Key Highlights

  • “Therapist” is a broad category that encompasses professionals from various educational backgrounds (such as psychology, social work, and counseling) who provide psychotherapy.
  • Each type of therapist has different training and specializes in different areas, such as clinical psychology, marriage and family therapy, or professional counseling.
  • Becoming a therapist requires a significant investment of time and effort, but it can be a rewarding career if you are interested in helping others overcome mental health challenges.

Therapists play a vital and beneficial role in society. Not only do they provide crucial support for individuals dealing with mental health issues, they also assist individuals in navigating many of life’s challenges.

As a therapist, the impact you have can go beyond your practice with individuals and organizations – you can advocate for policies and practices that promote mental health and access to care, working towards building  a society that prioritizes mental well-being and supports those in need.

A therapist is a professional trained to provide psychological counseling and support to individuals, couples, or groups. Once you become a qualified therapist, you will use a variety of techniques and approaches to help clients deal with emotional issues, mental health problems, life challenges, and behavioral disorders.

The term “therapist” is often used to encompass a broad range of practitioners. Here are the main types, including the degree required and main job function.

  • Clinical Psychologists: Have earned a doctoral degree in psychology and are trained in assessing, diagnosing, and treating mental health issues through therapy.
  • Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs): Have earned a master’s degree in social work and provide support through counseling and psychotherapy.
  • Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs): Specialize in addressing issues within family systems and relationships.
  • Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs): Hold a master’s degree in counseling, or a related field, and provide therapy for a range of emotional and psychological issues.
  • Psychiatrists: Medical doctors specializing in mental health, who can prescribe medications but also may provide therapy.

Before embarking on the path to becoming a therapist, it is important to determine what kind of therapist you would like to be. This will be the determining factor in shaping your higher education journey.

Becoming a therapist involves several steps, including completing the necessary education, gaining supervised clinical experience, obtaining licensure, and continuing professional development.

The specific path you choose depends on the type of therapist you wish to become. Here’s a general overview of the steps involved to becoming a practicing therapist.

1. Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree: Your journey starts with earning a bachelor’s degree. Although obtaining a degree in psychology or social work is where most students start, and is beneficial, it is not strictly necessary. Any field may be acceptable as long as you complete the prerequisite courses required for your graduate program.

2. Earn a Graduate Degree: For most therapy careers, you’ll need to obtain a relevant master’s or doctoral degree in your chosen field. For clinical psychologists, a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) or a Ph.D. in Psychology is required. For marriage and family therapists, licensed professional counselors, and licensed clinical social workers, a master’s degree in counseling, social work, marriage and family therapy, or a related mental health field is typically required.

3. Complete Supervised Clinical Experience: After graduating, you must complete a period of supervised clinical experience, the specifics of which will vary by state and profession. This typically involves working under the supervision of a licensed therapist, accruing a certain number of hours of client contact, and possibly engaging in other professional development activities.

4. Get Licensed: You must pass a state licensing exam to practice as a therapist. The requirements for licensure vary by state and profession but generally include having an appropriate degree, completing supervised clinical hours, and passing an examination.

5. Pursue Continuing Education and Specialization: After becoming a licensed therapist, you are required to pursue continuing education to maintain your licensure and stay current with developments in the field. You may also choose to specialize in particular areas of practice, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), trauma, substance abuse, or family therapy, which may involve additional training and certification.

Make sure that the graduate program you choose is accredited by a relevant body, such as the American Psychological Association (APA) for psychology doctoral programs, as this can be a requirement for licensure.

Also, since licensure requirements vary by state and profession, it’s essential to research the specific requirements for the type of therapist you want to become in the state where you intend to practice.

Steps to Becoming a Therapist

Earning a master’s degree is a crucial step toward becoming a therapist for many mental health professions. These programs are designed to provide you with the foundational knowledge and practical skills needed for effective therapeutic practice.

Here are some common master’s degree options that you can choose to pursue.

  • Master of Arts (M.A.) or Master of Science (M.S.) in Counseling Psychology: Focuses on psychological theories, therapeutic techniques, and assessment methods to prepare you for counseling roles.
  • Master of Social Work (MSW): Prepares you for clinical social work practice, emphasizing social justice, systemic issues, and direct service with clients.
  • Master of Arts (M.A.) or Master of Science (M.S.) in Marriage and Family Therapy: Specializes in therapy techniques for treating individuals, couples, and families in the context of family systems.

Regardless of which master’s program you choose, it will contain the following three key components.

  • Coursework: Most programs typically include courses in human development, ethics, psychological theories, research methods, and specific therapeutic techniques. Specialized courses may also cover topics relevant to particular populations (such as children, couples, or communities) or issues (like substance abuse, trauma, or mental health disorders).
  • Practicum and Internship: An essential component of these programs is direct, supervised clinical experience. You will complete practicum and internship hours, where you will work with clients under the supervision of licensed professionals. This hands-on experience is critical for developing practical counseling skills.
  • Thesis or Capstone Project: Some programs may require a thesis or capstone project, which involves conducting research or a detailed examination of a specific aspect of counseling practice.

When choosing to pursue a master’s degree, here are some key details that you should factor into your decision-making process.

