There is no single “right” path for becoming a therapist. Some people begin training to do therapy immediately after college, while others enter the profession after years spent working in a completely different field. Therapists study a wide variety of topics in college and graduate school, and there is no single college major that every therapist studies. However, all therapists have to have a desire to help others, significant education in psychology and/or counseling, and must be licensed as a therapist in the state where they wish to practice.
1. Learn about the field of mental health and identify your personal aptitude for a counseling profession. Read psychology-related books, websites, and blogs, and talk to people in the field. Although you do not have to have any prior knowledge of psychology or therapy to begin education as a therapist, learning about the field can help you decide if it is right for you and give you the background you need to excel in your classes. In addition, learning more about yourself and evaluating your reasons for wanting to be a counselor can lead to greater self-awareness--a necessary trait in the therapy profession. Attending therapy as a client is also a valuable way of learning more about the therapy process and working on any of your own personal issues that could impact your success as a future therapist.
2. Complete high school or obtain a GED and go to college. In college, major in a subject related to mental health and therapy, such as psychology, child development, social work, or neuroscience. You do not necessarily have to have a psychology-related degree to get into graduate school for psychology, but it can improve your chances of admission and give you the background you need to do well in school and avoid remedial work. Strive for good grades in all of your classes, because graduate school admissions can be a competitive process. Developing strong relationships with your professors, writing stellar papers, getting involved in extracurricular programs or internships, or publishing in an undergraduate research journal can also make you a competitive graduate school candidate.
3. Apply for graduate school at a university with a competitive, accredited program related to your chosen career. You will need to decide what type of therapist you want to be. For example, you might become a marriage and family therapist or a licensed clinical social worker. Choose an academic concentration that helps you master skills related to your chosen career. Future child therapists, for example, might choose to study child or developmental psychology. You will, at minimum, need a master's degree to become a therapist, though some therapists pursue doctoral-level degrees. A master's degree takes, on average, two to three years to complete. If you are pursuing a doctorate degree such as a PhD, it can take five or more years and you will need to write a dissertation presenting new research. You will also have to defend your dissertation to a committee of experts. Graduate schools for psychology are available throughout the United States and offer a wide range of programs, such as online school, part-time coursework, and specialty concentrations. Choose a graduate school that will meet your personal and professional needs, as well as your learning style.
4. Complete all of your graduate coursework, including any required practicums, internships, or externships. Many graduate schools require that future therapists complete clinical work while in school to give them experience in the field. An internship or externship can also help you meet state licensing requirements for becoming a counselor or therapist in some states. Working in a supervised clinical setting during your graduate studies will provide you with an opportunity to learn and practice real clinical skills, as well as learn from and connect with other mental health professionals. Some graduate programs require students to write a thesis or dissertation in order to graduate.
5. Apply for licensure after you have graduated. State license requirements vary, so you will need to check with the state organization that governs your profession. For example, if you want to be a marriage and family therapist, check with the licensing board for marriage and family therapists. To become a licensed counselor, you will generally have to pay a licensing fee, demonstrate that you have completed the coursework required by your state, and complete a certain number of supervised clinical hours. You might also have to take a licensing exam and pass with a certain score in order to prove your knowledge and training.
6. Network with other professionals. Once you are ready to begin work as a therapist or counselor, it is important to get to know other people in your chosen industry. If you are in private practice, you will need referrals, which in some cases can be sent to you by other mental health professionals. You will also likely need to know psychiatrists and other counselors in your area to whom you can refer people who need medication or different services than you can offer them. If you would like to work for a mental health agency or organization, knowing others in the industry can help you find a job once you are ready to start your career as a therapist.
7. Remain up to date on your profession. Every state establishes requirements for therapists to renew your therapist license. Depending on the state you practice in, you will most likely have to complete a certain number of continuing education classes every few years. Try taking continuing education classes related to your area of practice, the needs of your clientele, and your research interests. You may also choose your continuing education course topics to educate yourself about a new development or research trend in your profession.
Preparing for a career as a therapist takes many years and extensive education. On your journey of becoming a therapist, be sure to stay connected with the support of others--family and friends, academic counselors and advisors, your own therapist, and/or others in the mental health profession. The steps involved in becoming a licensed professional are designed to prepare you for a successful future career in which you work ethically to help others improve their well-being and reach their goals.