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How Do I Get a PhD in Family Therapy?

By C. Mitchell
Updated May 17, 2024
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Getting a doctorate degree in family therapy almost always begins with educational requirements: candidates must typically hold both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. Sociology, counseling, and psychology are among the most popular degrees for people looking to enter family therapy programs, though schools are often flexible when it comes to academic background. A personal interest in family counseling and intervention is often one of the most important requirements, as is a willingness to commit to regular hands-on training. Students must usually also complete a major research project, usually in the form of a dissertation, before they can be awarded the doctorate degree.

There are many types of family therapy programs that award Doctor of Philosophy, or PhD, degrees. Some are focused on holistic counseling of individuals, while others train primarily for work with couples, adolescents, or families facing certain discreet issues, such as death or disability. Other schools promote certain ways of approaching family therapy, such as from a religious or spiritual perspective. The first part of getting a PhD in family therapy is deciding on the type of program you want to pursue, choosing a university, then familiarizing yourself with that school’s admissions prerequisites.

Different schools have different admissions requirements, but most of the time, there are three main areas to cover: education, experience, and motivation. The PhD is a graduate degree, which generally requires substantial education at the forefront. A bachelor’s degree is almost always required, and a master’s is usually recommended.

Some PhD in family therapy programs offer the option of a combined master’s-doctorate curriculum. In this case, students are admitted with the understanding that they will first earn a masters in family therapy. Rather than graduate and be done, however, these students must then continue on towards the PhD. This is a good option for people who know they want to go all the way to the PhD level from the outset.

Experience in counseling is also important for students looking to earn a PhD in family therapy. Admissions committees usually look for some evidence that potential candidates have either done work in family therapy settings, or have taken coursework that covers many of the basic tenets. Doctoral studies provide students with the training to become independent practitioners, but some palpable interest in the discipline is a good way to show admissions committees that you will stick the program out. Most of the time, PhD in family therapy programs require at least three years beyond the master’s degree.

Admissions essays, interviews, and recommendation letters are also ways in which committees assess applicants’ seriousness about earning a PhD in family therapy. Most of the time, potential students are asked to outline their reasoning for wanting to enter a family therapy program. If you have any special interests — couples therapy or marriage and family therapy, for instance, or counseling for families facing addiction — it is usually a good idea to address these intentions in your application.

Early motivational declarations are often requested not as a way of locking students into programs, but rather as a means of selecting a well-rounded, diverse entering class. Advanced family therapy programs are usually small and often depend on direct mentorship between faculty and students. Students who are able to elucidate why they want to become a family therapist at the outset are often better able to be matched with an appropriate mentor.

Mentors and faculty advisers are often essential resources for doctoral students. Your mentor will coach you through your training, and will help you develop your individual research. Getting a PhD in family therapy is often as much about finding the right program as it is succeeding in the coursework and finding the studies fulfilling enough to turn them into a career path.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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