Therapy is not a “quick fix,” but instead, it is a process. Therapists get to know their clients and address their needs over time, sometimes adjusting their treatment methods and making each plan unique to the patient.
If this sounds interesting to you, read on to learn more about how to become a therapist, the qualifications you need, and the various fields of therapy.
- There are many different fields of therapy (mental health, physical, etc.)
- Each field has different educational requirements
- All therapists should gain clinical experience before beginning their career
What Qualifications Do You Need To Be a Therapist?
While becoming a therapist isn’t as demanding as becoming a doctor, you must still accomplish many requirements beforehand. You will need an appropriate degree and education in the field you wish to practice, experience with patients and clients, and usually a state license.
Of course, different fields of therapy also have various programs and requirements. Check the relevant section below to learn how to become a therapist in your preferred area.
Degree In the Relevant Field
You will probably need a Master’s Degree in an appropriate field for most therapist professions before you begin practicing. A Ph.D. will expand your opportunities and may lead to a higher salary.
As of 2020, the median salary for psychologists were $105,780 a year
For many therapy fields, a degree in a psychology-related discipline will be the most relevant for you. Studying psychology can help you get a foothold in mental health, marriage counseling, or family therapy.
Other fields of therapy are more physical rather than psychological. If you want to become a massage therapist, a physical therapist, or a sports therapist, you might want to study a different medical discipline such as kinesiology.
The narrower fields of therapy, such as speech therapy or radiation therapy, require narrower topics of college study.
Just about all therapy fields have several classes in common, however. Regardless of your preferred field, you can be expected to take courses in medical professional ethics, substance abuse, clinical psychology, cultural diversity, and relationship therapy.
Most therapy licensing programs require thousands of hours of experience working under licensed supervision. After obtaining your degree in a therapy-related discipline, apply for a clinical experience program to log these hours. Your university might be able to help you with this requirement.
Clinical experience is necessary for therapists to practice while under careful supervision. More experienced therapists will be at your side to prevent mistakes and to guide you.
Because therapists are given responsibility for the care and well-being of their clients, they must maintain an official license. These licenses are granted by each state and may have different requirements from state to state.
In addition to passing a licensing exam, your state will likely require you to complete ongoing training and education each year to maintain your status as a licensed therapist, just like a licensed clinical social worker.
How To Become a Licensed Therapist
Since each state has its requirements for licensure, you need to check your local requirements before you practice psychotherapy.
Generally, most states require two years, or 2500 hours, of supervised clinical experience and then a regulatory exam. Some states administer their own exams, while other states use a national qualification exam.
How To Become a Mental Health Therapist
Typically, licensed mental health professionals will have a master’s degree in psychology, sociology, cognitive behavioral therapy, or a counseling degree related to mental health disorders.
Of course, first mental health professionals should obtain their bachelor’s degree in one of those disciplines. After getting an undergraduate degree, the master’s program might take two to three additional years.
After you graduate from school for psychology programs, you need to start looking for clinical experience before becoming a therapist. Most states will require mental health professionals to get two years or 3000 hours of supervised counseling experience to become therapists. They can also go into school counseling or become school psychologists.
Finally, a mental health counselor will need to pass one or more licensing exams. These exams include the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Exam. Your state may also require mental health counselors to pass additional exams, such as an ethics exam or a state law exam.
Mental health professionals can also help as substance abuse counselors. They can also collect cognitive therapy data for psychological theories.
In our post-COVID society, there are also many opportunities to become an online therapist. Websites such as Betterhelp and Talkspace provide online counseling, and sometimes even offer free therapy online. Check out our Betterhelp review and Talkspace review.
How To Become a Marriage and Family Therapist
Each state has varying licensing requirements, but the Association of Marriage and Family Therapist Regulatory Board (AMFTRB) has a handy website that lists each state’s requirements.
Similarly to mental health therapy, a family therapist usually needs a master’s degree. A therapist can get this advanced degree in various disciplines, such as Marriage and Family Therapy, Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Counseling Psychology with a specialization in Marriage and Family Therapy, or Mental Health and Wellness.
After obtaining your advanced degree, you will need to perform 1500 to 4000 supervised clinical hours to become a therapist. After this, you can get your license by passing the Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) National Examination test, administered by the AMFTRB.
Family therapists are beneficial if family members are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and behavioral health problems or a behavioral disorder. Child psychology is another great career field for prospective therapists or career counselors.
About 13.6% of children aged 5 to 17 received some kind of mental health treatment
How To Become a Massage Therapist
In contrast to working with mental health issues or becoming a therapist, you can start the process of becoming a massage therapist with only a high school diploma.
