What is Psychotherapy?
The term psychotherapy refers to the practice of talk therapy. That is, in simplified terms, psychotherapy revolves around using talking and listening as mechanisms for bringing about change in a person’s life. But psychotherapy is much more involved than just talking and listening. Instead, psychotherapy is about building a trusting relationship between the therapist and the client such that the client feels comfortable sharing his or her experiences, expressing his or her emotions, addressing his or her fears, and so forth.
There are actually many different types of psychotherapy. Psychodynamic therapy, for example, posits that the problems we experience and the behaviors we exhibit as an adult have their roots in our childhood experiences. Unconscious thoughts and feelings are also believed to have a strong influence on our development. The point of psychodynamic therapy is to help people become more self-aware and change their thought patterns and behavior patterns in order to take control of their life. This is done by working with a therapist to better understand childhood experiences and how they impact a person in their adult life.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is another common form of psychotherapy. Though there is an emphasis on talking things out with a therapist, this kind of therapy also involves making actionable changes in one’s life. This is particularly with regard to changing behavior patterns that have been ineffective or even harmful in the past. These ineffective thought and behavior patterns are identified, discussed, and replaced with new thought patterns and behaviors that are functional and healthy.
For example, a young man that has developed a pattern of getting involved in relationships only to break them off after a short period of time would work with his therapist to determine why he feels compelled to end his relationships in such short order. Once the root of the problem is revealed, the therapist and the client would work together to identify ways to change this behavior pattern to be more healthy and functional.
A shorter version of psychotherapy is interpersonal therapy. Again, talking and listening is a key component of this treatment, but its focus is more on current problems as opposed to things that might have happened in the past. For example, a person that’s experiencing episodic depression due to the death of a loved one might work with an interpersonal therapist to resolve those feelings of grief. Likewise, a person that has developed anxiety when in social situations might learn new skills that help him/her to interact with others more comfortably and effectively.
Whatever type of psychotherapy is conducted, the common thread is that the therapist and client work together to identify problems or issues and create solutions that will lead to improved mental health.
What is a Psychotherapy Degree?
A psychotherapy degree is the culmination of the educational requirements necessary to become a psychotherapist. There are many different levels of education for psychotherapists, beginning with undergraduate studies, continuing in graduate school, and ending with a doctoral degree.
Most bachelor’s degree programs in psychotherapy require around 120 credit hours of course study. These programs usually take about four years to complete, and represent the basis of future studies in this area.
Since these programs are the first step in many career paths, the admissions requirements are the least strict at this level. Depending on the college or university, students might only need a certain GPA, ACT or SAT score, and a few letters of recommendation to be admitted. Other schools, however, might additionally require a personal statement, additional testing, or even an in-person interview as criteria for admittance.
Typically, students that wish to become psychotherapists major in psychology during their undergraduate years. The first two years of undergraduate studies are usually spent completing general education requirements in mathematics, social studies, science, the arts, and so forth.
However, the final two years of study focus almost exclusively on the major. Coursework for undergraduate psychology students often involves:
- General psychology – This course is a basic introduction to the primary concepts of psychology, major players in the development of psychology, different types of psychology, and the history of psychology.
- Biological psychology – Biological psychology revolves around learning about the body’s physical systems and how one’s physiology influences our thoughts and behaviors.
- Experimental psychology – Courses in experimental psychology help students develop the skills to conduct research from devising research questions to designing psychological studies to analyzing data.
- Psychological statistics – Students learn how to use statistics to measure behaviors, compare behaviors between groups, and report on findings from psychological studies.
The next step in the educational process is to complete a master’s degree program. Though psychology is the most popular major for prospective psychotherapists, other closely related areas of study like social work might be considered.
Master’s degree programs vary much more widely regarding their length than do bachelor’s degree programs. Some graduate programs might only require about 30 hours of study while others might require as many as 60 or more credit hours.
What’s more, admissions requirements for master’s-level programs vary widely from one school to the next as well. However, because master’s programs are more advanced, they tend to have stricter guidelines for admittance. This usually includes a satisfactory score on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) in addition to a having a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. Likewise, prospective students at this level usually must submit to an interview with a committee of faculty and staff members.
Once a student is in a master’s degree program, they will find that the area of study is solely focused on their major. For students pursuing a career in psychotherapy, this likely includes coursework in:
- Psychological theory – Students learn about the different schools of psychology (i.e. behaviorism, psychoanalysis, and so forth) and their associated theories, including how each school of psychology attempts to explain and change human behavior.
- Ethics – Since psychotherapists work with clients that might be in highly vulnerable positions, students must learn how to practice psychotherapy in an ethical and professional manner, including how to build trusting relationships, maintain client records, and maintain confidentiality.
- Diagnosis – Psychotherapy students learn about various mental disorders, how to identify them, and how to diagnose and treat them as well.
- Psychopharmacology – Though not all psychotherapists can prescribe medications as treatments, it’s still important for students to have a basis of knowledge about common drug therapies, their efficacy, and their side effects.
