” I am really referring to “California MFTs.”

1. The economic news is not great, but it is not as bad as it sometimes seems. The average income among survey participants[*] is down almost 6% from the 2008 survey, to $52,886 from $55,890. But the news could be a lot worse. For one thing, CAMFT does not explain what they mean by “average” – that is, whether are reporting the mean or the median. If they are using the mean, it is entirely possible that some of this downturn is explained by the highest outliers making a bit less money. They do note that both “tails” of the frequency distribution – those making above $80,000 and those making below $20,000 – have increased in frequency over 2008.

2. The increase in MFT incomes over the last eight years is almost fully accounted for by those with doctoral degrees. 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 incomes rise by almost $10,000 a year, from $62,885 in 2004 to $72,165 in 2010. Still wondering whether to get that doctorate? I’m speculating here, but there are a couple of reasons why the doctoral-level MFTs are continuing to see rising incomes: 1, those with doctoral degrees are able to teach in academic institutions, where they may have more job and income stability than those in private practice; 2, many of those licensed MFTs who have doctoral degrees may also be licensed as Psychologists, who are reimbursed at higher rates than MFTs when paid by most insurance plans.

3. Your web presence is not as important as your physical presence. For all of the excitement surrounding clients’ abilities to find therapists through internet searches, most clients still are not coming to therapy that way. Respondents noted that referrals came most often from other clients and from colleagues. Managed care companies were third on the list, followed by physicians, and (in a single choice) family/friends/neighbors. Internet searches were eighth on the list. So rather than spending your next Friday tinkering with your web site, you may be better off attending a local meeting of your CAMFT Chapter or AAMFT district. There’s no apparent substitute for real-world networking.

* A number of cautionary notes seem important here. For one thing, we’re talking about a survey with a 16% response rate – that, in and of itself, makes the numbers a bit dubious. That said, they’re pretty consistent with past surveys, both demographically and in the other data. So, there may be some response bias (and it seems especially likely that those at the low end of the income spectrum would be less willing to talk about it), but it’s difficult to know how that plays out. As mentioned above, CAMFT does not specify whether they are talking about a mean or a median in their income numbers; the median would probably be a better metric, but it seems more likely that the mean is what’s being reported. Finally, with all of the income numbers, CAMFT asked participants to state their pre-tax income specifically from the practice of the profession. That may or may not include supplemental activities like teaching courses as an adjunct faculty member, selling workbooks or other study materials, and so forth. Other surveys ask for total income, which has its own pitfalls. The difference in how the question is asked may account for differences from other surveys of the profession.

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