How Long Does It Take To Become A Therapist?

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Reader’s Question

I’m currently a contract firefighter in Iraq and I’ve been a firefighter for a total of about nine years. However, I’m looking to start a new career in counseling. I received my Bachelors in Psychology back in 2001 from UNC Greensboro with a minor in Sociology. I’m 36 years old and have a family, so I’m concerned about the time it’s going to take me to start earning a decent income in the field. I have yet to utilize my GI Bill so that will help, and obviously I can work while I’m in school. But I just want to know how long, in general, does it usually take someone to start earning money as a legitimate counselor from where I stand right now, assuming I got a job right after my certification?

Psychologist’s Reply

In the U.S. there are several routes to becoming a counselor or therapist. It may differ in other countries. Time frames depend on whether you are seeking a master’s level or doctoral degree, so let’s start there. Completion of a doctoral level degree, such as a Ph.D. or Psy.D. in psychology, typically takes four to five years if you are attending school full-time and making timely progress on independent projects, such as your doctoral dissertation. Doctoral degree programs typically include a year of full-time work as a pre-doctoral intern, which is a position with a salary that is usually anywhere from 15K to 30K per year. A Ph.D. or Psy.D. can take longer (up to 10 years is usually allowed) if you are attending school part-time or working outside the department. (Often graduate students will have the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant or graduate assistant, which provides a stipend.)

When students graduate from a doctoral program, they are eligible to do clinical work (i.e. see clients) under the supervision of a licensed psychologist until they become licensed themselves. In the U.S. the licensure process varies from state to state. It usually includes accruing a certain number of supervised clinical hours (typically a year of full-time work beyond your pre-doc internship hours), taking the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology (a national, standardized, multiple-choice test), and taking a state-specific licensing exam. So if you go this route, you are looking at a minimum of four to five years before you are able to work at a full-time job as a therapist or counselor, and a bit longer until you are licensed as a psychologist yourself.

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There are also master’s level degrees that can prepare you to be a therapist, such as a master’s in social work or a master’s in counselor education. Master’s degrees typically take two or so years to complete, and you would have to become licensed to see clients without being under the supervision of a licensed therapist. A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) or a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) are two examples of master’s level therapists. The American Counseling Association provides a description of licensed professional counselors and state-specific information about how to become licensed.

I do not know if you are interested in becoming a military psychologist, but according to an article by the American Psychological Association in 2009, more are needed. You might be interested in a program aimed specifically at those in the military, such as the Military Clinical Psychology Program at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Maryland. This is one example of a program that is tailored to training as a military psychologist, and there may be others. There may also be scholarships related to service in the armed forces, such as the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP).

Other branches of the military may have similar opportunities.

So, the short answer to your question is, for a doctoral degree you will devote at least four to five years before you are finished, and a master’s level degree will take approximately two to three years. Licensure is obtained following the degree, but you can work while you are becoming licensed. The good news for you is that there may be options for scholarships, stipends, or even tuition waivers depending on what program you attend as a military member or veteran. These may make it feasible to pursue a degree and support your family at the same time.

You might start by asking the recruiter for your particular military branch about training and scholarship opportunities.

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