How to Become a Therapist

Millions of Americans are impacted by mental health disorders, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness. The need for therapists to provide counseling services is evident and is on the rise. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment for marriage and family therapists will rise 22 percent by 2028 . 

Fortunately, there are many online therapy and counseling degree programs that can prepare you to meet the growing demand, as well as multiple opportunities to specialize in an area of mental health that interests you, such as addiction, child therapy, and gerontology.

Start your counseling career by requesting information from one of our sponsored schools:

counseling at northwestern
Earn an MA in Counseling from Northwestern and Become a Mental Health Counselor. No GRE Required.

Sponsored

counseling at NYU
Earn your master's in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness online from NYU Steinhardt. GRE not required.

Sponsored

Below, we break down what it means to be a therapist, how to become a licensed therapist, and the different career options for therapists. 

Therapist, Counselor or Psychologist: What's the Difference?

The titles “therapist” and “counselor” can be used interchangeably. From working with married couples to supporting youth with anxiety, ADHD, eating disorders, or substance abuse issues, counselors or therapists have many career options and interact with people across the lifespan. But in general, many provide mental health services. Licensing laws for therapists spell out specific education requirements, the passing of an examination, and the completion of a certain number of hours of experience in practice prior to licensing. 

While there are numerous career paths available to those who choose to study psychology, all professionals focus on the brain and behavior, and how the two intersect. Psychologists can work with people who are navigating difficult or life-changing events such as the death of a family member, or patients whose chronic conditions interfere with their overall quality of life. To best support their patients and clients, they look at intellectual skills, personality traits and cognitive strengths and weaknesses. In order to become a licensed psychologist, most states require a master’s degree in psychology, or a doctoral degree. Most states also require licensed psychologists to pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) and to have supervised experience as an intern and postdoc before they can practice. 

No matter which title appeals to you the most or what kind of services you’d like to deliver, there are online degree programs to become a licensed counselor and online degree programs to become a licensed psychologist, making it convenient to pursue a rewarding career path. 

How to Become a Licensed Therapist

In order to become a licensed therapist in all 50 states – or counselor – you need a degree from a graduate-level counseling program credentialed by a relevant accreditation body, namely the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) and the American Psychological Association. In most states, licensed professional therapists must also complete post-degree, supervised clinical experience within a specific time frame.

Those interested in a therapist license are required to pass one of several examinations on counseling, depending on their state. Test options include: 

  • National Counselor Examination
  • National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination
  • Certified Rehabilitation Counselor Examination
  • Examination of Clinical Counselor Practice

1. Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree

Most graduate-level programs geared toward students looking to launch a licensed therapist career, require you to hold a bachelor’s in a liberal arts discipline. You may decide to major in psychology, sociology, or a similar area of study, to build a strong educational background for future studies. But a psychology major is not a requirement to pursue an advanced counseling degree.  

2. Obtain a Master’s Degree from an Accredited Program

Since many states require that graduate degree programs pursued by aspiring licensed therapists follow a model established by CACREP, the agency’s website is one place to start researching options for master’s-level programs in mental health counseling. CACREP has over 860 accredited counseling programs. Use their online search tool to filter results by state, keyword, and specialty. 

3. Complete Post-graduate Experience Hours

State-by-state requirements when it comes to clinical experience can somewhat vary, so it is important to read up on and follow the guidelines of the state where you are looking to practice. But according to the American Counseling Association, you’ll typically be required to complete between 2,000 and 3,000 hours of supervised counseling experience following graduation from a master’s degree program, before receiving your therapist license. 

Supervisors must be a licensed professional counselor or other approved licensed mental health professional. It is also important to note that specific hours are to be dedicated to client care and face-to-face interaction. 

4. Take a State Licensure Exam

Every state requires a person who wants to become a licensed therapist to pass a comprehensive examination. There are a number of these tests, the most common of which is the National Counselor Examination, administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). On the NBCC website, you’ll find the state board directory of applicable contact information, available licenses, required exams on a state-by-state basis, and exam registration and schedule information.

5. Take a Jurisprudence Exam if Required by your State 

A number of states require aspiring counselors to pass a jurisprudence exam which tests an applicant’s knowledge of licensing board rules and operating procedures, and state laws affecting counseling practice. States that require new licensees to pass a jurisprudence exam include California, Colorado, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin. 

