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Becoming a professional life coach

woman smiles at man's speech in life coach group

Ever since the inception of the International Coaching Federation (ICF) in 1996, the coaching industry has been steadily on the rise. Athletes aren’t the only people who use coaches— from Oprah Winfrey to Leonardo DiCaprio, many people have touted the benefits of life coaches, and the numbers back up just how big the life coaching industry is: in 2019, the estimated total global revenue from coaching was nearly $2.85 billion.

Life coaches foster a partnership with their clients to help them achieve their goals, however big or small. They can come from all walks of life, but they share one thing in common: the desire to help and enrich the lives of others by utilizing their unique skillsets and experiences.

If you want to be helping people in your life’s work, you may want to consider this dynamic and flexible career. Though you may not necessarily be working with the Oprah Winfreys of the world, the coaching profession allows you to have a profound impact on other peoples’ lives.

An expert answers: What do life coaches do?

It’s all in the name—life coaches coach clients to develop life skills, achieve their goals and fulfill their potential. Most often they meet with clients one on one, but they can work in groups as well.

“I support professional men and women who are facing challenges in their personal and/or professional lives to find within themselves the answers and resolutions they are seeking,” said Deborah Gerard, a Seattle-based professional life coach with over a decade of coaching experience.

Life coaching is an unregulated profession, which means not only are there no requirements to call yourself a life coach and offer services as such, but the profession has practically endless possibilities for how you practice. Many life coaches are self-employed and start their own businesses, but life coaches can be hired by companies too.

Regardless of where you work, you can expect to do the following as a life coach:  

Discuss and help create short term and long term goals with clients

Collaborate with clients to come up with actionable ways to reach their goals

Teach clients how to develop skills that pertain to their goals

Meet with clients regularly to check in on their progress and adjust methods as needed

Identify and analyze barriers that may be inhibiting a client’s growth

Educate individuals or groups on life skills

Provide positive, supportive encouragement

“I know without a shadow of a doubt that the only people who are experts on their lives are the people themselves,” Gerard said. “I’m not a teacher, I’m not a guru. I’m not going to give advice, I’m not going to tell them what to do. But what I will do is be extremely curious as I listen to them, and ask open-ended questions that make them look inside for the answers and hopefully get past the answer into a place of insight.”

What’s the difference between life coaching and therapy?

It’s true that there is some overlap between life coaching and therapy or counseling, but there are also some distinct differences. For one, life coaching is an unregulated profession that can technically be done by anyone, whereas therapy and counseling must be conducted by qualified, licensed mental health professionals who have a certain amount of education and clinical experience.

“I’m a big advocate for therapy,” Gerard said, but she said that therapy and life coaching usually have a different focus. “In therapy, usually there’s a diagnosis involved. The patient is resolving some difficulties arising from the past. You’re healing pain, dysfunction or conflict. The biggest thing is you spend a lot of time in the past, and there’s usually not a lot of action taken. There’s a lot of talking, but not a lot of action. In coaching, it’s always forward-moving and forward-focused. We work with healthy individuals with healthy energy, they have some clear goals, and everything is action-oriented.”

Where you’ll work

Life coaches like Gerard often start their own coaching business and are self-employed. They may work out of their own home, an office space or they may travel to meet clients where they’re at. Their work can be conducted virtually either over the phone or on video calls, which can provide a lot of flexibility.

Coaches can also find work at businesses and other organizations such as:

  • Wellness centers or organizations that offer coaching services
  • Corporations and companies that use life coaches to help managers and employees develop leadership skills, improve productivity and gain more satisfaction from work
  • Insurance companies that provide wellness coaching services 


[Life coach] work can be conducted virtually either over the phone or on video calls, which can provide a lot of flexibility.

Life coaching specialties

Although they can offer more general support in all facets of life, clients may seek out life coaches to help narrow in on specific areas in their lives that they want to improve.

