According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, millions of Americans suffer from mental health disorders. Counseling services are in high demand, and there’s a great need for therapists. Marriage and family therapist employment is expected to grow 16% by 2030, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
You can prepare to help meet the growing demand for mental health professionals with many online therapy and counseling degree programs. There are also multiple options for specialty training in diverse and important areas, such as addiction, child therapy, and gerontology.
Steps to Become a Therapist
All 50 states require a degree from a graduate-level counseling program from an accredited body to qualify as a licensed therapist or counselor. These institutions include the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs (CACREP) and the American Psychological Association.
Most states require a licensed professional therapist to complete post-degree, supervised clinical experience. Depending on where a therapist license applicant resides, they must pass one or more counseling examinations. You can take the following tests:
- Certified Rehabilitation Counselor Examination
- Examination of Clinical Counselor Practice
- National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE)
- National Counselor Examination (NCE)
The following list includes the steps you’ll need to complete to pursue a therapist career. You’ll start by researching if the path is right for you and work through the process of obtaining an undergrad degree, earning your graduate degree, and taking the licensing exam.
Step 1. Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree
You need a bachelor’s degree in a liberal arts discipline to enroll in most graduate-level programs geared toward licensed therapists. To ensure that you have a strong educational background for future studies, you might consider standard areas of study such as:
- Social work
You can build on any of these areas as you become a therapist. So, you may want to focus on getting your degree in an area that interests you.
Step 2. Earn a Master’s Degree
Several states require aspiring licensed therapists to complete master’s-level mental health counseling programs following a model set by CACREP. Therefore, the agency’s website is a good place to look for options. CACREP accredits more than 860 counseling programs.
Step 3. Complete Post-Graduate Experience Hours
Clinical experience requirements can vary from state to state, so it is essential to familiarize yourself with the guidelines of the state where you intend to practice. According to the American Counseling Association, a therapist license requires two to 3,000 hours of supervised counseling experience after completing a master’s degree program.
Mental health professionals licensed as counselors or other approved supervisors must oversee the counseling experience. Taking care of clients and interacting with them face-to-face must also be prioritized.
Step 4. Take a State Licensure Exam
An exam is required in every state if you’re interested in becoming a licensed therapist. The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) administers the NCE, the most common of these tests. Depending on your state, you may be required to fulfill additional exams and other requirements.
Step 5. Take a Jurisprudence Exam If Your State Requires One
Several states mandate that applicants must pass a jurisprudence test, which assesses their knowledge of the operating procedures and rules of the licensing board, as well as state laws affecting counseling practice. Nine states require jurisprudence exams for new applicants, including California, Colorado, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin.
The following sections cover what you need to do to practice therapy in California, Texas, New York, and Florida.
How to Become a Therapist in California
To become a therapist in California, you must have a master’s degree. You must also earn passing scores on the licensure exam. As with other U.S. states, you need to submit your electronic transcripts and join as an Associate Professional Clinical Counselor (APCC). You’re also required to undergo a background check.
You need to take the California Law and Ethics Exam to ensure you understand social work and counseling ethics and laws. Then, you must work under the supervision of a licensed therapist, submit your licensure application, and take the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). If you complete these rigorous requirements, you may have a chance to become a therapist in California.
How to Become a Therapist in Texas
Texas offers several types of licensure, depending on your interests. The Lone Star State expects a projected job growth of 42,520 counselors by 2026. As with the Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) designation, licensing in Texas typically starts with a probationary internship phase. In Texas, counselors undergoing the supervision portion of the licensing process are known as Licensed Professional Counselor Interns (LPCIs).
As a local branch of the American Counseling Association, the Texas Counseling Association is the state’s premier professional organization for LPCs and LPCIs. Its goal is to promote the development of therapists. The Texas Department of State Health Services manages licensure for LPCs through the Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors. In Texas, counselor license requirements include education, supervision, examinations, fees, and renewals. Completing these requirements may earn you the right to practice therapy in Texas.
