The Road to Becoming a Therapist

This post attempts to make a complicated topic a little simpler. I am currently getting my Master’s in counseling from Sonoma State University. During the process of applying and starting a program I have had to piece together the necessary information about tests, hours, and other expectations regarding licensing. The best resource I have found is the BBS website. While some schools have specific “career” classes that explain a lot of this, many do not. It is my hope that sharing a bit of what I have learned along the way will be helpful.

Before I jump in there are a couple of terms I want to clarify. Before you have graduated from a Master’s program you are considered what is called a “trainee”. Once you have graduated you are then called an MFT associate. Prior to January 2018, MFT associates were called interns. The BBS has changed this language because they felt the word intern did not accurately reflect the skill level of post-graduation counselors. Pre-graduation anywhere you work and get clinical hours is considered a “traineeship site”. It also may vary by state, as I know my colleague Emily Todd had a bit of a different process with her licensing in three states.

Becoming a therapist infographic

1. Applying to a Master’s Program

When you are deciding where do apply there are some important things to remember about MFT programs. When I was choosing schools I talked to many people who had already been through this process and asked them what their thoughts were about schools. Overwhelmingly I got the same answer: because most MFT programs have a specific curriculum they most follow they will all be pretty similar. If you are interested, here is the sample curriculum for Sonoma State Therefore, choosing a school has much more to do with the cost and the relationships the program has with traineeship sites.

In short, pick something that will not leave you in too much debt and call them to ask what type of sites they work with. One thing that I wish I had done is to ask the program for a list of traineeship sites that they currently work with. This will give you an idea of the type of opportunities that will be available to you.

2. First Year of a Master’s Program

The first half of the first year you will decide how long you want to take in order to complete the program. Most programs are two years long. However, many people decide to take two and a half or three years to complete it in order to continue working. You will also probably start practicing counseling on some of your other peers in the program. MFT programs are generally small, usually having between 10-30 people in a cohort.

The second half of the first year you will start to counsel some external clients. At Sonoma State they have a program where undergraduate students can see one of the MFT student’s for 10 free counseling sessions. Right now I have four clients who I see on a weekly basis. Also during the second half of the year you will chose a traineeship site. Many schools have a fair where sites come and you can talk to them. Here are some things to consider about a site:

  • How many clinical hours will you get per week?
  • What population will you be working with?
  • Do you have to commit to a year with the site?
  • Is this a paid position?

3. Second Year of a Master’s Program

The second year is spent taking classes and working at the traineeship site that you picked. The number of hours you work per week will entirely depend on how long you take to go through the program. For example: if you want to go through the program in two years you have to work at least 20 hours a week for 30 weeks. If you take longer to do the program you can spend less time per week working at a site, or you can spend the same amount of time and accumulate more hours.

As a general note, many sites will not let you work more than 20 hours per week and will pay nothing or very little. By very little I mean about $10 per hour only for direct client hours. There is not much public data about how much money therapists trainee actually make on average. The $10 figure comes from my own experience and what I have heard from colleagues. If you are curious about roughly how much you will make once you are licensed the site Pay Scale offers some good information.

4. After Graduation

Once you graduate from your Master’s program you have 90 day to apply for your registered associate number. As long as you apply for it within this time frame you can continue working at whatever site you have been and counting those hours. Many traineeship sites will want to keep you on as an associate. Some will offer better compensation once you have graduated. As an associate you are also free to leave that site and work anywhere else you want as long as you are still being supervised by a qualified clinician. You can even chose to start a private practice and have someone supervise you while doing that.

5. The Licensing Exams

In California perspective therapists are required to take two exams. The first is the Law and Ethic exam, which must be taken within your first year as a registered intern. Many schools with suggest that you take the test shortly after graduation while all of that information is still fresh in your mind. Many people say that they did not need any kind of prep course for this test but rather reviewed their notes from their Law and Ethics Class.

The second exam is the clinical vignette exam. This test provides case examples and asks you to make diagnoses, treatment plans, and more. This exam is taken once you complete the necessary 3,000 clinical hours. Many people suggest taking some kind of prep course for the test.

An Explanation of Hours

Finally, I want to give a clear explanation of hours requirements because it is pretty confusing! For people seeking an MFT there used to be all of these different categories of clinical hours that you need. This whole process has been simplified such that now you only need direct client hours and non-direct client hours. Direct client hours are what they sound like, actually being with a client and giving them counseling. Non-direct client hours a bit harder to define. You can count things like time spent preparing for a session, writing notes, phone calls made to client’s family, supervision time, and more.

In order to graduate from an MFT Master’s program you need 600 combined direct and non-direct client hours. These hours count toward the total number of hours you need for your license. The maximum amount you can count toward your license before you graduate is 1,300. The more you do before graduation the faster you can get licensed.

Overall you need 3,000 clinical hours (direct and non-direct) in order to apply for your license. You need a minimum of 1,750 direct client hours. Therefore, the maximum amount of non-direct client hours you can have is 1,250. While you are in a master’s program and while you are an intern you must be supervised by a qualified clinician. For every 5 direct client hours you do you need 1 hour of individual supervision. Or for every 5 direct client hours you need 2 hours of group supervision.

I hope this sheds some light on a complicated process. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

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