How Can I Become a Therapist?

Educational and Career Guide

Therapist leading a group therapy session
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Are you looking for a rewarding career in which you can genuinely help people and enrich their lives? Becoming a therapist may be an excellent choice for you. While people often assume therapists have to earn a Ph.D. in psychology, there are a few different training and educational paths you can take toward this fulfilling career.

What Do Therapists Do?

The term "therapist" is often a used generically to describe a number of health care professionals who provide mental health services to clients.

For instance, a clinical psychologist and licensed professional counselor may both work with a variety of mental health concerns in various settings. One of the primary differences is that the psychologist has a Ph.D. while the counselor typically holds a master's degree.

Some career paths can also take you into a particular specialty. A substance abuse therapist works with people dealing with addiction while a marriage and family therapist focuses on relationship issues. Likewise, a licensed school psychologist works with children in a school system.

A licensed social worker often works in the broader community, though this can have specialties as well. You might choose to focus on families, schools, public health, substance abuse, corrections, or the community in general.

Yet another career option is to study for a degree as a rehabilitation therapist. In this path, you may do a mixture of work with mental health as well as the physical health side.

It primarily involves working with people who have disabilities or injuries to help them get the most out of their lives.

These are some of the more common examples and there are additional types of practice that you can pursue. If you have a particular interest, discuss it with an advisor and they can point out all your options.

Begin by Assessing Your Interests and Goals

While becoming a therapist might be your goal, the steps that you take to achieve it depends largely on the type of therapist you want to become. Therapists work in a wide range of settings and with diverse populations, so start your planning process by considering where you would like to work.

Do you want to work with children? Becoming a clinical psychologist or licensed social worker are good options for reaching this goal. If on the other hand, you are interested in working with families or couples, a licensed marriage and family therapist or mental health counselor may be right for you.

Do you want to help people overcome substance abuse problems? A degree in clinical psychology or mental health counseling might be a good option.

As you might quickly realize, there are nearly as many degree options as there are job descriptions for different types of therapists. By getting a general idea of what you would like to achieve as a therapist, you will be in a better position to select a school and choose a degree option.

Learn About Therapy Degree Options

If your goal is to become a therapist, your first step will probably be to earn a bachelor's degree in psychology.

However, people with undergraduate degrees in other fields are often accepted into graduate training programs provided they make up some of the prerequisite coursework.

Sociology, education, and health sciences are also good choices for students interested in becoming therapists.

While an advanced degree in psychology can open up a wide variety of career options, there are several other program choices that you may also want to consider. The amount of time and training required to complete each degree varies.

Ph.D. or Psy.D. in Psychology

Earning a Ph.D. or Psy.D. in psychology offers perhaps the widest range of career options.

Professionals who have earned a doctorate and become licensed psychologists can work with clients in a wide range of settings, including private practice. Earning a doctorate often takes between four and eight years of study beyond an undergraduate degree.

Master's in Psychology

In some states, individuals with a master's degree can become licensed psychologists. Master's degree holders can also work in a number of different mental health care settings. It is important to check the guidelines in your state to determine what type of services you can provide with this degree.

Master's Degree in Counseling

If you are interested in working with children, adults, families, or couples, becoming a licensed professional counselor can be a great choice. It requires a master's degree in counseling.

The 60 credits required to complete the degree can take between two and three years. This is dependent upon your schedule and the individual program in which you are enrolled. In many cases, you may also have to complete an additional 12 to 16 credit hours of training to become licensed in your state.

Master's Degree in Social Work

Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) usually complete two years of coursework beyond the undergraduate degree. It also often involves an internship and supervised experience directly in the field. Individuals with a master's in social work are often able to provide therapy to clients in a wide variety of settings and situations.

Master's Degree in Advanced Psychiatric Nursing

This often overlooked degree option is a great choice for nurses who have an interest in mental health. Advanced psychiatric nurses are required to have a master's degree or higher in psychiatric-mental health nursing. This can take anywhere from two to three years to complete beyond the bachelor's degree.

A Word From Verywell

After you have chosen the educational path that is right for your unique needs and interests, it is important to discuss your options with an academic counselor at the school of your choice. 

Prepare a list of questions about the specific degree requirements and state licensing guidelines for therapists. It's also wise to learn the demographic information about students who have graduated from the program. With the right information and some careful thought, you'll be on your way to a therapy career.

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