Is it your goal to have a fulfilling career in which you can genuinely enrich people’s lives? Becoming a psychotherapist may be an outstanding choice for you.
But how do you become one? What are the various paths you can take toward this rewarding career?
Let’s hear it straight from experts.
Jan Harrell, Ph.D.
My most important piece of advice to those whose hearts pull them to the field of Psychology is to just do it!
There will be struggles and obstacles in any career pursuit, so don’t let that deter you! Almost every day, I find myself crying, so grateful that I get to go to work.
I often find myself, out of nowhere, offering up a prayer of gratitude that I get to be a part of people’s journey towards consciousness. People talk about retiring, but I never will.
Here are a few practical considerations:
Pick a graduate school that has a philosophical orientation that you agree with
My University had two schools where it was possible to get a degree, one with a Humanistic Existential philosophy, and the other with a more traditional one.
I used to sit in that other school for some classes, my mouth open in horror at the way they approached the work. I’d have to quickly remind myself to shut my mouth! I had to pass this class!
Make it easy on yourself
Get organized. Don’t try to save the world with your Master’s or Doctoral thesis! Mine was simple, only 66 pages, front to back, yet the University staff who reviews all dissertations said it was one of the best she had seen!
Be patient with yourself
Expect to be a terrible therapist when you begin! For the first year, when people would hand me a check, I’d want to give it back and say, “I’ll try to be better next week!”
Stay in supervision post-graduation
Keep learning! Everything you struggle or suffer with will help someone else, someday. You never know where this profession will take you.
My husband and I wound up writing a book. And, based on that book, I wrote a curriculum that was introduced into a high school and used for seven years, now. It is being considered for a national program to introduce emotional education to children.
The curriculum has also been introduced as a workshop at a men’s medium-security prison in Ohio, as well as 3 other prisons. It was received with enthusiastic participation and gratitude for the focus on their own personal learning.
An inmate, who is a workshop facilitator, told me, “This is changing the culture of the whole prison.” More prisons are considering offering this workshop, based on this success.
Joy Johnson, LCSW
Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Therapy With Joy
When I graduated with my Bachelor of Social Work, someone asked me what I wanted to do. My response: “Well, I definitely don’t want to be a therapist!”
However, it’s really hard to find a paying job as a BSW. My original goal was to work in the medical or international development fields, but I quickly realized mental health jobs were my best bet until I was ready to get my masters.
My first job was as a direct care worker in a psychiatric residential treatment facility for children and teenagers. It was both the hardest and most rewarding work I’ve ever done and changed the course of my life.
During my master’s program, I pursued medical social work internships, but inevitably missed working closely with clients on a more long-term basis, and dove back into intensive mental health roles once I graduated with my Master of Social Work.
My first 4-5 years in the field were intense. This is quite literal, as many of the positions you will find and be eligible for as an unlicensed or provisionally licensed social worker are at “intensive” levels of care.
I worked with clients in their homes, traveling hours to remote locations, tracking down clients with active mental health and substance abuse issues when their family had not seen them in days, stepping over holes in their floors, assessing children with active hallucinations, etc.
This work is not for the faint of heart, but you’ll learn more about what it means to be human and how to meet people where they are in a complicated system than you could ever imagine.
A couple of years ago, after a difficult work incident, I realized I had to make a change. I still wanted to be in this field and help my clients, but I also wanted to be present in my own life and be able to show up for my family and friends.
I spent 6 months working a job that I didn’t have to take home with me – I didn’t have to worry that children were in unsafe environments or that a client could call at any time of night in a crisis that I would be responsible for managing.
I spent those 6 months resting and beginning to build my own private therapy practice, setting the boundaries I needed and learning from supportive colleagues who graciously offered their advice and resources.
My practice has been fully supporting me for 2 years now. I’m incredibly thankful for the experiences I’ve had that led me here and the privilege I have to hold space for my client’s deepest and most meaningful stories every day.
After all of that, if you are still thinking this psychotherapy thing is for you, here’s my practical advice about what you need and how to get there…
To become a masters-level psychotherapist, depending on your state, you’ll need to get a masters degree
This could be in social work, counseling, or marriage & family therapy, or other related field approved by your licensing board). You have to pass a licensing board exam, apply for a provisional license and complete 2-3 years of experience in the field under supervision from a fully licensed clinician.
