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Starting Salaries for MFT Internships

Starting Salaries for MFT Internships

One of the most common questions I’m asked at presentations is, “What’s a good starting salary for an MFT internship?” Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear-cut answer to this question. Starting salaries are determined by the work setting, funding source, geographical location, employer’s mindset, applicant’s skillset, and other variables.

Work Setting

There are many different types of work settings MFT registered interns can work in.

Private practice settings generally offer a fee split. For example, if the set fee for a client is $150 per session, and the agreed upon split is 50/50, then the MFT registered intern will earn $75 for that session. Some private practices offer a base salary or stipend in addition to the fee split.

County/government settings tend to offer higher starting salaries. A quick review of recently posted county/government job listings for MFT registered interns indicated that annual salaries of $50,000+, even $60,000+, are not uncommon.

For-profit settings also tend to offer higher starting salaries. These settings rely on income generated from the services offered to clients, so organizational goals may place a heavy emphasis on giving clients more bang for their buck.

Non-profit settings’ starting salaries are largely dependent on grants, donations, and other funding sources. Some non-profits offer starting salaries that aren’t much higher than the minimum wage, while others offer salaries comparable to county/government and for-profit settings.

Volunteer/unpaid settings occasionally offer stipends, but there are many organizations that don’t offer any form of monetary compensation.

Funding Source

One or more funding sources will determine how much an employer can pay their employees.

Client services are the primary source of income for many of these work settings. For private practices and for-profits in particular, heavy emphasis will be placed on bringing in as many clients as possible in order to maximize income. Therapy groups and workshops may be offered in addition to individual, couple, and family therapy sessions.

Grants come from a number of different sources and are a staple for many non-profit settings. Grants usually offer a set amount of money that can be spent over a given period of time, and there are guidelines non-profits must comply with. As a result, non-profit settings may be limited on what they can offer for starting salaries.

Donations are another staple for many non-profit and volunteer/unpaid settings. Donations from individuals, companies, and foundations can help organizations make ends meet; however, this funding source may be inconsistent due to fluctuations in donation amounts and frequency throughout the year.

Other sources of income may include fundraising, selling products/books, offering non-clinical services (e.g., yoga/meditation classes), and so on.

Geographical Location

You may be surprised to learn how much variation there can be within a 50 mile radius!

Densely populated cities are always in need of MFT registered interns to serve the large number of clients within the geographical area. However, the job market for MFT registered interns tends to be saturated for these cities, which leads to a lot of competition for each vacant position. Some employers don’t feel pressured to increase their starting salaries because they know someone will come along soon enough and accept the position, while other employers will increase their starting salaries because they want to attract the best candidates.

Small and/or rural cities may not have as many work settings that are appropriate for MFT registered interns; however, vacancies can be challenging to fill, especially if the geographical location is remote. Desperate employers may offer higher starting salaries as an incentive to MFT registered interns who might otherwise be reluctant to drive long distances to and from work. MFT registered interns who work in geographical areas with low supply/high demand for mental health professionals may also quality for loan repayment programs, such as the Licensed Mental Health Services Provider Education Program and the Mental Health Loan Assumption Program.

Employer’s Mindset

Let’s face it: not every employer shares the same mindset when it comes to hiring MFT registered interns.

Good bosses understand the value MFT registered interns bring to their organizations, and they try to reflect that in their starting salaries. Good bosses within private practice settings may offer a more favorable fee split if MFT registered interns exceed a certain number of clients per month (e.g., 50/50 split for the first 5 clients, 55/45 split for the next 5 clients, and 60/40 for any additional clients). Good bosses within county/government, for-profit, and non-profit settings may have their hands tied when it comes to starting salaries; however, they will recognize hard work in performance evaluations and seek to offer raises/bonuses to MFT registered interns. Good bosses within volunteer/unpaid settings will support MFT registered interns in their growth as mental health professionals, encouraging them to seek out the best possible opportunities (even if it means losing them to an organization that can afford to pay their MFT registered interns).

Horrible bosses do not understand or appreciate the value MFT registered interns bring to their organizations, and the starting salary may be one reflection of that mindset. It’s important to understand how a starting salary is determined, and to avoid being exploited by potential employers (Ben Caldwell’s recent blog post talks about fighting illegal labor practices as a prelicensed therapist). Horrible bosses also fail to stay informed of laws and regulations that relate to hiring MFT registered interns. Know the difference between volunteer, employee (W-2), and independent contractor (1099) positions. Per the Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS), you cannot practice psychotherapy as an independent contractor if you are an MFT registered intern!

Applicant’s Skillset

Some employers will offer higher starting salaries for MFT registered interns who possess certain skills.

Bilingual pay incentives are not uncommon, especially in geographical locations with a large percentage of clients whose primary language is not English. Incentives can come in the form of one-time bonuses or increases in starting salaries, ranging from several hundred to several thousand dollars!

Experience in theoretical approaches that are evidence-based or highly valued by employers may result in a higher starting salary. Employers won’t necessarily offer incentives for having this kind of experience, but they may be willing to pay more for MFT registered interns who are the best fit for their organizations.

