How to Become a Therapist: Your Questions Answered

Maybe you’ve thought about pursuing a career in therapy, but aren’t sure where or how to get started — or what the job market looks like. Maybe you aren’t even totally clear on what a therapist does, or how being a therapist differs from being a counselor. In this guide to how to become a therapist, we’ll discuss all of these topics and more, answering frequently asked questions like:

  • What is a therapist?
  • What degree do you need to become a therapist?
  • What are some different types of therapy careers?
  • How long does it take to become a licensed therapist?

Read on to learn the answers — and discover whether a career in therapy might make a good fit for you.

What is a Therapist?

As we’ll explore in more detail later in this article, “therapist” is a broad term that can refer to many different career fields and schools of thought — for instance, eclectic or behavioral therapy versus psychodynamic or humanistic therapy. What each of these examples shares in common is that they are all forms of psychotherapy, commonly known as “talk therapy,” as opposed to disciplines like physical or occupational therapy.

As a psychotherapist (or talk therapist), some examples of your roles and duties include developing and revising treatment plans that are appropriate to the needs of your clients, maintaining comprehensive and accurate patient charts and records, complying with confidentiality and ethical standards, and setting and maintaining appropriate boundaries with your patients. Here are a few excerpts from actual job postings, which offer additional insight into the skills and responsibilities real employers expect of employees in psychotherapy roles:

  • “A psychotherapist will elucidate clients’ presenting symptomologies, devise interventions, and establish solid relationships with treatment facilities.”
  • “Provide direct psychotherapy treatment, performing client psychosocial assessments, developing treatment plans and guiding the treatment process, developing exit plans, providing psychological and emotional support to clients.”
  • “Provide Crisis intervention services. Duties include: conducting emergency assessments, determining proper disposition, and arranging for needed emergency intervention for cases that are active on assigned caseload.”

Of course, your specific methods and approaches to treatment will be determined by the type of therapist you choose to become — or, for those who pursue a career in holistic therapy, by a blend of different approaches.

We’ll talk more about holistic therapists, CBT therapists, psychodynamic therapists, and several other types of therapists in more detail later on in this guide. First, let’s review some of the education requirements to become a psychotherapist in 2022.

What Degree is Needed to Be a Therapist?

It’s important to be aware that there are rigorous therapist education requirements in all U.S. states, though state-specific criteria can vary as we discuss in more detail below. Generally speaking, most states require aspiring therapists to hold either a master’s degree or a PhD in a relevant field, such as psychology. An undergraduate degree like a bachelor’s degree, though a springboard into numerous rewarding career paths, is generally not sufficient to meet the minimum education requirements for psychotherapists.

Want to learn more about the benefits of an advanced degree, or discover what distinguishes a PhD from other types of doctoral degrees? Read all about doctorate degrees and their advantages, or explore National University’s accredited Doctor of Clinical Psychology (PsyD) program. You may also be interested in our California-specific Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology, or one of our numerous additional graduate and undergraduate programs in psychology, many of which are available on-campus or online to conveniently fit with your goals — and your schedule.

Different Types of Therapists

There are numerous approaches to providing therapy — offering students an equally diverse range of career opportunities. Depending on your interests, passions, and skills, you may be more drawn to a career where you use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Family Systems Therapy (FST), or other methods of doing therapy you may currently be less familiar with, such as holistic therapy. Continue reading to learn more about different kinds of therapy approaches and how each differs in their treatment focus.

Humanistic Therapy

Alongside Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, psychodynamic therapy, and eclectic therapy, humanistic therapy is one of the major approaches to therapy. This category of therapy is characterized by the heavy emphasis it places upon self-awareness — and how it can lead to self-improvement. Therapists in this field work with clients who have been diagnosed with disorders such as anxiety, depression, and panic disorders, helping them to leverage their positive traits to achieve their potential and cope with difficult emotions more successfully.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

The fundamental principle underpinning Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is that dysfunctional thought processes lead to dysfunctional behaviors. CBT therapists work with their clients to analyze, examine, and ultimately change or disrupt these dysfunctional thought processes, with the goal being to produce a positive change in behaviors or emotional states. CBT has been successful in treating patients with depression and anxiety, along with many other conditions or personal challenges that patients wish to address, such as working to prevent relapses or coping with the impacts of grief.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is arguably the most well-known type of therapy featured in this guide. However, it isn’t the only type of behavioral therapy — there’s also a method known as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), which differs in its scope and approach. Whereas CBT targets the unhelpful or dysfunctional thoughts that are believed to lie at the root of unwanted behaviors, DBT is more specifically oriented around the acceptance and management of challenging emotions or situations, meaning DBT lays greater emphasis on coping skills and emotional regulation.

Family Systems Therapy (FST)

This approach focuses on issues presented in therapy within the context of the systems in which they live and interact. Systems-oriented therapists focus on patterns of interaction and communication that create and maintain the problems they are facing. Treatment of anxiety, depression, and other issues perceived to be within the individual as well as those that are clearly related to interactions in relationships are treated through a focus on those issues within the context of the system. In other words, a problem cannot be assessed or treated in isolation but instead must be analyzed and treated relative to other parts of the system.

Psychodynamic Therapy

You may know of psychodynamic therapy by its more familiar name: psychoanalysis. Though it remains closely associated with Sigmund Freud in the minds of many individuals today, the field of psychodynamic therapy has evolved dramatically since its origins in the nineteenth century.

