Guide to DMFT Degrees in Therapy, and PsyD and PhD Programs in Marriage and Family Psychology

Psychology is a challenging practice even when you are dealing with the problems of only an individual patient. When you put two or more people together in the same household, often with their own individual mental health issues, and throw in the stresses of modern jobs and child-rearing… well, let’s just say there is no level of education high enough to say you have all the answers. But a doctorate is as close as you can get to the level of expertise you need to sort out really messy family issues.

The magic of individuals coming together into a family is a complicated process that brings out the best in human beings when it goes well… and the worst when it doesn’t.

The APA no longer calls this category marriage and family psychology because society no longer follows those old formulas. Many couples are together for long periods without ever becoming married. And for many years, in many states, couples of the same sex weren’t even allowed to be married, until a 2015 Supreme Court ruling changed all that.

This sense of otherness created a unique sort of stress for those couples, and for many, it had real psychological consequences. There was a realization in psychology circles that old patterns of gender and outmoded definitions of what a family is simply aren’t broad enough. That realization spurred a move toward more inclusive language, with the APA now referring to the specialty more broadly as couple and family psychology.

The APA recognizes that adapting to these changes means going well beyond inclusive language, calling on the professional community to study risk and resilience in sexual and gender minority relationships. The APA is now working to establish a new body of knowledge that can inform practice in this area. It’s a valuable kind of progress that future couple and family psychologists will be able to draw on for the rest of their careers.

What is Marriage and Family Psychology and What Do Marriage and Family Psychologists Do?

It’s somewhat unusual for individuals to set out to specialize in psychology with the goal of becoming a marriage and family therapist. In most states, a master’s degree is all that is required for LMFT (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist) licensure.

Doctoral programs specific to the discipline are available that are more tightly focused on the methods and strategies involved in couples therapy than you would find in a purely psychology doctorate. And that can actually mean that the coursework in a psychology doctorate won’t always line up with state requirements for LMFT licensure specifically.

But LMFTs aren’t the only ones that counsel families. There is a real role for licensed clinical psychologists in offering therapy to couples and families too… so much so that the American Psychological Association recognizes couple and family psychology (CFP) as a dedicated specialty area. Of course, becoming a clinical psychologist in any capacity does require you to hold a doctorate, either a PhD or PsyD.

Clinical psychologists who specialize in the area can draw on toolsets for diagnosis and therapies that other therapists don’t have. And they have an insight into individual mental issues that may be the core of problems that come out in family therapy, but can’t be solved by traditional couple’s counseling. Only someone with a psychology doctorate will be equipped to handle the hardest problems in the field.

Couple and family psychologists offer counseling and mental health treatment to individuals experiencing problems in their closest relationships. Whether it is parents dealing with a child they don’t understand and can’t find a way to discipline, or married people who find themselves constantly at odds, a psychologist can cool the emotions and offer effective tools people can use to achieve happier and healthier relationships.

Although licensed psychologists have largely drifted away from the practice of marriage and family therapy as LMFTs assumed the role of specialists in the field, many of the roots of modern psychology are drawn from early psychotherapeutic practices designed for marriage counseling and child guidance. Everything from psychotherapy to behaviorism has been practiced in group settings that include families with children, and the understanding of psychological development through the lifecycle has been key to family therapies for decades.

The licensed psychologists that continue practicing in this area typically work directly with patients, either as individuals or in group settings. They assess and diagnose issues that are leading to friction and disharmony, and then help their patients work through the problems over time.

Important Differences Between PhD, PsyD and DMFT Programs in Marriage and Family Therapy

If you plan to get into marriage and family work as a psychologist, you have a lot of options to choose from. That’s because there are so few psychology doctorates that are specifically aimed at this specialty area that you’ll almost certainly enroll in a general program and create your own track to prepare for couple and family work.

Keep in mind that if your goal is, in fact, to become an LMFT by way of a doctorate, it’s not the conventional PhD and PsyD options you will be looking at. Instead, you will find many doctorates in the field classified as DMFTs, or Doctor of Marriage and Family Therapy programs. Instead of being psychology doctorates that fall under APA auspices, these specialized degrees fall under COAMFTE curriculum standards and accreditation and are designed specifically to prepare licensed therapists.

As a doctorate-prepared licensed psychologist, however, you have all the authority to counsel couples and families, even though your psychology degree offers an education that deals as much with understanding underlying psychological causes as it does with the therapies used to resolve the conflicts that emerge.

So if becoming a full authority psychologist is in the cards for you, that means a PhD or PsyD is what you’re after, and in this case, one that includes some courses in couples and family psychology.

Doctoral programs offered in marriage and family psychology can be structured as both PhD and PsyD degrees. In some cases, you will find both of them offered by the same school. So what is the difference, and which one should you pick?

The second part of the question is the easiest to answer: you should pick the program that you feel offers the best fit in terms of professors, coursework, and research opportunities. There isn’t enough difference between the two degrees to outweigh those critical factors. You’ll get the same general knowledge and skills in both types of programs.

