What is a Psychotherapy Degree?

Psychotherapy is based on the teachings of Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud, who believed that the subconscious was responsible for much of human behavior. At its most basic level, psychotherapy is the practice of helping people access the subconscious to deal with emotional, mental, and social conditions. It is essentially ‘talk therapy’ or dialogue between patient and therapist.

Psychotherapists help clients think differently about past traumas, calm destructive thoughts, manage stress, deal with addiction, cope with betrayal or grief, and define wellness goals.

Students of psychotherapy explore the concepts of psychology, learn how our physiology influences our thoughts and behaviors, learn how to diagnose and treat psychological disorders and manage the therapist-patient relationship, develop skills in research and psychological study design, and learn how to practice psychotherapy in an ethical and professional manner.

Program Options

Standalone degrees in psychotherapy are fairly rare. Schools are more likely to offer a psychotherapy concentration within a psychology major or a combined program in psychotherapy and counseling.

Master’s Degree in Psychotherapy – Two to Three Year Duration
Applicants to a master’s program in psychotherapy must hold a bachelor’s degree, preferably in psychology or a related discipline. The psychotherapy master’s curriculum comprises academic, research, clinical, and experiential components. Students develop their individual approach to psychotherapy and counseling in clinical placements under the supervision of experienced practitioners, and by reflecting upon their personal beliefs and prejudices.

Schools may offer thesis-based and/or project-based programs. Admission to a doctoral program in the field typically requires a master’s thesis.

Here is a snapshot of a typical psychotherapy master’s curriculum:

Core Courses

  • Introduction to Mental Health and Wellness – fundamental models for conceptualizing mental health, including the biopsychosocial model (considers biological, psychological, and social factors and their complex interactions in understanding health, illness, and healthcare delivery), the diathesis stress model (asserts that psychological disorders result from an interaction between inherent vulnerability and environmental stressors), and the social determinants of health model; introduction to mental health disorders; the role of the psychotherapist; clinical competency, self-awareness, and self-care
  • Principles of Evidence-Based Psychotherapy – theory and research related to evidence-based psychotherapies, including cognitive behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, interpersonal therapy, and humanistic-experiential psychotherapies; the advantages and disadvantages of different types of therapy, including individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy, and couples’ therapy; common factors that influence the effectiveness of therapy
  • Assessment and Case Formulation – how to conduct a clinical interview and suicide risk assessment; communication skills that develop a therapeutic relationship; how to assess and monitor treatment outcomes
  • Ethical Standards and Professional Practice – introduction to the ethical and professional issues in the practice of psychotherapy, such as professional competency, privacy and confidentiality, and client-therapist boundaries; managing ethical dilemmas
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – overview of CBT theory and principles; introduction to specific CBT-based treatments for various mental-health disorders and problems
  • Clinical Practicum – an external clinical practicum placement under the supervision of a regulated health professional; while completing their practicum students work on an integration paper, such as a case study or literature review (most psychotherapy programs incorporate more than one clinical practicum)
  • Clinical Research Methods – how to review and evaluate research relevant to the psychotherapy field; research and method designs, ethical issues in research, choosing appropriate assessment tools, data collection and analysis, and manuscript writing
  • Applied Psychotherapy Skills – practice in a range of advanced psychotherapy skills, including clinical interviewing and managing and troubleshooting challenges to the therapeutic alliance (the therapist-patient relationship); reviewing audio recordings of therapy tapes, role playing, reviewing treatment protocols

Sample Elective Courses

  • Group Therapy – the development and practice of group leadership skills
    Psychodynamic Therapy – examination of the effects that early experience has in shaping who we are and impacting our interpersonal relationships; conducting a psychodynamic assessment
  • Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) – exploration of MBCT, a type of psychotherapy that involves a combination of cognitive therapy, meditation, and paying attention in the present moment; MBCT is designed to help people who suffer repeated bouts of depression and chronic unhappiness
  • Motivational Interviewing – a counseling method that involves enhancing a patient’s motivation to change by means of four guiding principles: resist the righting reflex, understand the patient’s own motivation, listen with empathy, and empower the patient
  • CBT for Specific Populations – cognitive behavioral therapy for chronic pain, addictions, psychosis, or trauma
  • Interpersonal Therapy (IPT) – focuses on relieving a patient’s depressive symptoms by improving interpersonal functioning, on understanding those symptoms as a response to their current difficulties in everyday relationships with other people
  • Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT) – a therapeutic approach based on the premise that emotions are key to identity
  • Seniors Mental Health – communicating with and supporting seniors with mental health issues including emotional distress and behavioral challenges
  • Positive Psychology – encompasses a variety of techniques that encourage people to identify and further develop their own positive emotions, experiences, and character traits

Doctoral Degree in Psychotherapy – Four to Five Year Duration
Doctoral programs in psychotherapy are quite rare. Those that do exist are typically designed for individuals already engaged in psychotherapy, counseling, or related professions. The curriculum spans psychoanalytic research and case management and prepares students to conduct advanced research to resolve problems of psychotherapy practice. Doctoral candidates are required to write a dissertation based on independent original research.

These are examples of doctoral-level psychotherapy courses:

  • Professional Identity and Ethical Practice
  • Advanced Methods in Applied Research
  • Self-Assessment and Professional Mental Health
  • Theories and Models of Counseling and Psychotherapy
  • Evidence-Based Practice: Therapeutic Applications of Research / Best Practices for Particular Client Groups
  • Case Studies
  • Planning, Consultation, and Evaluation Models
  • Assessment, Case Conceptualization, and Therapy Planning
  • Advanced Practices in Mental Health Counseling and Psychotherapy / The Therapeutic Relationship
  • Therapy Supervision across Work Settings
  • Diversity and Underserved Communities
  • Advocacy and Social Justice

Degrees Similar to Psychotherapy

Art Therapy
Art therapists use art as a therapy to support health and well-being and treat and rehabilitate patients with physical, mental, or emotional illnesses or disabilities. Their goal is to help the whole person: body, mind, and spirit. This degree is of particular interest to individuals who have an interest in and appreciation for art, the science of healthcare and rehabilitation, and the psychology that connects them.

