How To Become a Therapist

Last updated April 10, 2024

Therapists, also known as psychotherapists, have a tremendous impact on people’s lives – not just on their patients’ lives but also on loved ones and communities around their patients. They help people cope with difficulties, social situations, relationships and mental health struggles. Even those not experiencing significant challenges in life can benefit from regular visits with a therapist. 

Not only is it a gratifying career, but it’s also highly in demand and continues to grow substantially. In 2021, about 41.7 million adults in the United States received mental health treatment or counseling within the year, compared to just 31.6 million in 2011.

Those who enjoy helping others, solving problems and allowing others to share their thoughts and feelings may find a job as a therapist extremely rewarding. If this sounds like you, keep reading to find out how to become a therapist, which major and graduate programs are required to become a therapist and your options for post-graduate experiences.

What Does a Therapist Do?

Before you begin researching how to become a therapist, it’s critical to understand what a therapist does. Therapists are crucial to their clients and those around them. However, being passionate about your work is equally essential to the job.

Definition and Responsibilities

A therapist is a trained professional who helps individuals (and couples or families) navigate and overcome personal, professional and mental health challenges. Their responsibilities include providing support, counseling and developing treatment plans for patients suffering from challenging relationships and situations, mental health struggles, disorders or unhealthy thoughts. On a day-to-day basis, this may look like talking to patients about their thoughts and feelings and teaching them coping mechanisms for various thoughts and feelings.

A therapist also helps those who are not suffering from significant mental health challenges but are dealing with relationship, workplace, financial or health-related struggles in which coping mechanisms, communication skills or other practices may help the patient overcome challenges. For example, therapists also help patients struggling with addiction, spiritual healing and financial turmoil due to different life issues. No matter how large or small the challenge seems to the patient, a therapist is there to support and provide solutions for alleviating negative thoughts and reactions.

Different Types of Therapists

Therapists often choose an area of specialization rather than generalized therapy. This allows them to develop their expertise in helping specific mental health or social issues. For example, common types of therapists include:

  • Clinical psychologists assist clients in treating underlying issues contributing to mental health challenges.
  • Marriage and family therapists assist families and couples through relationship and interpersonal issues.
  • Social workers assist marginalized and vulnerable people by enhancing their overall well-being.
  • Addiction therapists assist individuals or groups in overcoming substance abuse issues.

When choosing a specialization, choosing one that aligns with your interests and career goals is important. Choose a specialization you feel passionately connected to and you may feel especially energized to start your workday each day. Due to this role’s (often) emotional nature, it’s critical to consider how your specialization may contribute to your work-life balance.

What Degrees Do You Need to Become a Therapist?

If you’re wondering how to become a therapist, you’ll quickly learn that education is critical to the job. The role of therapist typically requires a master’s degree. However, you may also find work as a therapist with a bachelor’s degree.

Bachelor’s Degree (Earned in Four Years)

Suppose you want to know how to become a therapist with just a bachelor’s degree. In that case, you’ll be happy to find that it’s possible with an education in a degree such as psychology, sociology or counseling. These major programs provide a solid foundation of the basic knowledge needed to become an entry-level therapist or counselor, such as mental health illnesses, coping mechanisms, treatment plans and talk therapy strategies.

In addition to education from school coursework, gaining experience through internships and volunteering will equip you with first-hand knowledge of working with real people and real issues. It’s imperative to gain practice and learn from mentors alongside coursework.

To earn a title as a licensed professional counselor (LPC) or higher, you may need to earn a master’s degree.

Master’s Degree in Counseling or Psychology (Earned in an Additional Two to Four Years)

Most therapist roles, such as licensed professional counselor or licensed clinical psychologist, require a master’s degree. A master’s education allows therapists to become licensed in their state, allowing them to assess, diagnose and treat mental disorders. These roles go beyond talk therapy and teaching coping skills to help clients with clinical diagnoses.

