Interested in learning how to become a therapist? Starting a career in therapy is a significant decision which requires planning and forethought. This guide is designed to help you decide if the therapy profession might be right for you and, if so, how you can launch your career as a therapist. We dive into what types of therapy are out there, how long does it take to become a therapist, how to become a licensed therapist, salary expectations, the type of person most likely to succeed and much more. Let’s dig in!
What Does an Therapist Do?
Therapists apply special knowledge and skills to offer physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual assistance to individuals with health or personal problems to address. In some instances, they won’t work as problem-solvers, but will instead concentrate on helping their clients become more efficient or proficient as they strive to achieve their highest goals and ambitions. Therapists generally see clients on a regular or semi-regular basis, offering targeted services designed to produce tangible benefits within a certain period of time.
There are many types of therapists. Some of the more well-known classifications include psychologists, psychiatrists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, social workers, life coaches, marriage and family therapists, addiction counselors, and school counselors. Many therapists offer more narrowly focused rehabilitation or self-improvement-oriented services, carving out niches in highly specialized fields. Therapists may be hired by individual clients (if they have private practices), by healthcare organizations that offer therapeutic services to their clients, by government-affiliated health or social service agencies, or by private companies employ in-house therapists or counselors for the benefit of employees.
How Much Does a Therapist Make?
Wage levels for therapists vary significantly, based on the specific career classification.
On the high end, the median annual pay for psychiatrists in 2019 was $220,380. Conversely, those who were employed as marriage and family therapists had a median annual wage of $49,610, which represented the lowest salary reported among the various therapist categories. Some of the classifications that were relatively well-compensated included physical therapists ($89,440), occupational therapists ($84,950), and psychologists ($80,370).
Some categories of therapist have among the highest projected growth rates for all professions. Between the years 2019 and 2029, the available jobs for marriage and family counselors, physical therapists, and occupational therapists is expected to increase by 22, 18, and 16 percent respectively, which is well above the four percent projected growth rate for all occupations combined. Robust growth rates are predicted for most types of therapists, with double digit or near-double digit increases projected as the norm.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Therapist?
Answering the question how long does it take to be a therapist is a tricky one, because there are so many different types of therapists which require varying degrees of schooling and certification. In general, it takes anywhere between 2 and 10 years to become a therapist.
For example, it only takes about two years to become an art therapist, whereas becoming a psychologist requires a doctorate degree and takes about ten years. In most cases, it will require at least four years of schooling to secure a bachelor’s degree and in many cases at least two more years in graduate school.
How to Become an Therapist: A Step-by-Step Guide
Exactly how do you become a therapist? Let’s find out step by step.
Step 1: Select a Specialty or Concentration
Because therapist is an umbrella category, you’ll need to channel your desire to help people into a more focused area of concentration.
The list of common job categories for aspiring therapists includes:
- Psychiatric Nurse
- Social Worker
- Marriage and Family Counselor
- Physical Therapist
- Occupational Therapist
- Mental Health Counselor
- Addiction Therapist
- Life Coach
- School Counselor
- Career Counselor
- Music or Art Therapist
- Holistic Health Therapist (using yoga, meditation, biofeedback, etc.)
- Child or Youth Therapist
- Nutrition or Exercise Therapist
- Spiritual Counselor
- Animal-Assisted Therapist
Through your personal investigations, you may uncover additional specialized categories that intrigue you. If you develop a clear preference with respect to the type of therapeutic services you’d like to provide, and for who you’d be most interested in working with (i.e., men, women, children, adolescents, families, or anyone who needs help), that should help you narrow the possibilities considerably.
If you are interested in learning how to become a therapist without a degree, you may pursue specialties such as music or art therapy or an animal-assisted therapist.
Step 2: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree Program in a Relevant Field
People who decide to pursue a career as any type of therapist will need to obtain a bachelor’s degree as a precursor for graduate-level study, which is almost always mandatory for those who want to become licensed therapists. Even if you choose a field that doesn’t require licensing, like life coaching or some types of holistic health therapy, you’ll still need at least a bachelor’s degree if you want academic qualifications you can sell to potential employers or clients.
It is common for those who plan to become therapists to major in psychology. Therapists form close one-on-one working relationships with clients who often have mind-based problems to solve or obstacles to overcome, and they must be able to identify and offer remedies for complex psychological and emotional issues that can inhibit progress, sabotage wellness, or interfere with achievement. Even people who pursue careers as physical therapists or occupational therapists can benefit from learning more about human psychology, since they will be dealing with clients who’ve suffered setbacks that may have severely impacted their mental states.
