How to become a therapist: Career training and requirements

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant
Updated February 7, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

"There is no greater joy, nor greater reward, than to make a fundamental difference in someone's life." –Mary Rose McGeady

Many mental health counselors, clinical social workers, recreational therapists, marriage and family therapists, and clinical psychologists choose their career paths in the mental health field to help others. If you are interested in pursuing a profession in this area and wondering how to become a psychotherapist, you might be curious about the required education and training. Most therapists might have wanted to make a difference or learn more about how humans function, addressing mental health problems and providing mental health services.

Becoming a therapist, particularly in counseling psychology, can be a meaningful process for many. However, like many medically focused careers, psychologists often need to meet educational requirements, such as having a master’s program before being able to obtain a license for one-on-one practice or work in mental health clinics.

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Wondering if a career in therapy is right for you?

What types of therapists are there? 

Therapists can help individuals cope with mental health conditions, traumatic experiences, stress, and many other topics. People might also seek therapy for a better understanding of themselves. A therapist could also provide emotional support, validation, and coping techniques to help someone work through a situation and improve their mental health. 

There are several therapy practice subtypes that one can go into, including the following: 

  • Marriage and family therapists
  • Non-public practice therapist
  • Career counselor
  • Behavioral health specialist
  • Clinical psychologist
  • Mental health therapist
  • Human services specialist
  • Clinical social worker 
  • Substance use therapist
  • School psychologist
  • Trauma counselor

Whatever the reason clients seek therapy, therapists can play a valuable role in helping them achieve mental well-being through counseling.

What makes an effective provider? 

Proper education and training can be essential to work as a therapist. However, interpersonal skills can also be necessary. The qualities of an effective therapist may include the following:

  • Active listening skills 
  • Powers of observation
  • Clear and direct communication
  • Patience 
  • Confidence in therapeutic knowledge and skills 
  • Empathy, sympathy, and compassion 
  • An understanding of self 
  • Tolerance and a lack of judgment 
  • Comfort with varying types of people 
  • Ability to be professional and lack bias 
  • Creativity and flexibility 
  • Logic and analysis

Ways to become a licensed therapist

Therapists and licensed professional counselors are mental health professionals. For this reason, they must meet their country's or state's licensing qualifications to practice therapy, which may include passing the national counselor examination. However, "therapist" is a broad term, so therapist requirements can vary depending on your professional path. In general, therapists need to be licensed by meeting the state licensing board requirements in the state that they're practicing in. Licensing qualifications for each state can be similar for clinical mental health professionals. 

Going to school 

Before you can take your state's licensing board exam or look for job opportunities in clinical psychology, there are educational requirements to complete which may include getting a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree. Typical bachelor's degrees for those hoping to work as a therapist include psychology, sociology, criminology, and biology. Any social sciences degree may be appropriate, but check with your school advisor regarding which type of degree in counseling you may need to have to work as a clinical mental health professional, such as a professional counselor or a marriage and family therapist.

Therapists also require master's degrees in psychology, social work, human services, or the study of human behavior, such as master’s programs in school counseling or social psychology. Alternatively, if you want to be a psychiatrist, you must attend medical school. Afterward, you may complete a psychiatry residency program, complete supervised hours, and pass a certifying exam.

You do not need to go to medical school to be a therapist. However, psychiatrists are required to. Psychiatrists have doctoral degrees. Some therapists choose to get a Ph.D. in psychology or other related educational programs to provide further support, teach at a school, open one-on-one practices, or do psychological research, focusing on areas like mental health counseling or substance abuse programs. 

Supervised clinical work 

After schooling, you may be required to complete supervised clinical work or a supervised clinical experience for a certain number of hours, depending on your state licensure requirements. Working under clinical supervision with a licensed counselor or therapist can ensure you develop the skills required for your counseling programs. Post-graduate experience in a clinical setting, such as at a mental health center or personally-owned practice, is often a requirement for jobs after school. It is also one of the licensure qualifications alongside staying up to date on the latest advancements in your profession.

In California, aspiring therapists must apply to the Board of Behavioral Sciences to work as a licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC) or a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) before practicing.

