What Degree Do You Need to Become a Therapist?

What Degree Do You Need to Become a Therapist?

Therapy deals with the treatment of mental conditions and brain disorders through communication and direct interaction. A therapist helps patients uncover the root of their conditions and provides tools to inspire changes and improve their quality of life. These tools might include positive affirmations, Socratic questioning, and, at times, prescription medications – a medical degree is required to prescribe them.

There are many types of therapists, each treating different groups of people and different mental health conditions. While it isn’t necessary to have anything above a master’s degree to practice, some therapists earn higher degrees to advance their career options.

If you’re wondering how to become a therapist, this step-by-step guide will provide all the necessary information to help you achieve your goal.

Understanding the Therapy Profession

The term “therapist” encompasses a wide range of professions. Understanding the differences between these professions and the career opportunities they offer is essential in pursuing a career as a therapist.

What Is a Therapist?

A therapist provides talk therapy to individuals experiencing mental health issues. To work as a therapist, they must hold a master’s degree in psychology, though some begin working after certification in a specific therapy model, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Others pursue higher education, earning degrees as advanced as a PhD to work as specialized therapists.

When searching ‘how to become a therapist,’ you may see the terms psychologist, psychiatrist, and counselor used interchangeably, though they are not the same. While their duties might overlap, their training, education, and how they diagnose and treat mental health issues differ.

Here are a few of the most commonly interchanged therapy titles and what they entail:

  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor: A licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) holds a master’s degree in psychology, counseling, or a related field. This allows them to evaluate, diagnose, and treat mental health conditions.
  • Clinical Social Worker: A Clinical Social Worker (CSW) evaluates and treats mental illnesses in a medical setting. These professionals possess a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work and collaborate with individuals and their families.
  • Psychologists: Psychologists are therapists with a doctoral degree in psychology. They are qualified to treat mental health disorders with counseling and psychotherapy.
  • Psychotherapists: A psychotherapist uses evidence-based practices such as CBT and art therapy to treat individuals with mental health conditions. Although some psychotherapists work as psychologists, others work as clinical psychotherapists, requiring only a master’s degree.
  • Counselor: Counselors work with individuals experiencing immediate and short-term mental health issues. Unlike other therapists who need a master’s degree at minimum to practice, counselors only need an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree.
  • Psychiatrist: Psychiatrists are doctors who specialize in diagnosing and treating mental health conditions. They provide a combination of talk therapy and medication to treat various brain disorders.

Areas of Specialization

Therapists provide services across an array of specializations. Some require certifications, and others require a license to provide services.

Common areas of specialization include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Grief therapy
  • Marriage therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Addiction therapy
  • Psychoanalysis
  • Forensic psychology

Educational Pathways to Becoming a Therapist

Therapist education requirements differ depending on the licensing location and the field of study. However, most states require an associate’s degree at minimum to become a therapist. To work professionally, therapists must earn a master’s degree in psychology or a related field. Some students apply for a license immediately, but others continue their education by entering doctorate programs.

Undergraduate Degree Requirements

To become a therapist, you must earn a bachelor’s degree from an accredited program or institution. This could be a Bachelor of Science in Psychology (BS) or a Bachelor of Arts (BA).

Bachelor of Science in Psychology or Biopsychology

A BS in psychology is an undergraduate degree that prepares students for social services, education, and healthcare work. This degree covers various topics related to human behavior and cognitive processes and delves deep into research.

Bachelor of Science in Sociology

This degree lays the foundation for students wanting to work in social services or participate in social change. The course primarily focuses on cultural pluralism, organizational sociology, probability, and statistics.

Bachelor of Arts in Psychology

A BA in psychology is an excellent choice for those interested in pursuing a career in social work or criminal justice. This four-year program emphasizes liberal arts, culture, languages, humanities, and fine arts. A BA degree is a requirement for admission to a Master of Arts (MA) degree program.

Graduate Degree Requirements

After obtaining a bachelor’s degree, you will need a master’s to become a therapist. The requirements for this graduate degree will vary depending on your chosen field of study.

Master of Social Work (MSW)

An MSW is essential for aspiring clinical social workers. Coursework involves social welfare policy, human behavior, ethics, diversity, and clinical practice. Most states require an MSW for licensure as a clinical social worker.

Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MS) in Counseling

These degrees focus on theories of counseling, psychological testing, and specific counseling techniques. Specializations may include school counseling, rehabilitation counseling, and substance abuse counseling. Graduates of either program are fully prepared for licensure as professional counselors.

If you’re wondering how to become a licensed marriage and family therapist, both degrees are suitable. Students with full-time responsibilities can take online MFT programs or attend traditional classes part-time. Additionally, there are online master’s in counseling programs that don’t require the GRE, substituting it for work experience, grades, and expressed interest instead. This makes enrollment quicker, allowing you to earn your degree faster.

Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MS) in Psychology

Psychology degrees are ideal for individuals working within different therapeutic settings. It’s important to note that while these degrees concentrate on psychological research and practice, they may only lead to licensure with further doctoral-level education. MA and MS specializations include clinical, counseling, or school psychology.

Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)

A PsyD degree program places more emphasis on clinical practice and less on research than a PhD in psychology. It is designed for individuals interested in working with patients in various therapeutic settings. Graduates of this program are eligible for licensure as psychologists, which enables them to diagnose mental health disorders and provide appropriate therapies.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Psychology or Counseling

PhD programs are research-focused and suitable for individuals interested in academic or high-level clinical careers. Specializations include clinical, counseling, and school psychology. PhD graduates in this program qualify for licensure as psychologists.

Specialist Programs (EdS)

Completing an Education Specialist degree (EdS) in school psychology prepares graduates for licensure and practice within schools. This degree program focuses on assessment, intervention, and consultation with teachers and parents.

