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What is a Therapist?

Therapists can help people manage problems that they encounter with family members, including spouses, friends, and other relationships, including the anxiety experienced in social situations or with co-workers. There are different types of therapists, each with their own area of expertise, such as marriage and family, grief, or anxiety. Therapists can offer sessions with individuals or groups in order to be a sympathetic ear while also providing solutions on how a person (or group) can overcome the obstacle that they are facing. Often, a therapist will work with the same clients week after week. It’s not uncommon for clients to stay with the same therapist for a year or longer until they overcome their obstacles.

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Steps to Become a Licensed Therapist

Becoming a therapist is a long and drawn out process because of the educational and licensing requirements. It’s important to dedicate sufficient time to become a mental health therapist, which can take six to eight years in most scenarios. Following these steps will ensure that you are able to reach your goals and become the type of mental health therapist of your choosing. The type of mental health therapist you want to become and the state you live in will dictate some of the steps. It is important to decide on who you want to help early on. From there, it’s a good idea to look at what the state requirements are so that you can work them into your career plan.

  • Step 1: Obtain your bachelor’s degree

  • Step 2: Work on your master’s degree

  • Step 3: Become a registered intern

  • Step 4: Obtain your license


Step 1: Obtain your bachelor’s degree

You will need to get your bachelor’s degree in a field such as general psychology, social psychology, or sociology. It is at this point that you will want to consider what type of mental health professional you want to become. Much of this will depend on the type of clientele you want to work with, such as children, families, individuals, or couples. Further, you want to consider what types of issues you want to help them overcome, including anxiety, depression, relational issues, intimacy issues, and mental illness. You will also take all of your general education credits, including English, science, mathematics, and history. After you obtain your bachelor’s degree, you will want to research colleges and universities that offer a master’s degree in the concentration that you choose. After your bachelor’s degree, you will need to take a GRE or GMAT test in order to apply to a school for your master’s degree.

Bachelors Education Options:

Step 2: Work on your master’s degree

Your counseling master’s degree should be focused on a specific concentration. It is also important that you attend a college or university that is nationally accredited to ensure you can practice anywhere. Depending on your geographic area, there may be specific requirements in order to complete your practicum and clinicals. The practicum and clinicals are where you will get experience in actual mental health therapy sessions. In most instances, you will be shadowing a licensed mental health professional to see how they conduct themselves. Throughout obtaining your master’s degree, you will take courses based on your chosen area of concentration. You will learn how to diagnose a patient, the different counseling theories that can be used, how to perform a study with research and statistics, and how to join with a client to ensure that they are comfortable enough to open up to you. Many of these will be put into practice through the practicum and clinicals, which can encompass several semesters.

Step 3: Become a registered intern

Once you have your master’s degree, you will need to register as an intern within the state’s Department of Health. Depending on the state you are registering in, there may be specific requirements. Further, you will need to complete a certain number of hours as a registered intern prior to completing your license. You will need to work with mental health professionals who is registered as a supervisor, as they will be responsible for signing off on the hours that you need to complete. These hours are comprised of supervision hours as well as face-to-face counseling hours. In many instances, the number of hours required is around 1,500. Some states limit the number of hours that you can obtain per week, drawing out the registered intern process over two years.

Step 4: Obtain your license

The licensure process will vary by state. This begins by passing the national exam, which is taken at a testing center. Some states also have a state exam that must also be passed. Applying for a license can only be done after the number of hours as a registered intern has been completed. Some states will also require additional courses, including ethics, AIDS and HIV competency, and domestic violence. There will be a fee to sit for the exams as well as a fee to apply for the license once the exam(s) have been successfully passed. The state licensing board will have a specific list of information that you must provide with your license application. Additionally, you will need to maintain your license and obtain insurance to ensure you are able to practice within your state.

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What Does a Therapist Do?