Experience with unique client populations may warrant a higher starting salary as well. Work settings that have a specialty, such as eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and substance use may be willing to pay more for MFT registered interns who already have experience working with clients that fall within the organization’s specialty.

What’s my Value?

“What’s a good starting salary for an MFT internship?” may be one of the most common questions I hear, but there is another, often unspoken question that I want to address before concluding this blog article: “What’s my value?” My first internship was at a volunteer/unpaid setting, so I understand the impact a dollar amount (or lack of) can have on an MFT registered intern’s view of themselves. It’s tempting to look at a colleague who is in a different work setting and to wonder what you’re doing wrong (or what they’re doing right). Remember, there are many variables that come into play when starting salaries are determined, so don’t be too quick to put yourself down if you’re not making as much as you would like to! You may want to consider applying to different types of work settings, traveling to another location for work, or seeking out additional training in order to differentiate yourself from colleagues. Prelicensed‘s blog contains numerous articles that focus on other aspects of the job-seeking process, so be sure to give those a read if you’re struggling to find an MFT internship that meets your needs.

About the Author

Robin Andersen is the founder of Prelicensed. She is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT 100070) who is passionate about giving back to MFT registered interns, trainees, and students by maintaining this valuable resource. More information about Robin can be found here.

12 Comments

  1. Frankie Fierro says:

    Thank you so much Robin, this really helps me put things in perspective.

  2. Dr. Jeffrey Avants says:

    Well, this is a fine article except for two things: 1) Plenty of internships are still unpaid, especially by non-profits and volunteer organizations. It’s good that interns can get paid positions and should, but it is not an entitlement, and certainly not where volunteer organizations are concerned. For profit is a another story. But and intern needs to be able really bring something besides a degree and a few hours before being give $75 an hour. That just paints an unrealistic picture of disappointment and signals an entitlement that is unearned. 2) I would have far more buy in to what someone has to suggest to me if it isn’t preachy – in terms of a what a “good boss” and a “horrible boss” is or is not based on your own criteria, especially when you make money a primary criteria, I worked both paid and unpaid internships and learned that what intern gains in clinical skills and collegiality is far more important than what they are paid before licensing.

    • Hi Jeffrey! Welcome to Prelicensed’s blog. If this is your first time visiting our website, please be sure to check out our other blog articles. The focus of this article was intended to be narrow and only address starting salaries for internships. We never intended to paint an unrealistic picture for job-seekers, and we mention “Applicant’s Skillset” as a variable because, as you said, not every applicant will automatically command a starting salary of $75/hour right out of graduate school. As for your second comment, we never intended to sound “preachy” with our discussion of “good” vs. “horrible” bosses. My first internship was unpaid, and my first clinical supervisor (boss) was far from “horrible”! That’s why I stated “Good bosses within volunteer/unpaid settings will support MFT registered interns in their growth as mental health professionals, encouraging them to seek out the best possible opportunities (even if it means losing them to an organization that can afford to pay their MFT registered interns).”

  3. Anonymous says:

    I did many of my hours largely during the recent recession with 2 years as an unpaid intern/trainee and 2 years as a paid intern. I always keep an eye on job listings and salaries (at least from time to time) as I believe it is just professionally responsible to do so. I’ve noticed that wages have crept up significantly for MFT interns and even trainees since the economy has picked up, and there are far more paying job opportunities than when I did my hours. I’ve worked at my local county for the last 4 years and have always felt that interns are well compensated and respected. There is always some underlying stigma to being unlicensed, but it seems less salient in county behavioral health. Counties even employee non licensed individuals in various social work and client support roles that could be valuable for an up and coming intern or trainee. I think changing terminology from intern to associate is a positive change in our profession as well that will help reduce some of this stigma. Looking at local job listings at a glance, in the north bay (California), I would set a pay floor for myself (if I were looking) at around $20 per hour minimum provided you have a supervisor on site to sign off your hours. Ask me five years ago? Any amount of money would have been good because jobs were harder to find then. In my area right now there are good opportunities for Bachelors, Masters, and Registered Interns (even $17+ at bachelor’s level) so do your search, diligent, and know your value!

  4. Michael Anthony Nalepa says:

    I work as Director of Clinical Education at a training site, and I always encourage the MFTt/MFTIs to bring their education and passions to life. Speaking at conferences, writing articles, hosting psychoeducation workshops. It is very important to be mindful of scope, law and ethics. But interning for payment and hours isn’t the only option for fiscal survival. You are dynamic professionals with a masters degree, and there are so many ways to make money. Don’t put everything on the “day job” and remember to diversify not only what you put out into the world, but also what you get paid for!

  5. Karole Goodman says:

    So many great points! I am in mft program after completing a addiction counseling certification. I was an unpaid intern at a men’s treatment program for a year, had great supervision there and exposure to some duel diagnosis cases. That was an invaluable experience.
    I am looking forward to learning more with a family program. This is the time to learn with support and supervision.
    And thanks for this forum.

