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How to Become a Therapist: 6 Steps to Follow

Posted by Christine Sarikas | Nov 6, 2020 11:00:00 AM

General Education

 

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Interested in how to become a therapist? Demand for many types of therapists is skyrocketing, so it's a great field to join. However, it's important to know what you're getting into before you embark on a therapy career. What types of therapy degrees are there? What degree do you need to become a therapist? How long does it take to become a therapist? We answer all these questions and more in this in-depth guide on how to become a licensed therapist.

 

What Types of Therapists Are There?

When someone tells you that they are a therapist or want to become a therapist, that can mean a lot of different things because there are many kinds of therapists. Below are different titles therapists can have, depending on the degree they earned and the work they focus on. 

 

Licensed Creative Arts Therapist (LCAT)

  • Have a Master's in art therapy, music therapy, or a similar field. Each state has additional requirements for exams/training they must also complete. 

 

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

  • Often referred to as "social workers" they have at least a Master's degree in social work and hundreds of hours of supervised work.

 

Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) or Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)

  • Have a minimum of a Master's in Counseling, along with state certification. Unlike LCSWs, these therapists can perform assessments, such as the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, to identify intellectual disabilities a child might be facing.

 

Licensed School Psychologist (LSP)

  • Have an Education Specialist degree in school psychology, passed a state school psychology exam (most common is the NASP test) and obtained a Professional Educator’s License (PEL) with a school psychology endorsement. Typically work in schools.

 

Occupational Therapist

  • Work with patients who have sustained effects of serious illnesses and/or injuries to improve their quality of life. Have a Master's or Doctorate degree in Occupational Therapy, plus additional training and exams.

 

Psychiatrist

  • Medical doctors with an MD or DO degree. They are the only therapists able to prescribe medication to patients.

 

Psychologist

  • Have a PhD or PsyD in psychology or a similar field. They commonly engage in talk therapy, discussing issues and potential treatment paths with patients to help them overcome mental health issues they are struggling with.

 

As you can see "therapist" is a very broad term, and lots of jobs fall under that umbrella. In the most basic distinction, occupational therapists focus on peoples' bodies, while other therapists focus on patients' minds.

Psychiatrists and psychologists need to complete the most education, at least four years after they finish college. Most other therapists only need 2-3 years post-grad education. 

If you want to be a licensed therapist, you almost always need to get a Master's degree; a bachelor's won't cut it. If you're interested in how to become a therapist without a degree, know that, without licensure (which you can't get without a degree), most states won't allow you to call yourself a therapist, you won't be able to work as a therapist at an established therapy office, and most insurance agencies won't cover your services. So, even though licensure requires a significant amount of time and money, it's necessary if you want to be a therapist.

As a therapist, you can have a general practice or choose to specialize in one or more areas. You might get a general degree, such as a Master's in Counseling, or a more specific degree, such as a Master's in Substance Abuse Counseling, or a Master's in Family and Marriage Counseling. There are many areas therapists can specialize in, including:

  • Addiction
  • Aging
  • Anxiety
  • Childhood/Adolescent Issues
  • Depression
  • Eating Disorders
  • Grief
  • Family
  • Marriage
  • Mental Illness
  • Multicultural Issues
  • Sex
  • Stress
  • Sports
  • Trauma
  • Work/Life Balance

 

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Salary and Job Outlook for Therapists

How much does a therapist make, and will there be open jobs for you by the time you graduate? This data, which comes from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows the median salary and job outlook over the next decade for different types of therapists. 

Job Title
Median Salary (2019)
Job Outlook (2019-29)
Marriage and Family Therapist
$49,610
22%
Occupational Therapist
$84,950
16%
Psychologist
$80,370
3%
School and Career Counselor
$57,040
8%
Social Worker
$50,470
13%
Substance Abuse, Behavioural Disorder, and Mental Health Counselor
$46,240
25%

 

As you can see from the chart, there's a wide variation in the average salary a therapist can make. Those with a lot of schooling, such as a psychologist, can expect to make over $80,000 a year, while social workers and counselors make closer to $50,000 a year. However, demand for many types of therapists is skyrocketing. Average growth for all careers is about 3-5%, and many of these therapy positions are well above that. So, even if you aren't making bank, you can expect a lot of job opportunities if you become a therapist.

 

6 Steps to Becoming a Therapist

How long does it take to become a therapist? And what degree do you need to become a therapist? We break down all the key steps to becoming a therapist in this section.