Different Kinds of Therapists

Within the mental health counseling and therapy career landscape, there are a number of possible specialty paths. Below, we explore steps to becoming a psychotherapist, a marriage and family therapist, an applied behavior analysis therapist, a recreational therapist, a child therapist, a cognitive behavioral therapist, an addiction counselor, a career counselor, a gerontological counselor, and a school counselor. 

Psychotherapists

Psychotherapists help people deal with any range of issues impacting their day-to-day lives, including depression and anxiety, coping with loss or illness, addictions, and relationship troubles. Psychotherapists apply procedures including cognitive-behavioral therapy, talk therapy and other methods to help clients develop coping skills and lead happier, more productive lives. 

How to Become a Psychotherapist

To become a psychotherapist, you need:

  1. A bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university.
  2. A Master of Arts or Master of Science degree in psychology or psychotherapy from an accredited college or university. 
  3. A PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) or PsyD (Doctor of Psychology) from an accredited doctoral program. 
  4. Specific supervised hours of experience counseling as mandated by your state. 
  5. Passing marks on the National Counselor Examination, or similar licensure exam as required by your state.  Contact your state board for information on exam registration. Once you pass the exam, you may apply for licensure.
  6. Earn continuing education credits through college or university courses, seminars or workshops, home study, publications, and/or presentations. 

Marriage and Family Therapist

Marriage and family therapists, or marriage, couple, and family counselors, support clients with their most important relationships — as couples, and within family units — taking a holistic approach to mental health care. Marriage and family therapists may work in mental health centers, community agencies or in a private practice. 

How to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist

To become a marriage and family therapist, you need:

  1. A bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university.
  2. A Master of Arts degree or Master of Science degree in marriage and family counseling from an accredited college or university. 
  3. Specific supervised hours of experience counseling as mandated by your state. 
  4. Passing marks on the National Counselor Examination, or similar licensure exam as required by your state. Look up the state board directory to find contact information for your state board, and links to an examination registration.
  5. Earn continuing education credits through college or university courses, seminars or workshops, home study, publications, and/or presentations.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapists

An applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapist observes a client’s behavior to understand more about his/her habits and motivations. ABA therapists make assessments of people within their regular environments to help guide strategies for intervention. They often work with people across the autism spectrum disorder, as well as those with traumatic brain injuries and other developmental delays and disorders. 

How to Become a Behavioral Analyst 

To become an ABA therapist, you need:

  1. A bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university.
  2. A master’s in ABA therapy from an accredited college or university. 
  3. Specific supervised hours of experience counseling as mandated by your state. 
  4. Passing marks on the Behavior Analyst Certification Board exam, or similar licensure exam such as required by your state.  Contact your state board for information on exam registration. Once you pass the exam, you may apply for licensure.
  5. Earn continuing education credits through college or university courses, seminars or workshops, home study, publications, and/or presentations.

Recreational Therapists

Recreational therapists use activities—recreation—to help individuals with illnesses and disabilities to improve their mental and physical health and promote recovery. Recreational therapists support client wellbeing through a number of activities including arts and crafts, animals, dance, drama, and outings.

How to Become a Recreational Therapist

To become a recreational therapist, you need: 

  1. A bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university in recreational therapy or related field.
  2. A Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist certification administered by the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification, acquired by passing a knowledge-based exam. 

Child Therapist

Child therapists work with children and teens to navigate issues they are facing at home and school, including bullying, family problems, depression, trauma, eating disorders and anxiety. Child therapists help children and teens communicate, learn, and develop coping skills. 

How to Become a Child Therapist

To become a child therapist, you need:

  1. A bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university.
  2. A master’s in child and adolescent behavioral health or development from an accredited college or university.
  3. Specific supervised hours of experience counseling as mandated by your state. 
  4. Passing marks on the National Counselor Examination, or similar licensure exam as required by your state. Contact your state board for information on exam registration. Once you pass the exam, you may apply for licensure.
  5. Earn continuing education credits through college or university courses, seminars or workshops, home study, publications, and/or presentations.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapist (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapists use goal-oriented treatment, providing practical steps clients can follow to achieve specific objectives—whether addressing sleep issues, anxiety, relationship issues, or struggles with addiction. The therapy works by shifting a person’s beliefs and adjusting behaviors to overcome emotional problems. 