But there are key differences to be aware of:

Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) – These programs are a more recent innovation in psychology education. They are designed specifically to prepare graduates to work in clinical roles, directly treating patients through applied principles of psychology. They concentrate on the practical applications of psychological theory, with less emphasis on the theoretical and investigative aspects of the field.

Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology (PhD) – PhDs are focused on theoretical and research-oriented psychology roles. A PhD is considered the best preparation for a teaching position or work in academic research. Although they also learn clinical skills, the focus is on experimentation and non-treatment roles.

Neither a PhD nor a PsyD forces you into any particular job in psychology. Many PhD graduates go on to become superb clinical practitioners, and there are more than a few PsyDs who are highly respected academics and instructors in the field. Still, understanding the general flavor of the program could help you choose one that is a better fit for you.

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Online DMFT, PsyD and PhD Programs in Marriage and Family Therapy

In the same way that it’s a practical decision to go with a DMFT over a traditional psychology doctorate, or a PsyD over a PhD, deciding to choose an online doctorate over a traditional program, or vice versa, typically comes down to some pretty practical things too. But since both options are seen as identical in the eyes of licensing boards and the professional community, that decision doesn’t come with any real professional impacts.

In either case, you get the same kinds of coursework from instructors with the same qualifications. The difference is only whether or not you feel better served by learning it sitting in a college lecture hall or at home, even if that means your classroom looks more like your bed with your laptop propped up on your chest.

Of course, remote learning doesn’t have to happen in your bed at 2am. The advantages of the format is that you can shift classes around to whenever and wherever they are convenient. That also means you don’t have to relocate to attend the school you love—it will come to you through an online degree.

Psychology is a very hands-on business, so you should also note that no program is ever really entirely online. You will still have to do your practicum work directly with clients in clinical and therapeutic settings. But those experiences can be arranged just about anywhere, and online programs can actually open up even more possibilities for experiential learning than many traditional programs can offer.

Checking Specialty Accreditation Status for Marriage and Family Psychology and Therapy Degrees

Accreditation is something that most college students barely ever think about. And they don’t have to; just about every school in the U.S. that you have ever heard of holds a general accreditation from one of the regional accrediting bodies recognized by the Department of Education. They check out the basic academic and administrative competence of those schools, ensuring your education dollars are well-spent.

When you get into highly specialized fields like psychology, though, you do need to think about accreditation. Whether or not a school meets those higher standards will have a real impact on where you can get work after graduating or whether you can even get a license to practice.

Marriage and family psychology exists in a strange crossroads in mental health practices. While most psychology doctorate programs earn accreditation through the American Psychological Association, there is an even more specialized accreditor that reviews Doctorate of Marriage and Family Therapy (DMFT) programs: the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE).

It’s worth mentioning that another popular accreditor, CACREP, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, does not accredit DMFT programs.

There is no real crossover between the agencies. You’ll have to decide which standard is most important to your long-term practice and licensure goals when you are looking at degree programs.

What Kind of Classes Will You Take in Marriage and Family Psychology?

The coursework you study over the four to seven years of your doctoral education in marriage and family psychology will create the depth of knowledge that will separate you from practitioners with only master’s degrees. It’s a lot of work, but it comes with a great reward: you will rarely come across conditions in practice that you have not had the training to deal with.

Your coursework will fall into two categories. Like all PsyD students, you’ll get a solid grounding in the basic elements of the clinical practice of psychology through classes such as:

  • The Foundations of Modern Psychology – You’ll study the history of the science, reaching back to ancient philosophers. The developments of new thoughts and different theories of human thought and behavior will be traced through luminaries like Sigmund Freud and B.F. Skinner, and you’ll learn how the modern establishment of psychological thought rests on the cornerstones they set down.
  • The Bases of Human Behavior – Cognitive, affective, and social bases of behavior all drive how people act. You’ll learn what each of those are, how they interact, and how they impact mental health and well-being. You’ll also study developmental impacts on those over the course of the human lifespan and how they change the psychology of humans from infancy to old age… important stuff for assessing relationships between couples growing apart.
  • Psychopathologies and Clinical Assessment – Everybody’s favorite, abnormal psychology, plays a prominent role here. You’ll learn about all the various categories of mental disorders that can afflict people and how to use interviews and standardized tools, like the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory), to assess and categorize your patients.
  • Clinical Treatment – A large part of your studies will revolve around the tools and techniques available to psychologists to treat those conditions and maladies. Modern psychologists can reach for toolkits like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or modern psychopharmacology to handle mental health problems. You’ll learn about all the options and which are most appropriate for what issues.
  • Ethics and Professional Standards – All of psychology exists in a sensitive area where some of the darkest and most personal realities emerge. Building trust is key to a psychologist’s ability to treat patients, so you will spend a ton of time learning how ethics matter. Legal responsibilities that are unique to family therapy also come into play and you will be well-schooled on your obligations.

Beyond those core psychology classes, you’ll study specialized subjects that are more focused on marriage and family counseling.

