Becoming a therapist requires specific educational and licensing components. Our guide provides information on the fastest way to become a counselor or therapist. Candidates can begin the process by earning a bachelor’s degree in counseling or psychology.
After earning a bachelor’s degree, prospective counselors can advance into a master’s program.
To practice as a counselor or therapist, professionals must earn a license in their area of practice. Licensing requirements differ depending on the state, so this guide outlines some common processes and criteria for candidates to qualify.
Read on for information on bachelor’s and master’s programs in the discipline, including program length, course topics, and credit requirements.
The Differences Between Counseling and Therapy
Psychologist, counselor, and therapist — these three terms are often used interchangeably. For the average client, though, each of these professionals provides much the same service. As professions, however, they can vary widely in requirements and opportunities.
Psychologists, also called psychotherapists, typically hold a doctoral degree. These professionals serve people facing serious mental or emotional challenges, and they often work in tandem with psychiatrists. In some states, psychologists may prescribe medications after completing additional training.
Counselors, sometimes called marriage and family therapists, usually hold a master’s degree and help clients with relational, behavioral, and emotional issues.
A counseling degree often takes 2-3 years, while a doctorate in psychology typically takes 5-6 years. Becoming a counselor can fast-track a career in mental health.
Comparing Counselors to Therapists
What is psychotherapy?
||Counselors typically hold a master’s degree in counseling, marriage and family therapy, pastoral counseling, or a related field.
||Psychotherapists usually need a doctorate in psychology or counseling.
||Most counselors need about 600 hours of supervised practical experience after completing a master’s degree.
||Psychotherapists often have to complete at least 1,500 hours of supervised work experience in a clinical setting.
||A counselor earns state licensure either as a counselor or as a marriage and family therapist.
||A psychotherapist typically earns a license as a psychologist.
||Counselors often meet with people who have problems with behavior, addiction, relationships, and careers.
||Psychotherapists see clients like counselors do, but they often deal with more severe and entrenched mental health issues.
What Degrees Do You Need to Be a Counselor or Therapist?
The path to becoming a licensed therapist or counselor starts with earning a degree in counseling, psychology, or human services. A counselor usually needs a master’s degree, and a psychotherapist typically needs a doctorate.
Some students may want to accelerate their career paths. Aspiring counselors who already hold a bachelor’s degree might choose to earn a master’s degree and get licensed as a counselor. Prospective students without a degree, however, may want to pursue a bachelor’s degree in a related field.
The path to becoming a licensed therapist or counselor starts with earning a degree in counseling, psychology, or human services.
Interested students should carefully consider their career ambitions. Some accelerated counseling degrees lead to licensure, but many do not.
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Undergraduate Counseling Degree
Bachelor’s programs feature different course offerings, admission requirements, and structures, but learners can expect to encounter some similarities. Degree-seekers typically satisfy their bachelor’s requirements within four years of full-time study.
Bachelor’s programs typically comprise 120 credits. Coursework includes research methods in psychology, personality and social processes, and scientific reasoning in psychology. Many institutions offer flexible online formats that allow learners to continue working while earning a degree.
A professional who holds a bachelor’s degree can pursue entry-level counseling and therapy roles. Completing an undergraduate program also prepares degree-seekers to advance into master’s-level education.
Graduate Counseling Degree
Candidates who want to advance their education and expand their career opportunities can pursue master’s in counseling programs. At the graduate level, learners typically enroll in concentrations or specializations to align their degrees with their personal interests and career goals. Common specializations include school counseling, marriage and family therapy, plus addictions counseling.
In addition to coursework, master’s programs typically feature clinical components to provide degree-seekers with practical training through practicums or internships. Coursework includes theories of counseling and psychotherapy, ethics and legal issues in counseling, and assessment of counseling. Learners typically complete master’s programs in about two years of full-time study.
Some schools offer online counseling degrees with accelerated tracks that enable enrollees to take more credits during each semester to graduate sooner. Graduates can then explore licensing opportunities to practice as counselors or therapists working with specific patient populations.
Read more about master's in counseling programs
Requirements to Become a Licensed Counselor or Therapist
Candidates interested in becoming licensed therapists should explore the licensing requirements in their state. Before they can earn their licenses, each individual must earn a master’s degree in counseling, psychology, or therapy.
