Those interested in becoming a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) understand that the primary goal of this occupation is to bolster communication and enhance relationships among husbands, wives and family members. They oftentimes are tasked with helping people overcome substance abuse, addiction or marital or relationship stressors. This treatment typically happens over the course of 12 to 50 appointments per client. LMFTs must be flexible in that their work includes sessions with individuals as well as families and couples, many of which suffer from severe conflicts and almost always depression or anxiety.

It’s required for marriage and family therapists to be licensed in the state where they practice. Prior to licensure, aspiring MFTs must earn a master’s degree in a field related to marriage and family therapy such as psychiatry, psychology or clinical social work. All candidates must complete two years of supervised clinical field experience and pass state board exams. Continuing education is also required for LMFTs.

The following breakdown of the four steps to achieving LMFT status will make this sometimes complicated process easier to understand:

1. Enroll in a bachelor’s degree program, and graduate.

Like many professional careers, becoming a LMFT begins with earning a bachelor’s degree to prepare for graduate school. An undergraduate degree in any field is acceptable, but pre-requisite coursework in human development, research methods and counseling is required to enroll in master’s-level programs for MFT. Psychology is a popular choice for undergraduate students wishing to become LMFTs. Undergrads who complete internships or gain field experience may have better opportunities when it comes to getting into grad school.

2. Enroll in and complete a master’s degree program.

Students should take care to enroll in a program that is accredited by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. This certifies that their program follows national standards and will make the licensure process go much more smoothly. Courses in master’s level MFT programs cover topics such as human sexuality, developmental science, research methods, couple’s therapy and systems therapy.

Completing a master’s program often takes two or three years. In addition to coursework, included in this timeframe are practical clinical field work and a research thesis. Students who develop strong research skills typically are able to better pinpoint their strongest areas of interest and will know whether they should specialize in one area over another.

3. Complete two years of clinical experience

All states require at least two years. This experience can be achieved through working for nonprofit organizations, charities, churches, private practices or other organizations that provide mental health services. This work must be supervised by a LMFT, psychologist or social worker.

4. Get licensed

Some states have specific licensing exams of their own, while others use the Examination in Marital and Family and Therapy. The latter is a four-hour, multiple-choice test. All licensure exams test students in areas such as client diagnosis, ethics and treatment interventions.

When an LMFT has completed these requirements and found a job, they must be sure to keep their credentials up to date. Most licenses only last two years, so LMFTs need to accrue continuing education credits to stay current. These credits can be earned at state-approved workshops, additional coursework at an accredited institution or even through online training programs.