With your high school diploma or GED, you are qualified to begin a vocational program for massage therapy. Keep in mind that even massage therapy is a broad category—you might be interested in Swedish massage therapy, trigger point massage therapy, deep tissue massage, or sports recovery massage.
Any of these disciplines will take future therapists approximately 15 months to learn and earn a diploma. Along the way, you will be expected to pass classes in subjects like anatomy and physiology.
During your training, and perhaps even after you earn your diploma, your state licensing board will probably expect you to be completing up to 500 hours in massage therapy training from a board-approved massage therapy school. During this training, you will be massaging real clients under professional supervision.
Once you have your diploma and have completed this training, you can take your state’s massage license exam. The exam might cost a nominal fee for administration.
As a licensed massage therapist, you have the choice to work for an established spa or treatment center, or to start your own massage therapy practice. While starting your own business is risky and requires much more work and bureaucracy, you will have the freedom to be your own boss and choose your own massage therapy clients.
How To Become a Physical Therapist
Physical therapy is a much more rigorous field of practice than massage therapy, and becoming a therapist requires a doctorate from an accredited university.
Your degree should be in physical therapy or a closely related field. Obtaining this degree can take up to seven years of college study (four years undergraduate, three years in graduate school). During this study period, you will be taking courses in subjects like anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, kinesiology, neuroscience, and much more.
You will also need to pass medical ethics, medical law, finance, medical practice management, clinical reasoning, and evidence-based diagnostic treatment. Physical therapy is considered a legitimate medical field and requires the mental and professional discipline of any other kind of doctor, nurse, or medical professional.
After graduation, you must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE), administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT).
Additionally, some states require background checks and compliance training, among other criteria, before awarding a physical therapy license. You may also be required to take ongoing medical and professional continuing education courses every two years to maintain your license, depending on your state’s requirements.
How Long Does It Take To Become a Physical Therapist?
Becoming a physical therapist usually takes about seven years of university study. Still, some targeted programs reduce the bachelor’s degree studies to three years so that the doctorate can be obtained in six years, total.
Exams and licensure can be accomplished after graduation, but take care to note that in many states, exams are only offered during certain times of the year.
Though it’s a long process, the earning potential for physical therapists is high, especially with specialty services
How To Become a Physical Therapist Assistant?
A physical therapy assistant (PTA) needs to have much of the same knowledge and professional training as a physical therapist, but can skip more rigorous requirements, such as medical field management, pharmacology, and diagnostic treatment. A physical therapist assistant cannot prescribe medication.
A physical therapist assistant will be practicing physical therapy, but under the supervision of a full physical therapist. As such, the assistant can perform his/her therapy practice with an associate’s degree. You can usually complete these degrees in less than three years at a university accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy.
After graduation, you can obtain your PTA license by taking a state-administered national licensure exam or certification.
How To Become a Sex Therapist
Unsurprisingly, states do not license professional sex therapy. Instead, sex therapists are usually licensed professionals in a related field of therapy, but treat clients specifically for sexual performance and arousal. Sometimes they treat couples, but they also provide therapy services for individuals.
The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT) provides certifications and licensure for practicing sex therapists.
To obtain this license, you should first get a graduate school (master’s or doctorate) degree in mental health, psychology, or a related therapy field. You could also choose a graduate degree in a wider field, such as psychology, psychotherapy, psychiatric nursing, social work, family counseling, or marriage counseling.
Your degree should include subjects such as the biology of sexual functions, reproductive anatomy, and mental or physical health factors that impact sexual behavior and performance. Medical practice ethics is also an important topic for sex therapists, especially if you start your own practice.
After your degree, your state may require you to perform therapy under a clinical supervisor before granting your license. Check your specific state’s requirements. It is common for candidates to complete up to 300 hours of supervised therapy treatment, including structured group discussions.
How To Become a Speech Therapist
Speech therapy is often called speech & language pathology (SLP). SLP professionals need a master’s degree in communication sciences and disorders (CSD), a state license, and a national certification through the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASLHA).
To become an SLP therapist, you should first obtain a graduate degree in CSD. With this degree, you can start your post-graduate fellowship. This fellowship might last about 30 weeks and involve mentorship by an ASHA-certified SLP professional.
After your fellowship, you will need to take the Education Testing Service’s National SLP Exam. Although each state has its own minimum score requirements, it’s a good idea to shoot for the ASLHA minimum score of 162.
If you pass this exam, check with your state for their licensure requirements. Usually, this will include a license fee, university transcripts, and a background check.
Approximately 55.2% of children aged 3 to 17 have a communication disorder, suggesting a high need for speech therapists
How To Become a Radiation Therapist
Cancer remains one of the leading causes of death worldwide, and radiation therapists are always in high demand to help treat cancer patients or provide relief. They also help with research methods and diagnosing patients.
