So, the Huffington Post has reported that PayScale.com has announced the 13 worst-paid college majors (in a report that plebes like me apparently can’t access), and Child and Family Studies came in first. (Warning: the HuffPo link is one of those annoying slide shows.) Which may have left a lot of readers wondering, who majors in that?
Although students who eventually pursue degrees in Marriage and Family Therapy come from all kinds of undergraduate fields (personally, I got a BA in Theatre with a minor in Women’s Studies!), many come to MFT through one of two fields: Psychology, or Child and Family Studies.
Both have their advantages and drawbacks, in my opinion. A bachelor’s in Psychology will give you a broad general understanding of traditional views of mental health derived mostly from psychoanalytic and behavioral principles. There are often jobs available for bachelor’s level mental health workers where a Psych degree is preferred. It’s a good all-purpose degree that can lead into a variety of fields, including various mental health disciplines, business, or law. And a BA or BS from a reputable school will expose you to critical skills in research methods, statistics, and use of the psychological literature, all skills I personally lacked when I went to pursue my MA and PhD in MFT.
However, the main drawback of a psychology background is that the MFT field was started by people who were breaking away from psychology’s focus on the individual. Looking at people as part of relational systems, and focusing on those relationships rather than on investigating internal thoughts and memories, gave family therapy a new way of viewing and treating clients. Many psychology graduates find the transition into a systemically-based program a rough one, because MFT has its own set of concepts and theories that often conflict with traditional psychological approaches to diagnosis and treatment.
On the other hand, the field of Child and Family Studies is less well-known than Psychology. Its origins are in the Family and Consumer Science movement, which originally developed at agricultural colleges like Kansas Agricultural College (now Kansas State) and Purdue in order to offer “appropriate” educational opportunities for women at the turn of the 20th century. Disciplines like Home Economics, Food Science (which later developed into fields like dietetics and nutrition), Textile Chemistry (which would later morph into textiles and fashion design), and Child Development gave legitimacy to these areas of scholarly inquiry, though preparing women to be homemakers and mothers was transparently part of the agenda. As the daughter and granddaughter of Home Ec teachers, I can appreciate the field’s feminist roots even at the same time as I can critique its “separate spheres” mentality.
Today, CFS is a major that incorporates cross-disciplinary learning in developmental and clinical psychology, sociology, human biology, early childhood education, and social services work. Its real strength, in my opinion as an MFT educator, is that it perfectly aligns with the MFT focus on the systems, both relational and cultural, in which children and families live. CFS graduates who eventually pursue an MFT degree will be well-prepared for the intensive focus on the systemic nature of families, and the benefits that can come from doing couple- and family-focused clinical work.
The drawback of a CFS degree is that it lacks the name recognition of Psychology, and it is less obvious what kinds of career paths it might lead to. The HuffPo’s slide show chose an inane photo of some sappy children’s theatre production to illustrate CFS, when in fact CFS graduates more often work in fields like child protection, early childhood education, child care, youth services, adult education, family life education, family support services, and business and marketing ventures aimed at children and parents. I guess a photo of a CFS graduate supervising a visit between an abused child and their parent wasn’t very eye-catching.
PayScale.com may have a point – those jobs are not very well-paid in general. Sadly, we live in a time when we’ll pay people more for selling obscure financial derivatives than for caring for our children. And with the growing cost of college, far be it from me to tell anyone “don’t do it for the money; do it for love!” Love doesn’t pay those enormous student loans – trust me, I know. The salaries in the counseling and therapy fields have been falling too, the victim of the race to the bottom by insurance companies, cuts to social service agencies, and the “pink-collar-ization” of the field as women come to dominate the counseling professions. (Anybody feel like watching an old Laurie Anderson video about now?)
But I will say that we’ll never get recognition and improved pay for important fields like CFS if no one majors in them, and if they’re allowed to become the punchline in some late-night comedian’s joke alongside Underwater Basketweaving and Conversational Latin. And if a student was interested in becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist, and asked me whether they should major in Psychology or Child and Family Studies, I know which one I’d recommend.