Systems, Families, and Couples—Ph.D.

Program director
Zephon Lister

The Ph.D. degree in systems, families, and couples follows the scientist-practitioner model in which students are expected to develop expertise in both research and state-of-the-art practice. The 103-unit curriculum requires a minimum of four years of full-time study for completion—including two-to-three years of course work, clinical practice leading to licensure or certification, a dissertation, and supervised professional development experiences. The purpose of the curriculum is to develop family life scholars and practitioners who will advance theory, research, practice, and teaching in the field of family social science. Students will be prepared for academic and clinical training positions in universities and postgraduate institutes. Ph.D. degree students develop expertise in conducting original research using quantitative, qualitative, and mixed method approaches.

Ph.D. degree program specialty

Students in the Ph.D. degree program in systems, families, and couples will choose one of two specialties: family studies or couples and family therapy. These specialties include required courses totaling 22 units of course work and undergird the entire doctoral program of study. 

The family studies specialty focuses on skills development in the delivery of family services, especially within a teaching format. An example of this might be developing curriculum for parenting courses. The family studies specialty meets the course requirements of the National Council on Family Relations for Certified Family Life Educator (CFLE). More information on becoming certified by the National Council on Family Relations can be found in the organization's official website at <>

The couples and family therapy specialty focuses on researching and honing clinical skill for work with family systems. This specialty is fully accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COMAFTE), the accrediting body for the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT). The national commission functions to ensure that academic and clinical training programs adhere to the highest standards of the profession.  For more information on the field of marital and family therapy, core ideas guiding this doctoral program, and the marital and family therapy specialty’s advanced standing policy, see the overview section for the Ph.D. degree program.

Knowledge and skills promoted

Theory and practice

Students study the work of original thinkers in systems, families, and couples; as well as the most recent developments in the field—such as social constructionism, evidence-based practice, and global perspective. Students will develop a critical understanding of the theoretical and philosophical foundations of  the field; critically examine the interrelationships between socio-historical factors, transnational family structures and relationships, and clinical approaches; be conversant in the current issues in the field; and contribute to the discourse regarding them. They will use this knowledge to advance the field of family therapy.

Personal development

The program encourages students to develop a clear understanding of themselves; and it invites reflection and consideration of the impact of their personal values, social positions, and contexts on their clinical and scholarly practices. Students are supported in the development of their strengths as they create an epistemological framework and ethical consciousness to guide their research and practice, and are encouraged to engage beyond their local communities to include experiences in wider cultural and global contexts.

Practice and supervisory skills

Students will apply a critical understanding of theory to work with couples and families, community, and societal levels drawing on the core modalities of the field. They will develop sophistication in their personal and professional skills, supervisory skills, and skills for active multisystemic involvement.

Research skills

Students will develop skills and a critical understanding of the process of research and evaluation related to families and intervention work. This includes the ability to apply research findings to clinical practice and to utilize research findings in creative ways for the benefit of the general population. Ph.D. degree students will develop expertise in quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods research approaches, leading to publication in scholarly journals and presentations at professional conferences.

Teaching skills

The program provides experiential and didactic training for teaching in higher education as well as community settings. Through didactic training, students will be exposed to various teaching and learning paradigms and will ultimately select their own epistemology. They will test and grow this epistemology through experiential training as they lead a course (e.g., develop syllabi, tests, assignments, etc.) under the supervision of a faculty member. Advanced students will also be given opportunities to facilitate or cofacilitate a course on their own. 

Student learning outcomes

Family studies

  1. Students will develop professional identity as doctoral-level family scientists.
  2. Students will be grounded in the theoretical and philosophical foundations of the field of family science and be conversant with the ongoing development of family theories. 
  3. Students will critique and evaluate the current and ongoing issues in the field of human development and family studies. 
  4. Students will be conversant with legal and ethical issues as a family scientist in the areas of teaching, research, and service. 
  5. Students will become adept in family service practice skills.
  6. Students will contribute to the body of knowledge in family social science. 

Couples and Family Therapy

  1. Students will develop a professional identity as doctoral scholars and practitioners aligned with national practice standards.
  2. Students will become adept in systems/relational practice, demonstrating sophistication as a scientist-practitioner.
  3. Students will be able to assess, synthesize, and critique theory, research, and family science literature to advance and integrate research, theory, and practice in the field.
  4. Students will demonstrate knowledge and skills as researchers in the field of family social science.
  5. Students will be responsive to the societal, cultural, and spiritual contexts in which health and well-being are embedded.
  6. Students will develop an ethical consciousness that guides their practice in aspects of professional work.

