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June 1, 2010 10:22 AM   Subscribe

What does it take to become a therapist?

I'm tentatively interested in pursuing a career in therapy. I have a BA in English/film studies, and have been working as a freelance journalist and odd-jobber since graduation. My career is stalling and I'm just not interested in fighting tooth-and-nail for the Murdoch corporations for the remainder of my life. I have no interest in going to medical school, so I know psychiatry is out of the question.

As a college student I was always drawn to psychology classes, but I never took one for some bizarre reason; I think I might have been afraid that I'd change majors halfway through my degree. Without putting too much weight on my innate capabilities, I've generally been an individual who hits on intimate insights into other people's motives and insecurities. I can often take an eagle's eye view of someone else's life story or life narrative - both how they see themselves as active agents in their own lives and often how their lives play out against their wishes. But again, this could be my self-inflation or wishful thinking. If this is grossly mismatched for the field of psychology, humor me anyways and tell me how a hypothetical therapist would have completed solid training and set up a successful practice.

I have no working knowledge of how one would read up on psychology to know if they're a good match for pursuing a Master's. I have no idea what sorts of personalities make a good fit for practicing therapy. If I am indeed a good match, how would I take steps in the right direction? Generally speaking, what is the job market like? Did I screw myself over by majoring in literature rather than a soft science? I am aware therapy encompasses an immense world of varying techniques and studies; I know none of them. My journalist instinct would be to track down therapists and interview them on their career tracks, but I doubt that will be terribly useful.

I'm 26 years old and live in New York City, so any local tips would be immensely helpful. I realize this question is very broad and needs more specifics, a bit like asking, "How do I become an artist?" so any outside resources would be much appreciated.
posted by Viola to Work & Money (18 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Information interviews are a great way to gain insight-- that's what your journalism instinct is telling you. But what I'd also suggest is that you volunteer and, if possible, job shadow (tricky for this field). Volunteer for a crisis centre, a career centre, an organization for new immigrants, etc. Mentor young people. Find out if this is really the kind of work you want to do.

As an English major (who is not a therapist), I have to say that my degree gives me tons of insights into the lives and experiences of others because of the range of stories I've read, the sociopolitical insights I got, and so on. It doesn't make up for life experience but it sure taught me more about "life" than my soft science masters. YMMV.
posted by acoutu at 10:28 AM on June 1, 2010

This thread is about the pros and cons of being a therapist in which the question was "What will I hate about being a therapist?" Not trying to discourage you, just thought you might find it to be interesting reading.
posted by amethysts at 10:40 AM on June 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Becoming a licensed therapist requires a Master's Degree (there are a few to choose from...Psychology, Counseling, or Social Work are the broad categories...different programs might call theirs something different). Social Work programs have a bit of a different focus than Community Counseling programs, and Psychology programs can focus on labs/research or counseling theories or psych testing. All of those will probably require you to go back to school and take some prerequisites (for example, my Counseling Psychology Master's program required General Psychology, Social Psychology, Statistics, Research Methods, and a few electives as prerequisites).

You also have to be licensed by the state once you complete your coursework, and each state does it a bit differently. This link here will get you started on learning more about the NY State licensing process. There's a category for "Mental Health Practitioners", one for "Psychology", and one for "Social Workers" so be sure to check them all out.

Volunteering is a FABULOUS way to learn more about the field, discover if it's something you can handle, and more importantly help you narrow down the populations you want to work with. I loved working with teenagers and didn't enjoy working with adults, while some of my classmates thought I was CRAZY for loving the teenagers with raging hormones and psych problems. Each person is different, and it's OK to not like a certain population so don't be afraid to explore that, especially if you start a Master's program.

I really think you should do the information interviews! Not only is it something you're comfortable with (in regards to your journalism background) it will really give you a broad perspective of what therapy entails before you get into the middle of a program and decide it's not for you. It will also help you discern what qualities a good therapist needs. I can tell you that you'll need to be able to be calm and rational in a crisis, have the ability to let your client's problems "roll off your back" (it's OK to be invested in your clients, it's not OK to take it home with you and worry about it constantly), and to be OK with getting yelled at and possibly attacked physically (I've been bitten twice, spit on, had countless physical altercations and even had curse words made up specifically so that someone could call me new names to see if I'd cry). The physical aspect depends on the population you work with though...teenagers tend to fly off the handle a lot, especially when they're on a locked unit (and I wouldn't let them make a phone call, but ymmv).

