5 Paths for Becoming a Therapist

There are more options than people realize to enter the mental health field.

Posted Mar 07, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan

  • Psychology students often don’t realize that there are many options for becoming a therapist.
  • These options include being a mental health counselor, clinical social worker, clinical psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychiatric nurse practitioner.
  • The mental health field is growing. Students who take these career paths will be well-positioned for the job market.
cottonbro / Pexels
Source: cottonbro / Pexels

When I went to college to major in psychology at the University of Connecticut in 1988, I was pretty naïve. I thought that this degree led to a career as a "psychologist" and I thought that "psychologist" was synonymous with "therapist." 

Boy was I wrong! It turned out that the field of psychology was enormous and had just as many areas that focus on pure research in the behavioral sciences as there are areas that relate to therapy at all. In fact, at the end of the day, I ended up going a route that was purely research-based, getting a degree in experimental psychology (with a focus on social and personality psychology) that led to a career as a researcher and teacher at the university level. Eighteen-year-old Glenn had no idea that this all was even a thing!

In my work as a university professor, I take my role in advising students very seriously. In fact, I even wrote a book, Own Your Psychology Major! A Guide to Student Successdesigned to help students know the things about the field that I only wish I had known when I was a psych major back in the day. 

2 Common Misconceptions about Becoming a Therapist

When I ask psychology students what they want to be when they grow up, a good number of them, just like 18-year-old Glenn, simply say that they "want to be a psychologist." And, also just like 18-year-old Glenn, they all seem to think that the words "psychologist" and "therapist" are synonymous. I'd say that this is probably the most common misconception about becoming a therapist: Students often conflate the concepts of "psychologist" and "therapist."

A second common misconception about becoming a therapist pertains to the fact that students often don't realize that there are multiple paths toward careers related to therapy. Often, I'll hear students say that they not only want to be a psychologist, but also that they think that they need to get a doctoral degree in psychology in order to do so. In fact, if a student actually wants a career as a therapist, there are multiple master-degree-level paths that quite effectively lead toward this goal. Students are often surprised to learn this. 

5 Paths toward a Career as a Therapist

As addressed in my book, there are more than five different paths toward careers in therapy! But here are five of the most common paths that lead to such careers.

1. Mental Health Counselor (Master's Degree Required): Degrees in mental health counseling are offered broadly at both state and private universities. These degrees, which usually take about 2-3 years to complete, typically will lead to state licensure to practice therapy and they provide students with intensive coursework and internship experience in a broad array of issues surrounding mental health and therapy. Mental health counselors have many job opportunities these days and they work for a broad array of public and private organizations. 

2. Clinical Social Worker (Master's Degree Required): Degrees in clinical social work are often offered as part of an MSW program. These degrees, which usually take about 2-3 years to complete, are offered across the U.S. at various private and public universities and they usually lead to state licensure to practice as a therapist. Licensed clinical social workers, often with undergraduate backgrounds in either psychology or sociology, practice for various public and private organizations, and the job market these days is generally quite strong in this field. 

3. Clinical Psychologist (Doctoral Degree Required): Clinical psychologists have doctoral degrees and intensive training in mental health and therapeutic practices. Ph.D. programs in this field include intensive research-based work along with extensive internships. Psy.D. programs, which are also doctoral degrees, tend to focus more strictly on practice rather than research.

These degrees, which generally take about five years to complete, typically lead to state licensure and often lead to a more diverse set of opportunities compared with degrees at the master's level. These degrees are offered typically at relatively large public and private universities. Clinical psychologists with PhDs (but typically not those with PsyDs) are also well-positioned for full-time academic careers as faculty in psychology and related departments at colleges and universities.  

4. Psychiatrist (M.D. Required): Psychiatrists, who typically hold M.D. degrees, receive intensive training in both the psychopharmaceutical approach to dealing with mental health issues as well as additional therapeutic techniques. Psychiatrists, whose degrees generally lead to state licensure, are able to prescribe psychopharmaceuticals in their therapeutic approaches. They vary in terms of how much they offer additional kinds of therapy such as classic forms of talk therapy, which may be offered in combination with psychopharmaceutical treatment. Training in this area is intensive, typically including at least five years of medical school as well as intensive residencies. 

5. Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner (Master's Degree Required): Psychiatric nurse practitioner degrees are offered at various public and private universities. These degrees are degrees in nursing and include the intensive coursework and internship experiences that are found in nursing degree programs in general. These degrees typically take about three years to complete and they require all the pre-requisite course work for admission that is found in master-level nursing programs across the board. This degree usually can lead to state licensure. Further, the therapeutic offerings in this field allow for the prescribing of psychopharmaceuticals as well as various other forms of psychotherapy

Importantly, note that there are several other kinds of degrees and paths that lead to careers that connect with therapy. Such other degrees relate to fields such as applied behavior analysis, counseling psychology, school psychology, and school counseling, to name a few. 

The Future of the Field

These days, the mental health industry is growing. On one hand, this is problematic and a bit sad because it speaks to a growing rate of mental health problems, especially in industrialized nations such as the US (see Strivastava, 2009). This said, this trend also means that there are lots of career options in the field of mental health. So there are lots of opportunities for psychology majors to make a positive difference as they advance in their careers. 

To work in a career that includes therapy, you don't necessarily need a doctoral degree. And you don't necessarily need a degree that is formally in the field of "psychology"—in fact, students usually find that there are more career options on this front than they tend to realize. 

Hopefully, this post has been helpful in providing guidance toward the various careers related to therapy. If you're a psychology major, from New York to California, or anywhere in between, I say work hard, take advantage of opportunities offered by your school, work toward the common good, and good luck! And don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory. 

LinkedIn image: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

References

Geher, G. (2019). Own Your Psychology Major! A Guide to Student Success. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Srivastava, K. (2009). Urbanization and mental health, Industrial Psychiatry Journal, 18, 75-76.