Pros and Cons of a Career as an Herbalist
Herbalists are practitioners of alternative medicine who use plant-based remedies to treat illnesses and improve people's health. If you are intrigued by the idea of using plants instead of pharmaceuticals to help people feel better, the following pros and cons can help you decide if you want to pursue a career as an herbalist.
|Pros of Becoming an Herbalist|
|Opportunity to improve your own and other people's health**|
|Variety of educational options to choose from (postsecondary program, apprenticeship, self-study)*|
|Opportunity to be self-employed**|
|Opportunity to specialize (traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, etc.)*|
|Can work in a variety of settings (clinical, production and educational)*|
|Cons of Becoming an Herbalist|
|Most states do not legally recognize the practice of herbal medicine*|
|Licensed healthcare professionals can be at risk if they perform or support the work of an herbal medicine practitioner*|
|Physical demands of wildcrafting and gardening*|
|Might need to supplement herbalist earnings with other income*|
|May need to work weekends or evenings to accommodate clients' schedules**|
Sources: *American Herbalists Guild, **College Foundation of North Carolina
Essential Career Information
Job Description and Career Options
As an herbalist, you'll use plant leaves, flowers, seeds, berries, bark or roots to prepare botanical medicines and remedies. Herbalists are often self-employed and run their own clinical practices. Clinical herbalists can work independently or with naturopathic physicians or other alternative providers to treat patients and assist with the healing process. Herbalists usually grow their own plants or gather plants from the wild, which is known as wildcrafting; however, you can also purchase botanicals from manufacturers or other herbalists. In the field of alternative medicine, it is not unusual for an herbalist to also specialize in a supplementary form of treatment, like acupuncture or massage therapy.
In this career, you can choose to specialize in a specific type of herbal medicine, such as traditional Chinese medicine, Western botanical medicine and Ayurveda, or a combination of these specialties. You also do not necessarily have to work in a clinical setting as an herbalist. You could be employed in manufacturing and retail, serving as a product developer, buyer or manufacturing representative. You might even work in a health food store. Other herbalists serve as educators, who conduct research, write articles and books and teach at professional conferences and schools.
According to salary reviews provided by the American Herbalists Guild (AHG) in 2015, an herbalist can earn anywhere from $20,000 to $120,000 a year (www.americanherbalistsguild.com). Note that herbalists tend to enhance their earnings through activities related to herbalism, such as authoring books or articles, teaching and consulting. Your earnings may depend on the setting and specialty in which you work. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that traditional Chinese herbalists, as well as other miscellaneous healthcare practitioners, earned a median salary of about $49,000 as of 2014.
What Are the Requirements?
An herbal education, acquired at a school, as an apprentice or through a rigorous course of self-study, is typically required to work in the field of botanical medicine. Although the AHG does not accredit schools or programs, it does provide course topics and clinical training guidelines and advises that you look for programs that offer a minimum of 1600 hours of study, including 400 hours of clinical work. In addition to classes in botany and herbal sciences, the AHG recommends programs that include coursework in human anatomy, pathology and physiology, biochemistry, medical terminology, nutrition and pharmacology. Keep in mind that accredited colleges and universities that offer classes and programs in herbal sciences are rare, and you may need to relocate to attend one of these schools.
Licensing and Certification
While there are no regulatory standards for herbalists in general, some herbalist specialties are regulated by states. If you want to practice traditional Chinese medicine, for example, your state may require you to become nationally certified. Additionally, if you perform complementary healthcare services, like massage or acupuncture, you may need to be licensed in those services. Many states require you to be certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, which offers credentials in acupuncture, Chinese herbology and Oriental medicine. Becoming certified requires completion of an accredited formal education or apprenticeship program and passage of an exam.
Along with training and any mandatory credentials, a set of skills geared toward alternative medicine is essential for a career as an herbalist. You may need the ability to source raw herbal materials as well as an understanding of the standards for growing and harvesting herbs. Communication skills are necessary for working with clients and customers. Clinical skills are also essential, like knowledge of medical terminology and an understanding of human dietary needs.
Job Postings from Real Employers
Knowledge of herbal therapies and medicines can be just one of many qualifications you will need to work as an herbalist. Employers may prefer to hire those who are cross-trained in another alternative therapy, such as acupuncture. Look through these job postings from May 2012 to get an idea of what employers want from herbalists:
- An Oregon retailer of liquid herbal extracts has an opening for an experienced purchasing agent with a comprehensive background in botanical herbs to help with the production of herbal products. The successful candidate will have a bachelor's degree (preferably in botanicals), between three and five years of purchasing experience and knowledge of herbal industry standards associated with the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
- A California medical group is looking for an acupuncturist who will also be able to provided herbal, heat and magnet therapies. Qualified candidates will hold a bachelor's degree in or related to acupuncture and Oriental medicine and have five years of experience. State licensure is also required.
- A large natural food retailer in North Carolina has an opportunity for a wellness category manager with knowledge of herbal, homeopathic, mineral and vitamin remedies. A minimum of three years of related management experience is required, and qualified candidates will also be proficient in the use of Microsoft Office database and word processing programs.
How to Stand Out in the Field
Gain Additional Clinical Training
One way to distinguish yourself from other applicants is to gain extra clinical training after completing a formal education program. The AHG offers a mentorship program that helps you make the transition from being an herbal student to becoming a clinical herbalist. A mentorship can also provide the required clinical experience to students of herbalism programs that do not offer clinical components.
You can demonstrate your commitment to and expertise in the field by becoming a Registered Herbalist (RH) through the AHG. To earn the RH designation, you must have a minimum of four years of training and clinical experience, three letters of recommendation from professionals working in the field and three case histories. You'll also obtain professional-level membership to AGH, which comes with access to the AHG's webinar series, professional publications, promotional services and liability insurance.
Alternative Career Paths
Dietitian or Nutritionist
If you want to help others lead healthier lives, but want to work in a legally recognized career, consider becoming a dietitian or nutritionist. These professionals, who are often self-employed, use their specialized knowledge of food and nutrition to plan meals for and educate people in hospitals, nursing homes, outpatient facilities, doctor's offices and schools. You'll need a bachelor's degree in food and nutrition, dietetics or a related field. Depending on your state of employment, you may also need a specific amount of supervised training and licensure. The BLS expected employment of dietitians and nutritionists to grow by 20% from 2010-2020, which is faster than the average for all occupations. As of May 2011, the median annual salary for dietitians and nutritionists was more than $54,000, as reported by the BLS.
Another career that allows you to help others live healthier lives, but that offers steadier earnings and job prospects, is health education. Health educators develop wellness programs, events and materials for healthcare facilities, public health departments, nonprofit organizations, private companies or colleges. The minimum requirement for entering the field is a bachelor's degree in health education or health promotion, and some employers only want candidates who are Certified Health Education Specialists. According to the BLS, employment opportunities for health educators were expected to grow at a faster-than-average rate of 37% from 2010 to 2020. In May 2011, the median annual salary for a health educator was about $48,000, according to the BLS.