You can also pick up any "Counseling Theories" book from Amazon and start reading about the different approaches if you want to. You'll also get a lot of skills training in a program, so just knowing the theories won't make you a therapist.

I'd say the first step is asking questions and exploring options, something you've started out doing. Good luck!
posted by MultiFaceted at 10:48 AM on June 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

A good way to learn if being a therapist is a good fit for your personality is to volunteer for some kind of hot- or warmline. If you were in San Francisco, I'd recommend suicide prevention or the sex information line. These phone services have training on listening, triaging, etc. If you like working these lines for a while, that's a good clue.

Another good way thing to do is to get into therapy, if you haven't already done so. It'll give you an idea of what it's like to engage in this kind of work. This can be in the form of individual therapy, or some kind of group, or even a workshop that has a psychology aspect to it.
posted by jasper411 at 10:57 AM on June 1, 2010

hal_c_on is pretty much wrong, at least wrt NY state laws. More here.
posted by rtha at 11:04 AM on June 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

To become a clinical psychologist who uses evidence-based therapies, you'd need a Ph. D. and a license (which would usually require 5-6 years of graduate work plus a year of internship). There's definitely a trend of more and more therapists practicing with Master's degrees, but there are many in the field (e.g., Richard McFall) that strongly believe that effective therapy has to be science-based, and they would say that to learn to base therapy in science, a doctorate in a science-oriented clinical science program is needed. That probably sounds daunting, but it's been an incredibly rewarding experience for me so far, and there are definitely people in my program who didn't start until their late 20s.
posted by emilyd22222 at 11:48 AM on June 1, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks so far, everyone! I'm still monitoring the thread closely. Also, feel free to explain steps of the process as if I were a bright fifth grader. Don't assume I know anything! I know nothing!

Also, does anyone have NYC-specific info about getting certified?
posted by Viola at 12:00 PM on June 1, 2010

To be a licensed mental health counselor in New York, you need a master's degree from an accredited program which includes 700 hours of practicum/internship and passing a national standardized exam, and then another 3000 hours over three calendar years of practice (not private practice, but in an agency or other supervised setting). [Note: counseling licensure is a complete patchwork across the states, but now that all 50 states have LPC licensure, the new emphasis is on getting requirements to be similar so that licenses are more easily portable across borders.]

In my clinical mental health counseling program, the average age is above 30. Average age in a friend's social work program is late 20s.
posted by catlet at 12:00 PM on June 1, 2010

"Therapist" is a super-broad designation, especially in NY. I will let other people deal with MSW and other designations, since I only know about the psychology one.

If we interpret "therapist" to mean "psychologist," you have two choices for schooling: PsyD or Phd. You take a GMAT subject test to get in and I don't think undergrad is much of a factor. Both take about 5 years or so, but PhD could conceivably take much longer. Main difference is that PsyD doesn't require a dissertation, but your options for working in academia are limited. Once you have the degree, you complete a certain number of post-doc hours and then get licensed.

You can do the schooling at a ton of places in NY. My wife has a Master's from John Jay and went elsewhere for her PhD, but I see from the website that they have a PhD program now.
posted by charlesv at 2:28 PM on June 1, 2010

How good are you at putting aside your personal shit to deal with other people's personal shit for 8-12 hours? Can you work, think, and conduct meetings with people while you have a cold or feel nauseous, or found out that your cat just died, or woke up in an amazingly bad mood? Are you able to hide how you are feeling all day long so you can focus on other people?

