How to Become a Therapist

Reviewed by: Megan Kelly, MA, LMHC

Editor’s note: This article provides a brief and helpful overview of what aspiring therapists should expect along their journey to becoming licensed to work in the field. This includes a discussion on different types of therapists, educational and licensure requirements, and a brief overview of expected earning potential for future therapists.

The need for therapists is more prevalent than ever, as seasoned professionals continue to retire or leave the field for something new. If you have an interest in this particular career path, you may be wondering how to become a therapist.
The most typical course of action for aspiring therapists is to first acquire a bachelor’s degree, followed by a master’s degree and possibly a doctoral degree, before applying for licensure within their state of residence. This allows aspiring therapists to explore many careers, including mental health counseling, marriage and family therapy, and therapy in private practice.

People in the mental health field are clinically adept, empathic, and have excellent active listening and communication skills. It is also worth noting that therapists can often have overlapping responsibilities between roles, jobs, and intervention types. As such, as WebMD points out, therapy terms are sometimes used interchangeably, however it’s important to know the difference. Psychologists, who typically hold a Doctorate degree, can be therapists, but the reverse is not always true. Furthermore, different fields of therapy - like cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy - can be applied to various situations, helping people overcome a variety of mental health or substance abuse issues.

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Different Types of Therapists and How to Become Them

Therapy is not a one-size-fits-all model. Indeed, there are many different types of mental health professionals. Therapists have various licensure requirements they must fulfill in order to practice in the field. As a result, there are several ways to enter the therapy field.

Marriage and Family Counselors

Becoming a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) means that you will work with families, couples, and children, helping them manage a variety of relationship problems. To become an LMFT, a person will need a master’s degree, an average of two years of supervised post-graduate work, and a passing score on the licensure exam used in their state of residence.

Social Workers

Clinical social workers do not have to work for a social work agency, however, this is a common career path for many. Many social workers can work directly with patients in a group or private practice to address a variety of mental health issues or addictions.
The requirements vary from state to state. However, prerequisites usually involve obtaining a master’s degree in social work, post-graduate supervised clinical work, licensing exams, and continuing education after obtaining a license For example, in New York, a person must earn a Master of Social Work, complete the required training, apply for a social work license, and complete three years of supervised experience.

The requirements vary from state to state. However, prerequisites usually involve educational attainment, clinical work, licensing exams, and clinical hours. For example, in New York, a person must earn a Master of Social Work, complete required training, apply for a social work license, and complete three years of supervised experience.

Clinical Psychologists

A clinical psychologist is someone who is formally trained to provide a variety of mental health interventions, evaluations, research, and therapies. Clinical Psychologists typically need to obtain a Doctorate degree in psychology, and must also obtain a certain number of supervised hours post-graduation, earn a passing score on their state’s licensure exam, and maintain continuing education credits after obtaining their license.
Clinical Psychologists use different modalities to help patients achieve remission or recovery from a variety of behavioral or emotional disorders, including substance abuse, depression, and anxiety. Furthermore, someone who practices clinical psychology can work in private practice, group practice, hospitals, agencies, non-profits, or schools, among other options.

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How to Become a Therapist Online

For many people, taking face-to-face courses doesn’t work with their busy schedule. Fortunately, when it comes to the training and education required to become a therapist, there are many online options. Depending on the robustness of these programs, you may be able to earn a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree fully online. A well-structured bachelor’s or master’s program should be able to help you find internship opportunities, fulfill licensure requirements, and gain the necessary clinical experience to work in the field.

According to Megan Kelly, MA, LMHC, “online counseling degrees are an increasingly popular and more widely-accepted path for aspiring therapists than ever before. The options for pathways into the therapy field continue to open for students from all backgrounds, which is beneficial for the field as a whole.” For working professionals or individuals with outside obligations, such as caring for family or involvement with their community, an online degree offers a great deal of flexibility. However, just as in traditional programs, students must follow the proper steps to ensure that they are fully prepared for a career in therapy.

1. Choose a Type of Therapy

Establishing the type of therapy you’re interested in practicing is an essential first step before applying to degree programs. Possible career options include:

  • Clinical mental health counseling
  • Marriage and family therapy
  • Social work
  • Alcohol and drug counseling

Selecting the best fit requires reflecting on personal interests and goals. For example, students who hope to help both children and adults with issues within their relationships may want to pursue a path toward offering marriage and family therapy.

