How to Become a Therapist

Have you always wanted to help people work towards greater mental health? Learn what a therapist does, how to become one, and how much you can make.

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Do you want to make a measurable impact in people's lives? If so, becoming a therapist may be a fulfilling path.

Therapists work with people dealing with mental health, behavioral, or emotional hardships. Aspiring therapists need plenty of education and training before embarking on their careers. Discover more about how to become a therapist, including specializations and licensure requirements.

How Long to Become:
7-9 Years

Degree Required:
Master's Degree in a Mental Health Field

Job Outlook:
15% Growth from 2022-2032

Source: BLS

Popular Online Counseling Bachelor's Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

What Does a Therapist Do?

Therapists provide treatment and guidance for people struggling with mental health, behavioral, relationship, or substance use issues.

“Most days are focused on providing therapy sessions or conducting intakes. An intake is when we get a new client’s history and learn more about why they want therapy and what their goals are. We have to document everything in a client’s chart, so every day requires a lot of paperwork,” said Rayelle T. Davis, a licensed clinical professional counselor.

Therapists either work one-on-one with clients or with groups. Some professionals specialize in marriage and family therapy, focusing on relationships. They find employment in several settings, like hospitals, schools, and private practice.

“Many counselors start out their careers in a community agency or group practice setting,” Davis said.

Therapists need advanced knowledge of the human mind and behavior. They must also uphold ethical standards.

In addition to holding different specializations, therapists can offer different therapeutic approaches, such as cognitive behavioral, humanistic, or holistic therapy, to name a few.


  • Evaluate clients' psychological or mental state and diagnose disorders
  • Work with clients, encouraging them to explore their emotions and experiences
  • Develop treatment plans and coping strategies for clients
  • Maintain records to keep track of clients' progress
  • Refer clients to other helpful resources or services if needed

Skills Needed

  • Ability to communicate with clients in a nonjudgmental and compassionate manner
  • Critical thinking and problem-solving skills are needed to evaluate patients and develop treatment plans
  • Integrity and high ethical standards since therapists work with sensitive information
  • Observational and record-taking skills so that they can keep track of clients' progress

Steps to Becoming a Therapist

When it comes to mental health, offering therapy and guidance is no small matter. Therapists need years of training. Counselors, clinical social workers, psychiatrists, and psychologists can also become therapists because they all provide talk therapy. The steps below outline one of the pathways to becoming a therapist, the licensed professional counselor pathway.

Other pathways may require different supervised clinical hours, degree-level, or fieldwork experience in their graduate program.

  1. 1

    Earn a Bachelor's Degree from an Accredited Program

    A bachelor's degree typically includes general education and specialized courses focusing on a major. Aspiring therapists often study psychology or another mental health-related field. Traditionally, students spend four years in a bachelor's degree program.

    When researching degrees, make sure they hold accreditation. Accredited programs have been evaluated and given a stamp of approval by an independent organization. Because of this, graduate schools and employers require candidates to hold accredited degrees.

  2. 2

    Complete an Internship During Your Master's Program

    The next step to becoming a therapist involves earning a master's degree, typically requiring students to complete an internship. These internship programs allow learners to gain practical experience under a professional's guidance and observe therapy in real-world settings. The length varies, depending on the state and school. Additionally, many students might choose a placement that lets them specialize and further their career goals.

  3. 3

    Graduate from an Accredited Master's Program in a Mental Health Field

    After completing their internship requirement, students can complete the rest of their master's degree. Common master's degrees for this career path include psychology, psychotherapy, social work, or counseling.

    Some master's degrees allow students to specialize in a certain area, like marriage and family counseling. A master's program trains students in higher-level coursework, equipping them with the skills they need for their future profession. Typically, a master's degree lasts 1-3 years.

  4. 4

    Complete Supervised Experience

    States require aspiring therapists to carry out supervised experience to earn licensure and practice independently. Requirements vary, ranging from 2,000-4,000 supervised clinical hours, and can last around two years. Licensure candidates can practice their real-world experience with the oversight of experienced professionals. This way, they can put their newly learned skills to the test before they work independently.

  5. 5

    Apply for State Licensure

    Once candidates have checked off their education and supervised experience requirements, they can apply for state licensure. Future therapists can apply for different types of licensure depending on their qualifications, including licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), licensed professional counselor (LPC), or licensed mental health counselor (LMHC). The specific license types, requirements, and titles vary by state and specialty.