How to Become a Therapist in New York
The New York State Education Department licenses Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHCs) through its Board of Mental Health Practitioners. An LMHC is a licensed mental health counselor who has obtained licensure. At the same time, a limited permit identifies you if you have not yet completed the supervision portion of the New York licensing process.
To become a therapist in New York, you must fulfill the state’s education requirements, supervision, examination fees, renewals, licensure by endorsement, and licensing requirements.
How to Become a Therapist in Florida
The Florida Board of Clinical Social Work, Marriage and Family Therapy, and Mental Health Counseling approves LMHCs and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs). At the same time, the Florida Department of Education issues schools counseling certification as part of the teacher certification process.
The Florida Certification Board licenses certified addiction counselors, certified addiction professionals, and master’s-level certified addiction professionals. To obtain Florida counseling licensure, you must submit your transcripts, proof of courses completed, test results, and the application fee to the appropriate board or department.
What Does a Therapist Do? A Day in the Life of a Therapist
Your typical day as a therapist might start early. You arrive at the office to catch up on paperwork and check your emails. Then, you make phone calls and review your schedule for the day. You could have up to eight client appointments scheduled for a regular therapy day but sometimes schedule fewer patients if you have meetings, longer calls, or other tasks you need to accomplish.
After every session, you take a few minutes to document the face-to-face time with the client. You briefly summarize what you discussed with your patient and notes about progress or roadblocks you may have encountered. If you gave the patient homework, also include those details so you can follow up.
Your patient notes are important for the documentation but also for insurance billing. It is crucial to record notes for legal and medical reasons but also helpful for you to remember where you left off in the previous meeting and keep track of points that need to be discussed again.
The notes help you keep track of all the sessions you have with close to 40 clients a week. You make sure that you complete as much as possible for the day. To ensure that you are ready for the next day’s challenges, you might start a to-do list for the following day before you leave the office. While your therapist job description and list of tasks may vary, this overview should give you a general sense of what you could do during a typical day at work.
Types of Therapists
What does a therapist do? It depends on their focus area. With many types of therapy specialties, you might be interested in determining where you’ll emphasize your counseling work. Here are a few examples of the kinds of therapists you can become.
A substance abuse counselor provides counseling to people and their families who are addicted to substances or other addictive behaviors. Addiction counselors may be educators, intervention specialists, and prevention specialists, as they work in various settings.
A good addiction therapist understands how these substances affect the brain and treats patients accordingly, resulting in positive, addiction-free outcomes. It is common for addiction therapists to facilitate and establish group therapies.
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapists
To understand a client’s habits and motivations, an ABA therapist observes their behavior in their regular environments to guide intervention strategies. They treat a wide range of developmental disabilities and disorders, including autism spectrum disorder, traumatic brain injury, and developmental delay.
A child therapist assesses emotional and cognitive disorders in children from early childhood through adolescence and designs interventions to help them. These disorders can result from various causes, including cognitive deficits, developmental delays, loss, mental illness, physical illness, social problems, stress, and trauma.
In addition to assessing children’s cognitive, developmental, emotional, and social status, child therapists also provide psychological help. As soon as the therapist has made an assessment, they will discuss problem areas with the parents and gather information about the child’s family dynamics. Therapists then implement and evaluate the interventions, report the results, and coordinate the rest of the team’s work.
Clinical therapists help patients manage their emotions and create therapies and exercises. They assist with depression, anxiety, loss, illness, addictions, and difficulty coping with relationships and might use cognitive-behavioral and talk therapy methods to help clients improve coping skills and lead happier, more productive lives.
Clinical therapists might also ensure that motor and cognitive abilities are developed thoroughly and find ways to reduce mental illness symptoms. It is possible to become a clinical therapist in one of four ways: as a social worker, counselor, psychoanalyst, or life coach.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapists (CBTs)
CBTs give clients practical steps they can follow to achieve specific objectives, whether addressing sleep, anxiety, relationship, or addiction problems. As a result, a person’s beliefs are shifted, and their behaviors are adjusted to overcome emotional issues.