Through a master’s degree education, students will gain practical experience, such as participating in supervised counseling sessions or internships, allowing them to achieve authentic experiences with real clients. This experience is second to none and critical to growing the skills needed to treat patients.

Besides a Degree, What Else Do You Need to Become a Therapist?

After earning a college degree, how do you become a therapist? Therapist and counselor roles often require practical experience before independent practice.

Internships and Supervised Practice

As with many professional roles, gaining hands-on experience through internships is critical to a well-rounded understanding of your future profession. Through an internship, you’ll gain more than practical experience by experiencing how to run a therapy business and practicing your skills in real time. 

A critical aspect of these internships is developing fundamental treatment skills under the guidance and supervision of experienced professionals. This hands-on training provides in-depth knowledge of critical thinking and the nuanced aspects of the therapist-client relationship that you may not learn in a classroom.

Licensing Requirements

Each state has a state licensing board that sets requirements for therapists. Among these requirements, therapists need to pass licensing exams and obtain relevant certifications before they’re able to see clients officially.

Building Specialized Skills

While your degree program will teach you the practical skills and knowledge needed to recognize mental health illnesses and create treatment plans, soft skills are also required when becoming a therapist.

Developing Empathy and Active Listening

Empathy is a crucial skill for therapists to understand and practice. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Not only does this skill help therapists ascertain the best course of treatment, but it also helps build the rapport of the therapist-client relationship.

Active listening techniques are taught in college courses, and practicing these skills come to life during practical experience. You can even practice with friends and family without treating them as a therapist by engaging in eye contact, avoiding interrupting and listening without judgment or jumping to conclusions.

Cultural Competence

Therapists don’t typically get to choose their patients. While practicing therapy, you will encounter diverse people with unique circumstances, backgrounds and cultures. 

To remain culturally informed and understanding, ongoing education in diversity and culture is imperative to the job, as understanding the beauty of diversity and developing cultural competence is essential to becoming a successful therapist.

Navigating Your Career Path as a Therapist

Now that you understand how to become a therapist, you can evaluate the aspects of practicing. From private practices to community health care with specializations along the way, there are many ways to practice as a therapist once your initial education is complete.

Job Settings and Opportunities

Therapists have the option to work in a private practice or a community health organization. As with any job, there are pros and cons of each.

In private practice, one or multiple therapists own the practice and have several employees and staff members. In this job setting, therapists may have more autonomy; they may be able to choose their schedule, prices or other managerial items within the legalities of the job. They may also enjoy a more relaxed atmosphere. However, salaries may be impacted, and therefore lower, when you’re responsible for the cost of running the business. You may also have fewer opportunities to grow.

In a health care setting, such as a hospital or clinic, therapists may enjoy being solely responsible for patients rather than caring for managerial tasks when owning a business. Typically, salaries are higher, with more room for career growth. On the other hand, therapists may feel they lack independence when working on a hospital schedule and may find it challenging to follow established (and sometimes outdated) rules.

Continuing Education and Specializations

As you gain more experience and knowledge in the field, you may find interest in pursuing additional certifications or following a different specialized approach to your work. There are always opportunities to gain specialized training in new fields as updated concepts and training methods often arise in the therapy industry.

Similarly, professional development is highly recommended and often required to stay up to date with state regulations. Many therapists allocate a portion of their in-office time each week to researching the latest techniques and trends when not seeing patients.

Final Thoughts

We hope this inspired you not only to continue learning about how to become a therapist but also the aspects of the job that are most rewarding and challenging. Becoming a therapist is not an easy path, nor is it to continue as a therapist. Helping patients, while incredibly rewarding, comes with emotional challenges.

As society places heavy emphasis on healthy mental practice, therapists will become more in demand. Their positive impact on patients and overall mental health in society is inspiring and fulfilling. Those who enjoy helping others may find this career path just what they need for an enriching lifelong career.

The perspectives and thoughts shared in the Furman Blog belong solely to the author and may not align with the official stance or policies of Furman University. All referenced sources were accurate as of the date of publication.