Clinical Psychology
Clinical psychologists focus on pathological populations. In other words, they work mostly with people who have a mental illness or a psychosis – a severe disorder or disability that can incapacitate them, not merely diminish the quality of their life. Examples are schizophrenia, delusional disorder, and substance-induced psychotic disorder.

Marriage and Family Therapy
Marriage and family therapy is psychotherapy that focuses on the relationships between couples and within family units. Degree programs in the field teach students how to lead and facilitate this kind of therapy.

Mental Health Counseling
The mental health counseling curriculum teaches students how to help people dealing with issues that impact their mental health and overall well-being. Coursework often includes the holistic or mind and body approach to counseling.

Music Therapy
Music therapists use music as a therapy to support health and well-being and treat and rehabilitate patients with physical, mental, or emotional illnesses or disabilities. Their goal is to help the whole person: body, mind, and spirit. Depending on individual cases, they may be focused on helping a patient express emotion, express creativity, experience less pain and anxiety, be more relaxed and sleep better, or simply make their hospital stay more positive.

Neuroscientists study the structure and function of the human brain and nervous system and how they affect behavior. The field of neuroscience borrows principles from biology, biochemistry, physiology, psychology, immunology, physics, mathematics, and computer science. Degree programs in neuroscience, therefore, reflect this multidisciplinary nature.

At the graduate level, programs include the study of neurological disorders, the impact that injury has on the brain, and approaches to neurological therapy and rehabilitation.

The scientific study of the mind and behavior is the focus of psychology degree programs. In simple terms, psychology students study the way that humans and animals act, feel, think, and learn.

Social Work
Social work is about helping people solve and cope with problems and challenges in their everyday lives. Students who pursue a degree in the field gain the knowledge and skills, as well as the ethics and values, to work for social justice for individuals, families, organizations, and communities. The typical curriculum examines issues such as child welfare, mental health, poverty, aging, domestic violence, and marginalized groups.

Degree programs in sociology are focused on studying groups, from two people and beyond. Sociology students examine human behavior patterns and relationships at both the micro-level and the macro-level. They study interactions between individuals as well as in families, peer groups, cultural groups, gender groups, racial groups, religious groups, and social classes.

Special Education Teaching
Graduates with a degree in special education are qualified to teach students with physical or mental disabilities. They help students develop basic life skills and must be prepared to adapt their curriculum to do so.

Substance Abuse Counseling
Degree programs in substance abuse counseling prepare students to counsel people suffering with alcohol and drug addiction, eating disorders, and other behavioral problems. The curriculum covers topics such as coping mechanisms and treatment plans.

Skills You’ll Learn

The work of navigating the human mind and finding solutions for people battling mental, social, and emotional afflictions is at best challenging and rewarding and at worst daunting. Learning how to do this work leaves students with skills that are valuable in any career and in life in general:

Active Listening
Many disorders and problems are complex and not easily communicated, particularly when patients themselves do not understand what is going on. The capacity to pay attention, listen intently, and read between the lines is imperative to reach a diagnosis and determine the appropriate course of action.

Putting patients’ interests first may require that psychotherapists convince them of ideas with which they initially disagree. This may involve finding creative solutions when traditional approaches fail. The dedicated psychotherapist is first and foremost a patient advocate.

Appreciation for Diversity
Psychotherapists are exposed to people from different backgrounds and home environments. They are called upon to cultivate an understanding of and an appreciation for diversity.

Assessment and Report Writing
Psychotherapists must track, assess, and record their clients’ progress and development. These are skills that are transferrable to many professional sectors.

Without doubt, the ability to convey information, impressions, and ideas is vital when dealing with patients and in research settings.

Critical Thinking
Well-reasoned and logical thinking is the foundation both of patient care and of research. Diagnosing patients, developing treatment plans, designing experiments, and interpreting results all rely on the ability to examine problems from different perspectives and consider alternatives.

High-order Analysis
Sometimes, facts and information appear unrelated or random. Accomplished psychotherapists are skilled at sorting through data to detect possible patterns and relevance.

Scientific Reasoning
Even outside of the research realm, the work of psychotherapists is rooted in scientific principles and concepts. The mastery of these doctrines and the skill to apply them to patient treatment are crucial to practising in the field.

Social Perception
Patients’ internal ‘data’ – their feelings and emotions – may sometimes be accessible only through thoughtful observation of non-verbal cues. While patients cannot always accurately or clearly express what is wrong, their behavior may provide clues to the factors affecting them. Psychotherapists must be empathetic and perceptive to these clues.

Sound Judgement
Psychotherapists invariably face dilemmas. Not all circumstances are simple or straightforward. In fact, most of them are not and require carefully considered decisions informed by clinical knowledge and compassion.

When introducing new or complex concepts to patients or colleagues, psychotherapists need to be able to explain not just the ‘what’ but also the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of an issue.

Trust Building
Building trust is vital when working with patients. The ability to build trust is valued in every kind of work, as well as in society at large.

What Can You Do with a Psychotherapy Degree?

The goal of psychotherapy is to help people view themselves and situations differently. A degree in the field, therefore, lays the groundwork for a number of careers in the counseling sphere, including:


Discover what you’ll learn—and what you can do after you graduate.

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