If you want to become a therapist but are not sure where to start, you have come to the right place.
While there are several different types of therapists, psychologists, and counselors (distinctions which we will address in this article), the path to each profession is similar.
Every one of these positions (based on our research focused on the U.S.) requires a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field, and in a few cases (particularly counseling positions) that alone is enough to start practicing.
Most of these positions, however, require prospective therapists to also go on to earn their master’s degree in psychology or a related field, at which point they can become licensed and start practicing if they have accrued enough supervised clinical experience.
Earning a Ph.D. or Psy.D. will make prospective therapists more desirable candidates, but it is not necessary to begin practicing.
Before you continue, you might want to check out our digital guidebook, ‘On Becoming a Therapist’ (Fully updated in 2021). This in-depth, step-by-step guide contains all the information you need to make informed decisions about your future while turning your interest in becoming a therapist into meaningful action. Click here to check it out.
Do You Need To Be A Psychologist as a Therapist?
The difference between psychologists, therapists, and counselors is an important one to define, as some people think careers are identical. There can be overlaps, and we generally think of them all as professionals who help people with their problems.
While psychologists can also be therapists, the two careers are not interchangeable. A psychologist has a higher degree than that of a therapist, although many psychologists use their higher credentials to practice therapy.
In general, psychologists have the highest educational requirements and are held to the highest ethical standards, followed by therapists, then counselors (HumanServicesEdu.org, 2015). Since therapists are regulated at the regional level while psychologists have more standardized career paths, some therapists might be as qualified as psychologists while others might not be.
It might also be easier to find a therapist suited to your needs (for example, marriage and family therapists) than it is to find a psychologist specifically suited to your needs.
As for counselors, there is a wide range of educational requirements and ethical standards for counselors. Some might be licensed and just as qualified as a therapist, while others might be unlicensed or less educated. In order to call oneself a therapist, one must possess either a master’s or a doctoral degree. Some counseling titles require a masters degree, while some do not.
For more information on these distinctions click here.
Education Required to Become a Psychologist
To put it simply, most psychologists have either a Ph.D. in psychology or a Psy.D., otherwise known as a Doctor of Psychology degree (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015). To distinguish between the two, a Ph.D. is completed with research towards a dissertation, while a Psy.D. is based more on clinical work.
While all of these tracks require a bachelor’s degree, some psychologist jobs (such as a school psychologist) can be obtained with a master’s degree without needing a higher degree.
Getting a Ph.D. or Psy.D. usually takes at least five years to complete. During this time there is generally a research or practicum component, and a required number of supervised clinical hours. This is the longest track to practicing as a therapist, but the job prospects are generally the best, as this is the highest credential one can earn.
Some types of psychologists require extra levels of education. For example, school psychologists might require an education specialist degree (Ed.S.) before they can start working in certain schools and includes a supervised internship consisting of over 1,000 hours of work. (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015).
For more information on how to become a psychologist, have a look at our Positive Psychology Degree article.
Counseling Degree Requirements
Degree requirements for prospective counselors depend on what type of counseling one wants to do. To be a school or career counselor, one usually needs a master’s degree in counseling or a related field, with a specialization in career or school counseling (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015). Many regions also prefer school counselors to have teaching experience before getting licensed.
To become a rehabilitation counselor, one needs a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling or a related field (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015). Some schools offer five-year programs where prospective counselors can earn both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling.
Bachelor’s degrees are necessary for anyone looking to enter a master’s degree program.
To become a substance abuse or behavioral disorder counselor, one usually only needs a bachelor’s degree (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015). A master’s degree, however, can help a prospective counselor find work more easily. A mental health counselor should have a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling or a related field (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015).
Regardless of the type of counselor one wants to be, most regions require additional licensing. This licensing is made up of hours (around 2,000 to 4,000 in some cases) of supervised counseling experience along with passing a test.
For more information on counselors, follow these links:
What Kinds Of Therapists Are There?
Since therapists can help a wide variety of people, there are several specializations within the profession.
This includes psychotherapists, behavioral therapists, cognitive-behavioral therapists, interpersonal therapists, mindfulness-based therapists, recreational therapists, child therapists, marriage and family therapists, and occupational therapists.
Many of these therapists positions have similar educational and career paths, but some have specific requirements as well.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Therapist?
In most cases, becoming a therapist will take at least around seven to fifteen years following graduation from high school. Most therapists need a bachelor’s degree (which takes four years to earn on average), and then a master’s degree (which takes about two to three years on average to earn) or a doctoral degree (which takes about five to seven years on average to earn).
Formal education is followed by supervised clinical hours of direct experience before one can become licensed as a therapist. This means that if one already has a bachelor’s degree, it is a matter of four to ten years before they can be licensed as a therapist.
For a more in-depth and practical look at the requirements for training, take a look at The PositivePsychology.com Essential Guide, On Becoming a Therapist.
What Does a Therapist Do?
