There is no question in my mind that choosing to become an art therapist has been one of the best decisions of my life. I started out as an artist with a strong interest in working with people and using art therapy in my work continues to be the perfect fit for me. But since the time I entered the field 25 years ago, it takes quite a bit of effort now to plan your education and understand the job market. So beginning with this post, I am going to tell you all about the good, the bad, and the "challenging" about being an art therapist in the 21st century, starting with art therapy education.
On any day of the week, the question I am asked most is, "What kind of degree do I need to become an art therapist?" And "do I need to go to an art therapy school to become an art therapist?" There are no "art therapy schools" as promoted on various websites and amateur blogs, but there are colleges and universities that either provide master's degrees in art therapy and related fields or at the very least, coursework in art therapy at the bachelor's and master's level. And of course all of this depends on what country you live in, if you are an international reader. I am going to try to briefly explain art therapy education in the US (in a future post, I'll address some of the ins and outs of the international art therapy education scene).
Art therapy education involves a master's degree although you might encounter many bachelor degree programs that offer either a major or specialization in art therapy. Bachelor's education is considered to be preparatory for graduate work in the US (unlike music therapists who enter their field with a bachelor's degree). Most art therapy education follows a prescribed set of prerequisites in art and psychology and master's level art therapy competencies, required semester units, and practicum experiences that lead to eligibility, post-graduation, for the following credentials: Art Therapist Registered (ATR) and Board Certified Art Therapy (ATR-BC) as provided by the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB).
In deciding if an art therapy masters degree is for you, there are a couple of challenges you'll face. The first hurdle is cost. The vast majority of art therapy education programs are in private colleges and universities rather than state-funded ones. This equates to higher tuitions and fewer scholarship opportunities for those in need of financial support. Two decades ago, there were at least ten graduate programs in state universities; now there are only four or five, making it difficult for those with limited means to afford the cost of a degree.
The second challenge you will encounter is the confusing variety in degree titles. Most prospective students expect that they will be undertaking a master's degree in art therapy; if it only were that simple. Here is a partial list of degree titles housed in the more popular masters degree programs in the US:
Art Therapy and Counseling
Art Therapy and Creativity Development
Art Therapy and Special Education
Art Therapy Counseling
Counseling and Personal Services
Adlerian Counseling and Psychotherapy
Creative Arts Therapies
Marital and Family Counseling
Many of these degrees come with a "specialization" that will not necessarily appear on your diploma, but is advertised as part of your educational program. For example, a counseling degree may include a "specialization in expressive therapies" or an art education degree may say "specialization in art therapy." Or vice versa-- an art therapy masters might have a "specialization in counseling."
To complicate your planning even more, undertaking one of the degree options listed above is not the only route to obtaining an ATR or ATR-BC in the US. Recently, the ATCB revised its credentialing standards, now allowing those with a master's degree in certain licensed mental health professions like counseling and social work to take the requisite courses in art therapy. Whether or not this will be a popular option is not yet known because many counselors, for example, already utilize the "creative arts in counseling" (another topic for a future post in this series) in their practices; more counseling degrees are offering courses in art therapy, play therapy, and other expressive arts therapies in their programs for those who interested in integrating creativity in their practices.
Does the degree title you obtain really matter? It depends on where you want to end up, post-graduation. For some graduates, a master's degree in art therapy can be just fine; for others, it does not meet their needs nor the current job market that demands a mental health license to be reimbursed [aka, paid]. Most art therapy master's degrees now provide courses necessary for graduates to become eligible for a professional counseling, mental health counseling or marriage and family therapy license. However, the degree title "art therapy" could get in your way in becoming licensed as a counselor in an increasing number of states where you must have a degree in "counseling" to apply for a counseling license.
Also be advised that if you decide on a degree titled "art therapy" (as opposed to counseling or psychology), it may not be acceptable as a prerequisite to a brick and mortar professional psychology school or university psychology or counseling doctoral program later on. You may be told that you need to obtain a master's degree in counseling, psychology or some other mental health field in order to qualify for entrance. Yes, it's difficult to know what your needs will be five to ten years from now, but it is worth investigating now so that you do not make a costly investment that does not meet your eventual career goals. Ask your academic adviser or career counselor plenty of questions.
So what about credentials, certifications, and licenses? What are your options and how important is it to have one of these designations? That is the topic of the next post. Until then...
Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPAT, LPCC