Becoming a Therapist: Job Description & Salary Info

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What are the pros and cons of a career as a therapist? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a therapist is right for you.
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The Pros and Cons of Working as a Therapist

As a therapist, you could work with any age group you choose, ranging from children to the elderly. You would also have the opportunity to choose to work with patients dealing with a specific form of mental illness, or people in a specific setting (such as a school). Read on for more information on the pros and cons of becoming a therapist.

Pros of a Therapy Career
Expected job growth in many areas*
Many opportunities for specialization*
Wide variety of potential work environments*
Opportunity to help people**
Options for flexible work schedule*

Cons of a Therapy Career
Extensive paperwork and licensing requirements**
Advanced degree often required**
May work evenings or weekends*
Stress of working with mentally unstable or suicidal patients*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), **NYU School of Applied Psychology.

Essential Career Information

Job Description

The terms 'therapist' and 'counselor' can be used more or less interchangeably. They both refer to people who work to help people overcome mental and emotional problems through some type of talk therapy. The job typically involves working with patients who are struggling to overcome mental or emotional problems; these problems can come in many forms. For example, speech and cognitive therapists often work with patients who are recovering from strokes or other physical traumas, while marriage and family therapists work with couples and children on relationship issues.Physical therapists work with people who have some kind of bodily injury or chronic physical problem. The job involves diagnosing and treating physical ailments, teaching patients to stretch and strengthen their muscles, creating maintenance plans for home use, and measuring progress. Similarly, recreational therapy employs various recreational activities to help patients overcome physical, as well as emotional, problems.

Salary and Career Info

Careers in this field tend have a faster than average expected job growth. For mental health and marriage therapists, the BLS predicts a 29% increase between 2012-2022. Similarly, the physical therapist field is expected to grow by 36% during the same decade. Although job growth for recreational therapists is a bit less (13% between 2012-2022), it's still as fast as average for all occupations.

Therapists' salaries vary greatly depending on their specialization. As of May 2014, the BLS reports that the median salary of a mental health counselor is $40,850, marriage and family therapist falls at about $48,040, and recreational therapists made $44,000. On the other hand, the median annual income for physical therapists in 2014 was about $82,390. The size and scope of a therapist's work setting will largely dictate the level of pay, with non-profit health centers paying on the lower side and schools or private hospitals on the higher side.

How to Specialize

Because there are so many types of therapists, you will have to decide early on in your education which area you'd most like to enter. If you'd like to help individuals confront and overcome emotional problems, you might pursue a career as a marriage and family therapist. If you'd like to help individuals with mental disorders, you'd likely want to become a mental health counselor. Alternatively, if you'd like to help individuals with physical injuries or disabilities, then you might become a physical therapist or a recreational therapist.

Education and Training Requirements

Due to the wide range of specializations, the education requirements for therapists will vary. However, you typically need a graduate degree and license to enter the field. For instance, you need a master's degree in therapy or counseling to get started in the mental health therapy profession. Master's degree programs in this field combine class time with internship, or on-the-job training portions.

Physical therapists need to take several undergraduate science courses (like chemistry, biology and physiology) and then go on to a graduate program. Most people continue to a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT), but some go into Master of Physical Therapy (MPT) programs. DPT programs typically last 3 years, and MPT programs may be 2-3 years.

However, some therapists only need an undergraduate degree to get started. For instance, you can begin working as a recreational therapist after you complete an undergraduate degree and obtain certification from the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC).

Licensing Information

In order to become a licensed therapist, you must apply for licensure with your state board and then pass one or more exams. Usually states allow applicants to take the exams only after have they have completed all supervised hour minimums and received the appropriate master's degree.

In addition to a degree, a certain number of observed hours are also required to receive a license after completing graduate school. Licensure requirements vary by state, but are often well over 1,000 hours of supervised work. To become a licensed mental health therapist in the state of New York, for example, you need 3,000 hours of supervised field time. You must complete this requirement within one year's time.

Different licenses are available, depending on what you intend to make your area of specialization. You can become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) through the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC). The NBCC also oversees licensing of National Certified Counselors and several specialized certifications, including one for addictions counselors and one for school counselors. If you want to become a certified Marriage and Family Therapist, you have to pass your state's board examination. You can check your state board's website for specific exam information.

What Employers Are Looking for

Most job listings in this field ask applicants to have completed their graduate degree and to be licensed by the state. Beyond that, many listings ask for you to have a few years of experience dealing with the age group or demographic that the job involves interacting with. Job listings tend to come from rehabilitation centers, hospitals and clinics with a specific focus on a certain type of mental illness. Below are real job postings from April 2012.

  • A mental health center in Massachusetts is looking for a licensed mental health counselor to work with families on improving the social functioning of community and family members. Training is provided to candidates with master's degrees and either Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW) or LMHC licensing. They are looking for 2-5 plus years of experience.
  • A social services family therapist is needed in St. Louis, MO. This is a full-time job including evening hours. Home visits to families are required, and there is a particular focus on parent education. Licensure is required.
  • A non-profit mental health organization in Pennsylvania is looking for a full-time marriage and family therapist willing to work long hours and weekends. The job requires a graduate degree in the Social Sciences and some related experience working with youth, however training is available.