Fundamentally, therapists help people overcome their problems. These problems can come in a wide variety of forms and can include substance abuse problems, interpersonal problems with family members or coworkers, or behavioral disorders. What a therapist does depends largely on the type of therapist they are.
- An occupational therapist helps people with temporary disabilities return to their prior level of functioning, and helps people with permanent disabilities live more independently on a day-to-day basis (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015).
- A recreational therapist uses recreational activities such as arts and crafts to help people improve their levels of wellbeing in general (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015).
- A marriage and family therapist helps couples, families, or individuals resolve interpersonal issues (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015).
- A behavioral therapist can help people modify their behaviors, and generally works with people with behavioral dysfunctions.
- A CBT therapist might help someone identify thought patterns that lead to destructive habits in their life and then help change those thought patterns (Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, 2015).
- Finally, a child therapist can help a child cope with a behavioral or emotional disturbance so that they can develop in a more healthy manner (Miller, 2015).
What a therapist does greatly depends on what type of therapist they are, and what their clinical orientation is. At its base, the job of a therapist generally consists of helping someone improve their levels of wellbeing, improving their functioning in different areas of life, whether emotional, relational, occupational, physical, or mental.
What Makes a Good Therapist?
Some of the qualities that are helpful for therapists to have include (in alphabetical order): analytical skills, communication skills, compassion, flexibility, interpersonal skills, leadership skills, listening skills, observational skills, organization, patience, resourcefulness, speaking skills, and writing skills, to name just a few (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015).
In other words, a therapist needs to be able to communicate effectively with a client to be able to figure out what the client is looking for from a therapy session. This requires patience and listening skills as therapists need to understand what a client’s problem consists of before they can start treating it.
Therapists need to be observant, so they can hear things that are not explicitly stated by the client.
A therapist’s job consists of being able to effectively understand a client’s problem and to develop a treatment plan collaboratively with the client.
This requires therapists to be resourceful and flexible so that they can treat their clients in an individualized way based on what their clients need and are able to do.
Finally, therapists need to be organized so they can keep track of the work they have done with their clients. This record-keeping includes writing skills and speaking skills so that the therapist and the client are always on the same page. This mutual understanding is key to any therapy session.
The PositivePsychology.com Essential Guide, On Becoming a Therapist, dives deeper into the specific, necessary, baseline qualities that therapists must master to help their clients in meaningful ways.
How To Become a Psychotherapist
Psychotherapists help people overcome problems in their lives, whether they are mental or interpersonal (UK Council for Psychotherapy, 2015). For example, a psychotherapist might help someone figure out why they have so much stress or how to deal with an unhealthy relationship with a coworker. Therapy typically follows the format of weekly, hour-long sessions.
To become a psychotherapist, one should first earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field. From there, one can start earning their master’s degree in psychotherapy. While earning their master’s degree, one will start accruing relevant clinical experience necessary for licensing.
In the United Kingdom, for example, one needs a master’s degree in psychotherapy and 450 hours of practice to be registered as a licensed psychotherapist by the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP).
In the US, the requirements to become a psychotherapist typically involve a pre-degree requirement of anywhere from 1000-1500 hours, and then another 1500 hours of supervised experience after obtaining your degree.
Typically, a candidate who has finished their supervised hours will get approval from the licensing board of their region to sit for a standardized clinical licensing exam before they are officially “licensed” to practice. They may practice in the interim before licensure with a conditional license usually containing the title “associate” or “intern” before their credentials.
Once licensed, psychotherapists are mandated to obtain a certain amount of education each year to keep their license and credentialing current and up-to-date.
For more information on psychotherapy certification, visit this website.
How To Become a Behavioral Therapist
Behavioral therapists help people overcome unhealthy behaviors that are self-destructive. Behavioral therapists typically treat people with cognitive disabilities, such as autism, to manage their behaviors, but may also work with people with obsessive-compulsive disorders or substance abuse issues (Falkenstein et al., 2016; Moyers et al., 2016).
Someone who wants to become a behavioral therapist should first earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field. After earning a bachelor’s degree, one can start working as a behavioral disorder counselor. In order to become a licensed behavioral therapist, one must earn their master’s degree in psychology or counseling, and work towards licensure.
Licensing requirements vary by region, and similar to psychotherapy requirements, every state in the United States requires a master’s degree and 2,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience for behavioral therapist licensure.
For more information on behavioral therapists, visit this website.
How To Become a CBT Therapist
CBT therapists are similar to behavioral therapists, as they help people overcome destructive behaviors, but CBT therapists ultimately focus on thoughts and thought patterns (Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, 2015).
For example, a CBT therapist might help someone who consistently lashes out at work to figure out which thought patterns are causing them to do so. A CBT therapist would then work with their client to change these thought patterns, so the client stops lashing out at work.
The process of becoming a CBT therapist is almost identical to the process of becoming a psychotherapist, except that one may specialize and obtain extra certification in CBT techniques.
