Marriage and Family Therapy Degrees: What You'll Study

Read about courses you'll take in a marriage and family therapy psychology program.

What degree levels are available?

A marriage and family therapy student talks with a colleague

Depending on your psychology career goals, and the time and financial commitment you're able to make, you can pursue either undergraduate or graduate degrees in marriage and family therapy. Explore your options.

Earning an undergraduate degree is the first step in your education toward becoming a marriage and family therapist. Next, a master's degree in counseling or marriage and family therapy is required in most states in order to begin practicing. Earning a doctorate is not required to practice marriage and family therapy. However, both online and traditional PhD programs are available. 

 Bachelor's Degree Programs

Most undergraduate degree programs require a blend of science and liberal arts courses. By junior year you will have chosen your track—whether that's counseling, psychology, sociology or social work—and begun taking electives. If you're confident that you'd like to go into graduate school for counseling, this is also the best time to start making those plans.

As long as you complete the basic electives in your track, you don't necessarily need to have a bachelor's in psychology or counseling to be accepted into a graduate program in counseling. Be sure to verify this with the graduate programs you plan on applying to.

To outline common classes on this page, we'll use the example of a four-year psychology degree. University of Phoenix offers the following program of undergraduate lecture and lab courses for a Bachelor of Science in Psychology:

Examples of Core Courses

  • General Psychology: An introduction to the major topics in scientific psychology as applied to human behavior.
  • History and Systems of Psychology: Learn about the modern era of psychology and its use. Topics include structuralism, functionalism, Gestalt, behaviorism, psychoanalysis and phenomenological/existential approaches.
  • Statistical Reasoning in Psychology: Students are introduced to applied statistics (descriptive and inferential), with psychology as an emphasis.
  • Biological Foundations of Psychology: Studying physiological psychology, which explores the relationship between our biological systems and behavior.
  • Life Span Human Development: Personality, social, intellectual and physical development and the major theories used to explain how people change throughout their life span.
  • Theories of Personality: Explore the general approaches to understanding personality.
  • Abnormal Psychology: Addresses the incidence of abnormal behavior of various types; how abnormal behaviors are classified into various diagnostic categories; the causes of psychological disorders; and the variety of methods used in their treatment.
  • Psychological Tests and Measurements: Covers the basic principles, research, and theories on testing and measurement of psychological constructs.
  • Elements of Clinical Psychology: Provides an overview of the theory and practice of clinical and counseling psychology. Explores major theories of personality, assessment and psychotherapy.

Additionally, senior-year students may be required to complete a thesis or take a Capstone Course, which creates an integrative project that combines the cumulative learning of their 4-year program into a "senior project."

Master's Marriage and Family Therapy Programs

Different schools offer different types of master's in marriage and family therapy. Each will take two to three years to complete. Ideally, the learning environment will offer a combination of in-class and community experience.

The not-for-profit, accredited Chicago School of Professional Psychology prepares candidates for a Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology, Marital and Family Therapy Specialization. Mount St. Mary's College, a small private liberal arts college in Los Angeles, offers a Master of Science in Counseling Psychology with a specialization in Marriage and Family Therapy.

As an example of typical courses, below is a sampling from the MS program at Mount St. Mary's:

Examples of Core Courses
 

  • Life Span Development and Long-Term Care: Examines the developmental stages from birth to death, focusing on the development of perceptual and cognitive processes, psychosocial crisis and familial interpersonal relationships. Students will research varied theoretical viewpoints and develop as a diverse and ethical professional.
  • Couples' Counseling and Domestic Violence: Provides an overview of current trends in couples' therapeutic treatment. Presents concepts of divorce, remarriage, blended families, domestic partnerships, domestic violence and non-traditional families.
  • The Theory and Practice of Marital/Family Therapy: Focuses on various therapeutic modalities in the practice of marriage and family therapy. Discusses indirect methods for initiating and sustaining change in family systems. Examines research related to theory and practice.

This Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology, Marital and Family Therapy Specialization requires between 48-60 credit hours and 250 hours of fieldwork. This will be completed as supervised clinical experience in a mental health environment. Licensing works differently in different states, but graduates of this California-based program will be qualified to sit for the California Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS) MFT licensure exam.