Clients often ask exercise therapists to diagnose injuries and assess their severity. Exercise therapists typically work similarly to other therapists. They may evaluate a patient’s medical history and assist them in choosing appropriate exercises for their abilities and limitations.
For example, an individual who fears water should avoid swimming or water-related exercises. On the other hand, a patient might prefer hiking to enjoy nature and the outdoors. Yoga, weight lifting, running, dancing, and weight lifting are common forms of exercise performed during exercise therapy. Team sports are also an option for clients who crave social interaction.
Marriage and Family Therapists or Couples Therapists
Couples can benefit from marriage and family therapists who have received special training. For couples counseling to be successful, both parties must be committed and willing to open up. Counselors specializing in marriage and family therapy support couples and families in their most important relationships, taking a holistic approach to mental health. Marriage and family therapists can practice in mental health centers, community agencies, or private practices.
Students receive emotional support from school-based therapists as part of their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. School therapists promote academic, emotional, and social success in children. It may be why you’re wondering how to become a therapist.
Trauma therapists offer mental health treatment for people suffering from trauma. An informed therapist understands trauma’s potential impact on each client and is knowledgeable about the condition. Hospitals and clinics typically employ trauma therapists.
Therapist Salary and Job Outlook
Understanding what you’ll make as a therapist and the field’s projected job growth are important considerations before starting your career.
Therapist salaries in the United States range from $53,456 to $77,025, with a median salary of $64,460 per year. Different locations will have different salaries for therapists. San Jose, California, has the highest therapist salary in the nation at $80,898.
Along with location, an employee’s educational background, related skills, and work experience also influence their salary. You can increase your therapist salary by improving your skills and experience.
Therapist Job Outlook
According to Zippia’s extensive research, interviews, and analysis, there is a projected 22% growth in job opportunities for therapists through 2028. Therapists’ salaries have already increased by 7% in the last five years. The U.S. has also already employed 198,811 therapists, and you may find job openings for some 159,770 additional therapist jobs in the U.S.
Therapist Education Requirements
To become a therapist in the U.S., you must meet specific minimum educational requirements, regardless of how much you love psychology. Therapists must meet state licensing requirements, and a master’s degree is the minimum educational qualification.
Here are a few of the accreditation organizations that focus on assessing and accrediting universities and colleges:
- Distance Education and Training Council (DETC)
- Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC)
- Council on Occupational Education (COE)
- Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET)
- Council on Occupational Education (COE)
- Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC)
- National Accrediting Commission of Career Arts and Sciences (NACCS)
A master’s degree is usually required for therapy jobs, such as marriage and family counseling or counseling in mental health. However, those interested in pursuing a degree in psychology, social work, or a related field are most likely to earn a bachelor’s degree. The foundational knowledge they gain from their education allows them to succeed.
During graduate degree programs, therapists must complete supervised clinical work, depending on their specialty. Those who work in specialized settings, such as corrections or veterans’ organizations, may also need on-the-job training. Individuals who have just completed a master’s degree may also find internship opportunities, which will give them a glimpse into their future careers.
The law requires therapists to remain licensed in every state. For therapists in all states, passing an examination is mandatory for application and renewal. In addition, candidates are often required to take exams from the NBCC, a nonprofit organization that offers general and role-specific exams such as the NCE and the NCMHCE.
Therapists can choose from many licensing options, including:
- Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
- Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)
- Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)
Would Continuing My Education Help?
Continuing education elevates your career as a therapist because you can learn new skills and develop a deeper understanding of the latest therapy approaches and research. Education and skill development may also help you earn a higher salary and land a more prestigious therapy position.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Therapist?
In addition to over 860 CACREP-accredited programs, aspiring therapists can choose from various master’s- and doctoral-level programs. The program length varies based on the type of degree you’re seeking, your specialty area, your existing credits, and whether you are enrolled part-time or full-time. You may need one to two years to complete the supervised counseling requirement and exam.
