How to Become a Licensed Therapist: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a licensed therapist. Research the job description and the education and licensing requirements and find out how to start a career in therapy.

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Should I Become a Licensed Therapist?

Licensed therapists work in a variety of settings and with many different populations. Therapists may work with families, couples, groups, or individuals. These professionals may work in private practice, at a health clinic, in a school, or at an in-patient mental health facility. This career can be emotionally stressful and, depending on the type of patient with whom a therapist works, carries a risk of personal harm.

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Career Requirements

Degree Level Master's degree
Degree Field Marriage and family therapy, clinical social work, mental health counseling, school counseling
Licensure Licensure is required in every state
Experience Supervised clinical practice is required before a counselor or social worker can become fully licensed
Key Skills Good listening and communication skills, ability to develop relationships with many different types of people, organizational skills for keeping detailed client records
Salary $43,990 (Annual mean salary for a mental health counselor)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (May 2014), ONET OnLine

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Before entering a master's degree program, all individuals must earn a bachelor's degree. Undergraduates interested in counseling can major in a related field, such as psychology, social work or education as these majors may better qualify individuals for master's programs. Students may choose to study a different field, but they need to supplement their required courses with courses in psychology. Introduction to psychology, psychology of personality, adolescent psychology and abnormal psychology may prove to be particularly useful in preparing students for graduate school.

Success Tip:

  • Look for opportunities to gain experience in a therapy-related setting. Master's programs like to see that students have some knowledge of what the work of a therapist entails and are prepared to commit to the profession. Work experience also allows undergraduates to narrow down their interests within the field of therapy and to develop relationships with professionals in the field. Furthermore, supervisors may be able to supply letters of recommendation for a candidate's graduate school applications.

Step 2: Earn a Master's Degree

Aspiring therapists have several master's degree options. They each have differences in curriculum and lead to different professional titles. Master's degree programs in social work tend to take a systems approach, looking at the various social structures affecting mental health. Typical coursework topics include social justice, human behavior in the social environment, data analysis and clinical practice techniques. Graduates can become Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW).

Master's degree programs focused on counseling or marriage and family therapy are often more person-centered, teaching students how to treat individual patients, family members and couples. Depending on the program focus, graduates may be prepared to earn one or more of the following titles: Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT). Coursework for counseling as well as marriage and family therapy programs may include human growth and development, family theories, statistics, evaluation of practice and counseling theories.

All programs integrate fieldwork experience into the curriculum. Fieldwork may be conducted alongside coursework, or it may be done as a full-time, year-long commitment after a year of coursework. The experience is supervised by a licensed therapist and prepares students for working as provisionally licensed therapists.

Step 3: Obtain Provisional Licensure

Full licensure is not available immediately upon graduation from a therapy program as graduates must first complete approximately two years of supervised clinical experience. Some states require therapists doing supervised clinical work to have a provisional license. State requirements vary, but most applicants need to be graduates of an approved program with adequate fieldwork experience and have a contract agreement to practice therapy under the supervision of a qualified therapist. Provisional licenses may have a time limit, after which therapists must apply for full licensure.

Step 4: Complete Work Experience

Work experience training may require 1,500-4,000 hours, depending on the specific profession and state licensing requirements. An approved therapist must directly supervise a certain percentage of those hours. Reports on the specific activities and the progress of the provisionally licensed therapist may also be required. Therapists-in-training should check state licensing requirements to make sure that their work experiences are structured correctly. Failure to complete certain tasks or documentation could result in a delay in earning licensure.

Step 5: Pass State or Professional Examinations

Most states require licensure candidates to pass an appropriate examination before earning licensure. Some states oversee their own exam, while others accept scores from the Association of Social Work Boards Clinical Examination, the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination or the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards exam.

Step 6: Obtain State Licensure

To use titles such as Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Clinical Social Worker, professionals must hold a current state license. States usually require applicants to have completed an approved education program and clinical work experience and to have passed an approved licensure examination.

Step 7: Meet Continuing Education Requirements

States typically require licensees to complete continuing education requirements and renew licenses every two years. Specific state requirements vary, and states usually stipulate what types of courses must be completed and what types of continuing education units meet the requirements. One major benefit of this requirement is that the new knowledge and experience you learn in the continuing education courses may help boost your career as well.

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