Becoming A Therapist: School Q+A
Updated: May 5
Hi and welcome to the ultimate Q+A on all things therapy school related! I plan to add to this in the future if I get more questions, so feel free to send me more questions as they come up for you. Obviously this is all just my opinion and personal experience, and everyone's life circumstances and values are different. So, treat this like a buffet: take what you like and leave what you don't.
Let's start with some background questions! As you may or may not know, you can get a lot of different degrees to become a therapist. A master's in social work, marriage and family therapy, mental health counseling, etc. will all qualify you to be a therapist. There is no "right" or "best" degree. They have slight differences in focus that can affect your career... but also you will continue to learn after graduating, so even then it doesn't matter that much. (I plan to write a blog post about the differences in all the degrees and will link it here when it's up.)
What are some ways high schoolers can prepare for a career being a therapist?
I took an AP psychology class my senior year and it was a great introduction into the field (and counts for college credit). I also read a lot of fiction books about mental health, which I wouldn't necessarily say is "education" (or even always accurate to mental health haha), but they help you figure out what areas of mental health you are interested in. For me, I got really interested in fiction books about eating disorders and addiction.
Likewise, search out volunteer opportunities in your area. This may not get you experience with being a therapist per say, but anything in the mental health field can be good experience and help you narrow down what type of client you want to work with in the future. A nursing home or assisted living center would get you experience with a geriatric population which is a speciality you can have as a therapist. A developmental center would get you experience working with people with disabilities. Check in with any community mental health clinic and see if you can volunteer to set up group rooms, organize pantries, basically anything just to get you in an environment where therapy is conducted.
I'd also recommend chatting with any adults you know who are therapists. Ask them all the questions!
Where did you get your bachelor's degree, and in what?
I graduated with my bachelor's degree of psychology from Brigham Young University (BYU) in 2015. Overall, I actually really liked the psychology department and program there. BYU is a private, religious university and I was surprised at how science-based the faculty in the psychology department was. I don't remember noticing any conflicts of interest or teachers pushing religious values instead of science.
What was your internship?
One of my bachelor level internships was at The Children's Justice Center in American Fork, UT. They provided free group therapy to kids who were survivors of sexual abuse. As an undergrad, I was responsible for setting up and taking down the group rooms and was also able to sit in on the groups and shadow the therapists.
What is a good undergraduate degree to get before entering into a MSW program?
There are a bunch of different degrees you can get. You could do sociology, social work, psychology, anthropology, etc. I'd recommend looking up the requirements for each and seeing what interests you most. Once again, I don't think any one degree is going to be better than another. I tried to look up statistics on what undergraduate degree most people get before their master's in social work, and I couldn't find any data. So, that leaves me thinking that it really doesn't matter a whole ton!
Are you glad you went with psychology for your bachelor's degree or do you wish you would have done something different?
I'm glad I did psychology! Psychology seems to be the study of the individual, where as social work is a little bit more focused on systems. I feel they compliment each other really well and am glad I have an understanding of both.
Where did you get your master's degree, and in what?
I got my master's degree in social work from New York University. I opted for the 16 month program (instead of having a summer off like you do in the 2 year program, you just go straight through) and had a great experience!
How many people were in your cohort?
There were probably 500 students. My classes had 15-20 students, which was such a nice change from the giant auditorium classes during undergrad.
What is the NYU MSW program looking for in applicants?
First and foremost, I'd recommend going to their website and reading everything you can about their program. They'll have lots of information on there about their values and expectations for students. On a personal level, I felt their program was very social justice oriented. I felt like they were looking for students to be introspective and identify ways in which we contribute to systems of oppression (like racism, sexism, classism, etc.) and then work to create a more equitable society. The very first class they had us take was a class on diversity, racism, oppression, and privilege. That's where we learned the "isms" (racism, sexism, classism, etc.) which served as a basis for all the other classes/topics.
Did you take any classes on eating disorders in graduate school?
No, there weren't any offered. I knew I was interested in this area and made sure to get an internship that would give me experience in the area. I think that's just as valuable as a class, as you get to work directly with people in your target demographic and learn on the job. I hear it's similar for school social work; if you know you want to work in school social work after graduation, it's a good idea to get an internship in that area in grad school.
Does the social work master's program prepare you for working in the clinical area?
