How to Become a Therapist

If you want to help people improve their mental health through regular therapy or online therapy, becoming a therapist might be the right choice for you. Becoming a licensed therapist requires several steps and some hard work, but it can be an extremely rewarding and fulfilling job. If you’re interested in becoming a therapist, it’s best to start planning early, so read on to learn how to become a licensed therapist!

What Is a Licensed Therapist?

Whether you want to learn how to become a marriage and family therapist, learn how to start a group therapy practice, or work one-on-one, a licensed therapist provides therapeutic services in all of these settings. In most cases, they work with patients who have some kind of mental illness or emotional disorder. They also treat addiction and substance abuse problems—anything that's considered part of psychiatry.

Licensed mental health therapists can hold various titles, depending on their level of education and area of expertise. When most people think of a mental health professional, they’re typically referring to Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs) or Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHCs). The word “therapist” is also used as a general term for Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs), Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs), Psychologists (PhDs or PsyDs), and Psychiatrists (MDs or Dos), though it’s not the most accurate descriptor.

Whatever their title and whether they want to be a psychologist vs therapist, the primary point is that a mental health professional can help people become happier, healthier, and more well-adjusted. Anyone who has experienced therapy can tell you it can be difficult work; however, most people also agree that there are many benefits to therapy. If you’re interested in working with people suffering from these conditions, then becoming a licensed therapist could be an excellent career choice for you.

Essential Requirements Needed to Become a Licensed Therapist

Becoming a licensed therapist can be a challenging process, but you can make it easier by understanding the requirements in advance and using them to chart your career path.

Educational Requirements

The educational requirements to become a licensed therapist can vary depending upon your location, but almost all states require you to earn a master’s degree in either counseling or social work. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves—prior to earning your master’s degree, you’ll have to complete a bachelor’s degree. If you haven’t yet earned your bachelor's degree and are considering continuing education, majoring in psychology or sociology would provide you with the strongest foundation to build your career upon.

Neither of these majors is required, however; you can still apply to get a master’s degree in counseling if your bachelor's degree is in an unrelated field. That’s because the master’s program will fully prepare you to work as a therapist. In the course of your studies, you’ll learn about:

  • Professional orientation and ethics

  • Social and cultural foundations of counseling

  • Human growth and development

  • Counseling theory & practice

  • Relationship and group dynamics

  • Counseling and consultation processes

  • Foundations of mental health counseling

  • Understanding cultural diversity

  • Assessment & appraisal of individuals

  • Individual interventions and treatment planning

  • Research methods

  • Clinical skills and instruction

  • …and more

If you want to find out more about educational and certification requirements, it’s recommended that you look up your state's licensing board; most boards list licensure rules and other important information on their websites.

Professional Experience Requirements

In addition to earning a master's degree from an accredited institution, you’ll also need to participate in supervised clinical practice to become a licensed mental health counselor. This requirement has been put in place to ensure that all aspiring therapists are sufficiently prepared for beginning independent practice. The amount of clinical practice required varies from state to state but typically ranges between 1500 to 3000 hours, with 1000 hours equaling one year of supervised experience.

Although continuing education through a supervised clinical practice can seem like an enormous undertaking, it’s a vitally important step toward becoming a therapist for two reasons. For one, clinical practice allows you to work with clients on a regular basis prior to working on your own. The more time spent on real cases with real clients, during which feedback can be obtained and processed, the more prepared therapists tend to be. A supervised clinical practice is also beneficial because it provides an opportunity to work under an experienced licensed professional who can not only teach you their skills but help mentor you in developing yours by providing valuable support, guidance, and feedback.

Exam Requirements

You’ll also need to pass a comprehensive examination testing your knowledge of clinical mental health counseling prior to earning your license. The testing requirements differ depending upon which state you’ll be practicing in, but the most common exams used are the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) and the National Counselor Examination (NCE). The purpose of these examinations is to evaluate how well you can apply your counseling knowledge, critical thinking and communication skills, and professional judgment. Some states also have additional testing requirements, such as taking an oral exam or writing an essay; it’s best to check with the state licensing board to see what the specific requirements are for your state.

