While it makes sense that you major in psychology if you want to become a therapist, it actually isn’t necessary.
In fact, you don’t even need a master’s degree or a doctorate in psychology to become a therapist. Though degrees in psychology can certainly lead to a career as a therapist, there are many other master’s degrees and doctorates that can prepare you to be an effective therapist.Entering the world of mental health professionals can seem intimidating. It requires a great deal of education and in person training, but many mental health professionals would refer to their careers as rewarding way to help people with life challenges and coping skills. But how far back did a therapist have to start planning for this career choice? Did they need to major in psychology for their bachelor’s degree?
So, the short answer is no, you don’t need a bachelor’s degree in psychology to become a therapist. What degrees might you pursue for this career track instead?
First Things First – Get a Bachelor’s Degree
The first step in the process of becoming a mental health therapist is to get your undergraduate degree.
As was just noted, you don’t have to get your degree in mental health or psychology (although it is an excellent option). Instead, you can pursue related disciplines like social work, which will still give you a solid foundation for continuing your studies in graduate school.
A bachelor’s degree is usually about 120 semester credits, which takes four years of study if you go to school full-time. If you go to school part-time, it could take you additional several semesters to complete your degree.
Usually, about half of the credits required to graduate are general education courses, like math, science, and language arts. The other half of the required credits are in the major area. So, if you major in social work, you can anticipate about 60 hours of general credits and about 60 hours of social work credits.
With a bachelor’s degree in psychology, social work, or a related field, you can find work in entry-level positions at mental health clinics, hospitals, and the like. But you’ll need to continue your education if you want to become a therapist and be able to provide mental health care, help people with mental health conditions, treat substance abuse issues, prescribe medication, etc.
But a Bachelor’s Degree is Not Enough
Before we discuss the different degree paths you might take to become a mental health therapist, it’s important to note that you cannot be a licensed professional counselor or therapist with just a bachelor’s degree.
While your educational path to becoming a mental health professional will begin with a bachelor’s degree, it isn’t enough to qualify for licensure as a therapist. As discussed later in this guide, licensure is overseen by individual states, so the requirements for becoming a licensed professional counselor or therapist might be a little different from one state to the next.
However, what is common between all states is that a licensed therapist must have at least a master’s degree in a related field, like psychology, counseling, social work, or marriage and family therapy, to name a few.
Furthermore, certain titles are often bestowed only upon people with the proper credentials. For example, if you want to be a psychologist, you will have to get a master’s degree or a doctorate in psychology in order to call yourself a psychologist. Getting a master’s degree in counseling, for example, does not give you the right to call yourself a psychologist, even though psychology and counseling are very closely related.
One commonality among the possible advanced degrees you can pursue to become a therapist is that they all require that you have completed a bachelor’s degree.
In some cases, master’s programs are combined with bachelor’s degrees, so you get your undergraduate degree on your way to a master’s degree. This is fairly rare, though.
Instead, it’s more typical to complete a bachelor’s degree program and then complete a separate master’s degree. Typically, master’s programs have fairly similar admissions requirements, like:
- Completion of an accredited undergraduate program
- GPA requirements, like a minimum of a 3.0 on a 4.0 scale
- Letters of recommendation from undergraduate faculty
- A statement of purpose that explains why you want to pursue the degree
- An interview with an admissions committee
Not all master’s programs have all of these requirements, so you might not have to conduct an interview, for example, or you might not have to supply a statement of purpose. It just depends on the individual program.
Usually, graduate programs that prepare students for careers in counseling require that the undergraduate degree is in a related field, like psychology or social work. This is not always the case, though. For example, if your undergraduate degree is in education, you might have to take some prerequisite courses to gain the knowledge and skills associated with undergraduate courses like history and systems of psychology, the psychology of learning, biological psychology, and social work, as just a few examples.
Get a Master’s Degree or Doctorate in Psychology
To become a psychologist, you must first apply to and complete a psychology program. In most cases, your undergraduate degree can be in any field, even if it is totally unrelated to psychology.
However, you should remember that a psychology program will look for students who are able to complete an advanced research project in psychology. Any classes that you take in research, neurobiology, statistics, or other related courses as an undergraduate will help prepare you for this work.
In addition to conducting research, master’s degree programs in psychology usually include coursework related to:
- Human development
- Counseling psychology
- Clinical psychology
- Cognitive psychology
- Educational psychology
Likewise, master’s programs in psychology that focus on counseling techniques will very likely require you to complete an internship placement. The purpose of an internship is to allow you to put what you’ve learned in the classroom into practice in the real world. Your internship placement can be in a variety of locations, from public schools to hospitals to residential treatment centers to group therapy to a private practice.
If you are admitted to a Ph.D. program, you can expect to take yet more advanced courses in psychology and have a greater research responsibility as well. In fact, most Ph.D. programs in psychology require a dissertation, which could take two or more years to fully fleshed out and defend. Because of this, many Ph.D. programs in psychology take between four and eight years to complete.
A Ph.D. in psychology is a very flexible degree and will offer you a wide range of career options – much wider than if you have just a master’s degree. Though in some cases you can find work as a therapist with a master’s degree, a Ph.D. is very highly recommended.
A Master’s in Counseling is Great Preparation
Most clinical graduate programs, such as those in counseling, mental health counseling, and even psychology, will lead to some form of licensure that will allow you to practice as a therapist. Since licensure requirements vary from state to state, those looking to become licensed mental health professionals will need to check with their local state board to see the specific requirements.
