Steps to becoming a therapist

Last updated: September 21, 2023
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Eleana Bowman
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Steps to becoming a therapist
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Therapists can be found in a range of settings, including hospitals, schools, private clinics, and mental health centers.

They work closely with patients and support them with their mental health. There are areas of expertise to choose from, but all therapists need to be professional, empathetic, and excellent communicators.

If you're thinking about becoming a therapist, there are a few things you should consider. First, you'll need to decide which specialty is right for you because this can impact your study choices. Then, you'll need to commit to studying and ongoing training.

So, how do you get started? Read on to learn how to become a therapist.

What is a therapist?

Before we tell you how to become a therapist, let's take a moment to learn more about this career type.

Therapists meet with patients and support them with different mental health issues. They can help people both short-term and long-term. For example, therapists can support couples during a temporary separation or be there for a patient with a lifelong mental illness.

They're trained professionals, and they use a range of strategies to diagnose and treat patients. For example, they can use conversations, treatment plans, and behavior analysis. They keep detailed notes and usually meet with patients on a regular basis.

The goal of any therapist is to give their patients a better quality of life.

There are different kinds of therapists, and they can work in a wide range of industries. Therapists often work full-time and may work overtime on weekends or evenings.

6 common types of therapists

What types of therapists are there? Before deciding on your new career path, take a look at some of the most common specialties:

1. Behavioral therapist

Behavioral therapists help patients change negative and harmful behaviors. They use a range of strategies, and the treatment plan will be based on the patient's unique needs.

The behavioral therapist can teach patients to deal with difficult situations in a positive way. The goal is to create new habits for long-term change.

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They can support people to quit smoking and help those with eating disorders.

These therapists often work with children with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) and people with anger management issues.

The average annual salary for a behavioral therapist in the US is $48,213 or $18.46 per hour.

2. Family therapist

Family and marriage therapists support couples and families. They help people build stronger relationships by communicating with one another.

When clients visit a family therapist, they'll talk about their situation, create goals, and may commit to making lifestyle changes.

Family therapists use their training and experience to give people tools and strategies to deal with difficult times in their lives. For example, they can support people through marriage breakdowns and illnesses in the family.

If additional help is required, the family therapist can make referrals for community services.

The median salary for a family therapist in the US is $49,880 per year or $23.98 per hour.

3. Substance abuse counselor

Substance abuse counselors, or addiction counselors, work with people who struggle with alcoholism and drug addiction.

This treatment can be voluntary or ordered by a court. Substance abuse counselors work with people one-on-one as well as in groups. They can be there in times of crisis, attend interventions, and help people during recovery. Patients can set goals and learn new behaviors.

Substance abuse counselors work closely with other health professionals, including social workers, nurses, psychiatrists, physical therapists, and physicians. They may also communicate with their patients' families.

The average salary for a substance abuse counselor in the US is $48,520 per year or $23.33 per hour.

4. Social worker

Social workers help individuals and families in the community. They help people get access to resources, such as food stamps or shelter.

Social workers support people through life changes. For example, if someone is unemployed or going through a divorce, they may meet with a social worker.

If there's an emergency, such as a domestic violence situation, these health professionals may be called to attend.

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They're often involved in community programs and give feedback to local leaders.

Social workers keep accurate client files and follow up on cases.

The median salary for a social worker in the US is $50,390 per year or $24.23 per hour.

5. School counselor

School counselors work in elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as colleges and universities. They make sure students are having their needs met in the school environment.

School counselors talk to students and families to find areas for improvement. For example, if a student needs support with social skills or a specific subject, they can come up with a plan.

School counselors work closely with teachers and administrative teams to support students in need.

Depending on the ages of the students, these counselors may offer career advice. They can help students choose the right pathways and extracurricular activities.

The average salary for a student counselor in the US is $60,510 per year or $29.09 per hour.

6. Licensed psychologist

Licensed psychologists are experts in the behavioral sciences and the human mind. They communicate and observe patients, and they study their behavior.

Psychologists can participate in laboratory studies, administer personality tests, and look for patterns in behavior.

They diagnose mental health disorders and work with patients to create treatment plans.

Some licensed psychologists research theories and write reports and academic papers. Depending on the work environment, they may supervise and train interns.

Psychologists are often found in private practices and hospital settings.

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The average salary for a licensed psychologist in the US is $81,040 per year or $38.96 per hour.

How to become a therapist

Want to work as a therapist? Now that you know about some of the different specialties, it's time to talk about pathways.

1. Choose the type of therapy

The field of therapy will impact the steps you need to take to kick off your career. Before you sign up for a degree, think about your preferred specialty.