In California, before you can apply to be an LPCC or LMFT, you must: 

  • Complete an undergraduate degree
  • Complete a master's degree or doctoral degree
  • Apply for associate counselor status and register as an intern
  • Pass the California Law and Ethics exam
  • Complete 3,000 hours of supervised practice
  • Pass the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor exam
  • Decide if becoming a therapist is the path you hope to take 

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Therapist degree requirements and facts

You can earn your degree by attending in-person classes or studying through an online program. Whichever route you take, ensure your course meets your state's LPCC qualifications. 

Undergraduate degree 

In most cases, a bachelor's degree may take four years to complete. For sociology, you might gain an associate degree. The university you choose to attend can be a personal choice based on your financial needs and acceptance. Your university's career services offices can help you determine which classes to take to prepare for your professional goals, including online courses.

During your undergraduate years, you may work on achieving your psychology degree or another field by learning how therapists work and writing academic papers on topics related to your career path. You may learn about various mental health issues, including mental illness or the benefits of talk therapy. 

Master's degree or doctorate

Once you have your bachelor's degree, you may choose to complete a master's degree in counseling or a doctorate.

States may vary. However, the California Coalition for Counselor Licensure (CCCL) requires that mental health graduate degrees include 60 semester hours of training and the following coursework:

  • Trauma counseling
  • Psychopharmacology
  • Addiction counseling
  • Techniques of advanced counseling and psychotherapy

If your graduate degree doesn't include the above, you may complete post-master's classes for the courses. Therapist training can be available outside of school. A master's degree may take two years to complete if you're a full-time student. 

A doctorate in psychology can take between eight and ten years to complete. The educational requirements may be stricter if you hope to be a medical doctor in psychiatry. Psychiatrists could also require clinical hours in a hospital during a residency. Although psychiatrists are also mental health professionals, they work in medical environments and require analytical skills and the ability to diagnose conditions and prescribe medications and testing.

How to become a marriage and family therapist

Becoming a marriage and family therapist, child psychologist, or a specialist in any branch of psychotherapy may require getting additional training beyond the standard licensure. For many therapists specializing can help focus on a specific type of therapy that may allow you to hone your skills and become more effective. 

These types of specialists may be able to help patients in specific ways and offer unique treatments to help clients. Becoming a specialist may cost extra money and require additional education and training time. 

Cost of degrees to become a therapist

Fees for a bachelor's degree in psychology can vary from university to university and might cost anywhere from $8,000 a year to $60,000, including fees, tuition, room and board, books, and supplies.

A master's in psychology varies from university to university and can cost anywhere between $8,000 and $60,000 a year. A doctorate in the US is between $28,000 and $40,000 a year, but students can apply for partial or complete funding through the FAFSA. 

How to get California associate counselor status 

In California, you may need to apply for associate counselor status. After meeting the California LPCC education requirements, you can apply to the California Board of Behavioral Sciences for associate counselor status and register as an intern.

In addition to submitting transcripts and certificates, those thinking of becoming a counselor may undergo a background check that includes fingerprinting and could take several weeks to process. The Board of Behavioral Sciences application form requires detailed answers to personal questions and must be accompanied by a photograph.

What is required to intern?

A psychology intern is supervised by a clinical mental health professional. They provide individual and group counseling under intensive supervision. Psychology interns may provide assessments and make referrals when necessary.

If your degree doesn't meet the education requirements of your state's licensing board, they may let you know where to find additional testing. 

Pass the California LPCC law and ethics exam

Interns who live in California may need to sit and pass the California Law and Ethics exam in their first year of internship. The BBS provides an outline of the exam questions that you can expect, and there are many study aids and programs available to help you achieve success. You can take the exam once a year until you pass.

How to have a supervised practice

As soon as you've registered as an intern in your state, you may start earning your supervised practice hours to work as a therapy or counseling professional. The requirements for licensure vary depending on state laws, interns may be required to complete 1,000-6,000 hours of supervised therapist practice or clinical experience. While completing your required hours, you may lead your first therapy session, gain experience working with various populations, including family members, provide school psychology services, or even train under substance abuse counselors.

Pass the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor exam

Prospective counselors may take the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Exam when they've completed their supervised practice hours. If you don't pass the first time, you can take the exam once a year until you do.

The clinical mental health counseling licensing process

Once you have met your job's educational and career qualifications, you will apply for and pay for your license. This process occurs after taking a licensing exam. 

Board exams may include questions about psychology, mental health, and other areas related to your field of study. You can take preparation quizzes for the exam, and study books may be available. You can receive your license to practice if you meet all licensing requirements, including educational and work requirements, and have a passing score. 

