What is a therapist?
Therapists are mental health professionals who work to help people overcome problems and difficult situations in life by listening, asking thought-provoking questions, and providing some useful tools. Many people need some guidance to help develop strong emotional skills. Therapists work with patients to give them tools to help them navigate the more trying times and cope with challenges.
The term therapist is often interchanged with counselor, psychologist, and psychotherapist. While there are some differences, a lot of the roles overlap. Therapists go through years of schooling and clinical training to receive the necessary education to help others.
Therapists provide an unbiased listening ear and support. They act as a sounding board for people who need to discuss their struggles and challenges. Therapists are often advocates for their clients as well and can recommend other resources.
As we learn more and more about the mental health space, the role of therapists is becoming more highlighted. Just like physicians are essential to maintain physical health, a therapist can help you develop stronger skills and take preventative measures to protect your mental health.
Qualifications and eligibility
Becoming a therapist requires at least a bachelor’s degree; a master’s degree is almost always necessary as well. In addition to the coursework, there are internship requirements that include supervised work where students showcase their abilities to work with people in real-life scenarios. There will also be a state license exam to pass to practice on your own.
Being a therapist also requires skills that cannot be learned in a classroom. Listening is one of the most critical duties in the role, so you must be a great listener and enjoy hearing other people share their thoughts and experiences. Patience and acceptance are essential because you’ll be working with various personalities. The subject matter can be tense and complicated, so therapists must be able to handle their own emotions and keep them in check.
Therapists work in many locations depending on the type of people you work with or your specialty. Most therapists will spend most of their time chatting with their clients in a comfortable and private setting. This setting could be in a private office, in a clinic, or even online using an online therapy app that connects people from all over the country.
Other typical work environments for therapists include schools, hospitals, and long-term care facilities. There is sometimes a regular office in these buildings, and other times, the therapist will visit the patients in their space. Because there are many types of therapists and the needs of each patient greatly differ, the work environment might frequently change. The only real requirement is the ability to have a good conversation privately and without disruptions.
Typical work hours
Therapists typically work about 40 hours each week. It is usually 15-30 hours with clients or patients and the remainder is admin work. Some therapists have more administrative duties than others, so that’s why the range of client time is so broad.
Therapists who work in private practice can set their hours based on the needs of their clientele. They can select their appointment openings based on when they want to work, which might include some weekend availability to help accommodate.
Hospitals and mental health facilities might require someone to be available or on-call around the clock, so there might be some evenings and weekends to cover those shifts.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, the top-paying places of employment and specific industries for therapists are (shown in annual mean salary):
- Office of physicians – $93,880
- Nursing care facilities – $77,280
- Elementary and secondary schools – $75,620
- Continuing care retirement communities – $73,380
- General medical and surgical hospitals – $71,650
The top-paying states for therapists to work in are (shown in annual mean salary):
- Virginia – $84,840
- Washington – $80,220
- New Jersey – $77,980
- Massachusetts – $75,900
- Hawaii – $75,660
Steps to become a therapist
1. Get a bachelor’s degree
All aspiring therapists should start with a bachelor’s degree. While many degrees could lead to working as a therapist, the most common majors are psychology, sociology, or counseling. These programs are available at most colleges and universities. With any of these majors, students will learn basic information about the mind and how it works.
2. Work on your master’s degree
Once a bachelor’s degree is earned, take the GRE exam and apply for grad school. It’s best to know what specific concentration you want to go into as a therapist so you can find a program that dives into that particular area. Most fields require a master’s degree to begin your career as a therapist. You can get a masters in social work, psychology, art therapy, family counseling, or education, just to name a few.
3. Complete required supervised clinical hours
Classroom work is important because it will give you the skills you need to work with people, but before you become a licensed therapist, you need actual experience. Graduates will have to complete a certain amount of hours working under supervision. It’s usually around 1,500 hours before you can move on to the next step. Find a licensed therapist that is available to work with you and help you through this process. Many schools have relationships with professionals and can help place you.
4. Obtain your license
The process to receive the proper license varies from state to state, but a license is always required. Once the supervised hours have been completed, you will take the national exam and sometimes a state exam as well. Some states have additional requirements for courses and exams above and beyond. Check the Counseling License State Guide to find out exactly what is required in the state you want to work in and proceed.