  6. […] I discussed in my blog article on starting salaries for prelicensed MFTs, there are many types of work settings in our field. In my region, it’s common for non-profit […]

  7. Cassie Leanne Salinas says:

    I am hoping to get an answer here. Is an MFT registered intern the same as a student intern? I am a student in Colorado and will be starting my practicum and internship in October. My future supervisor said something about how I cannot be paid. Is this correct? Thank you!

    • Hello, Cassie! That’s a great question, and I want to clarify a few points within my response. First, we’re based in California, so the terminology we use to describe prelicensed MFTs may be different than what Colorado uses. Second, this blog article is a bit outdated, and I apologize for that! When I published it in 2017, prelicensed MFTs in California could either be “trainees” (meaning they were still in graduate school and just beginning to earn hours toward licensure) or “registered interns” (meaning they were done with school and completing their hours toward licensure). This blog article refers to starting salaries for the second group of prelicensed MFTs. As of January 1, 2018, “registered interns” are now referred to as “registered associates.” It’s the same level, but with a different title. Since I’m not familiar with Colorado’s rules, I would encourage you to ask people in your state who would be knowledgeable about this topic. In California, it’s rare for trainees (still in graduate school) to find paid positions; however, as one of our guest bloggers explained, it IS possible, so long as you’re employed in an appropriate setting (https://prelicensed.com/blog/can-get-paid-trainee/). I hope all of this wasn’t too confusing, and you’re welcome to reply to this comment if you have additional questions!

  8. Anonymous says:

    Here’s a comment for you. I graduated in 2007 and never had a job as an intern. I live in the greater Los Angeles area. I went to well know private school and I now owe close to a $100,000 in student loans. Yep, life’s good. Now, back to my point. I should have done my homework. I only looked and salaries for a licensed MFT and that was a good living. I didn’t realize that as an intern you make nothing or very little and on top of making no money you sometimes have to pay for supervision. Yep, life’s good. When I went to graduate school they had a job fair. This was for class of 2007 before we graduated. Oh it was wonderful. There must of been 10-15 facilities there. Lots of smiles, handshakes and business cards being passed out. And all you had to do is pick the location and population or clientele you wanted to work with and off you went earning your 3,000 hours. When I graduated and started calling on these facilities all they had to offer is we have no internships at the moment as we are all filled up. Or we are looking for a licensed MFT, try back later. Yep, life is good. Oh managed to eek out 300 hours I’m sure are no longer valid. I must say if I knew this was going to be the result of all my efforts, not to mention my work for my thesis. I must say, this school never mentioned the hell interns would go through getting their 3,000 hours. I have a feeling I’m not alone. This school sold us a bill of goods. I rant into one of my school chums at Walmart. She too said she was working in the field. I had an opportunity to speak with a licensed MFT and I asked her how long it took her to get her 3,000 hours and she replied several year’s. Several year’s! She must have had financial support such as a husband. If was to work for nothing or very little I would have sell my home and basically default on my credit cards, student loans and ruin my credit. Not a good thing to have in your personal history report. Especially when some potential employers will run a credit report and if it sucks, guess what, no job offer. If I knew this would be the outcome, I would have never chosen this career. When I hear of someone thinking of becoming an MFT I tell them you better research it first and plan on not making any money for years!

    • Hello! I agree that many MFT students are not fully aware of just how difficult this journey to licensure can be. I do believe graduate programs have a responsibility to paint as realistic of a picture as possible, showing both the potential upsides and downsides to the MFT career path. I’m truly sorry you’ve struggled with student debt and finding paid positions. Unfortunately, it’s a common struggle, which is why I wanted to create this free resource for prelicensed MFTs! I’m not sure where you currently are in your journey to licensure, but I hope our job search feature and other blog articles can provide support as you work toward your professional goals.

  9. R says:

    I don’t think it has to be this difficult, but I do think that the exploitation of interns has become so common place that no body really questions it anymore…. how much is enough for these private practice businesses ? I obtained a position in a private practice as a practicing intern … I was booked with clients back to back, had no training! None! I was expected to come in early on my own time to organize my day and prepare for my clients!!! I had to start my wrk day with a session and go thru the entire day all the way to quitting time with no time during the day to write up assessments or progress notes. I git one hour for lunch . When I inquired when was I supposed to write up notes, I was told, “don’t worry, you’ll get no shows, you can do it then.” REALLY?! You’re counting on no shows to get time to write notes?! Meanwhile you’re paying me 24 bucks an hour and rewarding me with 6 holidays per year? No benefits! And three sick days a year! With a straight face I’m told all training is on my own time and you are generousy allowing me to take dock time, use sick leave or my vacation to go to training to, enhance my skills which will make YOUR practice better…. did I mention thank you for the one hundred dollars toward my 600 training?!?!? and this exploitation is all ok… on top of my formal education, a master’s In Psychology, passed law and ethics and two and a half years experience in therapy and thirty years in social services previous to that… I get 24/hr! If I EVER get the chance to speak with MFT students I will tell them the truth … our hard work, commitment to our clients and standard of excellence earns a “whole lotta people a whole latta money, us? Not so much!

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