How to Become a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist

To become a cognitive behavioral therapist, you need: 

  1. A bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university.
  2. A master’s in psychology, counseling, social work, psychiatry, occupational therapy, or related field from an accredited college or university.
  3. Specific supervised hours of experience counseling as mandated by your state. 
  4. Passing marks on the National Counselor Examination, or similar licensure exam as required by your state. Contact your state board for information on exam registration. Once you pass the exam, you may apply for licensure.
  5. Earn continuing education credits through college or university courses, seminars or workshops, home study, publications, and/or presentations.

Addiction Counselor

Addiction or substance abuse counselors work with individuals and their family members who suffer from substance abuse and other addictive behaviors. They typically work in education, prevention, and intervention settings. 

How to Become an Addiction Counselor

To become an addiction or substance abuse counselor, you need:

  1. A bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university.
  2. A master’s in addiction counseling from an accredited college or university.
  3. Specific supervised hours of experience counseling as mandated by your state. 
  4. Passing marks on the National Counselor Examination, or similar licensure exam as required by your state.  Contact your state board for information on exam registration. Once you pass the exam, you may apply for licensure.
  5. Earn continuing education credits through college or university courses, seminars or workshops, home study, publications, and/or presentations.

Career Counselor

Career counselors have expertise in career development across the lifespan and can work in K-12 schools, colleges and universities, or in a private practice. They help clients navigate issues around work, unemployment, and skills development.

How to Become a Career Counselor

To become a career counselor, you need:

  1. A bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university.
  2. A master’s degree in career services or counseling with a focus on career development from an accredited college or university. 
  3. Specific supervised hours of experience counseling as mandated by your state. 
  4. Passing marks on the National Counselor Examination, or similar licensure exam as required by your state. Contact your state board for information on exam registration. Once you pass the exam, you may apply for licensure.
  5. Earn continuing education credits through college or university courses, seminars or workshops, home study, publications, and/or presentations.

Gerontological Counselor

Gerontological counseling is one piece of the larger field of study known as gerontology, focused on caring for the needs of people in their later years. A gerontological counselor works with clients on communication skills, mental health, and issues related to the aging process. 

How to Become a Gerontological Counselor

To become a gerontological counselor, you need:

  1. A bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university.
  2. A master’s degree in gerontological studies or counseling with a focus on aging and health/mental health, from an accredited college or university. 
  3. Specific supervised hours of experience counseling as mandated by your state. 
  4. Passing marks on the National Counselor Examination, or similar licensure exam as required by your state. Contact your state board for information on exam registration. Once you pass the exam, you may apply for licensure.
  5. Earn continuing education credits through college or university courses, seminars or workshops, home study, publications, and/or presentations.

School Counselor

School counselors work with children in elementary, middle, and secondary schools to improve the cognitive growth, physical growth, and development of children, and to help students reach their full potential as learners. 

How to Become a School Counselor

To become a school counselor, you need:

  1. A bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university.
  2. A master’s in school counseling from an accredited college or university. 
  3. Specific supervised hours of experience counseling as mandated by your state. 
  4.  Passing marks on the National Counselor Examination, or similar licensure exam as required by your state. Contact your state board for information on exam registration. Once you pass the exam, you may apply for licensure.
  5. Earn continuing education credits through college or university courses, seminars or workshops, home study, publications, and/or presentations.

FAQs

Below, we address some common questions related to becoming a therapist. 

How many years does it take to become a therapist?

There are various master’s-level and doctoral-level programs available to aspiring therapists, including over 860 CACREP-accredited programs. They range from eighteen months to 7 years in length, depending on whether you are seeking a master’s or doctoral degree, area of specialty, existing credits, and part-time or full-time status. Completing the supervised counseling requirement and exam could take another one to two years. 

How do I become a private practice therapist?

Becoming a private practice therapist begins with earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology or other field of interest. You’ll then need a master’s degree in counseling with a specialization in the type of therapy you intend to practice. Following graduation, you need to complete supervised experience – most states require between 2,000 and 3,000 hours — and pass a comprehensive license exam, such as the National Counselor Examination.

How much does a therapist make?

Licensed therapist salaries vary by a number of factors such as location, employer, number of years of experience. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the 2019 median annual salary for substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health therapists is $46,240, which is higher than the median wage of all workers, with those in the highest margin making over $76,000. The top-paying industries for mental health therapists, according to the BLS, are government, hospitals, individual and family services, outpatient mental health centers, and residential mental health and substance abuse facilities. The 2019 median salary for a marriage and family therapist is $49,610, with the highest 10% earning more than $87,700. 

Last updated: May 2020