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    How to Become a Therapist 

    By Lisa Freedland

    Lisa Freedland is a Scholarships360 writer with personal experience in psychological research and content writing. She has written content for an online fact-checking organization and has conducted research at the University of Southern California as well as the University of California, Irvine. Lisa graduated from the University of Southern California in Fall 2021 with a degree in Psychology.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: June 4th, 2024
    How to Become a Therapist 

    Truth be told: the path to becoming a therapist is (somewhat) long, yet extremely fulfilling. After navigating your own path to becoming a therapist, you can help others find their way to happiness. Further, the path to becoming a therapist is not quite as complicated as it may seem! No matter what type of therapist you may want to be, they tend to have relatively similar schooling and clinical requirements. 

    If becoming a therapist sounds interesting to you, keep on reading to find out how to take that first step towards your goal!

    Also see: Scholarships360’s free scholarship search tool

    What is the difference between a counselor, therapist, and psychologist?

    Before we go over how you can become a therapist, it’s best we go over what exactly makes the profession different from other, similar ones. As the counselor, therapist, and psychologist professions definitely share some similarities, it’s not uncommon for people to get them all confused. So, to clear everything up and make sure you’re on the right track, let’s dissect the differences (and similarities)!

    Related: How to pay for a graduate degree

    Counselors 

    Although many counselors require a master’s degree, some only require an bachelor’s degree. Similarly, while some counselors require licensure of some sort, others do not. However, as the title “counselor” is very broad, their requirements vary vastly depending on what they choose to specialize in. Counselors typically work with individuals and groups. They draw from a variety of experiences, including their own, to connect with and treat their patients. 

    Also see: How many years does it take to get a master’s?

    Therapists

    Therapists generally need a master’s degree, at minimum. Like psychologists, they typically specialize and see patients in their specific field of practice. Therapists also must complete a certain number of supervised clinical hours in order to start practicing. If you’re interested in some of the many specialties that exist in therapy, keep on reading! We’ll get into that soon.

    Psychologists

    Last, but certainly not least, are psychologists! Of the three types of professions, psychologists require the most schooling. Individuals interested in becoming a psychologist must earn a Ph.D or Psy.D. However, the same is not necessary for therapists and counselors. Most states also require psychologists to be licensed, and require continuing education to maintain their license. However, completing many supervised clinical hours is typically required in order to gain licensure. 

    On the bright side, all those extra years of schooling and work open you up to more job opportunities (and earn you the title of “Doctor”!). Psychologists typically conduct research, diagnose disorders, and supervise research assistants. They generally only work with patients needing help in their specific field of expertise. They may also teach at universities if they choose to.

    What do therapists do?

    We’ve now gone over some of the general responsibilities of therapists. So, it’s time for the specializations! Keep reading for a brief introduction to the many subtypes of therapists and a longer description of the path to becoming each one.

    Psychotherapists treat people with a variety of mental health conditions, including stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, bipolar disorder, addiction, and more. They carefully listen to and analyze the psychological needs of their patients to help them accordingly.

    Occupational therapists use physical therapy to help their patients restore movement and functioning. Specifically, they help individuals with temporary disabilities return to their original level of functioning. Occupational therapists also help those with permanent disabilities live more independently. 

    Also see: How to become a physical therapist guide

    Recreational therapists use a variety of recreational activities to improve individuals’ levels of well-being. Such activities can include anything from arts and crafts, to swimming, to putting on plays. Recreational therapists generally work with those who have disabilities, injuries, or illnesses.

    Marriage and family therapists help couples and families solve interpersonal issues. They try to encourage change, development, and understanding in such troubled relationships. 

    Behavioral therapists often work with those with mental health conditions. They attempt to identify and help treat patients’ unhealthy or self-destructive behaviors. Behavioral therapy revolves around the idea that since all behaviors are learned, unhealthy behaviors can be altered or stopped.

    CBT therapists, also known as cognitive behavioral therapists, help their patients identify potentially unhealthy thought patterns. They then try to change those thought patterns, in hopes that this will stop unhealthy behaviors that stem from such thoughts. 

    Child therapists work with children to help improve their mental health and stability. They may do this generally or attempt to help children overcome a specific emotional hardship or disturbance. Some child therapists specialize in certain areas, such as depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or abuse.

    As you now have a general idea of each of these subtypes, we hope you’ve found one (or a couple) you’re interested in! Let’s take a look at the paths you can take to become each one.

