How to Be a Therapist

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Ever wonder how to be a therapist?

I knew I wanted to be a psychologist when I was in 2nd grade. My dad is a psychologist. He worked in schools doing IEPs, assessments, and numerous other tasks. I always knew that school psychology was not for me. Throughout graduate school, I focused on backpacking therapy.

I am an Eagle Scout and have always loved nature. So therapy mixed with camping sounded amazing. However, being in the wilderness for 20-30 days at a time did not sound like much of a life, since I wanted to get married, have friends, and make a decent living.

So in 2009 I launched a therapeutic sailing program. We took teens sailing and did therapy on the sailboat.

But before I could ever start doing therapy, I had to figure out how to be a therapist. First we’ll look at educational requirements. Then we’ll look at the variety of requirements between states. Next we’ll evaluate finding a specialty, career path as a therapist, and then how to actually thrive as a therapist.

Let’s get started.

Stages of Education for Therapists

To be a therapist (in most states) you have to acquire a Master’s degree. Here are the most common:

  • Counseling
  • Social Work
  • Marriage and Family Therapy
  • Psychology

In most states to be a fully licensed psychologist, you have to have a doctorate (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) That means that your undergraduate will be 4-6 years depending on your pace. A Master’s degree will be 1-3 years  depending on your program. So from start to finish you’re looking at 5-9 years of school.

If your bachelor’s degree is in a field other than psychology, sociology, or social work you may need additional classes prior to a Master’s degree in counseling, psychology, social work, or marriage and family therapy.

Licensing requirements for therapists

You don’t automatically receive your license when you graduate in most states.

Almost every state has a distinct license for each field. For example, Michigan has:

  • Counseling: Two licenses for counselors a pre-license called the Limited Licensed Professional Counselor (LLPC) where you have to be under supervision for two years and the fully licensed Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC
  • Social Work: Social Work has a similar two-license system as does Marriage and Family Therapy
  • Psychologist: Psychologists must always be under a supervisor if they are only a Limited Licensed Psychologist. They have a Temporary license for new graduates. Plus, doctoral level psychologists have a license
  • Nurse practitioners in Michigan can also practice therapy if trained.

Some psychiatrists do it as well

So Michigan alone has eleven different paths to becoming a therapist. I’m not going to go state-by-state as that would be potentially 500+ different licenses. As you can see, doing research in your state prior to your Master’s degree is really important!

Finding a Therapy Specialty

After you graduate and are licensed, the next step is to find a specialty. Frequently this comes as your interests grow out of your practicum and internship. You could focus on trauma, foster care, couples, or late-life issues.

Getting additional training in these areas helps to set yourself apart from other clinicians.

Career Paths as a Therapist

In addition to finding a specialty, there are numerous career paths. Here are a few:

  • Non-profit agency work such as a foster care agency
  • State or county work such as therapy through a Community Mental Health, Department of Human Services, or community college
  • Private Practice Counseling

Most new clinicians start in agency work, eventually get higher paying county or state jobs and then add private practice as a part-time or full-time endeavor. But most therapists in private practice don’t thrive, because they miss out on five key elements. 

How to Thrive as a Therapist

There are five key elements to thriving as a therapist in private practice. In fact, they apply to agency jobs and county jobs as well.

  1. Market yourself: Learning to appropriately market and brand yourself is essential. Your image in an agency or private practice is what leads to better jobs and a growing private practice.
  2. Challenge yourself to level up: Thriving therapists focus on a handful of projects and push themselves to learn new skills. They take on new initiatives wherever they work. That way, they have access to upper management and key influencers.
  3. Network like it’s going to be illegal: Thriving therapists network everywhere. They don’t self-promote, instead they form genuine and real relationships. Here’s the How to network podcast.
  4. Learn technology: Learning technology like SEO and how to rank higher in Google, how to build a website, how to install WordPress, visual design and social media basics are essential for thriving private practice therapists. You can even do these while in graduate school.
  5. Evaluate your ROI: You ROI (return on investment) of time and money is essential. Knowing where and how your money and time are being spent will help you allocate them on factors that are bringing in the most revenue. Here’s my Return on investment calculator.

Whether you want to know how to be a therapist in an agency, community organization, or private practice the steps are the same: Get an education to be a therapist, know how to get a license in your state, find a therapy specialty, discover the counseling career path, and do the five essential steps that thriving therapists complete.

And that is how to be a therapist.

consultant headshot JoeJoseph R. Sanok, MA, LLP, LPC, NCC is the owner of Traverse City counseling practice, Mental Wellness Counseling. He is also a business consultant that helps new and growing private practices to earn their first $100,000 and beyond.