That's something to REALLY keep in mind about the job.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:49 PM on June 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Okay, to some degree all jobs require you to put aside your personal shit, but it's a lot easier to do when you are in your cube all day not talking to people constantly. I just wanted to point out that the mental demand for you to be "on the ball" is a lot higher for this job.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:49 PM on June 1, 2010

Whoever said GMAT meant GRE. Most programs don't require the GRE subject test in psychology, but a few do. Professional schools (primarily PsyD) are very expensive 4 year programs; research Ph.D. programs are very difficult in terms of admission (my program accepted 8 individuals out of over 271 applicants last year, and 5 accepted) and typically require that you perform research. The good news is, they pay you for those 5 years. So the net difference between Ph.D. and PsyD can be as much as 350K, no joke (pay 200K for some Psyd programs, earn 30K a year as a research grad student in some Ph.D. programs). different states have different other degrees with which you can practice - CA has the masters in family therapy, for example. I don't know about NY, but I'm sure they have licensed social worker positions, at the very least. Masters are typically two year programs, and the skills learned are often more practical and less theoretical than those learned in Ph.D. and PsyD programs.

I think PsyD and masters program are typically not going to require too much for admissions, but Ph.D. programs sometimes want some research experience, so if that;s the plan, you might want to volunteer in a lab for 6-12 months before you apply. Publications a plus.
posted by namesarehard at 6:07 PM on June 1, 2010

Main difference is that PsyD doesn't require a dissertation...

Not true. I'm in a PsyD program and currently in the process of finalizing my dissertation.

Anyway, OP, if you are interested in a PsyD program expect to be in school for about 5 years. This includes at least two half-time externships and a year-long internship. I went in with a BS in psychology and got my MA in clinical psych along the way. After I graduate I'm looking at at least another year or so of supervised work before I can sit for licensing exams.

If you have more specific questions please feel free to memail me.
posted by Nolechick11 at 6:10 PM on June 1, 2010

Heh, excuse me, out of 271, not over 271. That made me laugh when I read it.
posted by namesarehard at 6:11 PM on June 1, 2010

Whoever said GMAT meant GRE.
Yep, I did mean GRE.

Re PsyD dissertations, Alliant, the only school I am familiar with, requires only a doc project. I would actually be very interested to know what percentage of PsyD programs require one.
posted by charlesv at 7:13 PM on June 1, 2010

Mod note: few comments removed - hey grumps, answer the OPs question and take taunting to email, thank you
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:56 PM on June 1, 2010

I've been thinking about this as well and looking in to it. NYU has a non-matriculating option for the MSW program that allows you to take up to 4 classes without going through the admissions process. If you decide in the midst of taking those 4 courses that you want to be admitted, you can apply the credits toward the degree. I think this seems like a great way to figure out whether it's what you want. Here is a good FAQ about the NYU MSW program. I can't find it right now but I'm almost sure that they don't require the GRE either. They are also one of the few that have really liberal part-time options (that I would need).

As for those who say to volunteer for a hotline - I'm not sure I agree that will tell you whether becoming a therapist is for you. I have a sort of "counseling" role in my current job and what I like about it is getting to know people on a holistic level and that's what I find really appealing about possibly becoming a therapist. I, like you, feel as though I'm able to see people and their motivations and issues in a very objective way and friends/family often seek me out to help them wade through their stuff. A hotline does not give you the chance to do much more than triage. I was a crisis hotline volunteer when I first moved to NYC for the Anti-Violence Project and it wasn't for me. The 2am calls from people who were in distress was extrememly stressful to me especially with little to no warning about who was going to be on the other end of the phone. You have almost no background, no sense of the body language/personality/history of the person calling and - to me - this is kind of the opposite of what being a therapist would be.

Just my 2 cents (and I am not a therapist).

I also think the posts about what is not appealing about it are important to read. I always think that if you can read the negatives from people who are in it and a bit weather-beaten and still want to do it - it's probably a good sign. (although that didn't deter me from becoming a lawyer which definitely wasn't the right fit for me).

Good luck to you.
posted by jasbet07 at 7:36 AM on June 4, 2010

I suggested the hotline volunteer experience, not because it's a definitive test, but I'd venture to say that if you can't stand listening to people on a hotline, you probably would have a hard time listening to people as a therapist. It's definitely different, but the core skills of empathy and non-judgemental listening are prominent in both.
posted by jasper411 at 11:22 AM on June 4, 2010

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