How to Become a Therapist
By Dr. Elizabeth Brokamp, PhD, LPC, ACS, NCC, BC-TMH
Assistant Professor, Gwynedd Mercy University
Longing for a career in which you can make a difference? People with strong communication skills and a desire to help others can find rewarding careers as mental health therapists. According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook (2021) published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, careers in mental health are projected to increase by 22% through 2031, a rate much faster than average. The COVID-19 pandemic further increased the need for counseling services, driving up demand for skilled, compassionate, mental health providers to address rising levels of depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders.
This article covers how to become a therapist, including:
- What Is a Therapist?
- What Does a Therapist Do?
- Skills Needed to Become a Therapist
- Steps to Becoming a Therapist
A therapist is a mental health professional who is trained to work with persons with emotional challenges, helping to optimize their mental health. Sometimes also called psychotherapists or counselors, therapists are typically professionals who have earned a Master’s Degree in Counseling or Social Work and who provide therapy services to clients. Therapists are not the same as psychologists (who have earned a doctorate in Psychology) or psychiatrists (who attended medical school and can prescribe psychiatric medications) but may work with similar populations of people and sometimes in the same clinical settings, like hospitals, outpatient treatment centers, or private practices.
What Types of Therapists Are There?
Therapists may choose amongst several different career paths, depending on the age group, population, treatment issue, or work setting that is of interest to them. Specialties in therapy may include options like:
- Child Therapists
- Couples Therapists
- Group Therapists
- Private Practitioners
Post-graduation, therapists may also seek advanced training in specialties like cognitive-behavioral therapy, trauma therapy, EMDR, Internal Family Systems (IFS), animal-assisted therapy, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Likewise, some therapists specialize in working with specific issues or disorders such as grief, reproductive trauma, substance abuse, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Once they enter the field, the plethora of advanced training and specialization choices open to therapists can make for a vibrant, compelling career.
A therapist’s day can look very different depending on the treatment setting in which they are working. A therapist in private practice may have a schedule full of individual therapy appointments with clients in an office setting, whereas a therapist who works in community mental health may be paired up with a partner throughout the week to conduct in-home therapy sessions with families.
The population with whom therapists work can also dictate daily activities. A child therapist may spend the morning playing therapeutic games with elementary school students, while a therapist who works with elderly clients may spend equivalent time providing psychoeducation to a client about how to cope with job loss, for example.
Some typical responsibilities for most therapists include:
- Conducting intake interviews
- Developing treatment plans
- Engaging in therapy sessions
- Writing case notes
- Providing psychoeducation to clients
- Interacting with other treatment providers or community-based services
- Participating in case consultation or supervision
Therapists are highly-attuned, skillful helpers. In order to be effective in their work, therapists need to possess several different attributes.
- Empathy – Clients come with a variety of problems, some of which may involve their own choices or behaviors. It’s important for therapists to be able to feel compassion, rather than passing judgment.
- Self-awareness – Understanding their own emotions, thoughts, biases, and behaviors enables therapists to set aside their personal opinions and help clients to attune to their own wants and needs.
- Good listening skills – Listening is a foundational skill that allows therapists to learn about their clients, understand client issues, and determine how best to support them.
- Respect for others – Clients come from a diverse range of backgrounds, with a diversity of experiences. Therapists need to approach their work with a deep sense of respect for these differences.
Therapists must obtain a Master’s Degree in Counseling or Social Work that includes academic courses, as well as fieldwork requirements. While both kinds of programs can lead to careers in mental health, they differ from one another in terms of professional identity. According to the American Counseling Association (ACA), which is the largest organization serving the interests of professional counselors, counseling empowers “diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.” This emphasis on empowerment and wellness leads most counselors to refer to their consumers as “clients,” not “patients,” as may be more common in fields originating from a medical model of psychological care.
Master’s programs in Counseling typically last anywhere from 2.5 to 4 years. The experiential requirement is dictated by state licensing laws so is generally consistent from school to school, program to program. However, some programs, such as GMercyU’s, offer part-time options or accelerated options that can allow you some flexibility within your degree program, depending on your life demands and scheduling needs.
Step 1: Earn an Undergraduate Degree
Earning your bachelor’s degree is the first step in becoming a therapist. Majors like psychology, sociology, social work, and education are closely aligned with the counseling field and will typically provide many of the prerequisites required to apply for a master’s degree program in counseling.
At GMercyU, prerequisites for our master’s program include:
- General psychology, developmental psychology or a similar course
- Research methods and/or statistics
If you have any questions regarding prerequisites or other issues, please reach out. We are happy to help you chart your path toward a degree in counseling.
Step 2: Choose a Master’s Degree Program
Choosing a program is a big decision and it can be a hard one to make when all the programs seem to blend together and look alike. Take time to evaluate these aspects of the programs you are considering so you can join one that best meets your needs both as a student and a future therapist. Make sure to ask the following questions.
Does the program:
- Have flexible study options, including online or hybrid learning? GMercyU’s Counseling Program blends online coursework with in-person field experience. Two weekend residencies round out your experience, helping you get to know your instructors and classmates.
- Meet my needs in terms of timing? With year-round enrollment and two different pacing options – the part-time track, which takes approximately 3.5 years until completion, and the accelerated option, which takes approximately 2.5 years – the Counseling program at GMercyU allows flexibility to meet your individual needs.
- Offer rigorous academic and experiential training? Our university is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Content for our courses is aligned with the core curriculum designed by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).
- Stay on top of important issues for today’s students? GMercyU values critical thinking, engagement with social issues, and advocacy. Accordingly, our master’s degree in counseling includes content on social justice, equity, and the needs of a diverse and ever-changing world.
- Lead to the attainment of professional credentials? Our M.S. in counseling program allows students early eligibility to sit for the National Counselor Exam (NCE). Taking the NCE is a prerequisite for becoming credentialed as a National Certified Counselor (NCC) and meeting the licensure requirements to become a licensed professional counselor in the state of Pennsylvania.
Step 3: Complete Academic and Experiential Requirements
Our 60-credit degree program includes core courses, electives, and Practicum and Internship placements. These requirements offer solid preparation for seeking licensure post-graduation.
Practicum and Internship placements are driven by your own interests, experiences, and availability. As is typical in most programs, students are in charge of securing their own placements. GMercyU does, however, have a dedicated fieldwork coordinator whose role includes answering any questions you may have about the process of securing placements and supporting you along the way.
Step 4: Pass the National Counselor Examination
Because GMercyU meets its high standards, the National Board of Certified Counselors has approved our graduates to take the National Counselor Examination (NCE) on an expedited schedule post-graduation, rather than having to wait to satisfy the post-graduation experience requirements. This is good news for our students because they get to take the exam while the content from their Master’s program is still fresh in their minds!
Step 5: Launch Your Job-Hunt
By the time you reach the job-hunting stage, you will have learned so much during your time at GMercyU! You will have grown as a person and professional, and – with the assistance of your faculty mentor – have identified what kind of therapist you want to be. Many of our students have to look no further than their fieldwork site for a job; our graduates regularly receive offers of employment from their placement sites.
Start a Career in Therapy with GMercyU!
Becoming a therapist is a rich and rewarding endeavor and it can begin for you today. Now that you've learned how to become a therapist, take a look at our program and reach out with any questions. We are happy to help! Ready to get going? Apply today!
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