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Learn how to become a cognitive behavioral therapist

one on one therapy session between two women

CBT stands for cognitive behavioral therapy, and cognitive behavior therapists counsel people who are facing challenges such as substance abuse, eating disorders, relationship issues and mental health problems. CBTs are usually psychologists, but other types of counselors and social workers also use cognitive behavioral therapy.

Like other therapists, cognitive behavioral therapists meet with clients in an office or clinical setting. Sessions may include guided questioning and role-playing. CBT differs from many other types of therapy because it focuses on reaching a goal, such as relieving anxiety, coping with a fear or relieving conflicts with others.

Should I become a cognitive behavioral therapist?

To succeed as a cognitive behavioral therapist, you must love to work with people, advises Jason Horowitz, a clinical psychologist with the University of Wisconsin Health Services.

“To be a good therapist, you have to be empathetic, patient, creative and hard-working,” Horowitz says. “You need a skill and affinity for interacting with people.” As a psychologist, you will meet with people in some of their hardest moments, Horowitz says. You must be willing to listen and build relationships with your patients.

Preparing for a career in CBT can take many years of education and training, but the rewards are many. CBT is specifically focused on helping people resolve problems and reach specified goals.

The demand is growing for psychologists of all types. The specialty of cognitive behavioral therapy is enjoying a surge in popularity, according to a study by the National Institutes of Health. And the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects employment for psychologists to increase by 6.1% over the next decade. The BLS projects about 71,900 job openings for clinical and counseling psychologists over the next decade.

How to become a cognitive behavioral therapist

Cognitive behavioral therapists are usually trained psychologists with doctoral degrees. However, marriage and family counselors, substance abuse counselors and social workers may also use CBT. These professions typically require a master’s degree.

Here are the typical career path steps for a cognitive behavioral therapist.

Get experience working with people.

emotional group session with other members comforting one participant

Before you commit to a career in cognitive behavioral therapy, explore what it’s like to spend your days listening and talking with all kinds of people.
“The most important thing you can do is learn what it’s like to work with people,” advises Horowitz.
Any volunteer or paid position in human services can be helpful, Horowitz says. You might get a job at a summer camp or volunteer at a community center, veterans home or senior citizens center.

Earn your bachelor’s degree.

woman goes back to school and gets bachelors degree at graduation

You will need to begin your career by earning a bachelor’s degree. Any bachelor’s degree will get you started, but a four-year degree in psychology, behavioral health, counseling or a similar field could increase your chances of being accepted into graduate school. Make sure the school and program you choose are accredited.
Since CBT is a technique used across many disciplines, you will probably not find a degree program specifically for cognitive behavioral therapy. However, a psychology degree program will probably include courses or units in cognitive behavior therapy. Many organizations also offer courses or certificate programs in CBT. Internships in CBT might also be available.
While studying for your degree, you could consider joining a student chapter of the Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) or the American Psychological Association. These groups can help you learn more about CBT and network with other aspiring therapists.
After earning a bachelor’s degree, you may be able to move into an entry-level position as a counselor, but you will need to qualify for a license (see Step 5).

Earn your master’s degree.

two masters students hold degree completion letters

The majority of therapists using cognitive behavioral therapy will have a master’s degree. Graduate-level programs in cognitive behavioral therapy are rare, but you can learn CBT by studying psychology, clinical psychology, behavioral psychology, counseling and related majors. Programs are available in both on-campus and online formats.
A master’s degree generally takes about two years to complete. Some degree programs include clinical practicums or internships and will prepare you for meeting license requirements.
With a master’s degree and proper licensure, you could work as a CBT counselor in environments such as a clinic, school, hospital, rehabilitation center or mental health clinic.

Consider a doctoral degree.

doctorate therapist holds group session

With a doctorate in psychology, clinical psychology or a counseling psychology PhD (or PsyD), you could have many employment options, including private practice.
Admission to doctoral programs is selective. You will need transcripts of your prior degrees, letters of recommendation and a resume showing your work experience. You may have to write an essay or interest statement and undergo a formal interview process.
Some universities offer fellowships or scholarships that can help pay your expenses in graduate school. These usually require you to work as a teaching or research lab assistant while you are studying.
If you want to become a therapist, you will also need to complete clinical hours working with patients in therapy under the supervision of a licensed psychologist.
Most people complete a doctorate degree within four to seven years. The degree culminates in a research project and dissertation.

Get licensed.

two smiling therapists discuss licensing options on tablet

Before you can practice cognitive behavioral therapy or provide any type of therapy or counseling, you will need a license.
Each state has its own licensing requirements for mental health professionals. Most states have separate licenses or registrations for non-psychologist counselors, such as substance abuse counselors, family therapists, school counselors and mental health counselors. These professions frequently use CBT to help patients. To apply for a license, you’ll have to provide transcripts of your degrees and complete a minimum number of supervised service hours.
Psychologists need a license issued by a state board or committee. Although requirements can differ slightly from state to state, all licenses require a doctoral degree from an accredited university and supervised work hours. You may have to undergo a background check or provide letters of recommendation. You’ll also have to pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP), which is given through the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards.
In addition to a license, you can also get specialty credentials in cognitive behavioral therapy. The American Board of Professional Psychology offers credentialing in Behavioral and Cognitive Psychology. The National Board of Certified Counselors provides certification for counselors.

How much do cognitive behavioral therapists make?

What can you expect in terms of a cognitive behavioral therapist salary? The highest-earning CBTs are psychologists who have doctoral degrees and live in urban areas. However, your individual salary will also be influenced by other factors, including who your employer is and how many years of experience you have.