- Psychology practice – Virtually all master’s-level programs in psychotherapy have an internship requirement in which students are placed in mental health facilities to work with real-world clients. These internship experiences are closely monitored and supervised by experienced psychotherapists.
The terminal degree for psychotherapy students is a doctorate, which is most often in the form of a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. These degrees mark the culmination of a student’s studies and represent the highest level of education available in this field.
Like a master’s program is a step up from a bachelor’s degree program, so too is a doctorate from a master’s degree. That means that doctoral studies are more thorough and detailed. These programs have much more stringent admissions requirements to ensure that students have the requisite knowledge and skills to be successful at this level of study.
Admissions requirements of doctoral programs include the usual criteria – an appropriate GPA and GRE score, an undergraduate or master’s degree from an accredited institution, and letters of recommendation from undergraduate or graduate teachers that can five feedback about the student’s abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Furthermore, doctoral programs may require students to write a statement of purpose in which they explain their reasoning for pursuing a doctoral degree. Many institutions also require students to go before an admittance board for an interview.
Once admitted to a program, doctoral students will have anywhere from three to five years of study ahead of them, and sometimes even more than that. The focus of studies for doctoral students depends on many factors. Firstly, Ph.D. programs focus more on research, where Psy.D. programs focus on applying psychological principles in treatment settings. Secondly, there are many different areas of study that doctoral students can pursue in preparation for a career as a psychotherapist. These include child and adolescent psychology, marriage and family therapy, psychotherapy, and clinical psychology, just to name a few.
Though there are many tracks doctoral students can take, each program typically requires students to complete advanced studies in:
- Psychopathology – In this course, students dive deeper into various psychological disorders, their etiology, and different treatments that are effective in treating psychological disorders.
- Clinical interviewing – Students learn how engage with clients in conversation, how to listen effectively, how to administer psychological assessments, and how to score and interpret assessment results as well.
- Advanced theory and practice – At this level, students have likely determined the specific school of psychology that aligns most closely with their own ideals. As such, specific coursework in their chosen approach (i.e., behaviorism or psychoanalysis) is often part of a doctoral program.
- Doctoral thesis – Many doctoral programs require students to present a thesis or capstone project that demonstrates their knowledge and skills, as well as their understanding of critical concepts related to the practice of psychotherapy.
What is an Online Psychotherapy Degree Program?
Online degree programs in psychotherapy do not exist, per se. That is, students instead must pursue online degrees in related fields or degrees that will prepare them for future studies.
For example, a student can complete online studies for a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Much like an on-campus program, undergraduate degrees that are obtained online require around 120 credit hours to complete. What’s more, the same type of coursework is required, with both general education requirements like science and math required alongside specific studies within the field of psychology, like the history of psychology, the psychology of learning, physiological psychology and so forth.
Additionally, there are many online master’s degree programs in psychology and related fields that may help prepare students for careers in psychotherapy. Online master’s degree programs differ widely in terms of their length, just like on-campus programs do. Again, these programs could be completed online in as little as a year or it might take two to three years to complete the degree requirements.
There are even some online degree programs for doctorate degrees, though these programs are far less common than online undergraduate and graduate degrees. However, no matter the level at which a student pursues his or her studies online, these programs offer many benefits.
Primary among the benefits of studying online is the ability to tailor one’s learning to one’s schedule. That is, rather than having to take classes at specific times, online students can complete their studies when it best fits into their daily schedule.
Another benefit of studying to become a psychotherapist online is that it can often be less expensive. When students attend a brick-and-mortar school, there are usually fees associated with everything from parking to library services, which can often be avoided by studying online. What’s more, since online students don’t have to live on-campus, they can perhaps save money on living expenses as well.
Today’s online programs in this field have also developed ways for online students to get the interactions they need to more fully develop their skills. For example, an advantage of studying on-campus is that students can interact with one another and their professors in a way that fosters improved learning. However, many online degree programs utilize video chat, message boards, and other technologies that give online students the ability to learn together, though it’s still not the same as being in the same room with one another and learning together.
What Does It Take to Get a Psychotherapy Degree?
Since psychotherapists work with many different types of clients in many different types of capacities, it’s a profession that requires students to develop a wide range of skills and attributes. These include:
Analytical Skills – Students that study psychotherapy must be able to pick up on minute details that help them diagnose and treat mental and behavioral disorders. What’s more, students must use their analytical skills to perform statistical analyses, score psychological tests, and so forth.
Listening Skills – Psychotherapy degree programs focus a lot on building content knowledge, but they also require students to apply their skills to working with actual clients. As such, students must have excellent active listening skills that allow them to engage their clients in a symbiotic therapy relationship. If a psychotherapist cannot actively listen and engage with their client, progress will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
Emotional Intelligence – Studies in this field require students to be attuned not just to the emotional needs of others, but to their own emotional needs, strengths, and shortcomings as well. This goes beyond recognizing if someone is mad or sad, and extends into understanding what makes people (including oneself) behave the way they do.