2. Graduate from an Appropriate Degree Program

No matter what type of therapist you’d like to be, it is helpful—but often not required—to graduate from a relevant bachelor's program. Many future therapists complete a bachelor's in psychology or sociology. There are many colleges and universities that offer online degree programs in these areas.

Additionally, a master's degree is almost always a requirement that must be met before someone can be licensed as a therapist. Popular master's degree options for future therapists include a master's in counseling, a master's in psychology, and a master's in child psychology and development, all of which can potentially be completed online.

3. Complete Required Clinical Experience

Another key requirement for licensure is clinical experience. Before they can become licensed, graduates of master's degree programs must first complete a number of clinical hours under the supervision of a qualified professional. The number of hours required differs by state and specialization. There may also be specific criteria for how many hours must be spent in face-to-face interactions with clients.

4. Take a Licensure Exam

  • Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC)
  • Licensed Marriage And Family Therapist (LMFT)
  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
  • Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC)
  • Licensed Clinical Addiction Counselor (LCAC)

Some degree programs may be tailored to help students prepare for a particular type of licensure.

5. Take a Jurisprudence Exam

In some states, therapists and counselors must also take a jurisprudence exam to become licensed. This test differs from the licensure exam in that it focuses specifically on state laws and regulations related to the practice of therapy, social work, or counseling.

Career Outlook for Therapists

Therapists can have significant impacts on their clients’ lives, making this a career that can be highly rewarding. From a more practical standpoint, a career in therapy also has a lot to offer in terms of earnings and growth potential.

Salaries

The typical salary for a licensed therapist differs widely depending on the specific career path, education and training required, and location where the services are being offered. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of May 2021, the median salaries for some of the most common careers in therapy were:

  • Marriage and family therapists: $49,880
  • Rehabilitation counselors: $38,560
  • School and career counselors and advisors: $60,510
  • Social workers: $50,390
  • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors: $48,520

Some licensed therapists also earn more by opening a private practice, where they are able to have more control over their working hours and wages.

Job Outlook

There has been an increase in the number of people seeking mental health treatment. As a result, the demand for licensed therapists, counselors, and psychologists has grown and is projected to continue to do so over the next several years.

According to the BLS, most careers related to therapy are expected to grow at an above-average rate through 2031. This is especially true of substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors, which are projected to see a growth rate of 22 percent.

Other types of counselors have similarly impressive growth rates. The BLS states that employment of:

  • Marriage and family therapists is projected to grow by 14 percent
  • Rehabilitation counselors will increase by 11 percent
  • School and career counselors and advisors is expected to rise by 10 percent

These numbers suggest that a career in therapy offers a high degree of job security and that there will be many options available for employment in the future.

College Majors to be A Therapist

Fortunately, a variety of potential bachelor-level degrees can help someone along their path to becoming  a therapist. Aspiring therapists should also keep in mind that a graduate degree is necessary for most therapy careers. As such, a college major is only the start of learning how to become a therapist. Relevant graduate programs are also necessary.

Psychology

A major in psychology is extremely common for many professional counselors or people who go into clinical psychology. Psychology is the study of the human mind. It examines how the mind works and a variety of mental illnesses. This is one of the most common degrees for mental health professionals.

Sociology

Sociology involves the study of individual relationships between people, large institutions, or society at large. It is an intensive examination of relationships – as well as the time spent examining the way the mind works – that provides an excellent background for many professional counselors.

Biology

Biology is a less common major for becoming a therapist and is often more useful for becoming a medical doctor or psychiatrist. However, a major in biology may potentially help aspiring therapists learn more about neurochemistry and how it impacts the brain and mood. This can provide an excellent background for therapy.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Therapist?

There is no set answer about how long it takes to become a therapist. It ultimately depends on the types of therapy you want to practice, how long it takes you to get your undergraduate degree and graduate degree, and what kind of career opportunities you want to pursue. Other factors that will influence the length of time required include the degree program you complete, as well as the various licensing requirements for your state.

The range to become a therapist varies greatly. If you include college, it can take anywhere from 4-11 years. This can obviously be a major time commitment, and this is why it is so important that you know the most efficient path when evaluating how to become a therapist. Thankfully, a variety of educational programs – including online schools – can help you make this dream a reality on a timeline that works for you.

 

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