This provides an opportunity for coaches to get trained and offer services within a particular niche, especially for self-employed coaches. Having a specialty can also be a great way for life coaches to help clients on the topics that interest them most and cater their career to their particular strengths, such as:

Health and wellness coaches:
Work with clients that wish to improve their health and wellbeing.
Work-life balance or career coaches:
Akin to a career counselor, focus on clients’ career aspirations to help them succeed in their professional lives.
Academic life coaches:
Work with students to help develop the skills necessary to succeed in and outside of the classroom.
Relationship coaches:
Help people improve their communication skills and find more fulfillment in their familial relationships.
Executive leadership and organizational coaches:
Work with business leaders and employees to foster leadership skills and improve work productivity.
Christian, faith and/or spirituality coaches:
Help people engage with their religious and/or spiritual beliefs to find new meaning, purpose and direction in life.
Life transition coaches:
Assist people who are going through a major transition such as becoming a parent, changing jobs, moving, illness, death and more.

The list doesn’t end there. If you run your own business, the sky is the limit when it comes to crafting your niche.

Benefits of life coaching

Besides the multitude of anecdotal evidence about the effectiveness of coaching—numerous celebrities and business executives have attributed some of their success to the coaches in their lives—there is scientific research to back up the benefits of life coaching. Studies show, for example, that coaching can help individuals:

  • Achieve their goals quicker and more efficiently
  • Improve self-confidence and self-reliance
  • Work and collaborate better with other people
  • Communicate more effectively
  • Gain more satisfaction from life, work, etc.
  • Be more accountable to themselves and others

Gerard said that one of the reasons life coaching can be so beneficial is that it satisfies a profound human need to be the complete focus of someone else’s attention—in other words, a need to have the space to speak completely freely about yourself to another person, and have that person genuinely listen. That interaction can not only be cathartic but also yield insightful realizations about oneself.

While these benefits can be life-changing, it’s important to understand the limitations of coaching as both a coach and client. Coaches are not mental health professionals by default, unless they have additional degrees, licenses or certifications for such. This means that coaching is not treatment for significant mental health and/or behavioral issues. In fact, effective coaches should be trained on when to recognize when a client could benefit from therapy and where their expertise cannot meet the client’s needs.

5 essential steps to become a life coach

Determine if life coaching is right for you.

woman leads group of adults in life coach session

Before you can begin coaching people, it’s important to consider whether this career is a good fit for you. Besides possessing an innate desire to help others, a life coach should be a good listener, have excellent communication skills and be able to motivate others.  If you think you fit this description and/or you have the drive to improve any necessary skills you may lack, then life coaching may be a great career option.

Consider earning a college degree.

man raises hand in college class

Although it’s not required to become a life coach, a college degree can be incredibly beneficial to a prospective coach. A postsecondary degree in psychology, education, counseling or another relevant subject area can give you additional knowledge and skills that could make you a better coach. Having a college degree could also increase your credibility, which may make it easier to find jobs and clients. 

Get trained in coaching.

group of life coaching adult students get training

The best way to learn how to coach is to receive some coach training. There are numerous courses offered in-person and online that teach you how to be an effective coach. If you eventually want to shoot for an ICF certification, look for courses that are ICF approved.

Start coaching others.

woman shows male client work life balance chart in session

Once you’ve completed some education in coaching, you’ll need to start gaining experience. After all, you’ll need some practice under your belt before you can successfully start a business and gain the trust of potential clients. Some life coaching education courses connect you with people to coach. Networking within the coaching community is also essential to finding opportunities to get your foot in the door.   

Get certified.

man laughs with two people in group

Certification is the best way to boost your credentials and reputation in the field. The ICF offers several which are considered the industry’s leading certifications. You are eligible to take the certification exam once you’ve completed a certain amount of coaching education and experience. There are also several coaching certifications offered by organizations other than the ICF which can strengthen your resume.

Educational life coach requirements

Since the coaching profession is unregulated, there are no official education requirements to begin a coaching career. This can make the process of starting a coaching career a bit confusing but also brimming with possibilities.

A successful coach won’t underestimate the value of being well-educated, not only about the theories and methods of coaching itself but about other knowledge and skills that can make you a more well-rounded professional.

For example, prospective life coaches might want to consider earning a college degree in a discipline that’s relevant to life coaching, such as:

  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Counseling
  • Education
  • Social work

Some schools may offer life coaching as a concentration within another degree subject, such as a master’s in psychology with a concentration in life coaching.

