The Big Guide to Becoming a Therapist

By Liz Spencer, Career Coach, Career & Professional Development Center   

At the Career & Professional Development Center, our career coaches meet with many students who are interested in becoming a therapist. But what does that mean for them logistically? What are the tangible steps needed in order to reach this career goal? The answer is more complicated than you may think in comparison to other popular healthcare careers.

For example, to become a physician you can choose between two programs: Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO). While in contrast, to become a therapist you can choose between at least five different program areas: marriage and family therapy (MFT), social work (MSW), counseling (many degree options), psychology (PhD or PsyD), or medicine/psychiatry (MD, DO, PA, PMHNP, etc). There are some therapists who even hold more than one of the degrees listed above.

Below, we go into some basic details on the various programs as well as provide some action steps that you can take to begin your journey of becoming a mental health provider. This outline is focused on the generalities of these fields and does not hold 100% true in all situations. We recommend using this outline as a guide to get you started on thinking about what field might fit your situation best.

Marriage and Family Therapy

Degree needed to practice as a therapist? Master’s of Science/Art in Marriage and Family Therapy

Time to complete the graduate program? 2-3 years

Specialization? Working with families and couples

Social Work

Degree needed to practice as a therapist? Master’s of Social Work (MSW)

Time to complete the graduate program? 1.5 – 3 years

Specialization? Community based practice


Degree needed to practice as a therapist? Master’s of Arts/Science in Counseling or even just a certificate with a Bachelor’s degree

There are many different types of counseling! Here are some common examples (there are more!)

  • Substance Use Disorder Treatment Counseling (certificate + Bachelor’s)
  • Clinical Mental Health Counseling (Master’s)
  • School Counseling (Master’s)

Time to complete the program? 1 – 3 years

Specialization? Individually focused, specializing in the area you want to work in (the recovery community, clinical mental health, schools, etc.)


Degree needed to practice as a therapist? Doctoral degree

You can obtain a Master’s in psychology, but typically you are not able to practice as a therapist treating clients with this degree. This is a common option for additional research training/focus/practice.

  • PsyD

This is the route recommended for students who want to focus more on the clinical treatment within psychology rather than research. This route generally (not always) can be more expensive than PhD.

  • PhD

This is the route recommended for students who enjoy/want to pursue research only or for students who want training in both research and clinical-based settings. You are able to select a focus areas from many options. Some examples are: forensic, neuropsychology, clinical, etc.

Time to complete the graduate program? typically 4 – 7 years but depends on how long you take to complete the program (specifically your dissertation).

Specialization? Varies widely. Typically, since it is a doctoral degree earned, the student will study something in depth and focus in on how the brain works more so than one would in a master’s of social work or counseling program.


Degree needed to practice? Master’s or Doctoral

  • MD/DO – to become a psychiatrist (doctor) – medical school + residency
  • PMHNP (Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner) – a master’s degree (MSN) or doctoral degree (DNP)
  • PA (physician’s assistant) – master’s degree + on the job specialized training

Time to complete the graduate program? 5 – 8 years. If one already has a Master’s of Nursing, to become a PMHNP sometimes only a post-master’s certificate is required (1.5 years in addition to the master’s of nursing)

Specialization? Medical model, nursing model, pharmacology-based


So how does one choose the right path for them?

Step 1: Research

  • Dig in! There is so much information on the internet it can often be really overwhelming. A recommendation is to pick a specific university (e.g. The University of Utah) and read the various program’s pages to learn about the differences in options.
  • Save this blog’s outline!
  • Keep records of what you’ve learned to reference when it comes to decision making time!

Step 2: Discuss and Network

  • Talk to your friends/family/community/peers/network about what you’ve learned and what you’re excited about and ask them to reflect what they’re hearing in your responses.
    • Remember – you can always meet with a Career Coach as well to learn more and make an action plan for yourself as you continue along this path.
  • Networking with others in the field is another way to do research. You can use platforms such as ForeverUtah (alumni network for UofU) and LinkedIn to connect with professionals in the field doing the work you’re intereseted in.

Step 3: Reflect

  • Some questions to consider:
    • How much time do you want to be in school for?
    • Do you prefer research to clinical practice?
    • Are you interested in approaching mental health work from the individual or the community perspective?

Step 4: Gain experience

  • Sometimes the best way to determine if a field of work is the right one for you, you have to get direct experience.
    • Ideas for potential entry-level positions in the field of mental healthcare:
      • Behavioral/Medical Technician or Certified Nursing Assistant (inpatient hospital, recovery center, intensive outpatient programs)
      • Case Manager (nonprofits, hospitals, long-term care facilities)
      • Field Guide (wilderness therapy programs – many are located in and around Utah)
    • Volunteering in all of the above locations is also a great option if the salaries of those positions do not support your living circumstances.

Step 5: Trust yourself

  • Remember: you know yourself best!
  • If you do your research, talk to professionals in the field and to those in your communities, and gain some experience – you can be sure you’ll make the best decision for you!

You can meet with a Career Coach to discuss your path to becoming a therapist by scheduling an appointment here.