How to Stand out in the Field

One way to distinguish yourself as a therapist is by publishing articles and studies in professional journals. Since psychotherapy is a relatively new scientific field, new information and theories are continually being revealed to practitioners. You can stay on top of the latest research by reading the literature and attending professional conferences and talks by leading experts.

Another way to get ahead in today's job market is to be bi-lingual. Many hospitals, youth centers and mental health treatment facilities cater to non-native English speakers. You may find it easier to find work if you are fluent in Spanish in particular.

Alternative Career Paths

Social Worker

If you are interested in working as a mental health specialist, but want to diversify your career job prospects, you may want to consider becoming a social worker. Social workers with the correct licensure can work as therapists, but they can also work in a variety of other capacities, such as for Child Services. Master of Social Work (MSW) programs take generally the same amount of time as M.A. in counseling or therapy degrees, but tend to have a greater focus on field work. The BLS reported that mental health and substance abuse social workers earned a median income of $40,000 in 2011, and that there is a 25% job growth prediction between 2010-2020.

Psychologist

You can also become a psychologist if you want to go further with your education. Psychologists have Ph.D.s and act as therapists. Like licensed therapists, psychologists can specialize in treating a specific type of mental disorder, or can choose to work in a variety of settings, from private practice to large rehabilitation centers and hospitals. Both psychologists often conduct research, publish in medical journals and teach at the university level. Professionals with this title tend to earn significantly more than therapists with master's degrees. The BLS resorts that they earned a median income of $85,000 in 2011, according to the BLS. However, they must also complete many more years of schooling to earn the doctoral degree. The expected job growth in this profession is 22% between 2010-2020.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Northcentral University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • PhD in Psychology - Mental Health Policy and Practice
      • PhD in Psychology - Trauma & Disaster Relief
      • PhD in Marriage & Family Therapy - Therapy with Military Families
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      • PhD in Marriage & Family Therapy - Medical Family Therapy
    Master's
      • M.A. in Marriage & Family Therapy
      • MAMFT - Child & Adolescent Family Therapy
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      • MS - Organizational Leadership: Health Care Administration
      • MS - Forensic Psychology (MSPSYFS)
  • Online Programs Available
    2. George Mason University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Science in Health Informatics
  • Online Programs Available
    3. Grand Canyon University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Ph.D. in General Psychology - Performance Psychology
      • Doctor of Philosophy in Counselor Education and Supervision
      • EdD in Organizational Leadership - Health Care Administration
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      • M.S. in Professional Counseling with an Emphasis in Trauma
      • MS in Professional Counseling
      • M.S. in Mental Health and Wellness with Emphasis in Grief and Bereavement
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      • Master in Christian Counseling
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      • BS in Counseling - Addiction, Chemical Dependency, and Substance Abuse
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    4. Colorado Technical University

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      • BS - Business Administration - Health Care Management
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    5. American University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Science in Healthcare Management
  • Online Programs Available
    6. Argosy University

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    Doctorate
      • Clinical Psychology (PsyD)
      • Marriage & Family Therapy (DMFT)
      • Pastoral Community Counseling (EdD)
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      • Clinical Psychology (MA)
      • Counseling Psychology (MA)
      • Marriage & Family Therapy (MA)
      • Forensic Psychology/Psychophysiology (MA)
      • Health Services Management (MS)
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    Certificate
      • Client-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapy (C)
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      • Addiction Studies (C)
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  • Online Programs Available
    7. Kaplan University

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    Master's
      • Master: Psychology/Applied Behavioral Analysis
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    8. Baker College Online

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      • MBA Dual Concentration: Healthcare Management and Public Safety Leadership
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    10. Colorado State University Global

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Graduate Specialization - Healthcare Administration

Featured Schools

Northcentral University

  • PhD in Psychology - Mental Health Policy and Practice
  • PhD in Psychology - Trauma & Disaster Relief
  • M.A. in Marriage & Family Therapy
  • MAMFT - Child & Adolescent Family Therapy

What is your highest level of education?

George Mason University

  • Master of Science in Health Informatics

What is your highest level of education?

Grand Canyon University

  • Ph.D. in General Psychology - Performance Psychology
  • M.S. in Professional Counseling with an Emphasis in Trauma
  • BS in Counseling - Addiction, Chemical Dependency, and Substance Abuse

What is your highest level of education?

Colorado Technical University

  • Doctor of Management - Health Care Management and Leadership
  • MS - Healthcare Management
  • BS - Business Administration - Health Care Management

Are you a US citizen?

American University

  • Master of Science in Healthcare Management

What is your highest level of education?

Argosy University

  • Clinical Psychology (PsyD)
  • Clinical Psychology (MA)
  • Client-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapy (C)

What is your highest level of education completed?

Kaplan University

  • Master: Psychology/Applied Behavioral Analysis
  • Master: Psychology/General Psychology
  • BS in Psychology in Addictions
  • Bachelor: Health and Wellness

Which subject are you interested in?

Baker College Online

  • Healthcare Management - MBA (Master's)

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