 

#1: Excel in High School

It's not required for you to know that you want to be a therapist while in high school, but if you're a high school student who has decided that a career in therapy is your goal, there are lots of things you can do right now to put you in the strongest position possible down the road.

First, take the right high school classes. There's no set of high school courses that are specifically best for future therapists, but one where you really can't go wrong is psychology (AP Psychology or regular level). Other classes you'll likely find helpful are those in sociology, human behavior, biology, anatomy, chemistry, and statistics. Because therapists spend a lot of their time talking to patients, classes in speech or communication can also be very helpful. In general, make sure you're meeting all your high school graduation requirements. 

Once you have your class schedule set, aim for strong grades in them. A high GPA will improve your chances of getting into your dream school. Similarly, aim for high scores on the SAT or ACT. Ideally, you'll take your first SAT or ACT around the beginning of your junior year. This should give you enough time to take the test again in the spring, and possibly a third time during the summer before or the autumn of your senior year. For more tips on how to set a goal score, check out our guides to what a great SAT/ACT score is.

During this time, you may also want to begin volunteer work to get a taste of what being a therapist would be like. Sometimes volunteer opportunities for high school students can be limited, but check local nursing homes, hospitals, food banks, and similar locations. Anything that gets you talking to and helping people are great first experiences to have as you begin your path towards becoming a therapist.

Also, don't worry if you don't know the exact type of therapist you want to become yet. You still have several years to decide this, and the best way to make the right choice is to have a lot of different experiences and see which appeal to you the most.

 

#2: Develop Your Focus in College

At this point on your path on how to become a therapist, this is where you'll begin to start thinking more about the specific type of therapist you want to become, although you definitely don't need to decide right away. What degree do you need to become a therapist? What you major in during college partly depends on the type of therapy you want to go into. For any aspiring therapist, the most obvious choice is majoring in psychology. A psychology degree is a solid option no matter what type of specific therapist you want to become. 

However, there are many other options as well. If you want to be a psychiatrist, occupational therapist, or physical therapist, a hard science degree in biology or human anatomy is a good choice. You may also major in a different field, such as sociology, social work, etc. There's no undergraduate degree you must get in order to become a therapist, and many master's programs accept students from all a wide variety of undergraduate majors. The most common prerequisite is a course in statistics, so make sure you take at least one of those in college. Classes in writing, communication, psychology, etc. will help you be as prepared as possible before starting graduate work. Whatever you decide to major in, keep your grades up. Many graduate programs for therapists require a minimum GPA of 2.75 or 3.0.

There are other things to be focusing on in college besides just your classes. This is an excellent time to get an internship or do volunteering that's related to therapy. As a college student, you'll have many more options than high school students, especially once you're 18 or older (many places don't accept volunteers or workers younger than 18). You might volunteer for an abuse hotline, help recent immigrants settle into their new home, assist senior citizens with errands, etc. A therapy-related internship is especially impressive to have because it shows you have work experience in the field before even beginning your therapy-specific degree. 

These experiences also give you a chance to begin refining your career ideas and deciding what kind of therapist you want to become. In order to have the fullest picture possible, we recommend volunteering/working with a lot of different age groups and in a lot of different situations, so you know which appeal to you the most.

Most therapy graduate programs also require two letters of recommendation, so, during college, it's also important to cultivate relationships with your professors. Letters of recommendation from psychology professors will be considered the strongest, but any professor who can write you a glowing letter of recommendation will be a bonus to your grad applications.

 

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#3: Choose What Graduate Degree You Want and Apply to Schools

In the fall of your senior year of college (if you decide to attend grad school immediately after college), you'll begin applying to grad programs. This means that you'll want to have a pretty solid idea of the type of therapy grad program you're interested in, whether that's a Master's in social work or counseling, a PhD in psychology, a med school degree so you can become a psychiatrist, etc.

If you're still unsure, use the summer between your junior and senior years of college to get as much experience as you can. You can try job shadowing different therapists, volunteering at different places, getting internships, etc. Even just having an informational interview with different types of therapists can help you solidify your career plans for yourself.

Applying to grad school is a lot like applying to college: you'll need to submit transcripts, letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and possibly GRE scores. In your personal statement, you'll likely discuss why you're interested in becoming a therapist and what your career goals are. Even if you're going to a more open-ended program (such as a general counselor program as opposed to marriage and therapy counselor program) you should have a strong idea of the type of therapy work you want to do. It's common (and expected) for this career path to change somewhat while you're in school, but having a plan right now shows that you're taking your therapy seriously and have given it a lot of thought.