Applicants must meet Loma Linda University and School of Behavioral Health admissions requirements; and give evidence of academic ability, professional comportment, and mature judgment. The Ph.D. degree curriculum represents advanced study over and above a standard master's degree curriculum in the field. Admission is based on an integrated evaluation of the following criteria:

  • Five-page personal essay (guidelines included in the online application)
  • M.S. degree in marital and family therapy, family studies or related field
  • Grade point average (3.3 minimum)
  • Structured oral interview with department (one day)
  • Three letters of reference (two academic and one professional)
  • Curriculum vitae (preferred but not required)
  • GRE scores (taken within the past five years)

The admissions committee uses the above criteria to evaluate applicants on each of the following equally weighted criteria:

  1. Academic preparedness
  2. Professional preparedness for doctoral study
  3. Research potential
  4. Ability to work with diversity
  5. Clinical skills

Pre-entrance clearance:

  • A background check
  • Health clearance


Student transcripts will be evaluated on a course-by-course basis for the following areas of corequisite study. A plan of study incorporating these standard master's degree-level courses is available for students who have not completed these corequisites. See required master level courses.

Theoretical knowledge in family systems/relational therapy8
Clinical knowledge in marital and family therapy16
Individual development and family relations8
Additional study in the three areas above4
Professional issues and ethics in marital and family therapy4
Additional related study4
Total Units48


Theory and practice
MFTH 504Advanced Theory in Marital and Family Therapy4
MFTH 505Advanced Family Studies4
MFTH 506Foundations of Systemic Practice3
MFTH 539Health and Illness in Families4
MFTH 546Advances in Family Sciences3
Choose one of the following specialty areas
Couples and family therapy
Fundamentals of Supervision in Marital and Family Therapy
Advanced Supervision in Marital and Family Therapy
Teaching in Higher Education
Practicum in Teaching
Medical Family Therapy
Practicum in Marital and Family Therapy 1
Family studies
Marriage and the Family
Family Life Education Module 1
Family Life Education Module 2
Directed Study: Family Studies
Culture, Socioeconomic Status in Therapy
Social Ecology of Individual and Family Development
Family Systems Theory
Human Sexual Behavior
RELE 505Clinical Ethics (or RELE 5__ or above)3
RELR 535Spirituality and Mental Health3
RELT 615Seminar in Philosophy of Religion3
MFTH 545Research and Practice with Couples and Families3
MFTH 601Statistics I4
MFTH 602Statistics II4
MFTH 603Statistics III4
MFTH 604Advanced Qualitative Methods4
MFTH 605Advanced Quantitative Methods4
MFTH 606Issues in MFT Research4
MFTH 668Qualitative Research Practicum3
Dissertation/Doctoral project
MFTH 698Dissertation Research 124
Total Units103
Professional development for specialty in couples and familty therapy
MFTH 785ABegin Clinical Training in Couple, Marital, and Family Therapy0
MFTH 785BClinical Training in Couple, Marital, and Family Therapy 120
MFTH 786Professional Development Proposal0
MFTH 786A and 786B total combined units36
Professional Development in Marital and Family Therapy 1
Professional Internship in Marital and Family Therapy—Clinical
Total Units56
Professional development for speciality in family studies
MFTH 786Professional Development Proposal0
MFTH 786AProfessional Development in Marital and Family Therapy 136

Course repeated to fulfill total unit requirement


700-numbered courses do not count in total didactic units required for the degree

Non-course requirements

Doctoral degrees in systems, families and couples will be awarded when students have completed all the required course work and the following non-course requirements:

  • 1000 approved client contact hours (applies only to Couples and Family Therapy specialty), and
  • 200 approved hours of clinical supervision (applies only to Couple and Family Therapy specialty), and
  • A written qualifying examination, and
  • An oral defense of the doctoral dissertation.

Normal time to complete the program

4 years (15 academic quarters) based on full-time enrollment

Additional required courses for MFT licensure in California

Students entering the PhD program without a COAMFTE accredited master’s degree, who wish to obtain licensure in California, will be required to meet the course requirements of the M.S. in Marital & Family Therapy program .  A course–by-course evaluation will be done to determine which courses in the student’s previous master’s degree program fulfill specific course requirements for California licensure.