    How to become a psychotherapist

    If you’re interested in helping people overcome mental or interpersonal problems in their lives, becoming a psychotherapist might just be the right career choice for you.

    Your first step in becoming a psychotherapist would be to receive your bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field. Following this, you will then want to receive your master’s degree in psychotherapy. This is also the time when you will start accumulating necessary clinical experience for licensure. 

    In the U.S., one typically needs to obtain 1,000-1,500 clinical hours before they receive their degree in addition to another 1,500 after receiving their degree. However, this may vary by university, state, and license type, so we would highly recommend checking the specific requirements for your preferred license. 

    Once you have accrued all your necessary hours, you should gain approval from the licensing board to sit for your clinical licensing exam. Before you receive your clinical license, however, it is also possible for you to practice in the interim with a conditional license. Such conditional licenses will normally have the words “associate” or “intern” before their credentials. 

    After receiving your license, you are then allowed to practice with your official, clinical license! Just remember to keep up with any “continued education” requirements so your license is eligible for renewal. 

    P.S.: You can also become a psychotherapist by receiving your license in clinical social work, if that sounds interesting to you. To learn how to do that, check out our  guide on how to become a social worker guide.

    How to become an occupational therapist

    The goal of occupational therapists is to help their patients function more independently in day-to-day life. They believe that everybody should be able to partake in the activities that make them happy, and thus help patients achieve these goals. To do so, they often use the methods of physical therapy. Occupational therapists might also instruct their patients’ family members or caregivers on how to best guide their loved one through daily activities.

    The first step to becoming an occupational therapist is to receive a bachelor’s degree in physiology or a related field. Prospective occupational therapists should then seek work or volunteer hours in an occupational therapist’s office to gain real-world experience in the field. 

    After accumulating some experience, students should obtain their master’s degree in occupational therapy. Once they receive their master’s degree, individuals should prepare for their occupational therapy licensing exam. If students pass this exam, they will receive their occupational therapy license and are ready to work!

    How to become a recreational therapist

    The responsibilities of a recreational therapist overlap somewhat with those of occupational therapists. Both professions may help those with physical impairments live and function more independently. However, recreational therapists also aim to improve the well-being of those with physical and mental health issues. To do so, they organize engaging activities for their patients to partake in, such as playing games or sports with them.

    While most regions do not have specific requirements for recreational therapists, many would prefer to hire those who are certified. Thus, to become a recreational therapist, one should first receive a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy or a related field. 

    Then, to receive certification from the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC), one must pass a recreational therapy exam. You will then receive your Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS) certification and officially be a certified recreational therapist! While it may help to have a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy, one can receive such certification with a bachelor’s degree in any subject so long as they have passed the certification exam. 

    One can also choose to receive further specialty certification if they are interested. Some specializations include behavioral health and physical rehabilitation. While such specialty certification is certainly not needed to work in recreational therapy, it may make one a more competitive candidate for jobs. 

    How to become a marriage and family therapist

    Being a marriage and family therapist is all about helping solve personal and interpersonal issues that may be negatively impacting families’ or couples’ relationships. Thus, the responsibilities of the job may include helping married couples better understand why they have been fighting (like you’d see in the movies!). However, it can also include helping identify and lessening a family members’ anxiety, especially if their anxiety has been leading to other familial conflicts.

    If this sounds interesting, your first step to becoming a marriage and family therapist would be to receive your bachelor’s degree in psychology or another relevant field. Then, you should enter a master’s program to study counseling psychology, marriage and family therapy, or another relevant field. During this time, you should also start accumulating hours of clinical experience.

    After you receive your master’s, you should start preparing for your licensing exam. If you pass the exam, you should officially be ready to work as a marriage and family therapist! Bear in mind that marriage and family therapy licensing is issued regionally. So, be sure to check this state licensure comparison to find out how exactly to receive licensure in your state. 

    How to become a behavioral therapist

    Behavioral therapists work to help their patients overcome unhealthy or self-destructive behaviors. They work with individuals with a variety of mental health conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse issues. They may also work with those with cognitive disabilities such as autism, to help these patients better manage their behaviors.

    Prospective behavioral therapists must first receive their bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field. While you can work as a behavioral disorder counselor with only an undergraduate degree, more is required to become a licensed behavioral therapist. Thus, if you aim to become a licensed behavioral therapist, you should then apply to master’s programs in psychology or counseling. 

