What is a therapist?
Therapists are mental health professionals who help people overcome problems and difficult situations by listening, asking thought-provoking questions, and providing 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.
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.
Duties and responsibilities
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 often advocate for their clients and can recommend other resources. Daily duties of therapists include reviewing notes, meeting with clients, updating files, and doing outreach for marketing and finding new clients. It’s a pretty simple structured routine.
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; 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.
How to become a therapist
In order to become a therapist, you will need a combination of education, training, and experience. In this career guide section, we cover the steps you’ll need to take to achieve your goal:
Step 1: Obtain 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 its workings.
Step 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.
Step 3: Complete the 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.
Step 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.
Step 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.
Step 6: Continue education and receive certifications
Education doesn’t stop when you’ve landed a job. Therapists need to stay on top of the trends and unique situations unfolding. The world is constantly evolving, and the human experience changes simultaneously. 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, such as:
- Receive accredited certificates in specific topics through Udemy. Options include:
- 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.
Step 7: Work towards a PhD or PsyD
While most states don’t require a PhD or PsyD for therapists, there are some areas of this work where it’s 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. There are some jobs that require this level of education as well, so it can help with career advancement.
Step 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 make sure you’re fit to continue and that you have all the necessary protections and documentation in place.
How much do therapists make?
There are many variables that go into determining how much a therapist makes, from company size to experience to education just to name a few.
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
The average national salary for a therapist is:
Types of therapists
The human experience is unique and a lot can happen through a lifetime that impacts mental health and wellbeing. 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.
Family and marriage therapists
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.
Grief counselors and therapists
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.
Top skills for therapists
Becoming a therapist requires at least a bachelor’s degree; a master’s degree is almost always necessary. In addition to the coursework, internship requirements 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 independently.
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.
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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.
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Position trends and outlook
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.
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.
Employment projections for therapist
The US Bureau of Labor predicts a 22% growth for jobs in the mental health counseling field over the next decade compared to an 8% growth overall.
Therapist career tips
Soft skills and traits for therapists
Be as empathetic as possible. Work on empathetic responses and encourage people to continue being open with you. Practice your active listening skills at every opportunity. It’s a skill that can be improved upon with work and constant awareness. 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.
Read and hear stories from a variety of perspectives and backgrounds. Therapists meet people from all walks of life; the more you’re exposed to others, the more context and information you’ll have. Strong analytical skills are becoming more important in the therapy world. Analyzing the charts and collecting data will help organize plans and paths to success for your clients.
Volunteer and serve the community. Therapists are so important to many community members, and you must 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 are 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.
Commonly required skills and qualifications
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.
Focus on marketing and understanding how to grow your business. Think about ways to reach new community members and potential clients with newsletters, social media, or fliers to help you expand when you’re ready. 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.
Develop a professional network
Professional networks are a fantastic tool for knowledge sharing and learning best practices. Especially if you’re looking at branching out and growing your business, networks are important. Here are a few that are popular for therapists:
- National Association of Social Workers (NASW)
- American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT)
- National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC)
- American Psychological Association (APA)
- American Counseling Association (ACA)
- The Therapists Network
Where the jobs are
- New York
- Psychology Today
- Mental Health America (MHA)
How long does it take to become a therapist?
Becoming a therapist takes at least eight years. There are multiple programs required in school, plus a certain number of hours of supervised work before you can become licensed to practice on your own.
What is the hardest part of being a therapist?
Therapists have to listen to a lot of heavy topics and participate in hard conversations, so it can be hard to balance that out. It’s important to have some positive self-care routines and keep your own mental health strong. You deal with many of the same issues as your clients, so you must always be willing to help yourself.
How many clients do therapists work with?
The number of clients a therapist has depends on their schedule and how many sessions they offer each week. Full-time therapists may see as many as 30 clients in a week for one-hour long sessions and then spend 10 hours doing paperwork and administrative tasks. Others might have fewer clients but spend more time on the admin side.
Are therapists in high demand?
Therapists and mental health specialists are in very high demand right now, and the field will continue to grow. More and more emphasis is being put on the importance of mental health, and people are turning to therapy more than ever before. Plus, the addition of virtual options means more opportunities are available for qualified, licensed therapists.
What is the difference between a therapist and a counselor?
The terms therapist and counselor are often used interchangeably, but they aren’t the exact same role. Both people will listen and be a sounding board for people going through something difficult or just needing to talk. Therapists are trained to go deeper and see if they can help patients uncover more under the surface.
Is it stressful to be a therapist?
The subject matter that a therapist is faced with each day can be very emotionally draining. It’s important for anyone that works as a therapist to have a good routine to unwind and relax after work. If there aren’t strong boundaries set, it can add stress.
Are social workers and therapists the same thing?
Social workers and therapists have a lot of the same training and education. Therapists work with mental and physical disorders and diseases. Social workers are typically working with people to find the necessary resources within the community to get them help, often times they recommend therapy to the people they work with.
What makes a good therapist?
A good therapist should absolutely love helping other people. It is also important to be a good listener and able to observe nonverbal cues and body language. The ability to put people at ease and calm their nerves can also be extremely helpful.
How does a therapist spend their workday?
The main duty of a therapist is to meet with clients or patients. A typical day would include a few sessions and some time before and after to review notes and update files. There might also be opportunities to chat with other therapists, but most days are just about the clients.
Are online therapists paid the same as in-person therapists?
Rates do not differ much between in-person and online therapy sessions because the therapist still does the same amount of work. There might be a reduction in costs for virtual instead of in-person so the therapist can make a bit more, but it’s not a significant difference.