How To Become A Therapist

Published on: 04 Dec 2020
woman sitting on a couch with her computer and coffee

You are someone who likes to help people. You’ve been called a good listener. A lot. People in your life may have even suggested that you would make a great therapist. Now you are wondering if you might be able to translate those skills into a profession. Would becoming a therapist be the right career for you? And if so, how do you become a licensed therapist? Do you need a master’s degree? A PhD? What do therapists do? Is becoming a therapist a good match for your personality?

Let’s take a deep dive into the topic of how to become a therapist.

What Is A Therapist?

A therapist is a licensed professional with a background in psychology or counseling. “Therapist” is a broad term and often includes many types of professionals, including: mental health counselors, school psychologists, substance abuse counselors, psychotherapists, social workers, and psychiatrists. Therapists are usually thought of as mental health professionals who work directly with people, couples, or groups to provide therapeutic services. Therapists may work in private practice, in schools, social service institutions, clinics, hospitals, or even online.

How Do You Become A Therapist?

As you begin researching how to become a therapist, your first question is probably: what education do I need to become a therapist? The answer isn’t completely clear-cut because there are many different kinds of therapists and they require different educational backgrounds. In addition, different states have different requirements for different mental health professionals. You should start by checking your state’s specific licensing requirements.

In general, you will likely need at least a bachelor’s degree to become a therapist; however, the majority of licensed therapists need to have master’s degrees in addition to bachelor’s degrees. Some therapists have advanced degrees, such as a PhD, PsyD, or MD. If you wish to work directly with patients, you will need supervised clinical hours as well as educational degrees to complete your licensure. After completing your clinical hours, you will then take a certifying exam, purchase liability insurance, and begin to pursue job opportunities.

What Education Requirements Do You Need To Become A Therapist?

Some basic counseling certificates require only a bachelor’s degree; getting an initial counseling certificate might be something you might wish to pursue on your journey to becoming a therapist. If you are currently a college student thinking of entering the profession, you might want to start by taking coursework in psychology, communication, and sociology, as all of these areas can help you prepare to become a therapist.

In most cases, becoming a licensed therapist requires a master’s degree. This is true of therapy professions such as social workers, and psychotherapists; most counseling licenses require master’s degrees as well. Usually the master’s degree you are seeking will be in the specific field that you wish to enter.

In addition to your degree, which will cover course material that prepares you for your career, you will need to complete supervised clinical work in psychology. This means that you will have to practice having therapy sessions with clients before you can become certified by the state’s licensing board (these sessions are often arranged by your degree program). Finally, you will need to take a licensure exam and pass it before you can practice therapy.

Some therapist licenses that require master’s degrees include:

  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker [LCSW]
  • Licensed Master Social Worker [LMSW]
  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker [LICSW]
  • (Licensed) Mental Health Counselor [LMHC or MHC]
  • (Licensed) Marriage and Family Therapist [LMFT or MFT]

Some therapists have advanced degrees, and go on to get doctorates in psychology. There are two types of doctorates you might pursue in your journey to become a therapist: a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) or a PsyD (Doctor of Psychology). Therapists with PhDs usually focus more on research, whereas therapists with PsyDs typically focus more on clinical work. Both degrees require 4-6 or more years of education, and you can practice therapy with either degree.

Finally, you can also practice therapy if you have an MD and become a psychiatrist. This requires you to go to medical school, of course. Psychiatrists are the only type of therapist that can prescribe medication to their patients; they are also the only therapists who can formally diagnose someone with a mental health condition, such as schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, etc.

How Long Does It Take To Become A Therapist?

The length of time it takes to become a therapist very much depends on the educational path you choose. If you are choosing a license pathway that includes a master’s degree, you will need two or three additional years of education beyond a bachelor’s degree. If you are choosing to get a doctorate, you will likely need to pursue about 5-7 years of education beyond your bachelor’s degree. If you want to become a psychiatrist, you will need an MD, which can take about eight years after receiving a bachelor’s degree.

How Much Money Does A Therapist Make?

Your salary as a therapist will depend very much on what degree or licensure you have, where you work, how much experience you have, and where you live.

For example, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2019:

  • Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors make an average of $46,240 per year, or $22.23 per hour
  • Marriage and Family Therapists make an average of $49,610 per year or $23.85 per hour
  • Psychologists make an average of $80,370 per year, or $38.64 per hour

What Kind Of Issues Can A Therapist Help With?

If you know that helping people is a passion of yours, which is why you were likely drawn to the field of psychology and therapy, you still may be wondering what types of mental health issues you can help others manage and overcome.

Really, there are so many mental health issues that you can help people work through as a therapist!

Here are a few of the most common ones:

Therapists can also help people deal with more universal life stresses such as:

What Does A Therapist Do?

Most therapists work one on one with their clients, either in a private practice office, a clinic, a school, a social service setting, or a healthcare setting. Therapy usually involves different types of counseling, which requires you to listen to your clients problems and help them come up with ways of coping. Usually sessions involve asking clients probing questions to help them understand more about themselves and identify strategies for working through their issues. Most therapists don’t offer their own advice or opinion, but rather try to push their clients to search for their own inner wisdom to solve the mental health challenges they face.

The way therapists approach therapy depends also on their particular kind of training they received. For example, a therapist who is trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may focus on identifying negative thought patterns and trying to come up with ways to reframe those patterns more positively. On the other hand, a therapist who is trained in psychodynamic or psychoanalytic therapy may focus on how unconscious thoughts and childhood experiences influence their client’s current issues.

Some of the most common therapy types include:

Most therapy is one-on-one, and may include adults or children; therapists may also work with couples, families, or with larger groups.

No matter how a therapist was trained, most therapists end up combining different methods to treat their clients’ unique needs and different methods depending on what their client is struggling with. Most therapists work alone, but sometimes a therapist will need to refer a client to their doctor or a psychiatrist if their problems seem to require medical attention or medication.

What Makes A Good Therapist?

Having the “helping people” bug isn’t all it takes to become a therapist. While there isn’t one personality type that is best suited become a therapist, there are some basic skills that will make you more suited to the profession, including:

  • High degree of emotional intelligence and awareness
  • Intuitive sense of how to interact with others
  • Strong listening skills
  • Strong problem-solving skills
  • Ability to listen to other people’s problems without judgment
  • Someone who is self-aware and willing to explore their own psychology and mental health struggles
  • Someone who is able to implement healthy boundaries when needed
  • Someone who is responsible and trustworthy

A Take-Home Message

Deciding to invest your time and resources to become a therapist is a big decision, one that you shouldn’t make without first doing research. But before venturing into this career, it’s also a wise idea to connect with mental health professionals who are currently practicing to get an insider’s view of what the job entails. If you are a college student, you can contact your career services department to get connected with a therapist. 

Another wonderful way to explore becoming a therapist, if you haven’t already, is to enter therapy yourself. Experiencing therapy first-hand will help you become a better therapist down the road — you will be able to empathize with your clients. Not only that, but working through your own mental health challenges will make you stronger, more resilient, and teach you how to develop strong interpersonal skills.

Finally, you should know that wherever you are in life — whether you are in college and trying to figure out your career path, or looking to make a switch from another field — becoming a therapist is an engaging and rewarding career, and there is no one “right” time to pursue it. 

Helping people manage their mental health struggles or move through mental health crises is an important aspiration, and there is always room for more compassionate therapists.

Interested in becoming a therapist with Talkspace? Learn more here.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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