How to Become a Therapist
Most states require that people working as psychotherapists have a master’s degree and license in the field. Typically the graduate education would be a psychology degree or a social work degree with a clinical focus. Both are 60 hour masters programs that would take two years to complete if you are a full-time student. In addition to the required coursework, there are also internships that would be necessary to graduate. These internships are often very useful for helping you gain skills in the field and narrow down your interests. An internship is expected to be 12-19 hours per week.
Following your degree you will most likely need to get a license from the state to begin practicing as a therapist. The licenses are LPC for a psychologist and LCSW for a social worker. For most states the licensing process will require exams, fingerprinting and background checks, client contact hours, a certain amount of years of experience, supervision hours, and fees. The trend lately has been that an LCSW is more often accepted by insurance companies, and would be the safer route. However, the education and licensing processes of the LPC and LCSW are very similar.
About the LSW
As I am most familiar with the LCSW and it is the more commonly accepted license, I will provide more details about it. Before obtaining the LCSW, you first get the License of Social Work (LSW). I am licensed in New Jersey, and every state varies somewhat, so be sure to check with the social work licensing board in your state for the most relevant information. Some states have thorough websites that will explain how it all works, but in NJ it took me many, many phone calls and consultations with colleagues to get all the information straight.
You begin by starting a master’s program in social work. Perhaps your program will walk you through the licensing process, though mine did not. Towards the end of your third semester (assuming that you are attending only four semesters), is a good time to contact your state’s social work board to request the LSW application. The application itself will not be too intense, but will likely require you to complete several tasks, such as a passport photo, fingerprinting, and getting the application notarized.
It is recommended that you take the LSW exam while you are still in school and the knowledge is fresh in your head. Though the exam asks many questions about practice in the field, it is really the book-knowledge that is required, rather than hands-on experience. I would highly recommend taking an exam prep course, if only for one Saturday. There is a lot of information covered in the exam, and the course can help you narrow down what is best to study. For most people studying is required. If you fail the exam the first time, you may take it again after 90 days, but you have to pay more money each time.
About the LCSW
Once you have graduated from the master’s program and have obtained your LSW, you can begin the process toward the LCSW. In NJ it is required that you practice at least two years but no more than three years between the LSW and LCSW completion. You will need 1920 hours of client contact, and weekly supervision with a clinician approved by the state social work board.
There is another application process, which is very similar to the LSW process, and requires additional payments. Also you will take the LCSW exam. You can take the LCSW exam at any point, only needing to wait 90 days after taking the LSW exam. The exams are very similar, so it is better to take it earlier, and to re-study the same material. People often score about the same on both exams.
If being a therapist is your goal, then with a lot of searching you may find an agency that will hire you as a therapist when you only have your LSW. This would be ideal, because you can gain the necessary client hours and learn from other clinicians. When considering a position, find out if anyone at the agency is able to supervise you for your LCSW. But if no one is available, then you might still take the position and pay someone outside the agency to provide the necessary supervision.
Working as an outpatient therapist while you prepare your LCSW will likely enable you to begin developing your own interests and specializations. Though don’t imagine that this is all the experience you will need to open your own practice the day you receive your LCSW. As one of my professors repeatedly said, two years in the field is not sufficient to put out your own sign.
In close, I want to wish you lots of luck as you pursue your career. Here is some wise advice about the rewards and challenges of a being therapist from Mary Pipher in Letters to a Young Therapist, “We therapists end up sitting in small, often uncomfortable rooms eight hours a day listening to one person after another talk about unresponsive mates, surly teenagers, and control-freak bosses. Unless we have abiding curiosity, hour after hour of such conversations can be tough slogging. We who like the work tend to be fascinated by the infinite variety of ways in which humans get themselves in and out of trouble” (page 12).
Recommended Online Degree Programs Therapists
Recommended Readings and Websites for Beginning Therapists
- DSM IV
- Letters to a Young Therapist by Mary Pipher
- Trauma Recovery and Empowerment (clinician’s guide and client workbook) by Maxine Harris
- 101 Favorite Play Therapy Techniques by Heidi Kaduson and Charles Schaefer
- Interpersonal Process in Psychotherapy by Edward Teyber
- A Guide to Possibility Land by Bill O’Hanlon and Sandy Beadie
- Tales of Solutions by Insoo Kim Berg and Yvonne Dolan
- The Complete Psychotherapy Treatment Planner by Arthur E. Jongsma, Jr. and L. Mark Peterson
Websites Related to Social Work Licensing
Good Information Sources on Mental Illness