A mental health therapist will meet with individuals, families, and/or couples in a private setting. Depending on where you choose to work, this can be a private office, a counseling center, or a mental health facility. More therapists these days are also working from home offices via telehealth.

Daily responsibilities will vary based on whether a therapist is in private practice or with a specific facility. Private therapists are responsible for all aspects of running the business, including marketing, billing, and appointment setting. They may choose to hire staff in order to assist or they may choose to do it all on their own. Therapists who work at a facility may simply meet with clients and take notes following HIPAA regulations. HIPAA focuses on how records are kept, ensuring that privacy is maintained at all times. A therapist must do everything they can to maintain patient confidentiality. Some therapists will also work with other therapists in the office to discuss treatment options on difficult cases.

There are also requirements for maintaining a license, which will vary by state. As such, many therapists will schedule time throughout various weeks to complete continuing education credits. These can be obtained via online courses, workshops, seminars, and conferences. Some therapists who have been in their field for a while may also choose to teach workshops and seminars in order to educate up and coming therapists.

The hours that a therapist works will vary. Most work full-time, including some nights and weekends, as a way of being able to accommodate the schedules of their clients.

Skills to Acquire

A number of skills need to be acquired in order to perform well as a therapist.

  • Listening with the intent to understand:
    Much of what a therapist does is listening to what a client needs to discuss, so the focus should be to listen to understand, not to listen to reply.
  • Empathy:
    It’s important to show a caring attitude towards someone.
  • Effective communication:
    It’s critical to convey your thoughts effectively to a client.
  • Problem solving:
    Therapists need to be able to solve problems and offer solutions to their clients based on what they are going through.
  • Rapport building:
    Building a rapport is vital to ensure that clients feel comfortable sharing their problems openly.
  • Flexibility:
    Therapy sessions are unpredictable, so a therapist needs to be flexible enough to change their course of action based on what is going on.
  • Multicultural competency:
    Clients from all walks of life will need therapy. A therapist has to understand how different cultures function in terms of child-rearing and relationship building.

The skills to acquire may come naturally to a therapist. Some will be taught throughout the postgraduate program, other skills may need to be acquired through various workshops, conferences, and symposiums. Becoming a member of the American Mental Health Counselors Association or the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy can be beneficial for the access to helpful seminars and continuing education units.

Alternative Paths

Once you become a therapist, which includes obtaining a postgraduate degree and completing the necessary hours as a registered intern, it is possible to become a therapist in other concentrations. For example, a Marriage & Family Therapist would be able to become a Grief Counselor by completing a certification program. From there, they would need to complete the necessary licensing requirements as required by the state.

Due to the licensing nature of a therapist, there are not many alternative paths because of educational and internship hours required. Some therapists choose a slightly different path by entering the military first. This provides them with the ability to have the military pay for their education. There are, then, careers as a therapist within the various branches of the military.

Additionally, a licensed therapist can also “add” various skills to their repertoire in order to offer more services. These are not alternative paths but rather a way to offer a broader range of services. Some of the certifications that can be obtained include Sexology, Premarital Counseling, and PTSD. Most of these are available through one-year certificate programs.

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Therapist Careers and Salary

Where Might You Work?


There are a number of places where you can work as a therapist. You will likely be able to find various counseling centers within your town or a nearby city. These are locations that have several counselors. Some are Christian-based, allowing you to add faith to your overall therapy mode. Additionally, you could work at churches. Particularly if you are a marriage and family therapist that specializes in premarital counseling, this could be a good fit for you.

If you are a mental health therapist, you may choose to work in a mental institution, with social workers at a juvenile delinquency center, or within a hospital. You can also look at working for the military, either within one of the military branches or with the VA (Veterans Administration). Depending on the area of concentration, you may be helping people with issues during deployment or to help overcome the symptoms related to PTSD and anxiety.

You also have the opportunity to work for yourself. The state you are licensed in may have specific requirements in terms of the size your office needs to be when seeing clients. If you choose to go into Telehealth, you will want to make sure you use a HIPAA-compliant video conferencing tool.