  • Culture and Diversity in Relationships – Psychologists recognize the role that culture plays in individual behavior, but it is equally influential in relationships, both within couples and between parents and children. In a diversifying and multicultural society, marriage and family psychologists have to be prepared to deal with this influence from a variety of perspectives.
  • Marriage and Family Therapy Techniques – Although general psychological counseling techniques will serve you well in family therapy, there are also many special techniques and different dynamics in play. You’ll study specific approaches for couples and parent/child counseling.
  • Trauma and Crisis Intervention – Unfortunately, traumatic events can make up a lot of this type of counseling. Everything from infidelity to child abuse can come into play. Psychologists have to be prepared to
  • Psychology of Human Sexuality – Freud knew the score: sexuality is central to a lot of what happens in the human psyche. That goes double for couples. So you’ll get a more in-depth exploration of his and later theories and how to manage the tricky business of counseling in this area.

Each program is unique in how they put all this coursework together. Some will have a very small set of required courses that you take on a mandatory schedule, in lockstep with other students. Others will offer broader sets of elective classes, which you can mix and match to put together the right amount of credits in required subjects.

The Dissertation or Doctoral Project Will Be The Focus of Your Doctorate

One thing that all doctoral programs have in common is the final step: a dissertation or doctoral project.

These projects will come to define your experience in your PsyD, PhD or DMFT program. They are intended to wrap together everything you have learned over the course of the degree into a complete package, building on that knowledge with your own original ideas and insights. It boils down into a clearly-written, tightly-reasoned paper, or an actionable project of some sort that is intended to offer a practical demonstration of your thinking.

You’ll work closely with your instructors to develop the themes and revise your concepts for a final defense in front of your dissertation committee, or presentation of your project. This process can take up almost all your time in the final two years of the program. In the end, you’ll have something of publication-quality or that can be presented at national conferences as an example of your skill in the field.

Psychology or Marriage and Family Therapy? Which License Do I Need?

An APA-accredited PsyD or PhD gets you in the door to take the EPPP, the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology, which every state licensing board requires of clinical psychology license applicants. With a passing grade and the right number of post-doc practice hours, along with some state-specific requirements, you’re set.

Psychologists are not generally restricted from practicing any kind of clinical treatment, so you are perfectly entitled to conduct marriage and family therapy with that license.

It’s worth noting, though, that some states may restrict your ability to advertise your services without the specific marriage and family therapy license.

Most marriage and family therapists have to meet different standards under a completely different licensing board for that specialty. That doesn’t always require a degree accredited by COAMFTE, but with that accreditation you can be sure the process will be streamlined.

One path around this is to earn a COAMFTE-accredited master’s degree, and then go on to an APA-accredited psychology doctorate. That will qualify you for both licenses, although it is a long and expensive path.

Seeking Certification as a Couple and Family Psychologist

Another credential to consider is Board certification in couple and family psychology from the American Board of Couple and Family Psychology. This is an endorsement from your peers that you have the right expertise and experience to handle any couple or family issue that comes at you. The board assesses your skills with context, diversity, and developmental issues and looks for comprehensive treatment of psychological health and pathology in couple and family matters.

Qualifying for the credential requires your doctoral degree, naturally, with some additional requirements:

  • Completion of an APA accredited internship, or an APPIC (Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers) approved internship
  • Completion of a post-doctoral residence or one year of supervised postdoc practice, with at least one hour per week of individual supervision for 48 weeks
  • Additional specialty education in couple and family psychology which might include:
    • An internship with a CFP track
    • Graduate coursework in CFP
    • 25 hours of CE in CFP, or the same number under supervision of an approved clinician
    • Teaching in CFP
    • Research or publication in the field
    • 40 or more hours of supervision of CFP graduates and postdocs
    • At least two letters of recommendation
    • Post-doctoral experience with 30-50 percent CFP practice

With those kinds of qualifications, it’s no surprise that Board-certified couple and family psychologists are considered to be some of the best in the business.

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Salaries and Job Outlook for Marriage and Family Psychologists and Therapists

It’s when you start looking at salaries that you see where all that education really pays off. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the average marriage and family therapist, qualified with only a master’s degree, pulled down just under $50,000 in 2019.

For that same year, however, the data for clinical and counseling psychologists came in at $78,200 on average.

Even that group is not necessarily restricted to only psychs holding doctorates, though. The APA conducted a study in 2016 that included only PhD and PsyD graduates. They found that doctorate-qualified psychologists practicing in clinical counseling, which includes couple and family therapy, made just over $89,000. You can guess that number has only gone up between then and now.

Working near the coasts or major urban centers is a clear winner for compensation.

The best kind of pay for psychologists, however, comes from making a difference. Whether it’s helping a couple destined for life together work through a rough patch, or getting a victim of child abuse the help they need to get out of a bad situation, the real reasons you are pursuing a psychology doctorate aren’t ones you can put in the bank.

(Salary data reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2019 for psychologists and marriage and family therapists. Figures represent national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Information accessed Feb 2021.)