Licensing Requirements

Once you’ve acquired the appropriate education, completed hours of supervised clinical experience, and passed the required examinations, you’re now ready to apply for your license to practice therapy. This is usually just a matter of filling out paperwork, providing the necessary documentation, and submitting an application fee.

Additional Requirements

Before you start working your way towards becoming a licensed therapist and gaining a therapist salary, you should also consider whether or not you have the soft skills required to do the job well. Therapist requirements include more than just academic knowledge; it takes developing certain interpersonal skills as well. After all, you're going to be working with people in their most vulnerable states and building trust is vital. Make sure that before you even think about applying for programs, you go out of your way to cultivate these five key traits: strong listening and communication skills, patience, empathy, warmth, adaptability. These are non-negotiable pieces of becoming a licensed therapist—you must have them in order to become one.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Licensed Therapist?

The specific requirements will vary from state to state, but in general, becoming a licensed therapist takes four to five years of graduate-level study and work experience. This time commitment is in addition to the four years it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree.

How Do You Get a Job as a Therapist?

Working as a therapist ranks as one of America’s most popular careers, which can make it a relatively competitive field. To increase your chances of landing employment, it’s important that you develop strong communication skills, put yourself out there, continue your education through courses, and make sure you stay up to date on current trends and methods. But perhaps the best way to find work as a therapist is to network with others in your field; the more connections you have with other therapists, the more job leads you have access to.

The good news is there are a lot of potential places of employment. Depending on your specific area of interest, you could work in a hospital, urgent care center, rehabilitation center, community clinic, or private practice. Many therapists are employed by schools and universities as well, such as a school counselor or psychologist. The job outlook is great and those who earn their license stand to make a therapist salary of over $55,000 per year with just two years of experience. While it does take a while for you to become licensed and find a job, it's not an impossible task at all as long as you put forth your best effort and show that dedication through your coursework and performance in clinicals.

What Are the Benefits of Starting Your Own Private Therapy Practice?

Many therapists choose to start their own private therapy practice instead of working as an employee. When you work for someone else, you could be restricted in your ability to help clients because you may be limited by company policies and procedures. Therapists with their own private practice have far more freedom; they view their practice as a creative outlet and way of expressing themselves and their passions through helping others. Owning their own practice also gives them the opportunity to take on as many (or as few) clients as they wish and design a flexible work schedule that fits with their lifestyle.

How Do Therapists in Private Practice Find Clients?

One of the greatest challenges therapists in private practice face is finding clients or having them find you. There are several ways of going about this, with some methods being more effective than others.

The first and most important thing to do when a client is wondering how to find a therapist is to let people know they exist; that means getting their name out there, either through advertising, getting listed in online directories, or just by word of mouth. Many therapists use Google ads, which target users based on keywords they type into search engines; these are an excellent way of generating interest in your services.

Another great way to find clients is to partner with a company like Advekit. Advekit is a bit like a directory in that each therapist has their own profile, but it goes far beyond that—it’s a concierge service that matches potential patients to therapists in their area, making it an excellent way to funnel new clients into your private practice, and helps manage awkward and time-consuming insurance paperwork.   

A family therapist may choose to offer free consultations (with absolutely no strings attached) in order to attract potential clients who can refer their friends and family members, though this isn’t considered the most effective way of locating paying clients.

Once you have some clients, make sure they feel valued; it’s often tough convincing new clients of your value, so once you have some loyal fans it’s in your best interest to keep bringing them back.

Becoming a Licensed Therapist is Worth the Effort

When it comes to choosing a career, many are stuck wondering what job or career is best for them. The truth is, if you’re looking for an interesting and rewarding career that will allow you to make an impact on someone’s life then you might be interested in becoming a therapist. Becoming a therapist requires plenty of schooling and on-the-job experience, but it’s worth it; by dedicating your time and energy to being a therapist, you’ll help people work through their mental health issues by applying effective therapy techniques so they can live fuller, healthier lives.