Professional counselors often require a master’s degree and psychologists, a doctorate – but artists may need no formal college education. As a result, aspiring art therapists may not know what educational requirements they will need to fulfill. Generally, you need a master’s degree to work in this field, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. This educational requirement puts art therapy on par with other types of counseling and therapy job roles. An approved or accredited graduate program in art therapy is the most direct route into this field of clinical practice, but you may also approach it with a background in other subjects of study related to mental health. Studies in art therapy cover everything from general counseling strategies to studio art experiences, with much of the focus on specialized coursework in the concepts and applications of the therapeutic use of art.

Master’s Degree Options for Art Therapists

It’s not difficult to find a master’s degree program in art therapy. In fact, the American Art Therapy Association currently recognizes approved or accredited programs in 20 states. It is also possible to attain professional credentials with a degree from a program that has not been approved or accredited, but graduates will need to complete additional experience requirements if they choose this route.

If your state does not have an accredited or approved art therapy program, or if you would rather hedge your professional bets by choosing a more versatile program of study, you can also leverage a degree in a different area of mental health. General counseling, addictions counseling, marriage and family therapy, social work, psychology and even psychiatry and psychiatric nursing are acceptable as related degree fields, according to the Art Therapy Credentials Board.

However, you still need to complete specialized art therapy coursework, either through a post-master’s certificate program or as a non-degree-seeking student, if you wish to transition into the clinical practice of art therapy from another mental health field. You will also need to meet more extensive post-graduate supervised clinical experience requirements, since art therapy students complete practicum and internship experiences in the field during their education.

Although bachelor’s degree programs in art therapy exist, they don’t replace a graduate education. Rather, they provide an interdisciplinary background that will benefit students upon getting to grad school or prepare them for roles like recreational therapist.

Do I Need a Master’s Degree to Become an Art Therapist?

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The Curriculum of an Art Therapy Graduate Program

Approved and accredited programs must cover coursework inside or outside the classroom in at least nine different subject areas, according to the American Art Therapy Association. Because art therapists must understand both the concepts and their practical applications in the field, these standards include the theories of art therapy, counseling and psychology as well as assessment and evaluation tools and the techniques used in art therapy for individuals, families and groups. Like other areas of mental health, knowledge of research methods, human development, multicultural issues and ethics and standards of professional practice are important in art therapy. Students must also learn about creative development, symbolism and metaphor and creativity, along with developing their own art skills through studio courses.

All art therapy programs should expose students to real-world clinical practice through supervised practicum and internship experiences.  

Becoming an Art Therapist

Many states in the U.S. regulate just who is allowed to call himself or herself an art therapist. Even in states that don’t require specific licenses, you will have a difficult time finding a job in the field or attracting new clients to a private practice if you have no verifiable credentials. Becoming an art therapist means acquiring the professional certifications and, depending on your state, the license that allows you to get started working in clinical practice.

A master’s degree is required for all credentials awarded by the Art Therapy Credentials Board. Even the Provisional Registered Art Therapist (ATR-Provisional) credential, which denotes that the holder isn’t yet a full-fledged art therapist, is awarded to graduates working on their clinical experience requirements. Whether a state chooses to license art therapists under a separate procedure than other types of professional counselors and therapists or under this general umbrella of licensure category, a master’s degree is a consistent requirement.

Art therapy graduate programs often require 60 credits of study. While some programs can be completed in just two years, many take longer.

Additional Resources

What Degree Should I Get to Become an Art Therapist?

What Can I Do With a Bachelor’s Degree in Art Therapy?

Should I Earn a Post-Master’s Certificate in Art Therapy?

Will a Ph.D. Help Me in the Field of Art Therapy?