5. Apply for jobs
With your license in hand, you’ll be able to work at any of the mental health facilities or practices in the state. You can find jobs listed on job boards on the internet. You can also utilize the contacts you’ve made during your schooling and intern hours. The network in healthcare is pretty large, so the more people you reach out to, the better chance you’ll have of finding an opening that you’re interested in.
6. Continue education and receive certifications
Education doesn’t stop when you’ve landed a job. It’s important for therapists to stay on top of the trends and unique situations unfolding. The world is constantly evolving and the human experience changes at the same time. There are a few great ways to expand your knowledge, develop your practice, stay on top of the most current and continue to grow your experience and expertise. Here are a few:
- Coursera offers a collection of classes for therapists that provide a deeper dive into specific topics. Learn about addiction treatments, managing chronic pain, or how to heal through the arts, just a few of the courses available. Example courses:
- Receive accredited certificates in specific topics through Udemy. Options include alternative healing practices, depression counseling, adolescent-specific therapy, and more. Complete the coursework and take the exam, and you’ll receive certificates you can add to your resume and experience. Top courses:
- Attend conferences and education sessions put together by the American Counseling Association. Each month, they provide one free education course with a deep dive into a specific topic in the therapy world.
7. Work towards a Ph.D. or PsyD
While most states don’t require a Ph.D. or PsyD for therapists, some areas of this work are necessary. If you want to do research or you want to work in the medical field as a psychiatrist, you’ll want to continue your education and receive a doctorate. PsyD is a newer option for those who want to be in the patient-facing space more than the research side of it. Some jobs also require this level of education, so it can help with career advancement.
8. Stay current on your license and insurance
Licenses are not lifelong, so it’s important to stay on top of your licenses and your insurance. This protects you and your clients. The state wants to ensure you’re fit to continue and have all the necessary protections and documentation in place.
Types of therapists
The human experience is unique and a lot can happen throughout life that impacts mental health and well-being. Because of this, there are many types of specialized therapists. It obviously takes a different set of skills to work with youth than it does to help people that live in a retirement home.
Therapists that work in family counseling are trained to help children and teenagers alongside their parents and guardians. Sometimes there are tragedies and trauma to work through as a family and these people are trained to speak with younger kids and help them process. Relationship and marriage therapists work with couples, both apart and together, to help solve some of the problems in their communication and partnership.
Occupational therapists work with people to help them develop the skills they need to complete the tasks in their daily routines. Their patients usually require assistance due to an illness, injury, or disability. Art and music are other types of therapists that use those tools to help people uncover things about themselves and face their challenges.
Some therapists are specifically trained to help with one specific area many people struggle with, grief. Dealing with grief is common, but very challenging. Therapists can help people find relief and a way to process emotions. Another example of a specific need is addiction. There are therapists trained in addiction and recovery that can work with recovering addicts to find their way back to a healthy, sober life.
Tips for becoming a therapist
Education is definitely important in the journey to becoming a therapist, but it takes more than just completing schoolwork. Here are a few tips to help you succeed in your career as a therapist:
- Practice your active listening skills at every opportunity. It’s a skill that can be improved upon with work and constant awareness.
- Be as empathetic as possible. Work on responses that are empathetic and encourage people to continue being open with you.
- Read and hear stories from a variety of perspectives and backgrounds. Therapists meet people from all walks of life and the more you’re exposed to others, the more context and information you’ll have.
- Get back to people quickly. Timely responses are important, especially when people are counting on you.
- Strong analytical skills are becoming more important in the therapy world. Being able to analyze the charts and scientifically collect data will help organize plans and paths to success for your clients.
- Volunteer and serve the community. Therapists are so important to many members of the community and it’s important that you spend time giving back and working alongside the people you will be helping in your career.
- Set up strong self-care routines. The job can be challenging and you’re constantly exposed to some tough stories, so having a way to switch off at the end of the day and do something positive will help you be a better therapist.
- Learn to read body language. This is really part of active listening, but having the ability to understand people’s emotions and know if they are holding back a bit or not telling the truth about something is a skill that will really help you help your patients.
- Focus on marketing and understanding how to grow your business. Think about ways to reach new members of the community and potential clients with newsletters, social media, or fliers to help you expand when you’re ready.
- Understand confidentiality laws in your state and feel comfortable with your process to abide by those rules.
- Practice your shorthand. Therapists take notes during their sessions. It helps them reflect on how someone is progressing and provides important documentation. If you aren’t a strong note-taker, you’ll spend more time writing things up after the session or interrupting the clients’ time.