Level of education

Salaries for therapists who use CBT techniques range widely, depending on their occupational role, which is largely determined by their level of education and training. Here’s a comparison of roles, levels of education and annual average salaries, according to data gathered by the BLS. These are median salaries, meaning that half of the people will make more, and half will make less than the stated amount.

RoleLevel of educationSalary
PsychologistDoctorate (PhD in Psychology)$106,420
MFTMaster’s degree$56,570
Substance abuse counselorBachelor’s degree$49,710
Social workerBachelor’s or master’s degree$55,350


Salaries will differ from place to place because they are closely tied to the cost of living. Housing, utilities, food and other necessities tend cost more in urban, metropolitan regions as compared to small towns or rural areas. While you can expect to make more money in cities, you may also need more money to pay your daily expenses.

To get an idea of how geography affects salaries, it’s useful to compare BLS data on the salaries of clinical and counseling psychologists, but keep in mind two important factors. First, not all clinical and counseling psychologists will use cognitive behavioral exercises. Second, many cognitive behavioral therapists are not psychologists. Their salaries will be much lower than those specified in the table below because they have less education.

Here are the top five cities where clinical and counseling psychologists make the highest average annual wage.

Metro Area Median Annual Salary
Madera, CA $136,390
Vallejo-Fairfield, CA $136,390
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA $134,890
Stockton-Lodi, CA $133,550
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA $133,490

States where annual wages for clinical and counseling psychologists average between $61,950 and $79,250 include:

  • Vermont,
  • Pennsylvania,
  • West Virginia,
  • Georgia,
  • Mississippi,
  • Arkansas,
  • Oklahoma,
  • Missouri,
  • Indiana,
  • Arizona,
  • Wyoming
  • and Idaho.

Work environment

Where you work can have significant impact on your pay. Psychologists who are cognitive behavioral therapists may be in private practice, or they may be employed by a healthcare system. Some CBTs may also have jobs with local, state, and federal institutions such as veterans clinics.

What is being a cognitive behavioral therapist like?

Firstly, what s CBT? Cognitive behavior therapy refers to a type of therapy designed to help people solve problems by changing unhealthy or harmful patterns of thinking or behavior.


“Cognitive behavioral therapy is based on the idea that thoughts, feelings and emotions are all interconnected and influence each other,” explains Horowitz.

Through CBT techniques, the therapist can help patients build awareness of automatic thought patterns that can be contributing to the problems they are experiencing. Changing negative thought patterns can help address the problem. This is referred to as cognitive restructuring.

Unlike many types of talk therapy, CBT sessions are usually structured with targeted objectives to reach. Patients are often given “homework” exercises to practice before the next session.

Why do people seek out CBT?

People typically go to cognitive behavioral therapists when they have a specific problem they want to overcome or cope with. They make want to conquer a phobia, such as fear of flying, or change an unwanted behavior, like smoking or overeating.

As a cognitive behavioral therapist, you may focus on one population sector, such as children, adolescents or adults. You could also specialize in treating patients who have certain diagnoses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or eating disorders. A short list of various reasons one may seek out cbt therapy include:

  • cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety
  • cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia
  • cognitive behavioral therapy for depression
  • cognitive behavioral therapy for adhd
  • cognitive behavioral therapy for ptsd
  • cognitive behavioral therapy for ocd
  • cognitive behavioral therapy for addiction
  • cognitive behavioral therapy for schizophrenia.

    Psychologists and counselors will spend most of their days in an office setting, but some also practice in a hospital or residential treatment facility.

    How to stand out as a candidate for a CBT job

    Education will be the most influential factor in your job search. A doctoral degree in psychology, along with training in cognitive behavioral science, will make you best prepared for a career as a cognitive behavioral therapist. A master’s degree and similar training will qualify you for counseling jobs.

    Whatever career path you choose, you will need experience interacting with patients. Licensure requires you to serve supervised hours interacting with patients in some capacity. Try to find experience that aligns with the area of CBT you wish to go into. Along the way, network with professionals who can provide you with letters of recommendation or references.

    As you continue your career, you will want to stay current in your field by taking continuing education credits and reading the latest developments in cognitive-behavioral research.

    Frequently asked questions

    Besides therapy, what else can I do as a CBT?

    Corporations, sports teams, marketing agencies and tech companies often hire psychologists to work with employees or analyze consumer behavior. Other options are to work in research or teach in a college or university.

    What are some ethical considerations for cognitive behavioral therapists?

    Trust and confidentiality are two of the biggest ethical consideration for CBTs and other therapists. The American Psychological Association has a Code of Ethics that can guide therapists in their practice.

    How can I prepare for the CBT licensure process?

    First, make sure your degrees are from an accredited college or university. You may need a minimum grade point average and letters of recommendation. Be sure to document all the service hours you complete; the licensing board in your state may have specific forms to use. To prepare for the EPPP psychologist licensing test, the ASPPB has resources and practice exams available.

    Getting started

    Becoming an cognitive behavioral therapist can be a rewarding career choice that can make a positive impact on lives of all ages. Researching psychology degree programs is your first step in getting ready to fulfill your goals and begin making a difference in your clients’ lives.

    Published: April 12, 2023

    karen hanson

    Written and reported by:

    Karen S. Hanson

    Contributing Writer

    jason horowitz

    With professional insight from:

    Jason Horowitz, PhD, LP

    University of Wisconsin Health Services