A master’s degree in counseling differs from a master’s degree in psychology in terms of the type of courses you take. Whereas psychology master’s students might have a heavy dose of foundational psychology courses, counseling master’s degrees usually focus on building practical counseling skills. So, you might take courses related to:
- Marriage and family therapy
- School counseling
- Psychotherapeutic techniques
- Theories of psychological practice
- Ethics in counseling
Like psychology programs that have a counseling emphasis, graduate programs in counseling will likely require an internship experience where you work directly with clients under the supervision of a counselor. In some instances, programs might also require a practicum experience, which is usually completed before the internship and serves as a first exposure to the “real world” of working as a therapist.
The graduation requirements for master’s programs in counseling vary pretty widely. Some schools require around 30-33 semester credit hours to complete the degree while others exceed 60 semester credit hours. This means that a master’s in counseling might take you as little as a year-and-a-half of full-time study or as much as three to four years of full-time study to complete the degree.
When finished, though, you will have the knowledge and skills to work as a therapist in many different settings, including mental health clinics, hospitals, or even private practice.
If you choose, you can go on to get a Ph.D. in counseling. Unlike in psychology, in which some states require that you have a Ph.D. in psychology in order to call yourself a psychologist, you do not have to have a Ph.D. in counseling to call yourself a counselor.
Nevertheless, a Ph.D. in counseling can be a good career move, as you can open up additional work opportunities with a doctorate and the knowledge and experiences that come with it. For example, you might qualify for a position as director of a non-profit mental health clinic with a Ph.D., whereas with a master’s degree you might be passed over for that position.
Become a Therapist with a Master’s Degree in Social Work
A Master’s in Social Work (MSW) is a two-year academic program that is focused on providing clinical services to a variety of clients. The profession of social work was founded to alleviate social injustice and poverty, so you can expect that the focus of your education will include interventions at the macro level. In addition, social work offers specific training in practice-related skills, so you can expect a core curriculum that will focus on treating mental health problems.
For example, a typical MSW program might include coursework in clinical therapy techniques as well as courses in social policy, advocacy, and research.
For this reason, an MSW is a little different from the other degrees on this list because of the dual focus on developing therapeutic techniques and on higher-level service-oriented skills that social workers can employ for small and large groups, families, and even entire communities.
Usually, MSW programs require applicants to have a bachelor of social work (BSW) degree, though this is not always the case. If you do not have a BSW, you might be required to take some prerequisite social work courses before you can begin the MSW program.
For this reason, an MSW might be a little harder to get for some students. As noted earlier, you don’t necessarily need a bachelor’s degree in psychology to pursue a master’s degree in that field. And with master’s programs in counseling, you can have any number of undergraduate degrees in a related field.
But, as is true of all other master’s degrees in therapy, you will need to plan for two to four years of schooling, which includes an internship placement. Additionally, you’ll need at least two years of post-graduate practice to obtain the highest form of licensure. Again, licensure is handled by the individual states, so if you wish to conduct therapy as a social worker, check with the licensure requirements in your state.
Marriage and Family Therapy is Another Option
Family therapists are extremely beneficial mental health professionals for endless reasons. If someone is seeking therapy for themselves and their family members, they will want a good therapist who can help them with their relationship problems to promote positive changes. A licensed marriage and family therapist may be taking on a lot when it comes to group therapy for a family, but because of their education and training, they will be highly qualified.
Marriage and family therapists likely have gone on to complete a master’s program after their initial education. A master’s in marriage and family therapy focuses on providing services to individuals in the context of their relationships. So, where a therapist with a background in psychology or counseling might work exclusively with a client on a one-on-one therapeutic basis, a therapist with a marriage and family background will supplement that with couples and family therapy.
As such, if you choose this course of study, you can expect to focus on systems theory, a branch of therapy that attempts to understand how an individual functions in their natural system, like their birth family or within their marriage. A marriage and family therapist views this system from a broad perspective, which includes immediate family, extended family, and even social or community groups.
However, many of the courses in a master’s program in this field are very similar, if not the same, as those required for master’s degrees in psychology or counseling. For example, you might take courses in:
- Counseling theories and techniques
- Couples’ counseling
- Ethics in counseling
- Diagnosis and treatment modalities
- Life-span development
Most marriage and family master’s degree programs require one to three years of study beyond your bachelor’s degree, which includes practicum and internship placements. A doctorate in this field will require an additional three to five years in most cases.
As with the other degrees listed here, to become a licensed marriage and family therapist, you’ll need to fulfill the licensure requirements of the state in which you plan to practice.
Regardless of which path you take to get there, there are few jobs as rewarding as work as a therapist. Not only can a therapist help treat a mental health condition, aid in substance abuse, and help with other mental health issues, their main purpose is to help people lead better, happier, and more productive lives. This career can give you a lot of personal fulfillment and job satisfaction.
And, as we’ve seen here, there are many ways to become a therapist. To gain extra experience, consider volunteering at a local shelter, clinic, or human service agency. In addition to your academic preparation, this experience will serve you well in any graduate program that you choose.
B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming
M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming
B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts
Updated May 2021
What is a Sports Rehabilitation Therapist?
5 Books Every Family Therapist Needs in Their Collection
What Does an Art Therapist Do?