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How to become a family psychotherapist

Marriage and family therapists (MFTs) assess, diagnose, and treat mental and psychological issues in relationships, marriage, and families. If you are passionate about providing solutions to individuals struggling with premarital, marital, divorce, and/or family issues, you may want to pursue a career in marriage and family therapy might be the right choice for you.

To become a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) in California, you will need to become licensed to practice by the state. This blog will cover all the degree, practice, and license requirements needed to become a marriage and family therapist in California in five steps.

What is a marriage and family therapist?

An MFT is a mental health professional trained to listen, assess, diagnose, and provide mental and emotional treatment for couples and families to improve their well-being.

MFTs evaluate and provide treatment for other health and behavior-related issues in relationships and the family system, such as affective mood disorders, marital distress and conflict, drug and alcohol abuse in adults and adolescents, and more.

Before you can become a licensed marriage and family therapist in California, you must have graduate training in MFT with at least two years of clinical experience.

As a California marriage and family therapist, you can provide your services in mental health clinics, residential care homes, state government, outpatient care centers, private practice, and other sectors and institutions where mental health services are required.

How to become a marriage and family therapist in California

To become a licensed MFT in California, you must accomplish a few key steps, including an academic degree and licensure requirements.

Step 1: Earn a bachelor’s degree.

This undergraduate degree allows you to apply to master’s programs in California for marriage and family therapy. The major or minor of your bachelor’s degree doesn’t have to be in any particular field. However, you must have completed courses in therapy, psychotherapy, and some other program within psychology, depending on the requirements of your master’s school of choice.

If you are interested in a marriage counselor degree, or any other marriage and family therapy programs, check out our MFT programs page for more information!

Step 2: Complete a master’s degree program in marriage and family therapy.

As a potential California MFT, you should only apply to schools approved by the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and duly accredited by the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy or the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education. Being accredited by these organizations will ensure higher chances of employment upon graduation and a smooth licensure process.

A master’s program normally takes two to three years, including clinical fieldwork and a research thesis. To be an MFT in California, you can major in either Marriage and Family Therapy or any related mental health field.

Stage 3: Complete two years of clinical experience in the state of California.

This experience can be gained through working for nonprofit organizations, private practice, institutions, charities, and other mental health service organizations.

Stage 4: Pass the California marriage and family therapy licensing exams.

To obtain a California marriage and family therapist license and become an LMFT, you must sit for and pass two MFT exams, the LMFT California Law and Ethics Exam and the LMFT Clinical exam. Both tests will be administered through Pearson Vue, and licenses are issued by the California Board of Behavioral Sciences.

These marriage and family therapist license exams will test you in various areas pertaining to the practice of MFT, including client diagnosis, treatment, and ethics. Learn more about the California MFT exam process here. After passing this exam, you can now apply for licensure and start working as a licensed MFT.

Stage 5: Participate in continuing education (CE).

CE courses are not only required for license renewal but also provide additional learning and professional development in your field. Continuing education allows MFTs to remain up to date and trained on any new developments in the field, as well as provide opportunities to specialize or advance in their career.

Continuing education courses are available at a variety of accredited institutions, boards, and more. Confirm with the California Counseling Board to ensure the current requirements and schedule for valid MFT CE programs.

Ready to become a licensed MFT? Start with Pacific Oaks College. Our master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy provides students with a blend of theory and hands-on experience in the field. Learn more by visiting our program page.

For more insight into the world of marriage and family therapy, explore our digital magazine, VOICES.


How to become a marriage and family therapist: 4 Steps to a rewarding career

Marriage and Family Therapist

Our families and spouses are the people we love most — the ones we turn to for consistent support and understanding. Yet it is also true that personal relationships can be complicated.

When miscommunication occurs with 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 be overcome by bringing in a fresh perspective, someone to help define the root of the issues and assist in paving a path forward.

As a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), you can help couples and families examine their conflicts and work to repair the bonds 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’re eager to learn more, read on to discover how to become a marriage counselor.

How to become an LMFT in 4 steps

While everyone’s path looks different, there are some concrete steps you’ll have to go through. Here’s an overview of the basic marriage and family therapist requirements:

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, this quality will come in handy. Marriage and family therapists will often have to experiment with different approaches to get a message through to a client who won’t budge.

  • Boundary setting

    : A healthy work-life balance is essential, especially for those who work in helping professions. Marriage therapists must create and maintain clear boundaries, which can be difficult at times. But a burnt-out therapist can’t do their job effectively. Making time for self-care is the best thing you can do for yourself (and your clients).

  • 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 collaborate with social workers, insurance companies and psychiatrists to create an effective treatment plan. Your experience on an event planning committee or an intramural team could be put to work in coordinating the best care for your clients.

  • Compassion

    : People can tell when you truly care about them and when you don’t. Being present and invested is critical to building strong relationships with clients. After a long day 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 as a tutor, coach or teacher.

  • Organizational skills

    : Paperwork is a necessary part of working in mental healthcare. Detailed notes are essential for insurance companies and government programs to accurately assess clients on a case-by-case basis. Writing summaries after each session can also help you remember where to pick up for next time. If your undergraduate degree found you taking complex notes in your classes, then your skills won’t go to waste.

2. Earn 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 usually aren’t necessary for counseling roles.

You have several options when it comes to choosing a master’s program. To start, you can choose between a Master of Science (MS) and a Master of Arts (MA). An MA in the field emphasizes advanced statistics and research, while an MS focuses more on behavioral science and counseling. Both degree types require courses in research methods as well as a practicum. In graduate school, you’ll collect and analyze data relevant to the field and complete 150 to 500 practicum hours, in addition to 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 

Precise marriage and family therapist requirements will vary, so you’ll need to meet the state-specific guidelines for where you hope to practice. Regardless of the location, 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 an informed choice before committing.

4. Decide on the environment in which you want to work

Once you’ve earned your degree and 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 16 percent increase by 2030 (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 or substance abuse treatment center, or practicing in a hospital. Healthcare providers are increasingly looking for qualified professionals who can help address the underlying issues that exacerbate their patients’ problems.

As with any career, there will be ups and downs to becoming a marriage and family therapist. But in this people-centric field, you’ll have the chance to help others break out of old patterns and make a positive impact for generations to come.

Invest in a meaningful career 

Relationships are often fraught but also worth repairing. By becoming an LMFT, you will be able to help people find harmony with their closest loved ones.

Now that you have a better understanding of how to become a marriage and family therapist, it’s time to start planning your next steps. Whether that’s completing your bachelor’s degree or starting graduate school, UMass Global has educational options to help qualify you for this rewarding role.

For more information, explore our Bachelor of Arts in Psychology or Master of Arts in Psychology programs.