Making the decision to work as a marriage and family counselor could be an excellent opportunity for those who enjoy working closely with people to improve their lives. Becoming a therapist like this takes time, and it also takes pursuing the right type and level of education before qualifying to obtain your license. Each state's rules on licensing are a bit different, but the following is what you can expect in most situations.

Step 1: Complete a Marriage and Family Counselor Degree

The first step toward this rewarding career is completing a marriage and family therapy (MFT) degree. You will likely need to enroll in a bachelor's degree program as a first step. Here's what you need to know.

Associate's Degree: It is not possible, in any state, to provide counseling services to clients with just an associate's degree. For those who are interested in this field and want to start slowly, it may be possible to begin with an entry-level associate’s degree in a subject like psychology, but you will not have enough education to start working directly with clients.

Bachelor's Degree: Students are often likely to start here, working to earn a bachelor's degree in counseling, psychology or sociology as the first step into their career as therapists. This path typically requires four years of education, but most states do not see a bachelor's degree as enough to qualify for work as a therapist.

Master's Degree: The most common step in working as a marriage and family counselor is completing a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy (MFT) or an associated mental health field. A master's degree in MFT will allow graduates to become licensed to provide therapy to patients. 

Graduate Certificate: For those who have already earned their master's degree and may be working in the field and licensed, completing an MFT graduate certificate may be possible. This allows the student to earn more of their education in this specific specialty field within psychology and is a great way for those already in the mental healthcare field to break into marriage and family counseling.

Doctorate Degree: For those who wish to continue their education, perhaps after working in the field or after completing their master's, an MFT doctorate degree is possible. A Ph.D. or PsyD in marriage and family therapy requires a research-heavy curriculum that aims to prepare students to work as college administrators or professors, counselors, and research professionals in the field.

Step 2: Become Licensed as a Marriage and Family Counselor

Each state sets its requirements for earning a counselor's license. Typically, this becomes an option after a student completes their educational requirements at the master's degree level. Here is what the process typically includes.

Internship / Practicum Experience

A core component of most therapists' education is to complete clinical experience. The number of hours will differ, but this often includes:

  • 1000 hours (or more) of direct client documented clock hours spent with patients in this field under a licensed professional.
  • This could include working in an emergent care setting, but more commonly involves working in a mental health practice or treatment facility.
  • Students may be able to fulfill their internship with a clinical practice supervisor or training therapists.

This type of educational process typically allows the student to learn about interacting with patients, providing care to them, analyzing and diagnosing, and treating them in real-world situations under the guidance of an experienced licensed therapist.

Examination

The examination is the next step once a student completes their necessary hours of clinical experience. This often includes:

  • Sitting for your state's marriage and family therapist license
  • Schedule and take the necessary examination
  • The examination will include practical and clinical experience questions and a solid demonstrated understanding of core principles in the topic.

State Requirements

Students will need to work through the educational requirements set by the state. These differ in areas such as:

  • The type of education required
  • Accreditation of the educational provider
  • The number of credits and types of courses
  • The number of clinical hours required for practicum and clinical experience
  • When and how the test is taken

States also set continuing education requirements for those who complete their license. These, too, differ, as does the length of the license period.

Step 3: Apply for a Marriage and Family Counselor Job

Once licensed, individuals can apply for positions with doctor's offices, mental health organizations, private practices, and other services. 

What Careers Can I Pursue With a Marriage and Family Counselor Degree?

Marriage and family counselors work to complete therapy sessions with couples and families, both individually and together, to help with decision-making, communication, problem-solving, emotional help, and coping with difficult decisions. However, having experience as a marriage and family counselor also opens you up to many other job opportunities, such as providing other types of therapy or providing work as a consultant.

Where Can I Work With a Marriage and Family Counselor Degree?

Those who have this license may be able to work in a wide range of positions, including:

  • Private practices
  • Hospitals
  • Emergency rooms
  • Schools
  • Religious organizations
  • Mental health treatment centers
  • Medical and health practices
  • City and other public mental health service providers
  • Research and mental health studies

Consider applying for positions with local medical facilities, health improvement programs, city, and state-sponsored programs, as well as large hospital systems and medical health facilities for additional opportunities.

Step 4: Learn About Marriage and Family Counselor Salaries

Working in this field is rewarding in many ways. Depending on a person's experience and where they live, they may earn between $50,530 and $76,064 per year, according to Salary.com. A number of factors contribute to that earning potential, including things like location, experience, and the types of services offered. Those who work in well-known practices may earn more in some areas. Also, some marriage and family counselors go on to own their own practice, which can open up the door to higher earnings in some regions.

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