What happens if you're licensed in another state?

Therapists already licensed in other states and wanting to undertake a career in another area may have already passed the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor exam and met most of their state board requirements. Their application and acceptance for a local LPCC may be quicker. However, if you are applying for another state license, you may also have to take another exam for that state's board. 

Challenges

Being a therapist may come with rewards. However, many therapists also experience challenges which can be helpful to prepare for beforehand. An emotionally or physically exhausted therapist may not effectively help clients or separate their life from their work. The American Psychological Association outlines an ethics policy for therapists that covers professional conduct in a session.  

Setting boundaries

Therapists may benefit from time off and breaks while working. Setting boundaries can be essential in personal and therapeutic relationships. For example, friends and family may ask questions or expect therapeutic advice. Perhaps they’re going through marriage challenges and want to turn to you because they know you practice marriage and family therapy. However, therapists may appreciate time off from their careers and are not the therapists of their loved ones. 

Counselors can also set boundaries with clients. For example, a client might send many emails or call the therapist at their home, which could be an ethical violation on the client's part. Therapists can end a therapeutic relationship if it is not working out. 

Compassion fatigue

People who work in healthcare, rehabilitation services, and social professions can be vulnerable to compassion fatigue. This term describes the symptoms of mental burnout that may come from offering support to others. Therapists, whether they help individuals or practice family therapy, may also hear about challenging subjects from clients, such as trauma, which can cause emotional responses and stress. 

Some counselors have their therapists help them develop self-care mechanisms against compassion fatigue and burnout. Therapists can also face life challenges, mental health conditions, and trauma and might seek counseling to discuss these concerns. 

The job market

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, therapist jobs are expected to increase by 22% by 2029. More people may be reaching out for support than in the past, which provides more demand for counselors. As long as you have your license, clinical hours, a master's degree, and the desire to be a therapist, you may be able to find a job. 

Many therapists also open practice. Although it can cost more, opening your practice allows you to control your schedule and earnings. Some therapists work in practice clinics to have a more flexible schedule and be able to practice the type of therapy they specialize in, such as a specialized treatment modality. 

If you choose to open up a practice, ensure you fully meet your state's requirements for business licensure. Practicing without licensure is illegal in the US. 

How much do therapists make?

The median annual wage for national board-certified licensed therapists can be between $46,000 and $140,000 a year, depending on the type of therapy offered, if they have a specialty certification, their location, and their years of experience and expertise.

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Wondering if a career in therapy is right for you?

Becoming an online therapist 

The requirements to become a licensed online therapist are identical to in-person therapists. However, an online therapist might also require a solid grasp of technology, training on providing effective therapy online, a safety device, an office or space, and a solid internet connection. 

Many potential therapists and clients wonder how effective treatment can be in an online setting. Online counseling is highly effective. One study found that online counseling can exceed the efficacy of face-to-face treatment. Additionally, therapists who offer online counseling can provide care to those who face barriers to treatment in their area, whether due to finances, location, or availability. 

Whether you're a client or a counselor, you can also receive online therapy. Counseling can be beneficial for learning more about psychology, discussing your goals, and working through stressors during schooling to become a therapist. Many therapists see a therapist themselves, which can be a way to learn more about their profession. If you're interested in trying an online therapy platform, consider a site like BetterHelp, which offers over 35,000 licensed therapists. 

BetterHelp therapy reviews

“Mary is one of the most incredible people I've ever met. She's warm, funny, friendly, and overall just an amazing listener. I was terrified to try therapy online but she melted away those fears and approached my situation with caution and safety in mind. She always puts the client first, I highly recommend her.”

“My experience with online therapy was new to me. I was hesitant, but after completing my sessions with Kenneth Givings, I would STRONGLY recommend BetterHelp to anyone. It would be helpful to be able to contact Mr. Givings whenever recommending this to anyone I knew. I'm sure the success of this type of therapy is based on the rapport between the client and therapist. I was very fortunate to be matched with Kenneth Givings.”

Takeaway

It could feel challenging to achieve your dream of becoming a licensed therapist. Individual therapists, family therapists, and other types of mental health professionals may currently be in demand. However, you may feel that undertaking a therapist career path is worthwhile, as you can provide support and education to your community. If you are licensed and meet the requirements to become an online counselor, consider applying through a platform like BetterHelp to offer internet-based therapy.

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