  • Duration: Most master’s programs in counseling or related fields take about 2 to 3 years to complete if attending full-time. Part-time options are also available, which extend the duration of the program.
  • Format: The programs may be offered in traditional on-campus formats, online, or in hybrid models that combine online coursework with in-person components, especially for the practicum and internships.
  • Licensing: Master’s programs are designed to meet the educational requirements for state licensure in their respective fields – this includes coursework in areas required by licensing boards as well as sufficient clinical hours.
  • Accreditation: Choose a program that is accredited by a relevant body. For example, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP) accredits counseling programs. Similarly, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredits social work programs, and the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) accredits marriage and family therapy programs.
  • Application Requirements: You need to have completed a bachelor’s degree before applying for a master’s program. While a specific undergraduate major may not always be required, courses in psychology, sociology, or related fields are beneficial.

After securing a master’s degree, you may have to pursue a doctorate, depending on the type of therapist you wish to become. Earning a doctorate to become a therapist typically involves pursuing either a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree.

These advanced programs are designed for individuals aiming to practice at the highest level of clinical psychology, engage in research, teach at the university level, or hold leadership positions in mental health services.

Ph.D. in PsychologyPsy.D. in Psychology
FocusCombines clinical practice with a strong emphasis on research methodology and the advancement of psychological science. Focused more on clinical practice than research.
Suited ForThose interested in a career in academia, research, or clinical practice.Those who primarily want to provide psychological services to individuals, groups, or organizations.
DurationTypically takes 5-7 years to complete, including coursework, research projects, comprehensive exams, a dissertation, and a pre-doctoral internship.Can be completed in 4-6 years, including coursework, clinical practicums, and a pre-doctoral internship. Psy.D. programs typically require a doctoral project or dissertation that applies psychological theory to clinical practice rather than generating new research.
CurriculumIncludes advanced courses in psychological theories, research methods, statistics, and evidence-based practices. You will also engage in extensive research leading to a dissertation that contributes new knowledge to the field.Emphasizes assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health disorders, with less emphasis on research methodology compared to Ph.D. programs.
Clinical TrainingInvolves practical training through practicums and a year-long accredited internship, preparing you for clinical practice.Provides extensive practical experience through clinical practicums and internships, preparing you for direct client work.
LicensureAfter graduating, you will be eligible to apply for licensure as a psychologist, which will allow you to practice independently, conduct psychological assessments, and provide psychotherapy.After graduating, you are eligible for licensure as a clinical psychologist, focusing on therapeutic interventions and assessments in various settings.

If you do decide to pursue a doctorate in this field, here are some of the application requirements you will need to fulfill. Remember that application requirements can vary by institution, so thoroughly read through the application package so that you do not miss anything.

  • Master’s Degree: A master’s degree may not always be required, but you must have completed a bachelor’s degree with a strong academic record, particularly in psychology and related fields.
  • GRE Scores: Many programs require you to have taken the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), including the Psychology Subject Test for some.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Typically, letters from academic and/or professional references who can speak to your potential for graduate study in psychology.
  • Personal Statement: Outlines your interests, goals, and reasons for pursuing a doctoral degree in psychology.
  • Research and Clinical Experience: Prior research experience is especially important for Ph.D. programs, while clinical experience is valuable for both Ph.D. and Psy.D. applications.

Ensure that whichever program you choose is accredited by the APA or another recognized accrediting body. This is crucial for licensure eligibility.

Also, thoroughly investigate funding opportunities, as Ph.D. programs often offer assistantships that cover tuition and provide a stipend. Psy.D. programs, by contrast, may have less funding available.

Earning a Doctorate to Become a Therapist

Why does licensure matter? Because licensure confirms that you as a therapist have met the minimum standards of your profession in terms of education, experience, and competency. It is a legal requirement for independent practice in most jurisdictions and is essential for billing insurance companies, obtaining privileges at many institutions, and ensuring public trust in the profession.

  • Application Process: You must submit an application to the state’s licensing board, which typically includes proof of education, documentation of supervised experience, exam scores, and sometimes additional materials like professional references or a background check. The application must be made in the state you are going to practice in.
  • Continuing Education: After obtaining licensure, you are required to engage in continuing education (CE) to maintain your license. CE requirements vary by state and profession but are designed to ensure that as a practitioner you stay up-to-date with developments in your chosen field.
  • State Variability: Licensure requirements are not nationally standardized in the U.S. – they can vary significantly from one state to another. It’s important that you consult your chosen state’s specific licensing board for the most accurate and up-to-date information.
  • Reciprocity: Some states have reciprocity agreements, allowing therapists licensed in one state to become licensed in another without completing the entire licensure process again. However, this is not universal, and if you do move to a new state you should check the local requirements before you start practicing.

The path to becoming a licensed therapist may seem quite long, especially compared to most other professions. However, when you consider the impact that therapists make and their importance in society, the importance of every step on the path starts to make sense.

How long does it take to become a licensed therapist?

The time it takes to become a therapist can vary widely depending on the specific type of therapist you want to become, the educational path you choose, and the licensure requirements in your state. For some specializations, it takes 6-8 years after high school to meet the educational and supervised clinical experience requirements: 4 years for a bachelor’s degree plus 2-3 years for a master’s degree, followed by 2-3 years of supervised clinical experience.

How long does it take to become a clinical psychologist?

To become a licensed clinical psychologist, it can take approximately 8-12 years after high school: 4 years for a bachelor’s degree, 5-7 years for a doctoral degree (which includes 1 year of internship), and possibly an additional year of postdoctoral supervised experience, depending on state requirements.

Is a therapist and a mental health counselor the same thing?

Therapists and mental health counselors share similarities in their roles, as both provide support and counseling to individuals dealing with emotional, psychological, and life challenges. However, there are distinctions in their training, scope of practice, and sometimes in the approaches they use.