What Degree Do You Need to Be a Therapist?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

What degree do you need to be a therapist? The answer to that question depends on the type of work you want to do. Learn more about what you have to do to become a therapist or counselor.

[Featured Image] A therapist talks with a patient after earning his degree.

Therapists help people solve problems like coping with stress, managing mental health, and navigating relationship challenges. In this line of work, you interact with children, adults, couples, and families in group sessions or private practice. You may focus on marriage and family therapy, substance abuse treatment, mental health, grief counseling, and more.

It's a growing field, and demand for therapists is accelerating faster than average. Jobs for marriage and family therapists should increase by 15 percent through 2032 [1]. Demand for psychologists is also up, with 6 percent growth expected [2].

Do I need a degree to become a therapist?

Yes, you need a degree to become a licensed therapist—typically a master's degree in social work, counseling, or psychology. A degree is just the beginning, though. You also need a license from the state where you work before you can begin treating patients, and each state creates its licensing criteria.

Typically, these requirements include passing an exam, applying for a license, and completing supervised experience, but you'll notice some differences from state to state. For example, in California, you need to acquire 3,000 hours of supervised experience, and then you can apply for a professional license. In Florida, you must complete a two-year supervision program that includes at least 100 supervised hours and 1,500 hours working directly with clients. 

Therapist degrees: What should I major in?

When choosing a major for your bachelor's degree, consider your plans, the graduate school you want to attend, the type of degree you want to earn, and the type of therapy you wish to provide. A bachelor's degree is the first step toward a career as a therapist because you need one before you can attend the graduate program you need to complete before starting your career.

It's not necessary to major in psychology as an undergraduate, which is good news if you want to know how to become a therapist later in life. However, it can be helpful. For example, some schools require you to take prerequisite courses if you still need a bachelor's degree in psychology. Others will admit you to a graduate program as long as you have a bachelor's degree from an accredited school.

When you're ready to attend graduate school, you won't choose a major like you did for your bachelor's degree. Instead, you can select a school with the degree that best aligns with the therapy work you want. Many therapists choose one of the following degrees.

  • Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling

  • Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology

  • Master of Arts in Counseling

  • Master of Arts in Education in Marriage and Family Counseling

  • Master of Education in Counseling

  • Master of Education in Marriage and Family Counseling

  • Master of Science in Addiction Counseling

  • Master of Social Work

If you choose to pursue a doctorate, you can choose from a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD), Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Doctor of Education (EdD), or Doctor of Professional Counseling (DPC) program. Another option is to earn a medical degree (MD or DO) and specialize in psychiatry. Still, this path typically takes longer to complete—about eight years after you receive a bachelor's degree. 

Possible majors for therapists

At the undergraduate level, many therapists pursue a major in psychology, sociology, social work, or education. However, any major that helps you build your knowledge of the ways humans behave, develop, and relate to one another in groups and systems can help prepare you for a graduate degree program. This can include criminal justice, human development, and biology. Some schools accept students with any bachelor's degree, so you have the freedom to study topics that interest you.

Is a doctorate necessary for a career as a therapist?

A doctorate is optional for a career as a therapist, but some therapists do have a doctorate. In most states, you can qualify for licensure with a master's degree in counseling or a related field.

What is the difference between a psychologist and a therapist?

Although their work overlaps, the terms psychologist and therapist describe different jobs. As a psychologist, you will likely treat people with severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia and personality disorders. You also may engage in research or provide psychological testing services. Some psychologists teach classes at colleges or universities. For this reason, psychologists usually have a doctorate degree.

Therapists also work with patients who have mental illness, substance abuse, or problems in their relationships at home or work. You may choose to concentrate on an area like marriage and family, trauma, eating disorders, or grief. In many cases, your work with your clients will be short-term and focused on helping them find solutions to their problems through talk therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, or trauma therapy. To become a therapist, you typically need at least a master's degree. 

Get started as a therapist.

The first step toward a career as a therapist is earning a bachelor's degree, such as a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from UMass Global. You can concentrate your studies in a specific area, such as counseling or child psychology, to tailor the program to your career goals as a therapist.

If you're in grad school or going through the licensure process in your state, consider building some of the skills you'll use in your new career or exploring topics related to the field. Through a course like Emotional Intelligence: Cultivating Immensely Human Emotions from the University of Michigan, you can examine non-verbal communication techniques and how to create productive conversations.

With the Abnormal Psychology Specialization by Wesleyan University, you can learn how to interact with individuals in psychological distress. You can find these courses and more on Coursera.

Article sources


US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Occupational Outlook Handbook, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-behavioral-disorder-and-mental-health-counselors.htm." Accessed March 6, 2024.

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