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Marriage and Family Therapy PhD Programs

Marriage and family therapy is a master's level profession; it takes 60 (or fewer) graduate units to earn that MFT license. Yet many therapists choose a doctoral degree.

Often the doctorate comes on top of a master's degree in marriage and family therapy. It’s true: Students who have distinguished themselves academically and/ or professionally may be accepted straight into PhD programs. However, their course of study will typically be longer as they will need to complete the basic coursework required for licensure before beginning advanced studies.

So why the PhD? Therapists may pursue doctoral degrees for several reasons: because they are interested in educating or supervising marriage and family therapists, because they want to carry out research or pursue scholarly interests, or because they are interested in exploring some narrow branch of the field (not necessarily carrying out original research, but applying it to their clinical practice). Some doctoral programs have a special focus. A common one is medical family therapy. Medical family therapists treat patients within a family context, in situations when there is serious illness or trauma.

This is scarcely the only option. The program may place emphasis on a particular population, for example, Latin American therapy. There may be a social justice orientation. The program may include a number of electives or offer a variety of concentrations, anything from military families to family systems consultation.

The Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) has accredited 25 doctoral programs (http://www.aamft.org/imis15/content/directories/MFT_training_programs.aspx). It is not necessarily critical that the program is COAMFTE-accredited, particularly if it is post-licensure. Pre-licensure programs must meet requirements set by one’s state board. Post-licensure programs simply need to meet individual career goals.

There are online PhD options. In order for a degree to be valid, it must be offered through a school that holds institutional accreditation.

Program Requirements: Internship and Dissertation

A PhD program will commonly include 1,000 hours of internship. However, a therapist who has already completed a master's may get credit for 500. The exact requirements vary from school to school. A doctoral candidate may have internship or practicum options beyond those offered to MFT candidates, for example, in MFT supervision.

There may be both a master's level research project and a traditional dissertation. For some, the opportunity to conduct original research is the highlight. There is so much terrain. Candidates may explore issues of resiliency or conflict resolution in very specific populations. They may study relationship complexities in modern technological society (for example, internet infidelity). Some focus on the education of marriage and family therapists, exploring controversial issues like the management of dual roles and relationships.

One can get a sense of the level of research (and of the possibility) by browsing PhD dissertations of former students. These may be housed in a library or made available online. Virginia Tech has posted dissertations going as far back as 1979 (http://www.familytherapy.vt.edu/dissertations.html).

Prospective students may also want to find out what PhDs are doing in the field. Northcentral University lists four possible degree paths: clinician, administrator, academic, and clinician -- noting that PhD clinicians may take on supervisory duties (http://www.ncu.edu/school-of-marriage-and-family-sciences/doctor-of-philosophy-in-marriage-and-family-therapy). Higher level positions can of course mean higher salaries as well.

The University of Connecticut has provided a list of alumni at both degree levels and noted their career accomplishments (http://www.familystudies.uconn.edu/graduate/MFTalumni.html ). Some PhDs have distinguished themselves in multiple areas. They may be professors and also leaders of professional organizations. They may be authors or editors. Some have administrative responsibilities.

Degree Options

Most doctoral programs in marriage and family therapy confer PhDs, but not all. Some confer the Doctor of Marriage and Family Therapy (DMFT) degree. A few COAMFTE-accredited marriage and family therapy programs confer a Doctor of Psychology in Marriage and Family Therapy.

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