    During this time, you should also try to accumulate some supervised clinical hours. Although the specific number varies by state, each state in the U.S. requires between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience (in addition to a master’s degree) in order to become a licensed behavioral therapist.

    Once you have received your master’s and accumulated the necessary clinical hours, it’s time to prepare for and take your licensing exam. If you pass it, you’re officially a licensed behavioral therapist and are free to practice. Congratulations!

    How to become a CBT therapist

    CBT therapists have some similarities to behavioral therapists. Both professions aim to help patients overcome and stop partaking in unhealthy, self-destructive behaviors. However, they use different methods to do so. While behavioral therapists focus on stopping the behaviors themselves, CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) therapists aim to stop the unhealthy thoughts that are leading to these dangerous behaviors. 

    In terms of becoming a CBT therapist, however, the process actually shares many similarities with the process of becoming a psychotherapist. The only difference? You can further specialize and obtain extra certifications in specific CBT techniques. 

    With that said, your first step in becoming a CBT therapist would be to receive your bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field. Following this, you will then want to receive your master’s degree in psychotherapy. 

    After you receive your master’s degree, you have one of two options. The first is to become accredited in psychotherapy and begin offering CBT programs. The other is to become accredited in CBT therapy specifically. 

    The specific amount of supervised clinical hours you’ll need will depend on what path you take and what state you wish to practice in. Thus, we highly recommend finding what specific requirements you must obtain for accreditation. Once you have been accredited, though, you’re ready to start officially practicing as a CBT therapist!

    How to become a child therapist

    Being a child therapist is all about helping children develop healthy, stable mental and emotional states. Thus, your work may include identifying why children may be unable to focus in the classroom and helping them pay better attention. On the other hand, it also may include helping children through tough mental health conditions, like depression. Alternatively, you may be helping kids overcome something traumatic in their lives, like the divorce of parents. Child therapists are also allowed to diagnose and treat mental health conditions in children.

    As with each profession so far, the first step to becoming a child therapist would be to earn your bachelor’s in psychology or another related field. From there, you should enter a master’s program in child development or clinical psychology. During this time, it will also help to get a head start on accumulating the necessary supervised clinical hours for licensure. 

    Once you have accrued all your necessary hours, you should start preparing to sit for your licensing exam. If you pass, you will now be ready to practice as a child therapist! However, if you wish to become a more desirable job candidate or simply want to garner more experience and knowledge in your field, you can also go on to earn a Ph.D or Psy.D.

    Final Thoughts

    We hope that learning about all these professions has helped give you an idea of what you might want to pursue. If not, however, there’s no need to worry! If you’re interested in working within the field of psychology, you have many different choices and paths you can take. 

    For example, if you feel as if you do not want to pursue schooling further than a bachelor’s degree, counseling is a great, similar option. Alternatively, if you received a bachelor’s degree in something that is not psychology, that is perfectly fine as well! You can pursue a master’s degree in psychology or therapy with a bachelor’s degree in nearly any subject. 

    No matter which path you choose to follow, we hope that this post has been helpful and given you some insight into what to do next. With hard work, you’ll certainly be able to achieve your goals of helping others. Although it may take some time, you’ll learn a lot on the way there. Good luck, and make sure that you apply for all the scholarships you qualify for!

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    Frequently asked questions about how to become a therapist

    How long does it take to become a therapist?

    Good question! In the majority of cases, it will take between seven and fifteen years to become a therapist (following one’s graduation from high school). The exact amount of time it takes to become a practicing therapist, however, will depend on your specific path and the degrees you wish to acquire. 

    Typically, though, this time will include four years to obtain a bachelor’s, two to three years to obtain a master’s, and (if you choose to pursue this) five to seven years to obtain a doctoral degree. Following your formal education, you will also have to complete supervised clinical hours in which you will gain real-world experience in your desired field.

    Do therapists make good money?

    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, therapists made an average of $63,650 in 2023. However, this average varied across industries, with some therapists making more than others. Therapists in outpatient care centers made $66,350, while those in K-8 schools made roughly $77,640. Therapists working in individual and family services made an average of $54,740. If salary is a concern for you, take a look at the highest paying careers to consider.

    ”What

    Therapists typically work in private practice, hospitals, mental health clinics, schools, and rehabilitation centers.

     

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