Education Requirements for Therapists
If you want to become a therapist, you’ll need bachelor’s and master’s degrees, ideally in fields such as psychology, counseling, social work, or marriage and family therapy. With a master’s degree in hand, you’ll have met the minimum education requirement, though you may want to account for the benefits of a doctoral program, as it allows for high-level specialization.
Depending on your state of residence, you may need to meet unique requirements to obtain licensure as a practicing therapist. If you choose to specialize, there could be a national examination that an organization that deals specifically in that practice administers.
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Clinical Experience for Becoming a Therapist
Regardless of which higher education institution you attend, to become a therapist it’s expected that you complete a certain number of hours in a clinic or similar setting. Confidence comes with this experience, and you’ll better understand the environments in which you might find yourself working during your career.
Generally, schools can help set you up or guide you to agencies where this experience is found. In some cases, however, it may be left to your discretion to locate a facility or local mental health agency for yourself.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Therapist?
Becoming a therapist takes time — between seven and 15 years, according to PositivePsychology.com. The process involves completing postsecondary education, beginning with a bachelor’s degree.
This will act as a foundation for the skills and knowledge you’ll need later and usually takes about four years to complete.
A master’s degree, which is also necessary, can generally be completed in one to three years, subject to the student’s enrollment status, speed in completing the coursework, and the program criteria.
Professionals interested in pursuing a doctorate will need an additional five years or more.
Internships and fieldwork are often done simultaneously with your education, but are themselves commitments of hundreds of hours.
Different Types of Therapists
The layperson often uses “therapy” as a catchall term for many different practices. In reality, the field of therapy is nuanced, with a lot of options available for study and practice. Some forms of therapy have been in practice for decades, while others are newer and use contemporary research to inform their methodologies and techniques.
A degree in therapy can create opportunities to find work in many environments — including schools, workplaces, hospitals, and clinics — with many types of clientele.
Different types of therapy generally require advanced training and certification, so most graduates with dreams of specializing will often, after receiving their degrees, move into the program that best suits their interests.
Reviewing your options and determining the best path for your skills and goals is important. GoodTherapy lists some 150 specializations, including the following:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy. Helps people solve interpersonal issues by identifying the relationship between their thoughts and their behaviors.
- Music therapy. Improves and maintains an individual’s physical, social, and mental health through engagement with music.
- Humanistic psychology. Focuses on person-centered therapy and self-actualization through techniques that emphasize innate goodness as a means toward moral growth and self-improvement.
- Anger management therapy. Helps decrease anger and teaches coping mechanisms to reappropriate anger in constructive ways.
- Parent-child interaction therapy. Improves behavior in children by fostering positive interactions with their parents.
- Relational life therapy. Promotes problem-solving and intimacy between couples through improved communication skills.
- Coherence therapy. Promotes holistic wellness through training of both the conscious and subconscious.
Ask the Expert: Therapist Work Environments
People often have a preconceived perception of what therapy looks like. What are some other settings where therapists work?
“I counsel community ex-offenders. I conduct career development groups (e.g., interviewing skills, job search strategies) in a room I reserve at the local public library. Many of these individuals live in homeless shelters or transitional housing, and the library serves as a social hub and resource center for many of my clients.
I have also provided career counseling to ex-offenders at a local community recreation center because it houses a city-sponsored re-entry program called Successful Outcomes After Release (SOAR). Some ex-offenders are fortunate enough to qualify for transitional housing where they receive counseling for addictions and other personal concerns in their residential setting.
The Department of Public Safety will commonly employ counselors who work with probationary clients who have issues such as substance use disorders, stress management, and career development.”
— Dr. Mark Scholl, Associate Professor in the Counseling Department at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, North Carolina
Path to Becoming a Therapist
As with any worthwhile goal, becoming a therapist requires dedication and resourcefulness. The foundation must be laid upon a multifaceted education and built through mentorship and experience in a clinical internship.
Individuals wondering how to be a therapist should follow the steps outlined below.
1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
The first step in how to become a therapist is completing a bachelor’s degree in a mental health-related field.
Here, you’ll develop the fundamentals that will act as a platform for all future study, including your first exposure to the different specializations, some of the classic schools of thought surrounding therapy techniques, and the evolution of the science throughout its history.
You can earn an online or a traditional bachelor’s degree, depending on the options from your school of choice.
2. Earn a Master’s Degree
The exact criteria and expectations of any master’s program are bound to change based on individual needs and the requirements of the specialization.
Here is where students begin to advance their professional networks and lean into the minutiae of their specializations.
You’ll also begin to prepare for the questions and expectations that will be presented on your state licensure exams.
When selecting your preferred master’s degree program, make sure that it has the necessary accreditation that the state where you intend to work requires.
The American Psychological Association (APA) is a major organization offering accreditation to many programs and is a good place to start when you begin looking for this information.
3. Consider a Doctoral Program
Though optional, you should consider further education in a doctoral program to maximize your opportunities as a therapist.
A doctorate is especially relevant if your end goals include conducting research, teaching in a university setting, facilitating the growth of a clinic from the administrative angle, or contributing to program review and development.
