How to Become a Psychotherapist

Psychotherapy, or the practice of discussing issues between patient and psychologist, is a time-honored tradition that traces back to ancient peoples. In those days, a priest or shaman, medicine woman or herbalist was more likely to give the patient their ear. Today, it is a highly qualified professional sitting in an air-conditioned office or hospital clinic. But the purpose is the same: giving individuals who need it an outlet for their feelings and experiences.

Talk therapy provides exactly the outlet many people need to process difficult emotions stemming from work challenges, interpersonal relationships, past trauma, childhood issues and more. While some problems do require stronger interventions or even medical solutions, many do not. In these cases, talk therapy can be very beneficial, helping people find relief and move on with their lives.

If you are interested in bringing that kind of relief to your patients, you might be well suited to psychotherapy. Want to know more about how to enter this amazing field? Read on.

What Is Psychotherapy?

First, it’s helpful to understand exactly what psychotherapy is. According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is a way to help people with a broad variety of mental illnesses and emotional difficulties. Psychotherapy can help eliminate or control troubling symptoms so a person can function better and can increase well-being and healing.”

Psychotherapy’s invention is widely credited to Sigmund Freud, the Austrian doctor who founded psychoanalysis. This closely related field is based on “the game-changing discovery that certain types of problems have their roots below the surface of conscious life. Since then, psychoanalysts have discovered more and more about how unconscious factors greatly influence us, for good and for ill.”

Psychotherapy certainly accounts for the fact that many mental health issues occur first below the surface. In talking through them – sometimes in concert with other individuals, such as spouses or children – the therapist can help the patient discover truths about themselves that they didn’t know were there.

What Does a Psychotherapist Do?

That said, what does a psychotherapist do all day? Good question, with several different answers depending on the exact role you choose to take on. Psychotherapy jobs vary based on a number of factors, including:

  • Setting: Where you choose to practice will impact what your job is like. If you join a group of mental health professionals, that will be a different job experience than if you join a clinic. Similarly, if you go into private practice, you will spend more time engaging with patients and less with engaging with other members of a medical team, as you might at a hospital.
  • Population: Psychotherapists may specialize in a wide range of populations. Some focus on couples, others on adults, others children and still others on the geriatric population. Psychotherapists often specialize by issue, such as trauma, substance abuse or marriage.
  • State: Depending on the state in which you live, certain aspects of your job will vary. That includes funding, insurance, paperwork, reporting requirements and more. These are all very important to keep in mind so that you stay in compliance.

That said, the main goal of a psychotherapist is to help their patients realize truths about themselves that can lead to better behavior, and thus to healthier and happier lives. Getting the right degree can help you do just that.

What Degree Do You Need for Psychotherapy?

Psychotherapist education requirements vary by state and jurisdiction, just as working requirements do. In some states, it’s okay to practice with a master’s degree in Psychology or related field. The state government will let you apply without a doctorate. In other states (most of them, in fact), you need to have a terminal degree in order to apply for licensure and practice on your own in the field of psychotherapy. However, if you do not call yourself a psychologist, but rather a counselor, you may be able to practice without a doctorate.

When you’re researching the requirements, be sure to research them for the state in which you hope to practice upon graduation, rather than the state in which you’re receiving your education. That way you don’t have to worry about higher standards that you might not meet upon graduation.

Ultimately, most students who want to become psychotherapists should get a doctoral degree.

Programs typically cover:

  • Psychoanalytic psychotherapy
  • Psychotherapy research
  • Psychotherapy and medicine
  • Human physiology

Note, however, that psychotherapists aren’t psychiatrists. That means they cannot prescribe medication, but can only use non-medical techniques (mostly talk therapy) to engage with their patients and help them progress. If you want to be able to prescribe medications to your patients, you would need to get a medical degree or a nurse practitioner degree, both of which will allow you to prescribe meds in most states.

What About Exams and Licensing?

Almost anyone who wants to work in the field of psychology or psychotherapy needs to take the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology, or EPPP. This test is good for most of the United States and Canada, meaning that it transfers to wherever you want to practice no matter where you take the test.

Despite its transferability, you should know that the passing requirements still vary. As the American Psychological Association explains, “Passing scores for the EPPP are set by each state; most states require at least a 70 percent or 500 on the computer-based exam. Some states also require candidates to pass an oral exam that may be a competency-based test or a test of laws and ethics. Other states only require a jurisprudence exam.”

Once you have graduated from your program and get a passing score on your test, you still have to get the right number of practicum hours. This is usually part of your program, often comprising between 1,500 and 1,600 hours. However, some states require that you have more hours than that, so it’s critical that you check the requirements of each state to make sure. If you have them, you can apply.

Is the Job Outlook Good?

Yes, happily the job outlook for psychologists and psychotherapists is quite good. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychologists (the umbrella category for psychotherapists) make $79,010 per year or $37.99 per hour on average. If you stay in the field for decades, this can easily become six figures, allowing you to pay off your student loans and achieve a very high standard of living. Moreover, considering jobs are growing at a rate of 14 percent between 2016 and 2026, you should have no trouble finding jobs and clients.

Want to learn more about psychotherapy programs? We’re happy to help, so let us know!

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Ann Steele, Ph.D.

Ann Steele, Ph.D.

Editor-In-Chief

Ann Steele, Ph.D., is Editor-In-Chief of PsydPrograms.org. Ann has training as a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst who has worked with adults, couples, adolescents, and preteens throughout San Diego county.