After earning their master’s degree, prospective CBT therapists have two options: they can either become accredited in psychotherapy and start offering CBT programs, or they can specifically become accredited in CBT therapy.
For example, in the United Kingdom, the first option might consist of getting licensed by the UKCP or the British Association for Counseling & Psychotherapy (BACP) as a general psychotherapist.
The second option consists of earning psychotherapist accreditation and then getting specifically accredited as a CBT therapist by the British Association for Behavioural & Cognitive Therapy (BABCT) or the Association for Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (AREBT).
BABCT requires 200 hours of supervised clinical experience on top of the 450 required for UKCP accreditation, to give you an idea.
For more information on CBT therapists, visit this or this website.
How To Become a Recreational Therapist
Recreational therapists help people with mental or physical health issues to improve their levels of wellbeing (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015). For example, a recreational therapist might help someone living in a nursing home lead a more fulfilling life by playing games or doing activities with them. A recreational therapist might also use sports to teach someone how to be more independent after an accident.
To become a recreational therapist one must earn a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy or a related field. Many regions do not have specific requirements for recreational therapists. That said, most hospitals and clinical offices prefer to hire certified recreational therapists (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015).
In the United States, the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC) offers a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS) certification, which is earned after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy and passing an exam on recreational therapy, although one can earn it by simply passing the exam on top of any other bachelor’s degree.
Further specialty certification can be obtained in areas such as behavioral health or physical rehabilitation, which might help a prospective therapist be a more competitive candidate when searching for a job.
For more information on recreational therapists, visit this website.
How To Become a Child Therapist
Child therapists help children develop in a more healthy way. For example, a child therapist might help a child understand why they cannot focus in school, and figure out ways to help the child focus better in the classroom (Miller, 2015).
Child therapists also help diagnose and treat mental health disorders in children and work with families to support the child.
Like most therapists, the path to becoming a child therapist begins with a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field. From there, one should earn a Master’s degree in child development or clinical psychology, and accrue the requisite number of supervised hours of clinical experience.
This path is again similar to that of a psychotherapist, although one interested in specifically working with children may tailor their training to specialize in techniques like expressive art therapy and child-centered play therapy. One can also go on to earn a Ph.D. or Psy.D. to be a more desirable candidate.
For more information on child therapists, visit this, this or this website.
How To Become a Family Therapist
Marriage and family therapists help families and couples overcome interpersonal issues between one another, and also help treat individuals who have mental health issues which affect their familial relationships (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015).
For example, a marriage and family therapist might help a married couple understand why they have been fighting.
A marriage and family therapist might also help a family learn how to better deal with one of their member’s anxiety issues.
To become a marriage and family therapist, one must first earn a bachelor’s degree, ideally in psychology or a similar field. After that, one can enter a master’s program in counseling psychology, marriage and family therapy, or a related field, and earn their supervised clinical hours of experience (American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, 2015).
In the United States, licensing is administered regionally by governing boards—in California, this is the Board of Behavioral Sciences.
For more information on marriage and family therapists, visit this or this website.
How To Become An Occupational Therapist
Occupational therapists help people with physical and mental health issues to be more independent (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015). Occupational therapists also “aspire to promote dignity… and an adequate standard of life” for their clients (Crawford et al., 2017). For example, an occupational therapist might help someone who is new to using a wheelchair figure out how to live their day-to-day life in an independent manner.
Occupational therapists also help their client’s family members or caregivers understand how to best help the client in their daily activities.
To become an occupational therapist, one should first earn a bachelor’s degree in a program that includes some coursework in physiology or a related field. After earning a bachelor’s degree, prospective occupational therapists should volunteer or work in an occupational therapist’s office to gain experience (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015).
Prospective occupational therapists are then qualified for a master’s degree in occupational therapy, which is the requisite degree for most jobs. After earning a master’s degree, one needs to complete occupational therapist licensing, which is administered in the United States by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). From there, one should be ready to start looking for work.
For more information on occupational therapists, visit this website.
A Take-Home Message
While the path to becoming a therapist may seem extremely long, it is important to remember that there are actually several paths to becoming a therapist. If one already has a bachelor’s degree in just about any subject, they can start seeking out a master’s program in psychology or therapy.
Earning a Ph.D. increases one’s chances of getting hired, and it is important to note that many Ph.D. programs grant a master’s degree in the middle of the program.
There are also options for people who only have a bachelor’s degree, or can only realistically earn a bachelor’s degree. Without going on to earn a master’s degree, one can still work in certain counseling positions. Some people might be happy working as a counselor, while others may use their experience as a counselor to inform their pursuit of further education and licensure as a therapist.
We would love to hear about your experience gaining work experience in counseling, therapy, or psychology and what your country or state’s requirements for credentialing are.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. To learn from more than 300+ practicing therapists what it takes to create a successful career in therapy, don’t forget to check out The PositivePsychology.com Essential Guide, ‘On Becoming a Therapist’.
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