As with the master’s degree, it’s worth consulting the APA for reliable details on accreditation to ensure that your desired program is the best option for your circumstances and location.
4. Get Clinical Experience
Becoming a therapist is about more than just formal education. Licensing generally requires practical firsthand experience.
Clinical experience often overlaps with part of your education. During this time, you’ll learn from a licensed supervisor and assist with clients, sitting in on live sessions for clients with issues in your field, familiarizing yourself with the basic administrative work required for each client, and attending classes and conferences.
The experience you gain during this process will be imperative to your crystallization as a competent professional therapist. Although you may need to find your own clinic or agency for an internship, many schools will help set up those opportunities or provide guidance on how and where to find them.
5. Obtain State Licensure
After you’ve met the education and experience requirements, your final step in how to become a therapist is to apply for state licensure.
The requirements for each state vary but always involve some measure of official examination intended to test the knowledge and skills you’ve accumulated through your postsecondary studies and clinical experience. In addition to state certification, there may be a national examination that an organization specific to your specialization may require.
6. Continue Your Education
To guarantee that you always remain competent and relevant in your field — and up-to-date on the most recent research and therapeutic techniques — states require all active practitioners to engage in ongoing education during their licensure.
Conferences and classes make for an opportunity to fulfill this requirement and present possible opportunities to network with other professionals and learn from their experiences.
Employment and Salary for Therapists
Licensed therapists benefit from having a wealth of options in terms of career direction and the location of their work. They may establish a private practice or work in hospitals and other medical facilities, mental health and treatment centers, and schools.
A survey of therapist-related positions listed with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates a strong outlook for therapy jobs through 2029, with many roles growing much faster than the average of all jobs.
Jobs for marriage and family therapists, for example, are expected to grow by 22% amid a rise in integrated care, which is the coordination of all aspects of an individual’s physical and mental care. Social workers, who are specialist therapists, can expect to see job growth of 13% through 2029 as demand will increase for child and family social workers, health care social workers, and substance abuse social workers.
Jobs for psychologists, who can also practice therapy and have a doctorate in psychology, are expected to grow by about 3%, closer to the average for all occupations.
Because of the many options available to therapists, including the ability to specialize and the ability to pursue a doctoral degree, salaries can vary significantly. Years of experience, type of facility, and location of the job also have an impact.
According to the BLS, the average annual salaries for therapist-related positions include the following:
- Marriage and family therapists: $49,610
- Social workers: $50,470
- Psychologists: $80,370
Key Skills for Therapists
Along with a strong educational foundation, a host of skills, particularly soft skills, are needed to be an effective therapist. Some of the most important are as follows:
- Active listening. Therapists must listen carefully to what their patients are saying, understand the nuances, and probe for more information.
- Communication. Strong communication skills are necessary for therapists to be able to explain complex subjects and deal with patients of different backgrounds and levels of comfort.
- Empathy. Therapists should be able to understand how their patients are feeling or put themselves in their patients’ shoes.
- Patience. It may take patients some time to feel comfortable sharing personal or painful details; therapists must take the time to build a productive relationship.
- Resilience. Being a therapist can be stressful and draining because of the often painful subject matter. Therapists should be emotionally resilient.
- Critical thinking. Patients may not know why they have the problems they have, and therapists must be able to dig beneath the surface and propose techniques that will be effective in helping.
Therapists must also be flexible and resourceful, treat their patients with respect, behave ethically as regards privacy, and have the organizational skills and attention to detail necessary to properly track a patient’s progress.
Ask the Expert: Ideal Personal Traits for Therapists
What personal traits and skills would be beneficial to possess as a therapist?
“Counselors come in many forms, and there is no one recipe for success. I believe that diversity in the field is what leads to more access and more ease in finding the right access for our clients, who also come in all forms.
However, I truly believe at the heart of every good counselor lays empathy and compassion. We do not need to have experienced everything that our clients have experienced (how could we?!), but we need to be able to empathize with their experience and feelings and have compassion — genuine compassion for each person.
I think a close second to both empathy and compassion is also acceptance of our clients and who they are. A counselor needs to accept their client and everything they bring to the table, because without that, we then try to change our client because we want them to change. It is not about what we want for change; it is about who they are and what they need.”
— Dr. Molly Ansari, Assistant Professor in Bradley University’s Online Masters of Counseling Program
Professional Therapist Organizations
If you want to become a therapist, don’t overlook the rich resource of professional organizations. Regardless of where you are in your education or career, the wealth of information and research they have available can prove invaluable; their network of licensed professionals can also create opportunities to find conferences and jobs that you might otherwise miss.
Some organizations that therapists might want to be familiar with are:
- American Psychological Association
- American Psychotherapy Association
- Mental Health America
- International Association of Counselors & Therapists
- American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy
Learn More About How to Be a Therapist
Many people rely on the healing qualities of therapy, which fuels demand for experienced, effective therapists. A career as a therapist, while challenging, can be incredibly fulfilling, leaving a meaningful mark on the life of another person.
If you find yourself wanting to make such a mark, it may be in your best interest to pursue a future in mental health and therapy. Consider the specializations available to see which strikes your interest, and head down a road to personal growth, working alongside peers as brilliant as they’re compassionate.