There are many other good options for undergraduates who plan to become therapists and are searching for a suitable course of study. Depending on the type of counseling or therapy you’d like to provide, and on those you’d like to work with, you could major in:
- Social Work
- Early Childhood Development
- Exercise Science
- Health Science
- Women’s and Gender Studies
Degrees in these areas can help you qualify for admittance to a high-quality graduate program, especially if your undergraduate curriculum includes at least some coursework that touches on issues directly relevant to your chosen field.
Step 3: Pursue a Master’s Degree or Doctorate in Your Area of Concentration
For the vast majority of job categories, you’ll need to have a master’s degree or a doctorate to earn your license and have a chance to be hired as a therapist by a private organization or government institution. If you plan to start your own practice, you’ll still need to meet the educational requirements to be licensed in your field.
Most categories of therapist require a master’s degree at minimum. Those that require a doctorate include psychologist and physical therapist, and you would need to graduate from medical school with an MD to be licensed as a psychiatrist.
Accredited master’s degree programs for therapists are available in all specialties, and all will offer vitally important opportunities to accumulate practice hours in internships or externships. Several thousand practice hours in clinical settings under the supervision of licensed professionals are standard requirements for therapists, and in some instances this may include placements that occur after you’ve completed a master’s or doctorate degree program.
If you’re able to finish your master’s degree program in two years, it means you could seek licensure and employment after six years of formal study, if your career path includes no other education requirements. Conversely, you’d experience the longest path to licensure and full-time employment if you chose to be a psychiatrist, since aspiring psychiatrists must complete eight years of schooling and an additional four years in a medical residency program before they can be licensed to practice their profession.
Step 4: Become Licensed to Practice in Your Chosen Field
After you’ve completed all educational requirements, and gained the required hours of clinical experience, you can apply to become licensed as a professional therapist in your chosen specialty.
Therapists must obtain their licenses through the state where they plan to practice. In addition to providing proof of education and work experience, you’ll need to take and pass a licensing examination that will verify your knowledge and readiness to assume a full-time, professional therapist position.
For most therapist career categories, states rely on test scores collected from national examinations. These national licensing exams are prepared by governing and accreditation boards that establish and uphold standards of practice for all practitioners within the various therapeutic industries.
In some career categories, states may substitute their own exams for the national options, or add additional testing requirements on top of nationally administered exams.
Your application package for licensure will be sent directly to the licensing board in your state. They will evaluate your academic credentials, your record of clinical practice, your personal recommendations from instructors or work supervisors, and your test scores before issuing your initial working license.
All therapist licenses must be renewed periodically. This may mean annually, bi-annually, or every three-to-five years. You’ll have to meet continuing education requirements to qualify for renewal, which may involve taking more than one online or in-person classes or workshops each year.
Step 5: Find Your First Job or Open Your Own Practice
When you secure your first position as a practicing therapist, you may join a team of therapists who offer similar or complementary services, or be the sole provider in your specialty.
As a trained and licensed therapist, you may find openings in hospitals, clinics, inpatient or outpatient treatment centers, fitness or wellness centers, specialized rehabilitation facilities, educational institutions, nonprofit or community agencies, nursing homes or other specialized care homes, or with government social service agencies or health departments. Your initial activities may be supervised and critiqued by more experienced professionals, essentially placing you in a residency position even if you don’t carry such a title officially. As you become more experienced, you’ll assume more direct responsibility for patient or client care.
While there are some exceptions (like social workers and school counselors), practitioners in most therapeutic categories have the option of pursuing a more independent course. This would mean opening their own private practice, either alone or in partnership with others who share their interest and intentions.
Most therapists who enter private practice will spend a few years gaining experience working for an institutional employer of some type first, before going out on their own. But theoretically, you could launch your own business as soon as you acquire your license, if you have a business strategy that you believe will allow you to attract enough clients to build a successful practice.
Step 6: Improve Your Qualifications and Credentials by Seeking Specialized Certifications
If you choose a broader therapeutic area of practice, like occupational therapy, physical therapy, social work, or psychology, you’ll have innumerable opportunities to specialize, and will benefit by doing so as you strive to hone your skills and improve your career prospects. Specialty certifications can attest to your advanced qualifications, putting you on a faster track to long-term success.
