Therapist Schooling: What It Takes To Be A Therapist

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Working as a therapist can be fulfilling, as therapists can positively impact their clients' lives. However, choosing a career as a mental health therapist may require dedication, hard work, and a solid educational foundation. The schooling requirements to become a licensed therapist can be rigorous, as individuals are often asked to understand human behavior, mental health, and various therapeutic techniques. 

Professionals in this field work closely with clients to provide emotional support, diagnose psychological disorders, and create personalized treatment plans. While the path to becoming a therapist requires an investment of time and effort, the outcome can be a rewarding career dedicated to helping others.

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Types of therapists

There are several professions one can go into when choosing to become a therapist; each requires different levels of education, licensing, and training. Some of the most common types of therapists include psychologists, professional counselors, mental health counselors, and clinical social workers. To understand these in more depth, looking at the differences, responsibilities, degree requirements, and additional qualifications for each sub-specialty can be helpful.

Psychologists

Psychologists hold a doctoral degree in psychology, either a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. They are trained to recognize and treat various mental health issues using psychological testing and other therapeutic approaches. Psychologists often work in an in-person practice, mental health facilities, hospitals, or educational institutions.

Professional counselors

Professional counselors include licensed professional counselors (LPC) and licensed clinical professional counselors (LCPC), among other labels, depending on the state. These mental health practitioners hold a master's degree, and have several options for degree programs they can pursue. This may be a degree in psychology, counseling, or another related field. They are skilled in helping people cope with emotional, mental, and behavioral issues and can be found in various settings, such as schools, hospitals, or in-person practices.

Mental health counselors

Mental health counselors, often called licensed mental health counselors (LMHC), also hold a master's degree. This can be a degree in counseling, psychology, or a related field. They work with clients to address various mental health concerns like anxiety, depression, and stress management. A mental health counselor can work in various settings, including hospitals, in-person practices, and community organizations.

Marriage and family therapists

A marriage and family therapists (MFT) or licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) specializes in helping couples and families manage relationship challenges and improve communication. They hold a master's degree in marriage and family therapy or a related field, and they can work in different settings, such as in-person practices, community health clinics, and social service agencies.

Clinical social workers

Clinical social workers, including licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) and licensed master social workers (LMSW), focus on the connection between mental health and social conditions. They hold a master's degree in social work and often provide therapy, counseling, and case management services to individuals, families, and groups in various settings, such as hospitals, mental health clinics, and government agencies. 

Therapist schooling requirements

Becoming a licensed therapist involves several steps, including completing undergraduate and graduate courses, finishing internships and practicums, and obtaining necessary licenses and certifications. These requirements can vary depending on the type of therapist someone wishes to be. 

Undergraduate education

The first step to becoming a therapist is earning a bachelor's degree, often in a relevant field like psychology, counseling, or social work. These undergraduate classes, which may take about four years to complete, lay the groundwork for understanding human behavior and cognitive processes. Relevant courses might include lifespan development, experimental psychology, and clinical neuropsychology. In addition, an individual will complete general education courses like mathematics, writing, art, and language. 

Graduate education

Upon completing a bachelor's degree, aspiring therapists can attend graduate school to earn a master's degree, which can take two additional years of full-time study. Some students may attend part-time or pursue specialized fields requiring more education and training. In some cases, jobs may require or prefer a doctoral degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D.). 

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Internships and practicums

In every state, students must complete internships or practicums during graduate school, which can provide them with hands-on experience in the field. This training provides opportunities to observe, practice, and work with experienced therapists, which can help them refine their skills and build professional networks. When they become therapists, they can rely on this training to help their own clients. The total number of supervised clinical hours required for licensure varies by state, ranging from 2,000 to 6,000 hours. 

Licensing and certification

Aspiring therapists can obtain licensure and professional certification once they finish their required schooling and gain hands-on practice with clients. Licensing requirements vary by state and area of specialization. This process often includes passing a comprehensive examination and complying with standards established by the state they reside in. 