Radiation therapy is diverse, including external methods and internal radiation methods. Internal methods include radiopharmaceuticals, systemic radiation, palliative radiation, and brachytherapy. Usually, radiation therapists work on an oncology team, and some of their responsibilities include informing patients about the nature and specific details about radiation.
Radiation therapists need a minimum of an associate’s degree, which you can obtain from an accredited university in under three years. However, bachelor’s degrees and graduate degrees are also available in radiation therapy disciplines.
You should pick a degree recognized by the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT). Your coursework should include wide and varied topics such as human development, technical writing and English composition, math, chemistry, physics, anatomy and physiology, and nutrition.
During your university experience, it will be helpful to gain clinical hours. Your university may be able to help you with clinical work placement. Each state has varying experience requirements.
With your degree and your clinical experience, you can apply for a state license. For this license, you will typically need to pass the ARRT national exam.
Like physical therapy, you will likely need to recertify as a radiation therapy professional each year.
How To Become a Respiratory Therapist
Respiratory therapists can start their careers with either an Associates’s Degree or a Bachelor of Health Science in Respiratory Care. Coursework should include chemistry, biology, anatomy and physiology courses.
Graduate degrees can lead to more competitive job opportunities. For example, you might be qualified to become a Respiratory Therapist Educator, or Sleep Study Therapist with a graduate degree.
You should also obtain clinical experience while studying for your degree. Your university should help you with this clinical placement.
State licensure usually involves passing the Certified Respiratory Therapist exam, administered by the National Board for Respiratory Care.
Becoming a therapist is a long journey; here, we’re answering some of the most common therapist candidate questions below.
How Long Would It Take To Become a Therapist?
This answer varies widely based on the type of therapy that you are interested in. Generally, the social and psychological fields require the most formal education, while physical and massage therapists can start their careers with undergraduate degrees.
Therapy technicians and therapist assistants can also start their careers with as little as an associate’s degree, which you can obtain in less than three years.
Certification and licensure usually require at least a few months of clinical experience and a state or national exam. However, these typically do not take more than a year of extra time.
How To Become a Therapist Online?
Suppose you can find an accredited online university that offers a degree program in your preferred therapy-related field. In that case, this is just as good as going to a university in person.
However, it will be more difficult to gain the necessary clinical experience online. It may not be impossible, though. In our post-COVID society, many types of interpersonal psychotherapy have adjusted to online programs and therapy sessions (such as through Zoom or Google Meet). You may be able to complete supervised clinical work this way.
If you are interested in massage, physical therapy, or radiation therapy, then, of course, there are no ways to get clinical hours online. These therapy fields require teaching assistant sessions at a clinic.
Also, your state licensure exams will most likely need to be taken at a local testing center to ensure testing integrity. In a few cases, the licensing board may have transitioned to an online test format.
Do Therapists Get Paid Well?
This is another question that varies widely by the different types of therapy. We have listed the average annual salaries for some of these types of therapists below.
- Mental health therapists: $47,660
- Marriage and family therapists: $49,610
- Massage therapists: $47,180
- Physical therapists: $89,440
- Sex therapists: $56,010
- Speech therapists: $79,120
- Radiation therapists: $85,560
- Respiratory therapists: $62,500
What Qualifications Do You Need To Be a Therapist?
While nearly every type of therapy requires a certification exam and clinical hours, each specific field has different educational requirements. We have consolidated the minimum educational qualifications for each type of therapist into this handy list for you:
- Mental health therapists: Master’s degree, psychology degree
- Marriage and family therapists: Master’s degree
- Massage therapists: High school diploma
- Physical therapists: Doctoral degree
- Sex therapists: Master’s degree
- Speech therapists: Master’s degree
- Radiation therapists: Associate’s degree
- Respiratory therapists: Associate’s or bachelor’s degree
Is It Hard To Get a Job as a Therapist?
While it may not be hard to get a job as a therapist, attracting clients is a tough part of the process for prospective counselors.
It’s essential to gain as much clinical experience as possible during your continuing education and certification steps. This clinical experience will translate into patient care and help you gain patient trust.
It may take years to build up your private practice client base and get positive referrals. It’s also essential to evaluate your clients on their positive attitudes. You may find yourself with clients who have no genuine desire to change their behavior, and these clients might not show any improvement for years despite your hardest efforts.
As you can see, there are many fields of therapy that you can get into. And these fields have vast differences that appeal to different candidates, different levels of salary, and different requirements.
Therapy is a great way to help others that don’t involve the big risks of practicing medicine. We hope that this article has shown you the options and helped you choose an appropriate path.