This is just a sampling of the specialty certifications that are available in the four job categories referenced above:
- Occupational Therapy: Pediatrics, Gerontology, Feeding, Eating, and Swallowing, Hand Therapy, Seating and Mobility Specialist, Low Vision, Lymphedema Therapy
- Physical Therapy: Cardiovascular and Pulmonary, Oncology, Women’s Health, Sports, Orthopedic, Pediatrics, Neurology, Clinical Electrophysiology
- Psychology: Rehabilitation Psychology, School Psychology, Sleep Psychology, Clinical Neuropsychology, Behavioral and Cognitive Psychology, Forensic Psychology
- Social Work: Mental Health, Clinical Child and Adolescent, Child Welfare, Aging, Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs, School Social Work, Administration/Supervision
No matter what type of therapist you become, you should seek out opportunities to gain specialized certifications.
For most certifications, you’ll need to have several thousand hours of work experience in the relevant specialty (normally the equivalent of three-to-five years of on-the-job training). You may have to complete some continuing education coursework, if you haven’t done so previously. In most cases, you’ll also have to take and pass a certification exam, prepared and administered by a national accrediting or governing organization.
Possessing these additional certifications can help you qualify for more prestigious jobs or promotions, or they can help make you more marketable to potential clients if you’ve set up an independent practice.
Pros and Cons of a Career as a Therapist
Pros of Becoming an Therapist
The career of a therapist can be perpetually rewarding, personally and professionally. Therapists work in a field that merges the intellectual with the practical, to produce life-transforming changes in people who will be deeply and profoundly grateful for the therapist’s efforts. Therapists possess a skillset and a knowledge base that can produce profoundly positive, long-term results, and that will motivate them and inspire them throughout their working careers. Equipped with a type of expertise that is both highly respected and eminently practical, therapists serve universal interests (everyone wants to be healthy and to achieve to their maximum potential), and therefore can usually find opportunities to work in every state, county, and community.
Cons of Becoming an Therapist
The work of a therapist can be psychologically draining and emotionally taxing. The best therapists are naturally empathetic, but their empathy can sometimes work against them, since they are so often dealing with people who are suffering greatly and whose pain can at least in part become the therapist’s pain. While people who come to therapists for help want to change or recover, they often struggle to convert those great intentions into consistent action. This can be frustrating for the therapist, who does their best to help but still comes up short. Since their work requires advanced study, it can take many years of hard work before an aspiring therapist is ready to turn their desire to help into an actual career.
Important Characteristics of a Successful Therapist
Therapists must be compassionate. But their compassion must be action-oriented. Great therapists are motivated by a deep-seated need to be engaged in the world, operating under the maxim that if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem. The compassion of a therapist doesn’t just manifest as sympathy, it also sparks feelings of restlessness, which the therapist can only quell by doing their best to be of service.
Therapists are in the communication business. They must have well-developed speaking skills, but it is their superior listening skills that allow the best therapists to rise to the top of their professions. Therapists should be active and empathetic listeners, meaning they are completely focused on what their clients are saying and are able to grasp the psychological and emotional relevance of the information that is being shared. By staying fully and enthusiastically engaged in conversations with their clients, therapists can ensure they’ll be listened to in return, as they offer sage and important advice without being judgmental or doing anything to put their clients on the defensive.
Because they deal with a wide variety of people who come from diverse backgrounds, therapists must be flexible and both willing and able to adjust their approach to their work. Rather than becoming locked into a few simple solutions, great therapists are always looking to learn more, and they follow the evolution of evidence-based medicine very closely to make sure they stay up-to-date. Top-quality therapists strive to recognize and acknowledge the individuality and uniqueness of each client, understanding that this is necessary if they want to prescribe individualized solutions that really work.
The best therapists are highly responsible professionals. They establish firm boundaries, treat their clients with respect and consideration regardless of how they are feeling on a particular day, and consider it their duty to always show up on time for appointments. Therapists do care about their clients, but they also care about their profession, and they set high standards for themselves that they strive to uphold every day and in every circumstance. Ultimately, their clients will benefit tremendously from their dedication and commitment, which is something they will not compromise on regardless of the situation.
In this guide we dove into how to become a therapist , all the different types and specialties in therapy, how long it takes to become a therapist, how to become a therapist without a psychology degree and much more. Be on the lookout for future guides. Some that you can expect are:
- how to become a psychotherapist
- how to become an art therapist
- how to become a marriage counselor
- how to become a play therapist
- how to become a child therapist
- how to become a CBT therapist
- how to become an ABA therapist
- how to become a behavioral therapist
- how to become a recreational therapist
- how to become a family therapist
We hope that this guide was able to help you make a decision, or at least get closer to making a decision about your future and your career. We know that career decisions can be stressful and scary at times, but we are always here to support your dreams and help you get to where you want to be!
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