Good question! So, one of the ways social work is different than the other degrees, is it is more of a focus on systems than individuals. So you don't learn a lot about say, how to do cognitive behavioral therapy, but you do learn a lot about how people's environments (think sexism and access to resources) can affect their mental health. Not everyone who gets a degree in social work plans to be a therapist. A lot go on to work in hospitals, schools, etc.
I think a MSW can prepare you for working in the clinical area, if that's what you want to do. My suggestion would just be to make sure you have internships that are align with what you want to do. If you want to do clinical work, get a clinical internship.
Mostly, I don't know if anything really "prepares" you for your career haha. So much of it is just doing actual therapy and continually learning. This isn't a career path where you just go and then are set forever. You will want to continually attend continuing education opportunities, look up research, read books, listen to podcasts, etc. I've been graduated for 3 years and I still learn so much every day. But, when it's your passion and interest, it doesn't feel like work. And it's technically not. (No one's paying me to learn more about therapy stuff.) It's just something you do because you're interested in things and want to know more about them.
What were your internships? How long were they?
Both my internships were 21 hours a week. I worked about 7 hours a day, 3 days a week, for 8 months at each one.
My first internship was in a partial hospitalization (PHP) (5 days a week for about 6 hours) and intensive outpatient (IOP) (3 days a week for about 3 hours) program for adolescents with eating disorders. I primarily ran group therapy and supervised/meal coached meals.
My second internship was in an intensive outpatient program (IOP) for adolescent girls in a community mental health clinic. I saw clients for individual therapy and co-facilitated group therapy sessions. I also co-facilitated a group called Girl's Circle, which is focused on connecting and building relationships with girls ages 9-18. Sadly, the program was stopped halfway through my time there due to budgeting limitations and I was then transferred to providing regular individual therapy. This internship is what opened my eyes to how unfunded and unaccessible mental health care is in our country.
How do I decide which master's program to do?
I know it's probably not what you want to hear, but go read through the information on their websites and see what interests you! A marriage and family therapy program is going to have a different main focus than a social work program.
Also, consider cost and location. A huge pull for me in going to NYU was wanting to be exposed to diverse groups and mental health concerns (as well as living somewhere new). This was worth the price tag for me, but may not be for you.
If you have a therapist whose approach you've liked, go google them and see what their degree was in. I personally like seeing marriage and family therapists, since that's not what my degree was in and I like learning about family systems and how we all interact.
I'm starting my MSW in a couple weeks. Any advice?
1. Remember it probably isn't actually possible to do all the homework, readings, attend classes, commute, work at your internship, work to live, sleep, and eat. (Like, really it isn't possible haha. I timed myself reading one page and added it all up once. There weren't enough hours in the week!) Learn how to prioritize, skim read, and accept imperfection. Minimize your expectations of yourself and remember that you don't have to leave your program an expert. In fact, I don't know anyone who graduated and felt "ready" to be a therapist. Imposter syndrome will follow you your whole career, and I think that's good because you will be motivated to continue learning and growing!
2. Make time to relax and have fun! The social work code of ethics actually just added in a section on self-care... probably because social workers are so bad at it! Not having fun or relaxing is a sure fire way to burn yourself out and quit the career early. Burn out is so high in our field, because so many people don't prioritize themselves and your workplace/school definitely won't do it for you. Relax and have fun. Even if it means getting a C on your paper or skipping some of the readings. You can always learn more in the future. AND you will be supervised for 2-3 years after you graduate anyway, which honestly is where so much more learning takes place as it's individualized.
What are the pros and cons of an online versus in person program?
I actually considered doing an online program! I chose not to, because I wanted the community aspect of an in person program. I also really like physically going into school and find it easier to concentrate when I have that separation between home and school. I loved the support I got from my school friends, meeting new people, the commute to school, etc. Missing out on all the community and new physical experiences would have been hard for me if I did online.
However, I have done online classes in the past and liked those as well. It is nice to not have a commute, go through the material at your own pace and on your own time. I did find it hard to concentrate at times and easier to get distracted with stuff in my home (like making lunch or watching TV). That being said, I feel like you could always test it. Just do some cheap online course before deciding on a program and see how it sits with you!
Ok, wow! That was a lot, but I hope it was helpful. I'll continue to update this post with any other school related questions I get, so feel free to drop them below, email me (firstname.lastname@example.org), or send me a message on Instagram (@heyemilycooper).
Emily Cooper, LSWAIC
Owner of Emily Cooper Therapy