College degrees can also be a fantastic way to gain niche knowledge in a field that could pave the way for specializing. Here are just a few examples of degrees that might complement certain life coach specialties:

  • Health and wellness → nutrition, dietetics, exercise science, health sciences
  • Work-life balance and career → career counseling, psychology
  • Academics → education, school psychology
  • Relationships → psychology, communications
  • Executive leadership → business administration, marketing, project management
  • Faith/spirituality → psychology, religious studies, sociology
  • Life transitions → psychology, counseling

Life coach certifications

One of the best ways to learn about how to become a successful coach and promote your credibility is to earn a coaching certification. According to the ICF, coach practitioners are increasingly likely to agree that their clients expect coach practitioners to be certified or credentialed somehow.

In addition, 74% of coach practitioners in ICF’s 2020 study said that they hold a credential or certification from a professional coaching organization.

Some certifications are issued once you complete an educational course administered by the credentialling organization. Others like the certifications issued by the ICF require you to complete approved coaching education prior to applying for the certification.

ICF credentials

The ICF is considered to be the industry’s leading professional organization. The ICF has three certifications for coaches that have differing qualifications but the same requirements to earn the certification: 

Associate Certified Coach (ACC)• Complete at least 60 hours of coaching education
• Complete at least 100 hours of coaching experiences with at least 8 clients
• Complete 10 hours of mentor coaching with an eligible Mentor Coach
• Pass the ICF  performance evaluation
• Pass the ICF Credentialing Exam
Professional Certified Coach (PCC)• Complete at least 125 hours of coaching education
• Complete at least 500 hours of coaching experiences with at least 25 clients
Same as above
Master Certified Coach (MCC)• Complete at least 200 hours of coaching education
• Complete at least 2,500 hours of coaching experiences with at least 35 clients
Same as above

Other life coaching certifications

The ICF isn’t the only organization that offers coaching certifications. The following certifications are also offered:

There are many more you can find online, but they may not all be worth your time and money. Be sure to research any organization issuing coaching certifications to learn more about their reputation and course content.

Can you become a life coach online?

Since the coaching profession is not regulated, you can become a life coach through online learning if you choose. There are many coaching education, training and/or certification programs that are completed entirely online. In addition, it’s possible to conduct virtual coaching sessions with clients.

What to expect as a life coach

Even though anyone can be a life coach, life coaching isn’t for everyone. Not only is it essential that you commit yourself to an education in coaching to build up your credibility, but Gerard said you must be able to do your own emotional work if you want to be in a position to truly help your clients.


If you want to be a coach, and you want to be trusted and have credibility as a successful practice, I believe it’s important to do your own work. And by that I mean get into therapy. Take classes, online and in person. Study, study, study. Read, read, read.

If you can take it upon yourself to do that, Gerard said that the results can be fabulously rewarding. “One of the things that you just really love is when a client will be talking, I call it processing, and then suddenly they go, ‘Hey, you know, by us talking about this today and hearing myself, I just realized…’ and that’s the best part. That realization has come from them, not from anybody else.”

Especially for self-employed coaches, Gerard said coaching requires a lot of self-directed hard work. Gerard said that she personally thrives with that kind of autonomy, but others may struggle with so much independence which can at times be a bit isolating.

Can a therapist or social worker be a life coach?

Therapists and social workers can make excellent life coaches. The knowledge and skills they have as part of their jobs would apply directly to life coaching and is, in many ways, already part of what they do. Licensed therapists and social workers have robust educations in counseling others and have thousands of hours of practice doing so.

They usually have experience working with people with mild to severe mental and behavioral health problems. Some therapists and social workers may wish to transition out of the clinical and/or social assistance realms and have a more laid-back career as a life coach where they have more discretion in choosing their clients.

Median annual life coach salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track data for life coaches specifically, but they do count this profession within a few other groups. One of them is educational, guidance and career counselors and advisors, which earned a median annual salary of $60,140 in 2022.

In their 2020 Global Coaching Study, the ICF reported that the average annual revenue/income that coaches made from coaching (i.e. not including other services the coach may offer) was $62,500 in North America. Using their revenue data, the ICF calculated an estimated $2.85 billion U.S. dollars of total global coaching revenue in 2019, a 21% increase compared to 2015.