Modern psychodynamic therapy focuses on helping clients recognize links between past experiences and present behaviors, such as the impacts of an abusive relationship. As the American Psychological Association (APA) explains, this type of therapy is “characterized by a close working partnership between therapist and patient” and is used to help treat or manage issues such as depression, panic disorders, and other types of psychological disorders.

Holistic Therapy

Holistic therapy is a multifaceted approach to treatment that’s also referred to as integrative therapy. According to the APA, “Many therapists don’t tie themselves to any one approach. Instead, they blend elements from different approaches and tailor their treatment according to each client’s needs.” The resulting method of treatment is holistic therapy, which is used to help clients address issues ranging from stress, depression, and anxiety to PTSD and trauma resulting from sexual abuse.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Therapist?

To become a therapist, you’ll need to earn an advanced degree such as a doctorate or master’s degree, as we discussed earlier in this article. This process may require anywhere from around two to three years for full-time master’s degree programs, to upwards of five to six years to earn a doctoral degree (such as the Doctor of Psychology or PsyD), in addition to the four to five years generally required to earn a bachelor’s degree. You may be able to enroll in an accelerated program, such as our online four-week courses at National University, enabling you to earn your degree and move onto the next step of your career faster than a traditional academic track.

In addition to meeting these educational requirements, you will also need to complete a certain number of hours of supervised clinical experience after graduation from your program. The specific number — for instance, a 3,000-hour requirement — varies depending on your state, a topic discussed in more depth below. These post-graduate hours generally take two years to complete.

The Difference Between a Therapist and a Counselor

The terms “therapist” and “counselor” are often paired or used interchangeably, which can lead to linguistic confusion. So what do these terms mean exactly, and how are these careers or job titles different?

Speaking generally, counseling services tend to focus on single issues (such as marriage or substance abuse) and are usually offered on a short-term basis, whereas psychotherapy tends to be broader in scope and involve a larger time commitment. Therefore, counseling services tend to focus on solving specific problems, such as offering tips for managing panic attacks, while a therapist might be more concerned with analyzing the underlying emotions and thought processes behind a given issue.

With that in mind, there is considerable overlap between these two areas, as therapists, like counselors, often have specialty areas and provide their clients with resources or strategies for handling various situations or triggers. Both counselors and therapists are generally required to hold a master’s degree and undergo rigorous licensing processes, which are discussed more in the next section of this article.

Becoming a Licensed Therapist

It’s important to be aware that different states enforce different requirements for becoming a licensed therapist, including post-graduate requirements to complete supervised clinical hours. For instance, the California Board of Behavioral Sciences reports that California law requires 3,000 hours of supervised post-degree professional experience, including 104 weeks of clinical supervision, in order to qualify for licensure.

While specific criteria vary from state to state, here are some general requirements you can expect to encounter on your journey toward becoming licensed:

  • Supervised clinical hours requirements, such as the 3,000-hour requirement that currently applies in California as of 2022
  • Minimum education requirements, such as many state requirements to hold a master’s degree or higher in a relevant field
  • Passing various exams, such as the NCMHCE or the national MFT exam, and in many cases additional exams, involving ethics and legal issues
  • Passing a criminal background check
  • Registering with various organizations in your state, which generally involves paying fees

It’s a smart idea to research state-specific licensure requirements early on in your academic journey, which will help you to gain a clearer and more accurate understanding of the targets you’ll need to meet. These can be found by doing an internet search, such as LPCC (or MFT or Social Work) licensure requirements in [state in which you are considering being licensed]. For example, you can compare the Florida requirements above to the California requirements here to gain an idea of the variations among states.

Career Outlook and Demand for Therapists

What sort of job outlook exists for psychotherapists and related careers, and what sort of salary might you expect? Fortunately, it’s possible to gain insights into these crucial topics by looking at data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Here are a few examples of job outlook and the median salary for professions in or related to psychotherapy, based on the most recent available BLS data. These median salaries reflect a nationwide range and medians will vary from state to state.

  • Psychologists
    • Job Outlook — 8% (“as fast as average” job growth)
    • Median Salary — Over $81,000

Apart from rehabilitation counselors and school or career counselors, “all other counselors” are grouped into a single category by the BLS, which reports the median salary for these occupations as being over $49,700.

What Makes A Good Therapist?

Therapists need to possess not only advanced experiential training and academic knowledge but also a variety of soft skills and practical skills that are essential to every practitioner, regardless of what environment they work in or what types of patients and clients they serve. For example, any aspiring therapist should cultivate exceptional communication skills and interpersonal skills, which are vital for connecting and engaging with diverse, multicultural patients and clients who may be facing a variety of mental health or behavioral challenges.

It may seem obvious that therapists need to be skilled, empathetic communicators — but that’s far from the only qualification. What are some other traits, skills, and characteristics that help make an effective therapist?

  • A sense of service. Therapists devote their professional careers to helping their clients deal with personal challenges — and even with the most skilled and dedicated care, not every case is a success story. You’ll need a strong sense of wanting to help others, even when making progress feels difficult or impossible.
  • Listening and emotional intelligence. Good communication is about more than just diagnosing your patients or asking them questions about their lives. It also involves careful and sustained listening coupled with the ability to “read between the lines,” requiring you to be patient, observant, and empathetic.
  • Problem-solving skills. Your clients may be facing serious crises and/or obstacles to their well-being. As a therapist, you’ll need the ability to innovate, experiment, and apply novel solutions to continuously support your clients.

Ready to Start Your Career in Therapy?

Think a career in therapy or counseling might be right for you? Take the first steps by reading about our accredited graduate and undergraduate psychology and social sciences programs, requesting program information from our friendly team of admissions advisors, or applying to National University online today.

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