Doctoral Programs

A doctoral degree isn't necessary to work as a marriage and family therapist, although you may pursue it to increase your opportunities in academia or specific work environments. For instance, you may choose to further your career after a few years of working in the field.

If you choose to pursue a doctorate, you have more options than ever before. The aforementioned Chicago School of Professional Psychology offers a PsyD in Clinical Psychology with an emphasis on Marital and Family Therapy.

The online school Northcentral University offers a PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy. Northcentral is currently the first distance-based program to be under official consideration for accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE).

What certification will I need to practice marriage and family therapy?

All marriage and family therapists must be licensed. Licensure requires a master's degree and two years of supervised clinical experience. Marriage and family therapists must also pass a state-recognized exam and complete annual continuing education classes. Learn more about requirements in the state you plan to study and work in through the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards.

What will I learn in my courses?

For example, graduates of the Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology, Marital and Family Therapy Specialization program at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology will:

  • Learn a foundation of therapeutic, diagnostic and consultative skills
  • Work with individuals, couples and families on issues such as depression, anxiety, marital and relationship struggles and child-parent conflict
  • Assist clients in understanding how their behavior patterns influence the behavior of others
  • Help clients find new ways of thinking and relating

How long will it take?

Depending upon your level of dedication, the education necessary to work as a school counselor can take the following time to complete:

  • Four-years in a bachelor's degree in psychology, education or other field
  • One-two years in a master's degree program
  • Programs may require a one-year internship
  • Two years of supervised experience prior to licensing

Are online programs available?

There are many options for earning your master's and doctorate in marriage and family therapy online. One popular online program is available through Argosy University. The course outlines differ for each school, so check for information on the differences and how they pertain to your goals in earning your degree.

How much will my education cost?

Bachelor's degree programs vary depending upon the institution you attend. The average annual cost* for a four-year, public institution amounts to $8,893 for in-state tuition and $22,203 for out-of-state-tuition, according to College Board's Trends in College Pricing 2013-2014. 

Four-year private schools can cost significantly more, from $15,000 annually at a for-profit school to $30,000 per year for a non-profit institution. 

As a master's degree tuition example, Capella's MS in marriage and family counseling runs close to $43,000 for the entire program.

The College Board says $7,750 per year is the average cost for in-state public tuition while doctorate program tuition averages $9,804 annually at in-state public institutions.

*Cost of tuition only. Prices do not reflect other fees, books, room and board.

Attending an accredited school may allow you to apply for financial aid, whether the school you select is a traditional classroom or online program.

Are there prerequisites?

Undergraduate: A strong college preparatory high school education is a good start for your psychology or counseling degree program. Courses in science, math, English, history, social studies, and a foreign language are important. Science and math are especially critical because they provide the necessary skills for research and analysis in college psychology and education courses.

Graduate: A completed, four-year bachelor's degree in psychology, education or another field will prepare you for graduate school. Any electives you've taken in psychology and/or education will be valuable in your graduate work.

Some programs, like the Marriage and Family Therapy master's at Pacific Lutheran University, require a bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited institution in family studies, human services, psychology, sociology, social work or the equivalent. If you earned a bachelor's in another field, 15 semester hours in those fields can be taken.

GRE: Check with the institution and program you plan to apply to, to find out whether the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is not required for admission. If it's not, but you've taken the test and have good scores, you may submit them for review with your admission materials.

What accreditation is there for my program?

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) established the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) in 1978. It is recognized by the Department of Education as the agency for accreditation of clinical training programs in marriage and family therapy at the master’s, doctoral and postgraduate levels. COAMFTE accreditation is a required element in enabling programs to establish eligibility to participate in Federal programs.

You can also choose to pursue your undergraduate degree at an accredited institution. Accreditation shows that an institution or program meets standards of quality set forth by an accrediting agency, and that it is committed not only to meet those standards but to continuously seek ways in which to improve the quality of education and training provided. Also, attending an accredited school may allow you to apply for financial aid, whether the school you select is a traditional classroom or online program.

There are two types of educational accreditation: institutional and specialized. The Higher Learning Commission conducts institutional accreditation. Institutional accreditation is provided by regional and national associations of schools and colleges. There are six regional associations, each named after the region in which it operates (Middle States, New England, North Central, Northwest, Southern, Western).

Attending an accredited school may allow you to apply for financial aid, whether the school you select is a traditional classroom or online program.

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