Educational, Guidance, and Career Counselors and Advisors

National data

Median Salary: $60,140

Projected job growth: 5.4%

10th Percentile: $38,280

25th Percentile: $47,380

75th Percentile: $76,590

90th Percentile: $98,530

Projected job growth: 5.4%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alabama $59,580 $35,820 $75,520
Alaska $64,240 $48,040 $97,610
Arizona $50,030 $38,980 $72,570
Arkansas $55,190 $37,970 $73,570
California $72,240 $47,420 $130,020
Colorado $59,740 $44,280 $81,210
Connecticut $67,870 $37,290 $102,820
Delaware $66,280 $40,270 $92,230
District of Columbia $62,340 $36,630 $102,370
Florida $48,850 $35,730 $79,000
Georgia $59,450 $36,940 $96,700
Hawaii $58,980 $36,270 $80,420
Idaho $50,690 $39,420 $76,840
Illinois $52,340 $37,770 $96,980
Indiana $49,420 $36,330 $74,860
Iowa $54,610 $38,100 $77,030
Kansas $51,100 $38,000 $76,310
Kentucky $60,750 $35,960 $81,540
Louisiana $61,020 $45,560 $72,840
Maine $55,140 $38,850 $78,670
Maryland $64,570 $46,410 $103,540
Massachusetts $76,500 $46,450 $104,400
Michigan $51,340 $38,160 $84,780
Minnesota $59,400 $45,790 $85,370
Mississippi $49,180 $35,000 $67,120
Missouri $48,700 $35,890 $76,180
Montana $53,530 $35,220 $77,820
Nebraska $63,230 $44,430 $87,880
Nevada $57,560 $38,480 $83,830
New Hampshire $57,030 $38,940 $81,530
New Jersey $74,960 $51,570 $105,150
New Mexico $62,180 $36,910 $99,390
New York $63,100 $37,430 $124,540
North Carolina $50,820 $35,070 $65,670
North Dakota $56,680 $40,390 $79,050
Ohio $65,760 $38,810 $100,850
Oklahoma $50,020 $32,180 $75,470
Oregon $63,320 $43,450 $112,430
Pennsylvania $61,760 $40,460 $99,150
Rhode Island $64,010 $42,370 $95,250
South Carolina $49,050 $33,310 $77,640
South Dakota $47,800 $36,610 $62,840
Tennessee $51,220 $36,020 $76,160
Texas $62,250 $38,280 $80,720
Utah $50,180 $35,350 $92,160
Vermont $62,630 $46,990 $82,130
Virginia $62,440 $43,310 $106,460
Washington $77,770 $50,360 $109,690
West Virginia $49,850 $34,390 $68,950
Wisconsin $55,630 $39,310 $78,280
Wyoming $60,180 $40,680 $78,870

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2022 median salary; projected job growth through 2032. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

Factors that can impact the salary of a life coach

A life coach’s salary is going to depend on numerous factors, but you may want to consider the following if you want to increase your earning potential:

  • Geographic location: You can usually make more money in large metropolitan areas, but these locations also tend to have a higher cost of living. Conversely, your salary may not be as high in more rural areas, but your cost of living should be lower, too.
  • Credentials/experience: Coaches with more credentials and experience may be considered more reputable and can therefore charge more for their services.
  • Testimonials: When you eventually build up a cache of happy clients who can advocate for your efficacy, you may be able to up your prices.
  • Demand for your niche: Possessing certain skills and offering niche coaching services that are harder to come by could allow you to raise your prices due to a higher demand for what you can provide.

Career outlook

Prospective life coaches may be happy to know that the job outlook for the coaching profession looks bright: the ICF’s report also estimated that there were approximately 71,000 coach practitioners in 2019, an increase of 33% on the 2015 estimate. In addition, the BLS reports that the employment of educational, guidance and career counselors and advisors is expected to grow 5.4% through 2032, faster than the average across all occupations.

Getting started

Life coaching can be an incredibly rewarding and flexible career that allows you to help others and maintain a healthy work-life balance. With no firm educational requirements needed to be a coach, the coaching profession can be whatever you make of it—the possibilities are practically endless. Start researching coach education and training opportunities so you can pave the way for certification, and you may even want to consider getting a college degree.

Published: March 29, 2023


Written and reported by:

Kendall Upton

Staff Writer

deborah gerard

With professional insight from:

Deborah Gerard

Professional Life Coach