Becoming a Therapist – Education & Licensure Guide

Therapists are defined as someone who provides therapy. Generally, these professionals are compassionate individuals with education and training who help people overcome their problems through mental health therapy. Therapy can be provided by several different professionals in the field which can make entering this field a little confusing.

The top professions considered “therapists” are marriage and family therapists, professional counselors, psychologists, and clinical social workers.

Sometimes psychiatrists are referred to as therapists, but this is the exception rather than the norm as the scope of their practice extends beyond just therapy and can include prescribing medications or other treatments.

Professionals who provide therapy have earned at least a master’s degree and are required to be licensed in all 50 states. Each profession in this field provides slightly different services and care. The primary responsibilities are:

  • Marriage and family therapists (MFTs) are mental health professionals who have received extensive training in family systems. While they may treat a person individually, therapy often involves other family members. The focus of treatment is on relationships and how to improve them.
  • Licensed professional counselors (LPCs) are mental health professionals who treat individuals, families, or groups. They can diagnose mental disorders and provide a variety of treatments, including psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and integrative therapy. Overall, these professionals teach clients the skills and tools to improve communication and meet their emotional well-being goals.
  • Psychologists are mental health professionals who have earned a doctor of psychology (PsyD) or doctor of philosophy in psychology (PhD). They can assess, diagnose, and treat mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders. They can provide one-on-one therapy or can work with families or groups. Psychologists employ a variety of treatment methods consistent with current research and best practices. Often, they use cognitive or personality tests to learn more about patients and provide information on how to treat them.
  • Clinical social workers are professionals who support families and children to solve and cope with their problems. They can provide therapeutic services such as talk therapy but they also help connect their clients to community services that can help them. They can diagnose and treat mental, emotional, or behavioral issues.

Read on to discover how to become a therapist.

Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a Therapist – Education & Licensure

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Obtain a GED (Four Years)

Completing high school or earning a GED is the first step towards becoming a therapist. Students who wish to pursue this field should focus on classes such as sociology, human development, psychology, and English. Earning college credit while still in high school through advanced placement classes can be advantageous as it can reduce the number of classes required to complete a bachelor’s degree, as well as boost college applications.

Step 2: Complete a Bachelors’ Degree (Four Years)

A bachelor’s degree is required to pursue a career as a therapist. There is a variety of degrees that can be earned to enter this field including psychology, education, sociology, social work, and even anthropology. Some master’s programs may have prerequisite coursework requirements so students should ensure they inquire about classes they may need to complete before graduation.

Volunteering or interning at sexual assault support services, suicide prevention hotlines, or community services can provide valuable hands-on experience that will help aspiring professionals excel in this field.

Step 3: Obtain an Advanced Degree (Two to Eight Years)

Therapists must earn an advanced degree. Clinical social workers, professional counselors, and marriage and family therapists can practice with a master’s degree in their field, whereas psychologists must complete either a PsyD or a PhD. Students should ensure that the program they attend is approved by a national accrediting body in the field as this is often required for licensure. The primary accrediting agencies for therapists are:

  • The Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
  • American Psychological Association (APA)
  • Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy (COAMFTE)
  • Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)

Most accredited advanced degree programs provide students with internship or practicum experiences. These experiences can be required for licensure and provide students the opportunity to put their education to practice prior to graduation.

Step 4: Apply for Initial State Licensure (Timeline Varies)

Therapists are required to be licensed in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The majority of states require that clinical social workers, counselors, marriage and family therapists, and psychologists earn an initial, provisional, or assistant license before completing supervised work practice. Requirements for this license vary but typically include a completed application, proof of completed education, an application fee, letters of recommendation, and passing an exam.

Step 5: Complete Supervised Practice (Two to Three Years)

The majority of states require that therapists complete supervised clinical practice. These hours vary based on the state, level of education completed, and professional field but can be as low as 1,500 and as high as 4,000.

Many states require prospective professionals to file a supervision plan and have it be board approved before accruing any hours. The hours completed often must fall into specific categories, including direct client contact, individual supervision, and group supervision. All hours must be completed under the guidance of a qualified supervisor in the field.

Step 6: Pass State Licensing Exam (Timeline Varies)

Marriage and family therapists, psychologists, licensed counselors, and clinical social workers are required to pass an exam for licensing in every state. The exam required varies based on the field but the primary exams are:

  • National Counselor Examination (NCE) from the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC)
  • National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) from the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC)
  • Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC) from the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC)
  • Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology administered by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB)
  • Marriage and Family Therapist National Examination offered by the Association of Marriage and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB)
  • Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) Exam

Before sitting the exam, most states require candidates to receive board approval to test. Often this approval is completed while applying for initial licensure, although in some states it may happen when applying for a full license.

Some states also require therapists to pass a state jurisprudence exam which demonstrates competency and knowledge of state laws surrounding therapy.

Step 7: Apply for State Licensure (Timeline Varies)

Therapists need to have a license to practice in every state. License requirements vary based on state and the profession the therapist practices within. Candidates for licensure will need to meet state testing, education, and work experience requirements. Application requirements typically include official test scores, official transcripts, letters of recommendations, background checks, application fees, and a comprehensive application.

State requirements can vary widely and aspiring therapists should contact their local boards to familiarize themselves with the local standards. For example, marriage and family therapists in New York must:

  • Pay a $371 licensure and application fee
  • Complete master’s or doctoral degree in marriage and family therapy from a COAMFTE-accredited institution (or the equivalent), with a supervised internship
  • Complete an application
  • Complete a New York State-approved course on identifying and reporting child abuse
  • Pass the AMFTRB exam without an English as a second language accommodation
  • Complete 1,500 hours of supervised work experience of direct client contact

Step 8: Maintain Licensure (Ongoing)

Therapists must maintain their license to continue providing services to their clients. License validity periods can be as short as a year and as long as five. Requirements to renew a license vary by profession and state but typical requirements include submitting an application, paying a renewal fee, and completing continuing education requirements. Some states require therapists to complete a new background check at the time of renewal.

Please examine all of the detailed counseling career guides to learn more about education and credentialing requirements within varied subfields of the discipline.

Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson


Kimmy Gustafson is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about counseling careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.