We've given you some ideas above, and if you've made it this far, you may already know which direction to take.

For example, are you interested in behavioral therapy, school counseling, social work, or mental health services?

Whatever you choose to study will be a commitment, so make sure it's an area you're truly passionate about.

2. Complete a degree

To work as a therapist, you'll need a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate degree from a college or university.

The educational requirements can vary depending on the job type. For example, most psychologists have a doctorate degree. School counselors usually have a master's degree, and social workers can start out with a bachelor's degree.

You can attend college part-time or full-time, and there may be minimum entry requirements.

If you're not ready to commit to a bachelor's degree or higher, consider a counseling associate degree. With this certificate, you may be employed in the general community and mental health services.

Keep in mind that even after you’ve completed this step and those below, depending on the path you choose, you may have to earn continuing education credits to keep your license or continue working in the field. These can be earned through college or university courses, seminars, workshops, home studies, publications, and presentations.

3. Get on-the-job training

Therapists often deal with vulnerable people, so they need to be highly trained, professional, and ethical.

For most therapist fields, you'll need to complete a clinical placement or internship. These hours are supervised and vary by program. Through these hours, you'll gain valuable work experience. You'll work with a mentor and take advantage of their knowledge.

The placement length can vary depending on your state's requirements. As an example, someone studying to be a licensed psychologist typically needs to complete a one-year internship and 3,000 hours. This work training is done while you complete a doctorate in psychology.

4. Receive a certification

Once you've finished your degree and completed the required experience, you'll be ready to start work. But there's another step you need to get through.

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Each state has its own licensing requirements.To get certified, you'll need to pass a licensing exam, like the National Counselor Examination. These exams usually contain multiple-choice questions and have a set time limit. There are different sections that cover topics such as patient assessments, ethics, and treatments.

5. Update your resume

When you write your therapist resume, it'll need to showcase your education, skills, and experience. Make sure you include details of your qualifications, certifications, and specialties.

You should target your resume for the position and try to match your skills to the job criteria. For example, you may include academic skills such as psychology and behavioral therapy skills. Plus, you can talk about your experience working with children or patients with mental health conditions.

If you're new to the industry and having trouble building a resume, include additional skills such as communication and computer skills.

Try to give examples of your experience while maintaining patient confidentiality. Check your resume for spelling and grammatical mistakes and include a cover letter.

You should also get some professional references ready, as the hiring manager may want to verify your details.

6. Apply for jobs

So, you've completed a degree, participated in work training, passed a licensing exam, and prepared your resume. Now it's time to start your job search.

Our job board is a one-stop portal for all the latest roles. You can enter a keyword and your location to see what's available near you. Plus, you can set up a free account, set up job alerts, and chat with other community members.

Here are a few examples of therapist job titles you can browse:

7. Grow your network

All therapists can benefit from a strong professional network.

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When you're just starting, a mentor can give you the support you need to be successful. And, once you gain more experience, someone in your professional network may be able to recommend you for a new job or promotion.

When you connect with others in a similar field, you can get advice, discuss new ideas, and talk about the demands of the job.

As a therapist, you'll also need to collaborate with other healthcare professionals. For example, a social worker may refer a patient to a mental health counselor or a licensed therapist. Or a school counselor may recommend a child therapist.

You'll also work with other specialists, such as nurses, physicians, physiotherapists, and paramedics.

Building these relationships can make doing your job more effective for your clients and easier for you.

What skills do you need to be a therapist?

Think you have the qualifications it takes to be a therapist? There are still a few soft skills that you'll need to be successful.

Verbal and written communication skills are essential. You should be able to speak confidently with patients, their families, and other healthcare professionals. You’ll need positive body language, and if there’s a language barrier, you’ll need to find creative ways to overcome them.

You'll also need analytical skills, time management, and problem-solving skills.

Patients can be distressed and face hardship. Therapists need to be approachable, calm, and patient. You'll be dealing with sensitive information, so confidentiality is a must.

Aside from the discussed clinical skills and professional experience, you also need computing and technology skills to keep accurate patient records.

Working as a therapist

Do you want to work as a therapist? If this is the field for you, there are a range of career options to choose from. For example, you can study to become a behavioral therapist, family therapist, substance abuse counselor, social worker, school counselor, or licensed psychologist.

There are a few steps before you can start work. First, you’ll need to complete a college degree and get experience in the workplace. Therapists also need to pass a certification exam.

Once you’re qualified, you can update your resume and start your job search. Don’t forget to build your network to get advice and open up new opportunities.

Is it time to start your job search? Head to our job board to see who is hiring near you, and visit our resource center for more career guides.



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