Licensure usually requires each candidate to satisfy a minimum of 1,500 hours of professional counseling experience under the supervision of a licensed counselor or therapist. Once an applicant meets the educational and experience requirements, they can complete and pass a licensing exam to earn their desired credential.
Specific licensing requirements differ from state to state. Earning a license to practice as a counselor or therapist typically takes about 5-7 years.
Requirements to Become a Certified Counselor or Therapist
Private organizations offer certification while public agencies provide licensure. Certification recognizes that a counseling professional has voluntarily met or exceeded high standards in the industry. Licensure, however, means the professional can legally identify as a counselor, therapist, or psychologist.
A counselor or therapist can hold certification from a variety of international, national, and state boards, depending on their specialty.
Laws for licensure vary from state to state, but certification standards depend on the organization. Aspiring professionals who want to fast track their entry into the field can pursue jobs as nonprofit program managers or entry-level, direct-service social workers.
Choosing a Specialization
Counseling Careers and Professional Certifications
Quick Career Options for Counselors and Therapists
Typically, psychologists need doctorates, and counselors need master’s degrees. Other professionals in mental health fields, however, can get started in entry-level roles with an appropriate undergraduate degree. Consider the options listed below:
How do I become an online counselor?
Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists
Probation officers provide rehabilitation services to people serving sentences on probation or parole. These professionals create and monitor treatment plans for people once they leave jail or prison. Typically, probation and parole officers need a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a related field rather than a mental health counselor degree.
Required Education: Bachelor’s degree | Job Outlook (2019-29): +4% | Median Annual Salary: $55,690
Social and Community Service Managers
Social and community service managers coordinate and manage programs that promote public welfare. In this role, professionals may identify the need for new programs, improve existing services in a neighborhood, or collect data to assess the effectiveness of current initiatives. Although this profession generally requires a bachelor’s degree, it does not demand a counseling degree.
Required Education: Bachelor’s degree | Job Outlook (2019-29): +17% | Median Annual Salary: $69,600
Social workers help people solve everyday problems such as finding food or shelter, accessing healthcare, or dealing with an emergency. These professionals may work for a school, hospital, or public agency. Social workers need a master’s degree in social work to provide clinical care, but people with an undergraduate degree may offer direct service provision.
Required Education: Bachelor’s required; master’s degree required for licensure | Job Outlook (2019-29): +13% | Median Annual Salary: $51,760
Addiction counselors specialize in helping people who are dealing with alcoholism or substance abuse. This profession continues to grow rapidly as more people seek help for addiction and more judges weigh counseling over jail time as a solution for addiction. Becoming an addiction counselor usually requires a graduate or undergraduate counseling degree.
Required Education: Bachelor’s degree | Job Outlook (2019-29): +25% | Median Annual Salary: $47,660
Recreational therapists direct recreational programs for people with disabilities or those recovering from injuries. This profession requires a bachelor’s degree. Recreational therapists often need to hold a certified therapeutic recreation specialist credential. More advanced positions may require certification in a specific technique or area of practice.
Required Education: Bachelor’s degree | Job Outlook (2019-29): +8% | Median Annual Salary: $47,710
Frequently Asked Questions
What degree do you need to be a counselor or therapist?
Most mental health professionals need a master’s degree to qualify for state licensure. However, some helping professions do not need a counseling degree. For example, addiction counselors, social and community service managers, and entry-level social workers can get jobs with a bachelor’s degree.
How do you become a licensed counselor or therapist?
Becoming a licensed therapist requires earning a master’s degree in a field such as marriage and family therapy. Prospective counselors then need to satisfy their state’s requirements, including all exams and supervised hours of work.
How do you become a licensed mental health counselor?
To become a licensed therapist, students need to earn both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in a related field. After graduation, aspiring counselors need to complete the remainder of their state’s license requirements.
How do you become a certified counselor or therapist?
Start by earning a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree from a school holding accreditation with the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. Graduates can then take the Counselor Preparation Comprehensive Examination.
What degree is needed to be a psychologist?
To get licensed as a psychologist, students need to earn a doctoral degree. While many psychologists earn a Ph.D, a doctor of education (Ed.D.) or a doctor of psychology (Psy.D.) can also serve as the degree needed to be a psychologist.