Marriage and Family Therapy Degree Programs

The Basics

In the 1950s, Leave it to Beaver depicted a well-functioning family that communicated well, expressed love and gratitude toward one another, and learned valuable lessons about life and love with one another. However, this idyllic notion of marriage and family wasn’t the norm then and is certainly not the norm now. Many people struggle with very serious issues in their lives that can disrupt their ability to have a positive, loving relationship with others. Couples fight. Children and parents have disagreements. Families experience stress because of health issues, financial difficulties, or simply because of differences in opinion.

Treatment of issues related to the functioning of families has become extremely popular in recent years. As a result, many prospective counselors, social workers, and psychologists are pursuing advanced degrees in marriage and family therapy.

What is Marriage and Family Therapy?

As the name implies, marriage and family therapy focuses on the functioning of the family system. It is the belief that how a family behaves as a unit is highly impactful on the individual behavior of its members. Therefore, marriage and family therapy seeks to improve both the behavior and functioning of the family as well as its individual members.

Marriage and family therapy is a brief, solution-focused therapy. Therapists work with their clients to set clearly defined, attainable goals that are designed to help families achieve an end-goal. This work is split between couples or family counseling and individual counseling with each member of the family.

Like individual treatments, marriage and family therapy has been shown to be effective in treating a wide range of psychological issues. While marital issues, difficulties with children, depression, and anxiety are among the most commonly treated problems in marriage and family therapy, schizophrenia, substance abuse, mood disorders, autism, and eating disorders are often treated as well.

What is a Marriage and Family Therapy Degree?

Marriage and family therapy degree programs provide students with the foundational knowledge and skills they need in order to provide services to couples and families in distress. Whether a student is pursuing a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, or a doctorate, they will explore counseling and therapy-related topics, develop a better understanding of the dynamics of close, personal relationships, and acquire the skills needed to work with couples and families to help them overcome obstacles to better family functioning.

Marriage and family therapy degrees are offered at a variety of levels:

Bachelor’s Degrees

The entry point to a marriage and family degree is to complete a bachelor’s degree program. The vast majority of marriage and family therapists begin with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, social work, or a closely related field, such as human services or family studies.

Undergraduate students take classes that offer a general introduction to the human services field. Common coursework at this level includes studies in their major area, which will vary depending on one’s specific major. For example, a student that pursues a bachelor’s degree in psychology would take courses related to psychology, whereas a student majoring in social work might take classes related to social groups, multiculturalism, and community intervention strategies. Courses that are common to undergraduate studies in this field may include:

  • General psychology – General psychology courses provide a very broad overview of the field of psychology as a whole. Students are introduced to many aspects of psychology, from how the brain functions to how psychological illnesses develop to the history of the development of psychology.
  • Developmental psychology – Typical courses in developmental psychology focus on how humans grow and develop across the lifespan. Subjects include language acquisition, mental and physical growth during childhood, cognitive development in adolescence, physical decline in old age, and the processes of death, dying, and grief.
  • Multicultural studies – Multicultural studies courses seek to give students greater perspective regarding how different social, cultural, ethnic, racial, and religious groups behave, communicate, and interpret the world in which they live. In particular, students explore the experiences of women, minorities, and other groups that have historically experienced discrimination.
  • Psychological statistics – Coursework in psychological statistics introduces students to both inferential and descriptive statistics. Students learn how to analyze and interpret data, as well as how to develop and test hypotheses in psychological research.

In addition to taking courses within their major, undergraduate students normally also take prerequisite and elective courses to fulfill the requirements of their degree program. General education classes, such as math and science, must be satisfactorily completed. Elective courses within the major must be completed as well. There are approximately 60 credit hours of general education and elective courses required for most bachelor’s degree programs, bringing the total number of required credits to approximately 120. This amount of coursework typically takes four years to complete if a student attends school full-time.

Admissions requirements for bachelor’s degree programs are usually pretty broad. Students must have a high school diploma or a GED and must have a satisfactory GPA. Some undergraduate programs have additional requirements, such as having students submit a personal essay or requiring that students took specific classes while in high school.

