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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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.