 

#4: Complete Grad School

Once you've been accepted, you'll be in the graduate program for several years. Many programs include internships or work experiences, so they're longer than standard two-year Master's programs. Here's a chart of how long you can expect different programs for therapy students to take (though there can be some variations).

Profession

Years to Complete Graduate Program

Counselor

2 years

School and Career Counselor

3+ years (depending if you get a PhD or not)

Social Worker

2 years

Occupational Therapist

2-3 years

Psychologist

5-7 years to complete PhD

Psychiatrist

4 years med school + 4 years residency

 

Some programs are a year or a half-year longer than the above times; this is because they include an internship or work placement as part of the degree requirement. This is part of the process of becoming a licensed therapist (see step 5), so it doesn't actually lengthen the time it takes to become a therapist. Instead,  you'll just receive your degree a little farther down the line.

Graduate school is a big commitment, and it'll likely take up the majority of your time. The program will include everything you need to know to become a successful therapist, so as long as you're taking the required classes, getting good grades in them, and completing any work experiences or training you need to in order to graduate, you're doing everything you need to at this point.

 

#5: Complete Internships and Training

Either during your grad program or immediately after you graduate, you'll need to complete internships or practice hours needed to be eligible to get your license. The number of hours you need to complete and what you need to do during them will vary based on the program you're in, the school you're attending, and the state where you want to get your license. 

(Note: If you're planning on becoming a psychologist or a psychiatrist the schedule will look different for you. Psychiatrists get their hands-on experience during their residency which lasts several years and occurs right after they graduate med school. Psychologists typically conduct supervised practice during or after their PhD/PsyD program.)

Depending on your program and your own interests, you might complete this requirement at a school, hospital, nursing home, private therapist's office, or a combination. Some people complete the entire requirement at one place while others move one or more times to get broader experience. 

Your graduate program will help you know what you need to do to complete this requirement. Most programs will list these requirements on their website so you can get an idea of what schools you're interested in require. Here are some examples:

School Name

Program

Practical Requirement

UT Austin

Master's of Social Work

1,020 hours

DePaul University

Master's in Mental Health Counseling

1 year professional practice

Boston University

Doctor of Occupational Therapy

24 weeks of full-time clinical placements

 

Expect this step to take several months to a year to complete. This is often most people's favorite part of becoming a therapist because they're actually working with people and doing the work they've been studying for.

 

#6: Get Your License

After you've completed all your schooling and practice requirements, you're finally at the last step! Now you're eligible to get your license. Licensing requirements vary by state and program, but you'll often have to complete an exam (this might be done before, during, or after your practical work). Different states sometimes have different exam requirements, so you should know where you want to practice as a therapist before choosing which exam to take. Most graduate programs will have prepared you well for the exam, but you'll likely want to do some additional studying several weeks before the test to give yourself the best chance of passing it.

The exams are mostly multiple-choice, although some may have short answer, practical, or oral questions included as part of the process. Expect to spend about $300 to take the exam.

Your graduate school will help you decide which exam to take and any other paperwork you need to complete your licensing requirements. It'll often take several weeks to get your scores, and another several weeks for your license to get processed, but once that's completed, you're able to begin working as a licensed therapist!

 

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Summary: How to Become a Therapist

If you're interested in how to become a therapist, that can include a variety of careers, including social worker, occupational therapist, psychologist, and more. However, all therapy careers require similar steps before you can begin working as a licensed therapist. How long does it take to become a therapist? That depends highly on the type of therapist you want to become, but, in any case, you'll need to get a graduate degree, which will take at least two years. You'll also need practical experience and to pass an exam before you can get your license and begin practicing. Here are the six steps to becoming a therapist:

1.Excel in high school
2.Develop your focus in college
3.Choose what graduate degree you want and apply to schools
4.Complete grad school
5.Complete internships and training
6.Get your license
 
 

What's Next?

AP Psychology is one of the best high school classes for future therapists to take. Are you planning to take the AP Psych exam? Get tips and review what you need to know with our ultimate AP Psych study guide. For study materials, check out our picks for the best AP Psych prep books and get access to free official and unofficial practice tests.

Interested in forensic psychology? This career field is exploding right now, and our guide has everything you need to know about becoming a forensic psychologist

Researching psychology Master's programs? Read our guide to learn the 30 best psychology Master's programs in the US.

 


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Christine Sarikas
About the Author

Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.



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