Since I’m an LCSW, I’m a bit biased, but I always recommend folks wanting to be psychotherapists go the social work route.
It’s easier to get your hours for licensure, as the requirements are less restrictive than other masters-level licenses (like an LPC, LMFT, or LMHC) and there tend to be more entry-level social work positions available.
Community work is incredibly valuable to our work as therapists, as it gives us a different point of view and the ability to better understand all the facets of life that are affecting our client beyond just what we see in the therapy office.
Social work really teaches you how to meet people where they are, no matter what environment you end up serving clients in.
The one downfall to a social work graduate program is you may not get as much specialized training in therapy modalities as a counseling program. However, much of the practical training comes in internships or your initial jobs after school.
If you want to be a psychotherapist as an LCSW, look for entry-level and direct-care mental health jobs – these positions will typically provide you with training in common therapeutic modalities, like CBT, and all the experience you could need!
Be committed to doing your own work with a therapist, a supervisor, and doing research through reading and training in your own time, as well, if your graduate program did not provide extensive psychotherapy training.
As I mentioned, the years during and right out of grad school can be tough. I felt my share of burn out and overwhelm. I think it’s problematic to think that young social workers and therapists need to “pay their dues,” but I do see my experience in those years as invaluable.
It’s been a long journey in learning how to set boundaries and take care of myself since, but learning to do that is always an essential part of your job as a therapist.
Some advice I would give to my younger provisionally licensed self:
Be mindful of burn out and stand up for yourself
“No” is a powerful word and your agency typically can’t afford to lose you if you’re doing good work.
Find a supportive supervisor and be willing to pay them (yes, even on your minuscule salary)
They will be worth their weight in gold in learning how to set boundaries in a high-crisis environment that often asks you to be available at all hours.
Related: How to Ask Someone to Be Your Mentor
Get your own therapist
If you want to be a therapist, it’s really important that you work through your own triggers, a family of origin issues, and core beliefs that will inevitably come up when you’re faced with your clients’ issues.
Your supervisor can sometimes help with countertransference issues, but it is also really important to know what it’s like to be a client and to actually experience the therapeutic process for yourself.
Alongside your supervisor, find supportive co-workers to check in with often
Your friends and family will likely have a hard time understanding your work and how it begins to change you. That’s ok. Build a strong, supportive self-care team. A few of my co-workers from the early years are still some of my best friends today – no one will ever understand what I went through in those years as they do.
Remember that it’s ok to make a change
As a social worker, there’s a long list of roles and environments you can work in. It’s ok to take a break from the intensity and work in non-crisis levels of care or even move to another field of social work altogether.
Or heck, take a break and work a job that you don’t have to take home with you. You can always come back when you’re ready.
Begin to practice mindful self-compassion ASAP
I didn’t find this until I began my private practice in the last few years. I wish I had these tools as a brand new therapist. Those of us that choose this career tend to be especially hard on ourselves, as we want to help our clients as much as we can.
Learning to accept the limits of our work and the limits of ourselves as normal humans is necessary to maintain a healthy therapy career long-term.
Author | Psychotherapist
Here are my ideas on how to become a psychotherapist.
- Ask yourself why you want to become one, that is, what’s your motivation.
- Consider what population you’d like to treat (general, eating disorders, addictions, children, adults, families, etc.) and in what setting (inpatient, outpatient, ER, private practice, community health, etc.).
- Speak with as many psychotherapists as possible and find out what they like and dislike about their jobs and learn about their experiences.
- Decide what discipline you’re interested in: social worker, licensed mental health counselor, psychologist, marriage and family therapist and check out education programs. Speak with program alumni if possible to learn about their experiences in their field.
- Get into therapy yourself. I know therapists who haven’t gone and I would never refer anyone to them. If you’re going to be a psychotherapist, you need to know yourself inside and out (or be open to this prospect) to be of use.
- Read books about what makes for good therapy, while recognizing that it’s going to take several years for you to learn your trade and many more to become a savvy professional.