- Have a strong knowledge of the apps and technology available for therapy. If you haven’t used them yourself, read the reviews and see which ones people like and don’t like.
The need for therapists has grown and evolved. Technology has made therapy more accessible for people in any location, but even with that, waitlists have grown at practices in all of the major cities. The US Bureau of Labor predicts a 23% growth for jobs in the mental health counseling field from 2020 to 2030 compared to an 8% growth overall.
Some of the reasons behind the growth include the impact that the pandemic has had on everyone, government offices transitioning to counseling and mental health focus instead of incarceration, and employers placing a greater emphasis on mental health. As a society, we are learning that the impacts of poor mental health can be felt in every aspect of life, so it’s important to have the resources to work on it, including therapists.
Once you become a therapist, it isn’t too complicated if you want to switch the area that you practice. For example, if you are currently a marriage and family counselor and you want to switch to grief therapy, you’ll just need to acquire the certification for the new discipline. It typically doesn’t require returning to school to get a different degree.
The growth opportunities within the career depend on your reputation. You can continue to grow your practice and take on more patients as you feel comfortable. There is the option of starting a private practice and bringing on additional therapists to work with you, but there are typically more business duties that come with that.
Therapist interview questions to expect
1. What qualities do you have that will make you a great therapist?
Talk about the aspects of your personality that would make you a fantastic therapist. Make sure to talk about being a good listener and some of the personality traits that people look for in their therapist. Are you calm and even-keeled? Are you incredibly organized with a great memory? Go into detail about the parts of you that would improve your abilities to help people.
2. What education path did you choose and why?
Give your potential employer a full overview of your education. What schools did you choose? Which specific parts of the therapy space did you focus on? If you have any certificates in specific areas, like grief, illness, marriages, etc, bring them up here. It’s a good chance to go into more detail about this portion of your resume.
3. Do you have a process for reviewing client files to prepare for sessions?
This question gives you the chance to outline your process for client files. How do you keep things private? What methods do you have to remember the details of your last session and how do you begin each session? As a therapist, you will see many people each week, but it’s important to build their trust and not feel like they have to start at square one with each appointment.
4. Have you ever had to report instances of abuse? If not, are you familiar with the process?
If you’ve had a situation that needed to be reported, you can talk about what happened (only sharing appropriate information) and how you dealt with it. If you have not faced one of these situations, you can still talk through the process you would use if you were faced with it in your new role. Talk about your knowledge of the signs and what your role is as the therapist in safety.
5. What types of therapy do you have experience in? Which is the most challenging for you?
You’ve probably taken classes that cover multiple areas of therapy during your college education. Which areas were you most interested in? Talk about your supervised hours before getting licensed and what kind of therapy you practiced. For the second half of this question, share an area of the profession that you didn’t explore further.
6. What are the leading causes of mental health issues today?
This is your chance to show your knowledge with the most current findings and reports being released. Often, there are new challenges that patients face as the world evolves and it’s important to stay on top of the most current research and findings so you are prepared when those situations are presented by your clients.
7. Have you done any virtual sessions? Do you think that’s a good option for patients?
Virtual therapy is becoming more and more popular because people want things available at their fingertips from wherever they are. Licenses typically allow you to practice in only your state unless it’s online and then you can reach more people. If you’ve been in any of the apps or had any experience, talk about it here. It’s possible that the company you’re applying with is looking for an eventual expansion to more virtual options in the future.
8. Why do you want to be a therapist?
Share your passion for helping people and talk about what you love about the role of a therapist. Some people had a therapist in their life that inspired them and others just really love listening to people and want to help. Share your story and let them get to know you a bit better.
9. What is the most interesting therapy-related story you’ve heard?
Therapy is covered in many books, movies, tv shows, and research studies. The answer to this question doesn’t need to be a personal experience you’ve had as a therapist, but instead, think of something that inspired you or intrigued you. Maybe you read a book about Group Therapy and wanted to learn more about the process of having multiple patients share a space together. Maybe you saw a movie where someone worked with an addiction therapist and learned something new about the impacts of a specific drug. Show some of your personality and what you find interesting.
10. What suggestions do you have for clients who want to avoid medication?
Medication often comes with a bit of a stigma. While therapists aren’t able to prescribe any medication, they can recommend patients get evaluated for certain options. Explain what you would do if you are meeting with someone that does not want to go on any medication. How do you help them find some alternative options and gain their trust?