Potential Career Paths

There are a variety of career paths as a therapist:

Mental Health Therapist:
You’ll work with people who have various mental health issues, including PTSD and anxiety.

Marriage and Family Therapist:
You’ll work with families and couples to overcome relationship problems.

Substance Abuse Counselor:
You’ll work with people who turn to drugs and alcohol to overcome social issues.

Premarital Counselor:
You’ll work with couples looking to get married to ensure they have the communication in place to have a successful marriage.

Social Worker:
You’ll diagnose and treat behavioral and mental issues while protecting and supporting families.

Grief Counselor:
You’ll work with individuals or in schools when there has been a tragedy to help people overcome their grief.

Therapist Salaries

Occupation Entry-Level Mid-Career Late-Career
Psychologist $66,000 $82,000 $91,000
School Psychologist $55,000 $64,000 $78,000
Clinical Psychologist $70,000 $82,000 $100,000
Neuropsychologist $73,000 $94,000 $126,000
Clinical Therapist $62,000 $49,000 $65,000
Forensic Psychologist $51,000 $79,000 $94,000
Industrial-Organizational Psychologist $51,000 $78,000 $132,000
Clinical Services Director $62,000 $89,000 $133,000
Behavioral Health Director $58,000 $85,000 $135,000
Mental Health Counselor $33,000 $43,000 $61,000
Licensed Professional Counselor $41,000 $50,000 $59,000
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist $49,000 $58,000 $65,000
Substance Abuse Counselor $31,000 $40,000 $53,000

**Salary info provided by PayScale

Career Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the title of therapist is broken out by specialty. The job outlook is a growth of approximately 23% percent for all forms of therapists, showing that it is much faster than other jobs. This is positive as it identifies that the field is growing, providing opportunities for the future.

The salary is steadily increasing, too. The average pay for a marriage and family therapist is $48,800, while the average pay for a licensed mental health counselor is $43,300. This is dependent on the state that you practice in as well as whether you choose to work for a counseling center or as a private practice therapist.

The pay will also depend on whether you choose to accept insurance or if your clients are going to be self-pay. Often, when you have clients that are self-pay, you will end up making more money. It is dependent on the clients that you have, whether they have insurance, and whether they want to be diagnosed for it to go through their insurance.

Advancing From Here

Most therapists will have a Master’s degree in order to obtain their licensure. In order to advance, there are various opportunities that are available. One can choose to pursue a higher degree, which would be a Ph.D. From there, a therapist would have the ability to work in higher institutions, including hospitals and universities. With a Ph.D., a therapist would also be able to prescribe medications for their patients. Where a person chooses to work will greatly impact their salary. Many therapists begin at a counseling center and, ultimately, evolve into a private practice, allowing them to set their own rates. It is also possible to obtain supervision status, making it possible to supervise interns so that they can focus on getting their licensure.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What do marriage and family therapists do?

Marriage and family therapists encourages clients in relationships to discuss their experiences and emotions in a safe setting. Marriage and family therapists helps clients overcome negative life events such as divorce, bankruptcy, and layoffs.

What do substance abuse counselors do?

Substance abuse counselors evaluate substance and mental health problems. Substance abuse counselors identify issues and create treatment plans with goals and coping mechanisms. Substance abuse counselors can help clients find jobs and help them with other aspects of their life affected by substance abuse.

Where do licensed mental health counselors work?

Mental health counselors work in schools, mental health clinics, hospitals, private practices, correctional facilities, community health centers, businesses, and colleges and universities.

Do you need a master's degree in counseling to provide mental health services?

A bachelor's degree is required to work in mental health services. A master's degree in counseling provide additional opportunities and a higher pay.

What is the job outlook for marriage and family therapists?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for marriage and family therapists are expected to grow by 16% by 2030.

Psychology & Counseling Career Paths

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