How to become a marriage and family therapist: 4 Steps to a rewarding career
Our families and spouses are typically the people we love most – the ones we turn to for consistent support and understanding. But the truth is, personal relationships can be complicated.
When miscommunication occurs with our loved ones, it may lead to pain, anger and nights spent silently eating dinner across from one another. But sometimes the discord that seems insurmountable can actually be overcome by bringing in some fresh perspective – someone to help define the root of the issues and assist in paving a path forward.
As a marriage and family therapist, you could have the opportunity to help couples and families examine their conflicts and work to reignite the relationships they hold so dearly. Through listening, discussing and advising, you could help your clients find ways to make their relationships and families thrive. If you have always been the one your friends and family expect to make peace, read on to find out how to become a marriage and family therapist.
4 steps to becoming a marriage and family therapist
While it takes time and hard work to become a marriage and family therapist, the steps are pretty concrete. Here’s an overview.
1. Obtain a bachelor’s degree
All marriage and family therapist positions will require a graduate-level education, but first you’ll need to earn your bachelor’s degree. While studying psychology or communications can be helpful in this career path, most graduate psychology programs will accept students with any undergraduate major. So don’t worry if you’ve invested time and money in a bachelor’s in nursing, history or another seemingly unrelated field.
In fact, there are plenty of applicable skills from a variety of majors that will help you become a better therapist. Consider how the following qualities naturally lend themselves to the tasks marriage and family therapists are responsible for:
- Patience: Anyone who has stayed up all night revising a stubborn term paper knows a thing or two about patience. When a client shows little sign of improving and returns to the same problem session after session, you’ll really have to tap into this quality. You’ll be even better prepared if you’re creative and a strong communicator, as marriage and family therapists will often have to experiment with different approaches to get a message through to a client who won’t budge.
- Boundaries: In order to support a healthy work-life balance, therapists need to create and maintain clear boundaries. This can be difficult for a therapist, because you likely want to help your clients as much as you can. But a burnt-out therapist can’t do their job effectively. The best thing you can do for yourself (and your clients) is to set boundaries, prioritizing self-care from time to time.
- Collaboration: Most of the time, you will be working by yourself as a therapist. But teamwork skills are still important. In many cases, you will have to coordinate with social workers, insurance companies and psychiatrists to create an effective treatment plan and coordinate payment. Your experience in a marketing group project – or on an intramural team – could be put to work in coordinating the best care for your clients.
- Compassion: A client will be able to recognize when you care and when you don’t, so being present and invested is critical to your relationship with the client. After a few hours of appointments, you’ll likely have to work harder at maintaining empathy and compassion. You’ll have an advantage if you’ve already worked to develop this competency working as a tutor or during student teaching.
- Organizational skills: Paperwork is a necessary part of being a therapist. Detailed notes are essential for insurance companies and government programs to accurately assess clients on a case-by-case basis. Taking progress notes after each session can also help you remember where to pick up for next time. If your undergraduate degree found you taking complex process notes in chemistry, food science, or a more systematic field, then your skills won’t go to waste.
2. Obtain a graduate degree
Regardless of the bachelor’s degree you hold, you will need a master’s degree to become a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT). (While doctoral options in psychology are available for those interested in teaching or research, they aren’t typically necessary for counseling roles.)
Even so, when it comes to picking a master’s program, you do have some options. To start, you can choose between a Master of Science (MS) and a Master of Arts (MA). An MA in the field will focus more on advanced statistics and research, while an MS will focus more on behavioral science and counseling. Both degree types require courses in research methods as well as a practicum. In graduate school, you’ll typically collect and analyze data relevant to the field and complete 150 to 500 practicum hours, as well as completing your coursework.
It’s also important to understand the different emphases available as part of an advanced therapy degree program. You could specialize in substance abuse, behavior disorders or mental health, for example. With a passion for healing hurting relationships and families, however, becoming an LMFT may be the right path for you.
3. Take the state licensing exam
After you’ve graduated from your master’s program, you’ll need to meet the state-specific requirements for the location in which you hope to practice. Review these standards carefully, as they vary from place to place.
Regardless of where you practice, you’ll have to take a state-recognized exam. There are two test options: the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE), which consists of 200 multiple-choice questions and the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE), made up of 10 clinical simulations. Though some states prefer one test over the other, the choice is often yours. But it’s always best to make sure before you choose one over the other.
4. Decide on the environment in which you want to work
Once you’ve earned your degree and obtained licensure, you get to decide where to put your newfound skills into practice. The good news is that career opportunities for marriage and family therapists are poised to see a 23 percent increase by 2026 (according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), which is much faster than the average growth rate for all occupations.
As an LMFT, you will have the option of opening a private practice, working at a mental health center, practicing in a hospital or even working in a substance abuse treatment center. Medical practitioners and institutions are increasingly looking for qualified professionals who can help address the underlying issues that fuel their patients’ problems.
As with any career there will be ups and downs with becoming a marriage and family therapist. But in this person-centric field, you’ll know that what you do today could have a significant impact for generations to come.
Invest in a meaningful career
As you already know, relationships are complicated. If you become a marriage and family therapist, you may be able to help people to find harmony with their closest loved ones.
Whether your next step is completing your bachelor’s degree or starting graduate school, Brandman University has options that could help you get one step closer to your goal of becoming a marriage and family therapist. Head over to our Bachelor of Arts in Psychology or Master of Arts in Psychology pages for more information.
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