I always had an idea that I would go into mental health, but in my 20s I had a lot of energy and a strong desire to sing and dance on stage. So I moved to NYC after getting my undergraduate degree in psychology and performed professionally for 10 years in musical theater.
Then, as my life changed and my desires for myself changed, I realized it was time to explore my passion for wellness, healing, intervention, and social justice.
The most logical place for me to integrate my interests was in a graduate program for social work
It was a vigorous education that involved 3 days/week in the field working directly with clients, and 2 days/week in the classroom studying the research, theories, and methods of various interventions, for 2 years full time.
My first-year internship was split between two high schools. In the Fall semester, I was at a “failing” high school which had a very low graduation rate and a very high dropout rate. The second semester was at a different school with a similar population of students, but a much better-run school.
The difference was eye-opening. From the principal on down, the difference in morale among teachers, staff, and students at each school was astonishing and has informed my own work in supervising graduate students when I eventually became a field supervisor.
My second-year internship was with an HIV/AIDS organization, one at the apex of integrating mind/body modalities, nutrition, and counseling. There I also worked on the needle exchange program, collaborated with a nutritionist to lead yoga, nutrition, and mental health support group, and did intakes for people who were newly diagnosed with HIV.
In both internships, I was deeply supported by my supervisors and professors. I was learning how to implement evidence-based counseling skills and the theories behind them, and finding my voice as a young psychotherapist.
Before I went into private practice as a psychotherapist, I worked for several years at a residential building for people who had been chronically homeless. I was working with people who had active psychosis, active substance abuse, and other severe and persistent mental illnesses.
It was a very demanding work. That is where I developed my boundaries, and a deep sense of compassion and curiosity for some people who may not be the most likable, but were also deeply suffering.
Over the years, with my training and experience, I steadily developed into a psychotherapist: someone who has compassion, who cares, who is boundaries, who will challenge my clients wherever necessary, and who will enthusiastically support my clients’ growth.
Trudi Griffin, MS, LPC
Licensed Professional Counselor, Revive & Shine, LLC
The keys to being a psychotherapist are education and licensure and each state has requirements for both
I became a therapist as a second career which required getting a second undergraduate degree in psychology, taking the GRE, going to graduate school, applying for certification and licensure and then interning with a supervisor.
Again, each state has its requirements, but it typically takes at least two years after graduate school to become fully licensed. However, while it’s easy to become one, it takes more work to become a good one.
The education provided in most graduate schools includes a general overview, but it’s through internships, supervised experiences, and specialized training that someone becomes an effective change agent.
Licensed Mental Health Counselor
You should have the innate desire to help others
I decided to become a psychotherapist because I wanted to help heal human beings and in doing so, attempt to make a positive social impact on the world. I benefited from attending therapy myself, and family and friends remember me saying I wanted to work in counseling as young as 10 years old.
I had an inherent passion for nurturing, caring, analyzing, and exploring, and many people in my family were in healthcare or counseling professions, so it was a natural fit. In undergrad, I majored Gender, Sexuality and Feminist studies where I learned about the psychology of gender inequality, gender-based violence, and how social psychology affects systems of oppression.
I wasn’t quite sure how to make a career out of that, so after college, I explored another passion- fitness. I loved being a personal trainer very much, yet I found myself ill-equipped to manage the complex and nuanced emotions and life experiences of my clients in a meaningful way.
They were dealing with eating disorders, PTSD, abusive relationships, and much more. I felt called to help with more than just the fitness and physical health aspects of their lives and knew I would need more training.
I found a program that incorporated mind-body medicine as I have always been passionate about the deep connection between our mental and physical selves. I embarked on a 3-year course of full-time study, with 2 years of clinical internships. Then, I worked full time in the field under the supervision of a licensed professional for 2 years and passed my licensing exam.
After that, I was able to practice as a licensed clinician and began a private practice in addition to my work at a community mental health agency. Since then my career as a psychotherapist has brought me across multiple settings and continues to be a journey of exploration, growth, and learning. I feel very honored to use my skills to help guide others.
I strongly believe we each hold wisdom within ourselves- my job as a psychotherapist is to support and illuminate the wisdom of my clients. To witness the human experience is an honor and a privilege.