Research Skills – Throughout one’s studies in psychotherapy (undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral), research will be a significant component. Students must develop the skills required to conduct objective research, make and test hypotheses, and draw well-informed conclusions based upon their findings.
Emotional Stamina – Psychotherapists work with clients that have any number of mental, emotional, and behavioral problems. As a result, students that wish to work in this field must be mentally and emotionally strong enough to help their clients process feelings and emotions related to anything from loved ones dying to being physically abused to being depressed.
Flexibility and Patience – Psychotherapy is not a short-term solution. Instead, some clients will be in therapy for months or even years. As a result, students must possess the personal qualities of flexibility and patience, that way when they begin work, they can adapt their treatment plan to changing circumstances, work with clients that may or may not be fully invested in therapy, and see their treatment plan through to the end with their clients.
What Can You Do With a Psychotherapy Degree?
One of the benefits of getting a degree in psychotherapy is that there are many different career paths you can take. These include:
Psychotherapist – Obviously, majoring in psychotherapy is an excellent way to prepare yourself for a career in psychotherapy. Many workers in this field choose to venture out on their own in private practice, which offers some leeway with working hours and the clientele served. For example, a self-employed psychotherapist might work exclusively with a certain age group, like children, or with a certain population, like people with anxiety disorders.
Substance Abuse Counselor – The knowledge and skills acquired while completing a degree in psychotherapy are well suited for work as a substance abuse counselor. Workers in this field use their analytical and research skills to diagnose the substance abuse problem and develop a treatment plan, and their therapeutic skills to offer individual and group counseling to people that suffer from a substance abuse problem.
Behavioral Health Counselor – Much like substance abuse counselors work with people that have an alcohol or drug problem, behavioral health counselors focus their attention on clients that have behavioral problems. This means that counselors in this field might have a much wider range of clients, including those that suffer from a behavioral disorder (i.e., attention deficit disorder), a mood disorder (i.e., depression), a personality disorder (i.e., anti-social personality disorder), or a psychotic disorder (i.e., schizophrenia).
Psychology Teacher – In some cases, psychotherapists will practice in the field for a number of years, and then use their knowledge, skills, and experience to teach future psychotherapists in a college or university setting. Many teachers at this level aren’t just tasked with teaching courses, but also with research, too. For example, a psychology professor at a university might teach 3-4 courses at the undergraduate and graduate level, in addition to conducting research on a topic of their choice, like the incidence of autism in certain ethnic groups.
Consultant – Some workers with a background in psychotherapy work on a consultancy basis. In some cases, this might mean working with businesses and organizations to improve the mental health of their workers. In others, it might mean contracting with local law enforcement agencies to provide insights into the behavior of a suspected criminal. In other words, rather than working with clients in a therapeutic setting, psychotherapists that work as consultants are typically providing their expert opinion to other people or agencies.
How Much Can You Earn With a Psychotherapy Degree?
According to PayScale, as of May 2020, psychotherapists earn an average of $56,920 per year. However, how much you earn with a degree in this field varies widely and is based on a number of different criteria.
For starters, the level of one’s educational experience can impact the salary earned. Psychotherapists with a doctoral degree may command higher wages than those with just a master’s degree. Similarly, a psychotherapist with 20 years of experience may be able to charge more or find higher paying positions than one that is just out of college.
Geographic location can also influence how much money one makes as a psychotherapist. Workers in Los Angeles, for example, earn an average of $104,000 per year, or nearly double the national average. Psychotherapists in Denver earn $53,553, or just above the national average. Meanwhile, psychotherapists that practice in Chicago earn just over $47,000, well below the national average.
What Degrees are Similar to a Psychotherapy?
Social Worker – Like psychotherapists, social workers help people resolve problems in their lives such that they can be more productive, happier people. In many situations, this involves offering practical assistance to clients, like helping an unemployed client find work or helping a poor client fill out the necessary paperwork to get food stamps. Some social workers can also diagnose and treat a variety of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders as well. These social workers are usually master’s level and/or licensed, and can provide all kinds of therapeutic treatments to individuals, couples, and families.
Psychologist – Psychologists are often confused with psychotherapists because there is much overlap between the two occupations. However, where psychotherapists work exclusively in applying psychological mechanisms to helping their clients overcome problems in their lives, psychologists can work in either applied settings or research settings. That means that some psychologists use their knowledge of human behavior to help clients directly through therapeutic means while others work in a research setting studying human behavior, like trying to find a link between one’s diet and the development of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Marriage and Family Therapist – As the title implies, marriage and family therapists work almost exclusively with couples and families to help them resolve issues that are causing problems within the family unit. Divorce, job loss, financial strain, and disagreements over how to raise kids are primary concerns that families have when they seek the help of a marriage and family therapist. Marriage and family therapists often utilize many of the same therapeutic techniques as psychotherapists, including psychoanalysis, cognitive behavioral therapy, and mindfulness training. There is often a focus on building essential skills as well, like improving communication between a couple and training family members in active listening techniques.