  6. 6

    Pass the National Licensure Exam

    The final step to becoming a licensed therapist is passing a licensure exam. The type of exam depends on the type of licensure; candidates might take the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) or the National Counselor Examination (NCE), for example. These exams evaluate test takers' knowledge and skills in counseling and therapy through multiple-choice questions and case studies. They consist of 130-200 questions and last about four hours.

Therapist Licensure and Certification

Licensure is the final step for therapists to practice independently. Therapists can earn different types of licensure depending on their state and specialization.

Your state might offer licenses focusing on marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, mental health counseling, or professional clinical counseling. Check the requirements for each license type, as they vary from state to state.

Therapists must renew their licenses regularly to keep practicing. States usually require therapists to apply for renewal every 1-3 years, and they often stipulate that professionals must complete continuing education courses or practice a certain number of hours to maintain their licenses.

Therapists can earn certification from a professional organization to show their expertise in a certain area. For instance, the National Association for Addiction Professionals offers several certifications for therapists who want to practice addiction counseling.

Therapist Concentrations and Specializations

Marriage and Family Therapists

Marriage and family therapists address clients' mental, emotional, or behavioral issues in the context of their relationships. These professionals can work with couples and families or with individuals who want to work through family issues.

Median Annual Salary: $58,510 (BLS, May 2023)

Substance Use Counselor

Sometimes called addiction counselors, substance use counselors help clients with alcohol or drug dependency issues. Substance use counselors at the bachelor’s level can teach coping mechanisms. However, graduate-level substance use counselors with clinical licensure can treat substance use and co-occurring mental health issues.

Median Annual Salary: $46,000 (Payscale, March 2024)

Mental Health Therapist

Mental health counselors offer guidance to individuals struggling with anxiety, depression, or other emotional or mental health problems. They may either work with individuals or with groups.

Median Annual Salary: $54,000 (Payscale, March 2024)

Crisis Counselor

Crisis counselors work specifically with people who have endured traumatic events, such as severe accidents or sexual abuse. They sometimes visit disaster locations on-site to offer immediate support.

Median Annual Salary: $46,000 (Payscale, March 2024)

How Much Do Therapists Make?

Median Annual Salary

Projected Job Outlook 2022-2032

Source: BLS

Therapists' salaries can vary considerably, depending on factors like experience, location, and specialty. That salary range for marriage and family therapists can span from $39,090 to $104,710, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). They earn an annual median salary of $58,510.

The type of industry and employer can make a difference in earnings potential, too. For example, home healthcare services pay higher median wages, while the local government pays lower.

The therapy profession offers plenty of employment potential, with the BLS projecting 15% growth for marriage and family therapists from 2022 to 2032, much faster than the average growth for all occupations.

What’s the Difference Between a Therapist and a Counselor?

Therapists and counselors are very similar and both provide talk therapy. “Within the mental health professions, there is no difference between therapists and counselors,” Davis said. Learn more about the differences and similarities between therapists and counselors.

Therapists vs. Counselors
  • Therapist is the general umbrella term for a mental health professional that provides talk therapy.
  • Therapists earn therapy licensure and certification, such as marriage and family therapists.
  • Therapy tends to be more long-term, with therapists treating patients holistically.
  • Counselors earn counseling licensure and certification, such as licensed professional counselors or substance use counselors.
  • Counseling can be more short-term, treating a specific life challenge like addiction.
  • Counseling usually offers more goal-oriented solutions.
Both Mental Health Careers
  • Both professions focus on better mental health for patients through ongoing guidance and applied psychology.
  • For both careers, training involves a higher degree and supervised practice.
  • States require licensure to practice both therapy and counseling.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Therapist

What is a therapist?

A therapist is a licensed health professional who works with people with mental health, behavioral, or emotional issues. They evaluate clients, may diagnose mental health disorders, and offer treatment plans through strategies like talk therapy strategies such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

Is Counseling a Good Career?

Counseling can be a fulfilling career for people who want to make a positive impact in others' lives.

Individuals considering counseling should consider several factors, including the stress of their responsibilities, salary, and the opportunities available in their location.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Therapist?

The educational and training requirements and timeline for becoming a therapist vary in each state. However, most states require therapists to possess a master's degree, which means it takes at least five years to become a therapist.

How hard is it to become a Therapist?

Becoming a therapist involves several years of education and supervised experience. One of the biggest challenges of becoming a therapist is related to finances. Internships are often unpaid or low-paid. Although it can seem like a demanding journey, many aspiring therapists enter the growing field every year to help others overcome obstacles and improve their quality of life.

Page last reviewed on April 15, 2024 by Rayelle Davis, Doctoral Candidate, M.Ed., LCPC, NCC, BC-TMH

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