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Should I Accept an Unpaid MFT Internship?

Thanks to Paid MFT Internships, MFT registered interns across California have discovered more positions that allow them to get hours and get paid! Even though we make finding paid opportunities easier than ever, some interns may consider accepting an unpaid internship in lieu of, or in addition to, a paid internship. Before saying “yes” or “no” to a prospective employer, it’s important to consider several variables, all of which affect interns in different ways.

The Six-Year Rule

Unfortunately, some interns struggle to accumulate the 3000 hours required for licensure within the six-year time frame permitted by the Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS). Interns who are under pressure to complete their 3000 hours may be tempted to accept the first internship that will provide them with more hours, even if it means not being paid for their time and effort.

If you are reading this article and are already facing this predicament, please know you are not alone and that there are communities (such as the Paid MFT Internships Forums and 3000 Clubs within CAMFT chapters) that can provide support as you make these tough decisions.

If you are earlier on in your journey as an MFT registered intern, then you have time to decide whether accepting an unpaid internship is in your best interests. Perhaps waiting a few more months will yield better outcomes with applications, or maybe continued networking efforts will lead to a position that offers a stipend or percentage of profits (in the case of private practices).

Personal Struggles

I know of various interns who were unable to stay in traditional work settings due to experiencing ongoing health issues, serving as the primary caregiver for a family member, and so on. In some cases, interns will accept unpaid positions because they believe there will be more flexibility with regard to the number of hours worked per week and the ability to take time off from work.

A few words of caution to those who are considering unpaid internships for this reason:

  1. Many unpaid internships ask that you commit to a minimum number of hours per week for a minimum number of months (e.g., at least 20 hours per week for 12 months), and terminating an unpaid internship prematurely could lead to strained professional relationships farther down the road.
  2. You still have an obligation to provide appropriate care for your clients; therefore, if you anticipate needing to go on a sudden or extended leave of absence while working in an unpaid internship, it’s your responsibility to discuss a backup plan in advance with your employer/clinical supervisor.

Multiple Positions

An unpaid internship may be appealing for MFT registered interns who are employed elsewhere and aren’t able or willing to resign. For example, MFT registered interns who are in private practice, but not receiving as many clients as they would like to, may be interested in taking on another position while they continue to build up their private practice. MFT registered interns who have full-time jobs that don’t provide clinical supervision may also be interested in accepting an unpaid internship with nontraditional work hours.

If you are reluctant to accept an unpaid internship, but feel as if you don’t have a choice due to your current work-related circumstances, then be sure to check out our article written by guest blogger Steven Swink! He provides ideas on how to accrue hours toward licensure when faced with dilemmas like this one.

Lack of Experience

Fun fact: I started off as an unpaid intern. This was mainly because I bought into the lie that I needed more experience before I would be considered worthy of a paid internship. Maybe you’ve bought into this lie, too. Maybe you’ve recently graduated, or maybe you’re “out of practice” due to taking time away from internships. You may be worried that employers won’t take you seriously. You may have already applied to several agencies and been declined, or you may not have received a response at all.

The learning process doesn’t stop when you graduate from your MFT program, and most employers understand this! If you are granted an interview and are concerned about how you will present yourself, then consider reading our article written by guest blogger Myra Quirk. There are ways to answer questions that will demonstrate your willingness to “learn on the job,” while also highlighting any experiences (clinical and non-clinical) you have had in the past.

If you are struggling to land those interviews, then look for opportunities to network with employers and other mental health professionals! My experience at a job fair can provide insight into some of the things you might expect to see at a larger networking event; however, there are always opportunities to network on a smaller scale, whether it’s an event held by your local CAMFT chapter or a workshop/seminar hosted by an organization or potential employer.

Other Reasons

Every intern’s situation is unique, and there may be other reasons for considering an unpaid internship at this stage in your professional development. Whatever those reasons may be, please know that we understand how challenging it can be to find work opportunities that meet your needs. We hope the ideas shared in this article will give you food for thought as you make the decision that’s best for you!

What are some other reasons you’ve heard of for accepting unpaid internships? We want to know – leave a comment below!

About the Author

Robin Andersen is the owner and creator of Paid MFT Internships. She is a Marriage and Family Therapist Registered Intern (IMF75184) who is passionate about giving back to fellow interns by maintaining this valuable resource. She is currently employed as a Juvenile Drug Court Therapist in San Diego County and hopes to see Paid MFT Internships’ followers become employed as well! More information about Robin can be found here.


  1. Rachel Moore says:

    Thanks for this post, Robin! I especially like the part about how we can find paying gigs even without a lot of prior internship experience. I remember how hard it was to find that first internship and the number of rejections I got. I have had four internships, and one of them is a paid internship. I have had the advantage of volunteering to get hours because my husband and I have been OK living on one salary. I do feel concerned for others who don’t have a similar situation, and I think this makes the system inherently unfair and elitist. I recently accepted a new non-paying internship because I work specifically with children, and I am finishing up the last of my “kid hours.” I understand either way if interns decide to participate in paid or unpaid positions, and I appreciate you educating us on all the factors that might go into that decision. I wish everyone the best on their internship adventures!

  2. Sam says:

    I am considering attending university of pheonix for mft. Have you seen a bias against these students? I am unsure if it would be hard getting any internship paid or unpaid due to “stigma”.

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