The following is an article I wrote for a college student website. I thought I would post it here.
So You Want to be a Therapist?
By: Jesse D. Matthews, Psy.D.
Private Practice- Chester Springs, PA
If you want to be a therapist, you are probably intrigued by the human mind, by what people do, or you just want to help people. Maybe you have seen therapists on TV or in movies. Maybe you know one. Or maybe you have had a therapist of your own. Whatever the case, becoming a therapist can be a fascinating and rewarding career choice. Therapists work with individuals of all ages, couples, or families, in all kinds of settings. In addition to doing therapy, they also perform assessments, teach, do research, or consult. Therapists are most commonly thought of as being in private practice- and many are, but they also work in: schools; hospitals; community mental health centers; the government; universities; in the community; the military; prisons; and even in primary care settings.
How do you become a therapist? Well, that depends on what kind of therapist you want to become. With a bachelor’s degree you won’t be a therapist, per se, but you can do some counseling- as a staff member in a psychiatric hospital, as a therapeutic staff support (TSS) worker in the community, or as a staff in a residential setting, to name a few. Therapists as we come to think of most often have a master’s or a doctoral degree as well as an appropriate license. If you earn a master’s degree (MA or MS), you can become a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), or a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT). With a doctorate (PhD or PsyD) you can become a psychologist. The biggest differences are how long it takes to complete your degree, what you will be able to do (the scope of your practice), and how much you can earn.
Beyond college, a master’s degree will take you two to three years, depending on how quickly you go, whether you work, etc. Some doctoral programs will accept students with a bachelor’s degree (and you may receive a master’s degree on your way to your doctorate), while others expect that you will earn a master’s degree first. Completing a doctorate, with or without a master’s degree first, can take you four to six years. These programs consist of coursework, supervised therapy experience, comprehensive exams, and a thesis or dissertation. PhD programs tend to be more research-based, while PsyD programs are more focused on practice. Upon graduating, it often takes another year to 18 months to become licensed, after applying, completing more supervised experience, and passing exams.
So once you get your degree and license, you’re in business, right? Yes. Again, what kind of therapist you want to be depends on what path you choose. Master’s level therapists do therapy, assessments, and sometimes teach. Doctoral level therapists do the same, but can often do more. Psychologists are trained in psychological testing, with looks at intelligence, personality characteristics, or neurological functioning. Testing is used for academic purposes, research, to help therapists to clarify diagnosis, and in forensics, to name a few. Most college professors also have their doctorates, particularly for more competitive, tenure-track positions. Psychologists may work in a number of settings at one time, which was one of the reasons I chose the profession. Although I work primarily in private practice, I spend time working in an outpatient substance abuse treatment facility, in a juvenile detention center, and teaching as an adjunct faculty member at a university. In my work I do therapy, psychological and substance abuse evaluations, and I supervise students and teach. I enjoy the flexibility, getting to work with many different types of clients, and having the ability to forge a unique career path.
The last difference in types of therapists has to do with earning potential. This not only has to do with what kind of degree you have, but where you work, what you do, and where you live. On average, doctoral level therapists make more, though this is not always the case. Therapists who work in private practice, particularly in affluent areas, tend to earn more than those who work in community mental health settings. Tenure track professors at larger or more prestigious universities, particularly those who become well-known for their research, often have a higher earning potential than those at smaller schools. And as in most fields, more seasoned, experienced therapists often have a higher earning potential as well. Most people don’t become a therapist for the money, but you can earn a good living if you work hard and play your cards right.
My advice would be to think carefully about your career path- whatever you want to be. If you want to be a therapist, think about what kind of work you would like to do and how long you are willing to be in school. Think about the time, the cost, where you are in your life and what your goals are. It can take a long time, but if your heart is really in it, you won’t mind. Education is an investment in your future, and you certainly need a good amount of education for this career. Be prepared to earn at least a master’s degree, and to go for your license if you plan on becoming a therapist.
Dr. Jesse Matthews is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Chester Springs, PA. He helps people of all ages to address many kinds of issues. You can view his Psychology Today profile here. For any questions or to arrange an appointment, please contact him at 610-482-4496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.