Oh man. You have no idea how hard I laughed when I uploaded this photo. Fieldwork. HA! I'm still laughing.
If you're researching MFT programs, you've probably heard the term "fieldwork" and gathered that it is a requirement for graduation. Your "fieldwork placement" is where you gain direct client contact hours ("practicum" is the class you're enrolled in while you are working at a fieldwork site). You actually counsel clients while you're in graduate school.
Full disclosure: I am in the middle of the fieldwork process. I've applied to some sites and am waiting for interviews. I'm basing much of the following info on research instead of personal experience, but I will update as I learn new and exciting things!
So, what is fieldwork, exactly?
During your program, you will need to get supervised direct client-contact experience in order to graduate (the specifics of this are laid out on the BBS website). Some schools have an on-campus clinic and guarantee you that you can meet this requirement at their clinic. Others, however, require you to "go out into the field" (the community) and find your own placement--this is also called a traineeship, as you are considered a "trainee" when you are enrolled in a graduate program and seeing clients. Many schools frame their approach to traineeships in terms of "support"--programs who funnel students into an on-campus clinic or who provide lists of university-approved field sites typically refer to themselves as "very supportive." The programs that leave the process entirely up to students normally don't mention it...
If you're at the point where you're trying to decide which graduate program to enroll in, you may want to take each program's fieldwork situation into account. As a conscious consumer, here are some things that you should be aware of when it comes to an MFT program's traineeship process:
First of all, you should know that the state of California requires at least 225 hours of direct client contact in order for you to graduate. If that's what a program requires, they are requiring the bare minimum. That could be good or bad--on the one hand, you'll get out sooner, but on the other hand, you'll have less experience than other graduates. The maximum number of direct client contact hours you're allowed to log while in graduate school is 1300. You could log more, of course, no one will stop you as long as you're following all the rules, but you won't be able to count more than 1300 hours towards the 3000 hours you need for licensure.
Some programs have on-campus clinics, and many who do guarantee that students can meet all their hours at the on-campus clinic. For example, at CSUN, you can apply for the Mitchell Family Clinic/Strength United cohort--this track of the MFT program completes all of their fieldwork hours through these two university-affiliated programs. This situation has both pros and cons. On the pro side, you would not need to worry about finding a placement and the whole process will be pretty convenient. You'll avoid the application and interview process entirely (apart from applying for the program itself). On the con side, you probably won't have a ton of say in what sorts of populations you work with or what kind of supervision you'll get.
The alternative are programs where you find a placement out in the community. At CSUN, the school provides students with a list of approved community sites, but it's up to the student to apply and get accepted. This approach ALSO has pros and cons. The pros? You get to find a placement that interests you--but there's no guarantee they'll take you on as a trainee (you have to apply like you're applying for a job). You also have an opportunity during the interview to get hopefully get a sense of what supervision will be like, and if it rubs you the wrong way, you can try somewhere else. Some sites will train you in specific evidence-based treatments, which are proprietary modalities that can cost thousands of dollars to become certified in, at no cost to you. But the cons are real. It can be confusing and stressful trying to find a placement in the community. Personally, I didn't find the process overwhelming because I've applied for jobs before; some of my classmates, though, found the process incredibly trying--many were putting together resumés and cover letters for the first time, and interviews were intimidating.
You should also know that it seems like there's a non-zero number of graduate students who continue working at their fieldwork site post-graduation. Either they continue to do it for free to earn the rest of their 3000 hours towards licensure, or some even get hired by the site. My school has low-key suggested that you shouldn't really stress about what site you end up at, but I think if you have a long-term goal of being hired at a site post-graduation, it's something you should keep in mind when you're applying to schools. For example, if you're applying to a program that requires you to work at the on-campus clinic, I doubt you would be able to stay on there post-graduation.
If You Currently Work in Mental Healthcare
If you're currently working in mental healthcare, and you think it will be easy-peasy to log your hours at the site you're currently employed at, you may want to clear this with the program before applying. Other schools seem to be fine with this arrangement, but my program "encourages" students to seek another placement to gain broader experience.
If you currently work in a private practice, you should know that in California, trainees cannot log hours in a private practice (though they can once they become Associates).
Does It Matter?
Ultimately, I don't know if the fieldwork placement situation would be a dealbreaker for any program, but you'll probably want to know a bit about what you're agreeing to when you enroll.
Personally, I'm glad I made the choice to attend a program where I could choose my own field site. Friends of mine, however, have said they wish they'd chosen the other CSUN cohort where you are placed into the on-campus clinic. Now that I have met several CSUN professors who serve as supervisors at that clinic, I think I also would have enjoyed that, but I don't regret my decision.
Again, in my own opinion, I would be wary of programs that offer NO support to their students in terms of finding a fieldwork placement. It seems that these students need to take on the extra work of researching agencies in their area with traineeship programs and vetting them to ensure the site meets the school's criteria. It's extra work that I'm very glad I don't need to worry about, on top of everything else I have due!
On my site, MFT California, I tried to include any information programs make available about how supportive they are when it comes to fieldwork. I hope it helps you in your hunt for the right grad program!