There is no single career path that fits all therapists, and few therapists treat every issue and every population. If you have an idea about the people with whom you would like to work or the issues you would like to address as a therapist, this can help guide your graduate school choices, coursework, internships, and other career preparations.

There are many factors that you will consider when deciding what kind of therapist to become, including:

Therapy Models, Theories, and Practices

While graduate programs in counseling and psychology will teach you the general skills and knowledge needed to become an ethical therapist, most therapists will seek additional, specialized training in specific therapy models or practices.

There are hundreds of different models of therapy available to help treat the many unique mental health conditions that bring people into therapy. Some of these therapy models and theories have been widely used and studied in the professional field, while others may be lesser known or emerging to meet the needs of specific populations. As a therapist, it's important to decide which theories and therapy practices you wish to incorporate into your practice and gain adequate training to use them effectively. It is common for therapists to utilize more than one type of therapy in their counseling practice.

Treatment Populations

Child therapist working with little girl

If you feel drawn to working with a particular demographic, you might want to specialize your therapy training to meet the needs of that population. Examples of different treatment populations include:

  • children
  • seniors
  • couples
  • survivors of abuse
  • transgender people
  • people with drug addiction
  • ethnic minorities

Of course, there are many different populations that you can work with. You may choose to work with a very limited, specific group of people or to offer counseling services to a variety of groups.

The groups with whom you want to work can affect your job options. For example, you might end up working in a community mental health organization where you can offer subsidized therapy services if you choose to work with low-income populations.

Issues Treated in Therapy

No therapist can masterfully treat every issue in every population. Instead, consider choosing specific issues that you think you can excel at treating. For example, you might narrow your work focus to address trauma for people who have been abused, survived a natural disaster, or experienced workplace discrimination. In addition, diagnosed mental health conditions such as depression, schizophrenia, or obsessive compulsions often require expert intervention and treatment strategies tailored to address the underlying causes.

There are also many people who seek therapy because they need help navigating everyday life transitions such as getting older, graduating college, or ending a relationship, and therapists can play an invaluable role in helping people navigate the complexities of relating to others and living in a modern world. Some therapists also opt to become life coaches, helping people to achieve specific goals that may not be related to a mental health challenge.

Some people are attracted to field of therapy because they have experienced their own mental health challenges and they want to help others cope and recover from similar experiences. Although it is certainly not required that you personally have experienced the same issues as potential clients, therapists who have not successfully confronted their own personal issues might negatively impact their ability to help.

Therapy Setting

There are a wide variety of settings in which you can practice therapy. For example, you might work as a school counselor, go into private practice in your own office, find employment in a psychiatric hospital, serve as a consultant for a business or nonprofit organization, or work as a wilderness therapist. Some therapists work in the judicial system as evaluators or expert witnesses; others provide therapy to people in prison or in drug and mental health programs.

Woman and girl standing with white horseWhile it may seem there are myriad settings to choose from, the right setting will be dictated by how you want to work with people. The office space or location you choose will depend largely on whether you choose to specialize in couples counseling or family counseling, individual or group therapy, or to implement dance, movement, art, or animal-assisted therapy sessions.

Making all of these decisions in the early stages of your education may seem daunting. Keep in mind that your career path is likely to evolve as you progress through your educational requirements. As you gain exposure to a variety of therapy models and issues treated, you may discover the type of therapy that matches your interests and inclinations.