Marriage and family therapy is devoted to identifying and solving issues particular to couples and families. A well-trained professional therapist who specializes in marriage and family therapy not only positively affects the lives of clients, but is also a competent researcher and educator. A Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Marriage and Family Therapy is the highest degree level available in this subspecialty of psychology, and holders of this degree are eligible to practice in every state in the U.S.

Why a Doctoral Degree in Marriage and Family Counseling?

An online marriage and family therapy degree program grooms its graduates to teach and perform new research in this subfield of psychology. Practitioners who hold a Ph.D. may supervise students in a master’s degree program and are qualified, highly trained clinicians able to expertly conduct private practice. Ph.D. programs in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) also cultivate students’ ability to conduct independent research and accurately analyze the results. Doctoral candidates in a Ph.D. program such as this are expected to advance new theory as scholars in the field.

The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists created the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE). This commission is recognized by the U.S. Dept. of Education as the official governing body that grants accreditation to Ph.D. programs. Many state licensures require degrees from COAMFTE-approved degree programs. COAMFTE-approved online marriage and family therapy doctorate programs are rare, but they do exist.

Getting into a Marriage and Family Counseling Doctoral Program

Admission criteria vary by Ph.D. program, but most are similarly rigorous. For a standard marriage and family counseling doctoral program, required submissions include:

  • A master’s degree from an accredited institution. Some schools require a master’s degree in MFT, while some accept a master’s in general counseling if certain prerequisite courses were taken.
  • Minimum GPA of 3.0
  • A resume or curriculum vitae
  • A professional goals statement (1 to 3 pages)
  • Three letters of recommendation
  • A work sample from a master’s degree program
  • An interview with the admissions committee

Inside a Marriage and Family Therapy Doctoral Degree Program

Most Ph.D. programs in MFT can be completed in three to seven years. Usually, the core curriculum includes investigation of the three major systems of MFT: cybernetics, natural systems, and language-based systems. Classes in both quantitative and qualitative research methods explore research methodology, and special attention is also given to theory such as postmodernism or social constructionism. Other course work common to this program are family systems, behavioral disorders, practice management, small-group therapy, and short and long-term therapeutic strategies.

Fieldwork is heavily emphasized in a Ph.D. program in MFT. Students first observe cases in a practicum and meet weekly with professors to discuss case management; this practicum culminates in supervised student-patient therapy sessions. After course work and practicum requirements are met, nine-month clinical internships follow. Lastly, a clinical portfolio must be approved by program advisors.

Doctoral candidates may also choose to specialize somewhat in this subspecialty. With departmental permission, more targeted courses may be taken. Elective courses in this category may include grief and loss therapy, family businesses, couples therapy or international counseling, among others.

What’s Next for Marriage and Family Therapy Doctoral Degree Holders?

Since a Ph.D. in MFT is the highest level of education available in this specialty, the marriage and family counseling job outlook is better than many occupations in psychology, and elsewhere. Marriage and family therapists in general can expect a boom in job growth by the year 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). As in other specialties of psychology, practitioners who hold a doctorate can charge higher per-hour fees for counseling services.

Marriage and family therapy Ph.D. program graduates may find satisfying work in any of the following areas:

  • Private practice or clinical practice affiliated with a medical facility
  • Head Start program
  • Academia
  • Public school systems
  • Mental health agencies, public and private
  • Social services agencies
  • Research centers