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It's a delicate business to work as a marriage and family therapist. You're volunteering to interject yourself in the midst of sticky intimate relationships. Many of the people you'll see on a daily basis are experiencing or have experienced an emotional or mental trauma. You'll spend your days discussing abuse, infidelity, post traumatic stress disorder, depression, and grief. So who would pick this emotional land mine as their meal ticket?
Robert Salinger, a marriage and family therapist in Terryville, Conn., jokes: "I had a professor in graduate school who was very outspoken, and she came into our class one day and said, 'Let's face it, no one in their right mind would go into this field unless they were screwed up, and we're all trying to get less screwed up.'"
In all seriousness, marriage and family therapists are sane, compassionate professionals who work to help people resolve conflict and manage and overcome mental and emotional disorders. They see couples and families, of course, but increasingly, these therapists also treat individuals. As the stigma that was once associated with therapy vanishes, more people are seeking professional assistance to manage their mental and emotional problems. This field is also expected to see growth as insurance companies refer more clients to marriage and family therapists as cost-effective treatment over visiting a psychiatrist or psychologist. By 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts this occupation will grow by 41.2 percent, much faster than the average for all occupations.
Many marriage and family therapists work in private practice, like Salinger, and are able to establish their own hourly rate. Others are employed by hospitals, mental health and substance abuse centers, and nursing homes, in addition to other facilities. According to the BLS, marriage and family therapists had an average salary of $48,710 and a median salary of $46,240 in 2011. The highest-paid earn nearly $75,000 a year, while the low earners might make around $25,000 per year. Are you looking to make the most money possible in this profession? Then head toward the coastline: The top-paying metro areas include East Coast cities like Lancaster, Pa., and Trenton, N.J., the western city Bakersfield, Calif., and Honolulu.
Marriage and family therapists have completed both a bachelor's and a master's degree program, where they've learned how to recognize the symptoms of mental and emotional disorders and effective treatment. And since it's necessary to complete at least two years of supervised clinical experience before receiving a license, many students pursue internships to complement their coursework.
All states also require therapists have a license to practice. For information on the national exam as well as state licensing information, visit the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards.
Schooling is important, but all the technique that a reputable program offers won't compensate for interpersonal skills like having empathy, patience, and flexibility. "What I always tell people is that I am incredibly curious, which makes doing therapy wonderful," Salinger adds. "I get curious about what people say to me. I want to understand more." Having the creativity to try various types of treatment options is also a bonus, he says. Being a good listener also helps.
But before sending out the first resume, Salinger suggests: "No. 1. is clean up your own backyard. Get your own therapy straightened out and resolve the issues that are going to get in your way." It's counterproductive for a dedicated therapist to have a legion of unresolved personal issues that could block the ability to provide effective guidance.