Resources for Therapists
These resources can help you continue your journey to becoming a therapist. You’ll find handouts, books, exercises, and other materials that will support your education and let you tap into supportive communities.
- ACT Mindfully: The ACT Mindfully website has a wide variety of free worksheets, handouts, book chapters, and articles available. This type of cognitive behavior therapy incorporates mindfulness and values into a unique and creative approach to treatment and coaching.
- Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies: Here, you’ll find webinars and podcasts with information and clinical resources about behavioral and cognitive therapies.
- Character Lab: This collection of playbooks aims to build a child’s character.
- Collaborative Mental Health Care: Child & Youth Mental Health Toolkits: You’ll find a variety of assessments, handouts, links, and other resources here.
- Compassion Fatigue & Healthcare Professionals: An Online Guide: These essential resources can guide you through coping with compassion fatigue for healthcare professionals.
- Counselling Resource: This site includes free PDF printables, interactive assessments, and information about the online practice.
- Education4Health: There are a variety of PDF booklets, guides, and workbooks in this site’s resource section.
- Evidence-Based Behavioral Practice: Find assessments, online training modules, tools, and videos about evidence-based behavioral practices.
- Guided Self-Change: This website is an excellent resource for SUD assessments, group materials, and handouts.
- Helpful Counselor: This site acts as a school counselor’s resource guide.
- National Center for PTSD for Professionals: Online training, toolkits, and handouts are available for free on this site for professionals.
- PACEs Connection: Connect with other trauma-informed clinicians in a Positive & Adverse Childhood Experiences (PACEs) community. The site contains a wealth of resources, including PACEs news, surveys, webinars, and guides.
- Personality Lab: This resource features research on personality intelligence, including articles, assessments, and dissertations.
- Positive Psychology Program: You can find a wealth of assessments, PDF printables, activities, handouts, and worksheets on this site.
- Practices: You can find a range of resources, articles, and training available for mental health professionals on this website.
- PsyberGuide: This nonprofit organization finds and reviews mental health apps, evaluating them as acceptable, questionable, or unacceptable. You can also search for conditions and treatments you are interested in or use this site to recommend products to your clients.
- PsychCentral: Discover blogs, forums, interactive quizzes, and news articles on this resource.
- Psych Hub Communication Guide: Inclusive Language & Imagery for Mental Health Content: This guide teaches individuals and organizations the best mental health communication practices to adopt.
- Self-Care Starter Kit: With information on vicarious trauma, assessments, meditations, and helpful links to self-care resources, this kit is designed to prevent/treat burnout.
- Simply Psychology: This study guide helps psychology students in their coursework.
- SMI Adviser: You can find resources for serious mental illness (SMI) by searching topics on this site. To earn continuing education credits, you can also take free online courses.
- Society for the Advancement of Psychotherapy: You can find articles and book reviews on relevant topics through this resource.
- TherapyAdvisor.org: Use this searchable database for empirically supported treatments for substance abuse and mental health.
- Therapy Worksheets: This blog by Will Baum, LCSW, features free therapy worksheets.
Do I need a master’s degree to become a therapist?
A master’s degree in psychology is required to become a licensed therapist. Master’s degrees in clinical mental health counseling are popular master’s degrees for aspiring therapists, but many others are available.
Is licensure required to become a therapist?
Marriage and family therapists, as well as clinical therapists, must be licensed by their state. Within two years of completing your degree, you’ll need 3,000 hours of clinical training in a supervised setting. As part of the licensing process, you must also pass the NCE or another state test and complete post-licensing continuing education. Therapists specializing in mental health or marriage and family therapy must also meet similar qualifications.
What’s the difference between a therapist and a social worker?
Most jurisdictions have different educational and licensing requirements for clinical social workers and other types of therapists. Mental health professionals often receive training focusing more narrowly on diagnosing and treating mental illness, whereas clinical social workers are trained in community-based interventions and psychotherapy.