Sex Question Friday: How Do I Become A Sex Therapist?
May 25, 2012 by Justin Lehmiller
Every Friday on the blog, I answer sex questions submitted to me by actual college students. This week’s question comes from a reader of the blog who wanted to know what advice I have to offer the aspiring Dr. Ruths of the world.
I am currently a psychology student and I am looking into studying sex and relationship therapy for a career, which lead me to find your website on the Psychology of Human Sexuality. I was wondering if you have any advice for me in regards to graduate school or internship opportunities in the field.
This is a fantastic question that I’m sure is of interest to many readers of this blog. As a starting point, I would like to clarify that the term “sex therapist” does not mean just one thing. People who identify as sex therapists can have extremely different training and credentials. Nobody actually gets a college degree in “sex therapy”; rather, people get a degree in a broader field and then subspecialize in sex therapy. For example, some sex therapists are psychiatrists with medical degrees, others are psychologists with doctoral degrees, and others have Master’s degrees in counseling, marital and family therapy, or social work. Thus, the amount of schooling that is required, the theoretical orientation and clinical approach, and the day to day activities of a sex therapist can vary widely depending upon their background. As a starting point, you should research these different fields and career paths to find the one that provides the best match for you and your interests.
Next, try to get as much training as possible in human sexuality while you pursue your undergraduate degree. Take any class in any department (e.g., psychology, human development, sociology, etc.) that explicitly addresses sexuality or relationships to create a broad knowledge base and to get as comfortable as possible talking about sex. If your college or university doesn’t offer many courses on these topics, you might look into the possibility of supplementing your education by taking summer or online courses at other schools. Depending upon your career interests, you might even consider transferring to a university that offers a major in sexuality studies (for a list of undergraduate programs in this area, see here). If at all possible, try to get some relevant research experience with a faculty member as well, because this will look good on your graduate school applications, especially if you decide to pursue a doctoral degree (most Ph.D. programs will require you to do at least some research, so having a research background is often desirable). If no one at your university does sex-related research, you might consider working in a clinical or social psychology lab to at least learn the steps in the research process and decide whether you like it.
During your junior year of college, you will want to start seriously looking into potential graduate programs (see here for a list of relevant Master’s programs and here for a list of relevant doctoral programs that may be of interest to you). I advise against waiting until your last year to do this because every graduate program has different application deadlines and requirements (e.g., specific coursework, standardized tests such as the GRE, volunteer work, research experience, etc.). It is in your best interests to find this information out sooner rather than later to ensure that you meet the minimum admissions criteria. As you start exploring graduate programs, make sure that the programs you select are accredited, offer sexuality coursework, and can provide or assist you with obtaining appropriate training and internship opportunities.
If you decide to pursue a doctoral degree (e.g., in clinical or counseling psychology) or a medical degree, be advised that admission to such programs is highly competitive. The students who get in typically have very high GPAs and standardized test scores. If your academic credentials aren’t quite as strong or if you just do not wish to spend as long in school (a typical Ph.D. program usually takes five or more years to complete), the Master’s option may be a safer bet. Although Master’s degrees can be completed in just a couple of years, they do limit the types of things you can do as a sex therapist, not to mention the amount of money you can make.
For more information on educational opportunities in sex therapy, please see the Kinsey Institute’s website. For more advice on pursuing a career in this area, please see the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists website. Good luck!
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Dr. Justin LehmillerFounder & Owner of Sex and Psychology
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.Read full bio >