Online vs. Traditional Education

While the quality of education is the same whether you earn your degree online or on campus, there are a few differences you should be aware of.

  • Flexibility: Unlike traditional on-campus classes, online courses offer greater schedule flexibility.
  • Costs: Online courses usually cost less than traditional courses since there are fewer overhead expenses and no commuting costs.
  • Learning experience: Traditional education offers the opportunity to network with other students and speak to instructors face-to-face.
  • Experience: A traditional classroom provides the experience of working under pressure.

Licensing and Certification

After graduation, you must complete about 3,000 supervised clinical hours before applying for a license or certification. Supervised clinical hours allow budding therapists to improve their skills and gain mentorship from a licensed professional.

After obtaining these hours, you must take and pass the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE) or the National Counselor Examination for Licensure (NCE).

  • NCMHCE: According to the National Board for Certified Counselors, the NCMHCE examines an individual’s ability to identify, analyze, diagnose, and develop plans for treating clinical concerns. Minimally qualified candidates (MQC) will have a master’s degree from one of many CACREP-accredited counseling programs.
  • NCE: According to the National Board for Certified Counselors, the NCE measures an individual’s knowledge and understanding of theoretical and skill-based tenets necessary to practice safely and competently as an entry-level counselor. A minimally qualified candidate (MQC) will have graduated from a counseling program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) or an institutionally accredited college or university.

The process takes approximately three hours plus the time it takes to study. Then, you may apply for a state-regulated license.

Skills and Qualities of Successful Therapists

Professional accolades aren’t the only qualifying factors for becoming a successful therapist. To truly help your patients, you must possess the following skills and qualities:

  • Empathy: The ability to comprehend what the patient is going through and imagine what it must feel like.
  • Communication: The ability to exchange information and ideas about a topic clearly and effectively.
  • Active listening: Listening to understand the speaker and remaining fully engaged.
  • Problem-solving: The ability to define, identify the cause of, and determine a suitable resolution to a problem.

In addition to these skills, you should be able to discuss emotional intimacy and remain assertive when dealing with strong emotions.

Career Outlook for Therapists

If you’re looking to become a therapist, the future is bright since there are many opportunities for growth and expansion. As a result of world events, mental health awareness, and the opioid crisis, the number of job openings for professionals involved in mental health services reached 2.2 million in 2022 and is expected to rise steadily over the next decade.

Job Market Trends

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, mental health counselor  job opportunities are projected to grow 18% from 2022 to 2032, with more than 42,000 jobs opening annually. These job openings result from workers leaving for different occupations or retiring.

Therapist Salary Guide

According to the BLS, the median annual salary for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors is $49,710, or $23.90 per hour. The actual salary, however, varies based on education level, location, and specialty.

Salaries for related positions, as reported by the BLS,  include:

  • Marriage and family therapist: $56,570
  • Community health workers: $46,190
  • Psychiatrists: $226,880
  • Educational, guidance, and career counselors and advisors: $60,140

Continuing Education and Professional Development

To renew a professional license, you must complete several continuing education hours as required by the state. Continuing education ensures that you’re up-to-date on any changes in the field of therapy and research and maintain the standards necessary to continue practicing.

Real-World Application: Becoming a Therapist

To become a therapist, it can take five to nine years, which includes earning degrees, gaining supervised clinical experience, and passing the NCMHCE. Once you obtain your license, you can specialize in a specific area or work with individuals with different mental health conditions.

Practical Steps to Start Your Journey

The journey to become a therapist is filled with invaluable life experiences. It takes several years to get there, but with focus and perseverance, the reward of changing lives is worth the wait. The easiest way to get started is to network with therapists in professional groups. Here, you can ask questions about the specialty you’re interested in and gain an understanding of the types of duties you’ll perform each day.

Next, prepare for the NCMHCE by ordering a study guide and reading the Candidate Handbook for National Certified Counselor Certification. Much of what’s covered in the exam is included in this handbook. You’ll also recognize much of this information from your degree program.

Lastly, decide if you want to specialize in a specific type of therapy. Some specialties require additional education or certifications. Weigh out the pros and cons and decide whether more education is worth advancing your career.

Finding the Right Graduate Program

Becoming a therapist is one of the most rewarding career options available. To make the most of this career path, you should find a graduate program that aligns with your goals.

Here are a few tips to help you get started:

  • Make sure they’re accredited.
  • Work with experienced faculty.
  • Choose a program with training opportunities.
  • Pick an ideal location.
  • Look out for grants or scholarship programs.
  • Check their license requirements.
  • Choose a school with student support services.

Therapist FAQ

This section covers the most frequently asked questions about becoming a therapist.

What Degree Do I Need to Practice Therapy?

To work in general psychology, you’ll need a master’s degree or a doctorate in a specialized field. General therapists require a master’s degree before practicing; counselors can work with an associate’s degree.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Licensed Therapist?

It takes around four years to complete a bachelor’s degree, two years for a master’s degree, and an additional two to three years of supervised clinical work to qualify for a license.

Can I Specialize in More Than One Area of Therapy?

Yes, therapists can specialize in more than one area of therapy. In fact, many therapists specialize in a combination of them. Therapists who specialize in more than one area can help individuals suffering from a combination of mental health issues, like PTSD and anxiety or ADHD and depression.

What Are the Differences Between a Therapist and a Psychologist?

In general, therapists have master’s degrees and certifications in specific fields of psychology, such as marriage or social work, allowing them to only work within that frame. They must also sit the EPPP for licensure.

On the other hand, a psychologist has a doctorate in psychology, so they can treat a range of mental health conditions. Unlike therapists, psychologists must take the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) for licensure.

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