Master’s Degrees

Master’s degree programs in marriage and family therapy provide the advanced knowledge and skills required to become a licensed marriage and family therapist. In fact, a master’s degree is the minimum acceptable degree to be licensed in this field. As a result, students enrolled in these programs focus on developing clinical skills and also undertake advanced studies in marriage and family topics, including:

  • Case management – Case management focuses on helping students acquire the skills necessary to identify and coordinate services for couples and families in need. Students learn how to assess the needs of clients, how to plan and facilitate care coordination, and how to advocate on behalf of clients to receive the services they need to make positive steps toward better functioning.
  • Research methods – Classes in research methods explore how to appropriately conduct psychological research. Students learn how to formulate and test hypotheses, how to collect and analyze data, and how to use that data to design effective intervention strategies. Students also learn how to develop reports to communicate what they have found as a result of their research.
  • Counseling techniques – Graduate coursework in counseling techniques include both a general overview of many theoretical orientations, as well as classroom and internship experiences during which students can practice using counseling techniques. Through these studies and experiences, students develop their personal theory of counseling and become comfortable using a variety of techniques to counsel couples and families.
  • Intervention therapies – Students learn various intervention strategies that are effective in helping couples and families work through the issues that are causing distress within the family. Students learn how to develop and deploy interventions, as well as how to assess the effectiveness of interventions in terms of helping families meet their goals.

Master’s degrees in this field are offered as either a Master of Science (M.s.) or a Master of Arts (M.A.). The number of credits required for graduation varies somewhat, with some graduate programs requiring around 35 credit hours, while others require nearly double that. All accredited marriage and family therapy programs require professional experience as part of the degree, usually in the form of an internship. Internships usually last one year and require around 1,000 hours of clock time. Of those required hours, approximately half must be in face-to-face contact with clients.

The admissions requirements for graduate programs varies greatly from one institution to the next. The most common requirements of students is that they have a bachelor’s degree in a closely related field and standardized test scores that exceed the minimum acceptable score. Some graduate schools require students to submit a resume or curriculum vitae, as well as letters of recommendation from undergraduate professors. Often students are required to write an essay, take part in an interview with a committee of faculty members, or both.

Doctoral Degrees

Upon completion of a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, students can choose to pursue a doctorate. Usually, doctoral programs last from four to six years, but the timeframe depends on the requirements a student must complete in his or her individual program of study. Much of the time in a doctoral program is spent developing research and clinical skills. In fact, the bulk of the coursework at this level involves independent research for a dissertation and defense of that dissertation to a committee of professors. Internships or externships are also common requirements, and can last for anywhere from 9-12 months. During that time, doctoral students engage in therapy with actual clients, conduct research related to marriage and family issues, or both.

At the doctoral level, coursework may include:

  • Advanced family theory – Courses in family theory dive into the different theories of family functioning and help students better understand the many different dynamics that can be present in a family. Students may also learn how to develop alliances with family members and how to facilitate alliance building among family members as well.
  • Human development research – Doctoral students undertake much research, including in the area of human development. Students may participate in research with other doctoral candidates, designing programs to investigate questions regarding a specific aspect of development, such as language acquisition. Students may also work independently to conduct research on a topic of their own interest.
  • Supervised practice – In supervised practice, doctoral candidates work with clients under the watchful eye of a professor or practicing therapist. Students hone their therapeutic and clinical skills and get feedback from their supervisor regarding how they can improve as a clinician.
  • Dissertation – Doctoral students must propose a dissertation, and once approved by the department, conduct research to examine the topic of study in depth, develop a position regarding the subject under study, and form a strong defense of their position for their dissertation defense.

What is a Certificate in Marriage and Family Therapy?

Students that wish to pursue certification as a marriage and family therapist can obtain a post-graduate certificate. These programs, which are widely available at universities across the nation, provide a pathway to certification for students that may not otherwise qualify.

For example, students that do not have a graduate degree in marriage and family therapy, but whose degree is in a closely related field, such as psychology, can complete a marriage and family therapy certificate program in order to meet minimum certification requirements. This is also an avenue to certification for individuals that have a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, but whose program does not meet all the necessary requirements of the state in which they wish to practice. Such an occurrence might happen if the practicum or internship requirements of a master’s degree program are not rigorous enough to meet a state’s specific requirements.

Post-master’s certificate programs tend to be highly flexible to meet students’ needs. Some students may need to focus on coursework to meet licensure requirements while others may need to focus on supervision instead. Whatever the purpose, students that enroll in a post-master’s certification program should ensure that it is accredited, either by a regional accrediting body or by the Commission on Accreditation of Marriage and Family Therapy Education.

What is an Online Marriage and Family Therapy Degree?