As students progress through their academic and professional journey, they may want to specialize in other areas or develop new skills. In these cases, they may take specialized courses or additional classes. 

Skills and qualifications

Therapists can choose from diverse specialties and make a meaningful impact on their client's mental well-being. Specific skills and qualifications may build on one's experience and make them attractive to insurance boards. These can be divided into general skills, clinical skills, ethics, and professionalism.

General skills 

Effective therapists often have general skills, including empathy, compassion, and understanding. With these skills, therapists can help their clients feel safe and trust them more, which might lead to more meaningful results in therapy. Solving problems and communicating well can be essential for managing complex situations and ensuring each therapy session suits the person they're supporting.

Clinical skills

In addition to people skills, therapists may be required to learn specific clinical skills to help their clients with mental health problems. They might become experts in certain types of therapy, like cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, or family systems therapy, depending on what they choose to focus on. It can be essential for therapists to assess and diagnose mental health issues, develop an effective treatment plan, and evaluate whether therapy is helping their clients.

Ethics and professionalism

Therapists must follow strict ethical rules and act professionally in their work. Keeping ethical boundaries and safeguarding their client's information can be essential for building trust. Therapists can also keep learning about emerging research and what works most successfully in their field. In some cases, this can mean looking at studies; in others, it may mean asking for advice or feedback from other therapists. 

Career outlook and salary

Therapists learn to be flexible by serving diverse clients with unique personalities, goals, and needs. Since mental health problems continue to be an essential public health issue, the need for therapists may remain for centuries.  

Job growth

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment opportunities for psychologists, including therapists, are expected to grow 6% from 2021 to 2031. This growth rate is about as fast as the average for all occupations. With approximately 14,100 therapist job openings projected each year over the next decade, aspiring professionals in this field can anticipate steady demand for their services.

Salary expectations

Salary expectations for therapists can vary depending on factors such as education, experience, specialty, and licensure. The average national salary for therapists is $72,292 per year. However, earnings can differ for more specific roles within the therapy profession.

For example, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median annual wage for psychologists was $81,040 in May 2021. On the other hand, mental health counselors, substance use counselors, and behavioral disorder counselors had a median salary of $48,520 per year. A therapist's earnings often depend on their specific field and qualifications.

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Full-time therapists may receive benefits like health insurance, vacation days, and retirement plans if not working in an in-person practice. These benefits can make working in this field more attractive for people considering a career as a therapist.

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Making a difference as an online therapist

Becoming an online therapist opens an opportunity to reach people needing mental health support from different places. Therapy has become more available through online methods like texting, emailing, video calls, and phone calls, making it easier for therapists to help more people. This growth has also made it more convenient for those needing mental health support to get the care they need. Through online platforms like BetterHelp, individuals have the opportunity to connect with therapists who specialize in various areas and have differing levels of education and training. This convenience allows them to connect with someone who meets their needs from home.

Although many therapists are interested in helping people through in-person therapy sessions, others may like the flexibility of working from home. As research during the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated, online therapy can be an effective solution for people who might not be able to attend in-person therapy sessions. In one study, researchers found that teletherapy was no less effective than face-to-face treatment for various mental health conditions. 

When providing therapy online, therapists may be asked to adapt their usual counseling techniques to communicate well and build trust with their clients. However, other studies show that therapists tend to prepare more for online therapy versus in-person therapy sessions. If you're unsure if you'd like to be a therapist, you can also attend online career counseling through several online platforms for support and guidance from a provider. 

Takeaway

Becoming a therapist can be fulfilling, as you may make a real difference in people's lives by helping them cope with mental health challenges. However, the career path can require dedication and completion of therapist schooling requirements to acquire the necessary skills. To become a therapist, you'll complete undergraduate and graduate courses, gain hands-on experience, and obtain licenses and certifications. 

Therapists can choose to work online or in in-person settings, according to their preferences. If you want to connect with a licensed therapist, consider contacting a career counselor in your area or online to get started.

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