Online marriage and family therapy degrees are much like those offered on college campuses. At the graduate level, online students participate in coursework that develops therapeutic and research skills. While coursework in online programs is completed in a virtual environment, students still have the opportunity to interact with one another and with their professors through email, video and audio chats, and the like. Online graduate programs in this field also have an internship component during which students complete their clinical work. Because online programs have students from around the globe, students are allowed to complete their clinical work at a location near where they live.

There are options to complete a doctorate in marriage and family therapy in an online environment as well. Again, much like on-campus programs, online doctoral programs emphasize the development of strong clinical and research skills. Online students are required to complete and defend a dissertation, and must also complete an internship placement as well. Both the doctoral and graduate program options offer students a highly flexible means by which to complete their studies. Coursework can usually be completed at one’s own pace (within reason), and universities work closely with students to ensure they have the support they need to be successful.

While there are many online options for graduate and doctoral degrees in marriage and family therapy, there are very few accredited programs. In fact, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy only recognizes two online master’s degree programs and one online doctoral program as having been accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education.

What Does it Take to Get a Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy?

Getting a degree in marriage and family therapy means spending at least six years in college in order to complete undergraduate and graduate studies. It’s a long road, but with the following skills and qualities, students can find success:

Strong work ethic – To successfully complete a marriage and family therapy program, students must have a strong work ethic. There are long hours in and out of the classroom, many assignments, lots of reading, and hundreds of hours of internship work that must be completed, and having the motivation to complete those tasks in a timely fashion is extremely beneficial.

Ability to balance school and life – With the heavy demands on a student’s time from his or her coursework, it is important for students to be able to strike a balance between education and living their life. Taking appropriate time off from studies to be with family and friends, to work, and to take care of other life duties will keep one’s life in better balance and prevent burnout from occurring.

Adaptability – Nothing is a given when training to become a therapist. Students must be able to adapt to new situations, different kinds of clients, and all kinds of issues that clients might raise.

Self-confidence – To be successful in pursuing a degree in marriage and family therapy, students must have the confidence that they can complete the requirements of the program, develop the necessary skills, and have something of value to offer to couples and families struggling with life’s difficulties.

Commitment to learning – As noted above, becoming a marriage and family therapist requires a lot of schooling. As a result, students should have a deep commitment to learning, improving themselves, and acquiring the knowledge and skills they need to perform their job duties.

What Can You Do With a Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy?

The most common career path for individuals with a degree in marriage and family therapy is to work in a clinical setting, be that in a community mental health center, an inpatient or outpatient mental health facility or in private practice. Work in these settings requires licensure from the state in addition to having the appropriate educational background, which is a minimum of a master’s degree. However, some positions in this field require a doctorate.

Some marriage and family therapists also work for government agencies. They might help drive policy decisions regarding funding for health and human services programs, or they might conduct research regarding the changing dynamics of the family, relationships with significant others, and the like.

Many marriage and family therapists work in education as well. In particular, they can be found teaching at colleges and universities, especially at the graduate and doctoral levels. Professors in this field use their training and clinical experiences to help prospective marriage and family therapists develop the knowledge and skills they need to be competent practitioners.

What Degrees are Similar to Marriage and Family Therapy?

Students that pursue a degree in marriage and family therapy most often become a marriage and family therapist. However, degrees in this field are similar to several others:

Social Work – Like marriage and family therapy programs, social work programs seek to assist students in developing skills that will help families through difficult times. Students in social work programs will study human relationships, social factors, and get training in providing clinical care. Bachelor’s degrees in social work are very common and qualify students for entry-level positions. Clinical positions require at least a master’s degree in social work.

Clinical psychologyClinical psychology degree programs are offered at the master’s and doctoral levels for students that wish to practice psychology in a clinical setting. Not unlike marriage and family therapy degree programs, clinical psychology programs focus on helping students develop the knowledge and skills required to help their clients along on a pathway toward improved mental health. This involves coursework related to cognitive psychology, abnormal psychology, social psychology, among others. Clinical training is also a large component of these degree programs.

Developmental psychology – Coursework in developmental psychology focuses on how people change with the passage of time. Courses in developmental psychology programs are widely varied and include investigations of changes in thought processes and patterns, memory, biological changes, and the impact of society on an individual’s growth. Developmental psychology degrees are offered for graduate and doctoral students.

Substance abuse counselingSubstance abuse counseling degree programs help students develop specific skills related to working with people that abuse alcohol, drugs, and other substances. Coursework often includes diagnosis, assessment, treatment, and clinical skills. Degree programs are available at the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels, with additional opportunities for research and coursework at the doctoral level as well.

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