Occupational & Behavioral Therapy

How Much Do Entry-Level Behavioral Therapists Earn? It Depends on Their Degree Type.

How Much Do Entry-Level Behavioral Therapists Earn? It Depends on Their Degree Type.
If you want to go into behavioral therapy, choosing a psychology or counseling program with an applied behavior analysis track may boost your entry-level earning potential. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry February 6, 2020

If you want to make top dollar quickly, enroll in a PsyD program.

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Behavioral therapy identifies the roots of unhealthy behaviors and helps clients learn more appropriate ones. Behavior therapists (sometimes called applied behavior analysis or ABA therapists) are simply licensed clinical therapists who have additional training and certifications in applied behavior analysis. They frequently work in human services with individuals with autism spectrum disorder. They also treat patients with issues like eating disorders, phobias, developmental disabilities, depression, and serious substance abuse.

Behavioral therapists do essential work—life-saving work, in some cases—but their entry-level pay doesn’t reflect that (check out the data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and you’ll see). If you decide to build a career in this discipline, you may make less than the barista who makes your morning coffee, as well as most of the people who come to you for counseling. Your first few years in the field may feel like a slog if you spend too much time obsessing over your bank balance instead of the good you’re doing. You need to know what you’re getting into when your plan is to become a behavioral therapist. Once you land your first job, you’ll need to focus on the gains your clients will make under your care.

So, let’s dive into the realities of entry-level life. In this article about entry-level behavioral therapist salaries, we’ll cover:
How do you become a behavioral therapist?
How long does it take to become a behavioral therapist?
Where do entry-level behavioral therapists work?
How much does an entry-level behavior therapist make?
What factors influence behavioral therapist salary?
What does the typical advancement path for a behavioral therapist look like?

How do you become a behavioral therapist?

The first thing you need to know about becoming an applied behavior analysis therapist is that ‘therapist’ isn’t an official designation. It’s not the end goal of a single, prescribed education and training pathway. Multiple roads lead to this profession.

The first step is earning a bachelor’s degree. Most aspiring behavior therapists choose an undergraduate major like psychology, sociology, social work, behavioral science, or another related field. If you can take advantage of opportunities to complete internships and gain work experience in mental health treatment settings during your undergrad years, all the better.

In researching how to become a behavioral therapist, you may come across resources indicating that you need only a bachelor’s degree. That’s not true. You might be able to work as an applied behavior analyst or an applied behavior technician with an undergraduate degree; these professionals use behavioral intervention techniques to modify client behaviors. However, they do not provide therapy. If you want to become a behavioral therapist, you need at least a master’s degree, along with whatever state licensure is required to practice independently.

As for which master’s degree, you have some options. Entry-level behavioral therapists typically have one of the following:

Master’s degree in psychology

Some states don’t require behavioral psychologists to have a doctoral degree to practice.

Doctoral degree in psychology

This can either be either the practical PsyD or the research-focused PhD.

Master of Social Work

This could be a one-year MSW degree whether or not you have previously earned a BSW.

Master’s in counseling

Which could be any one of various clinical counseling degrees (e.g., an MA in Mental Health Counseling or MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling).

These degree pathways can look very different, but all of them meet requirements set by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) for mental health education programs. Students in these programs study:

Counseling theory

This class will provide an overview of mainstream theories and approaches to counseling (humanistic, existential, cognitive/behavior, etc.) and examine the counselor’s role in treatment.

Diagnosis and psychopathology

This course will look at the history of diagnostic classification, and apply a socio-cultural lens to the evolving conceptions of psychological disorders and mental illness.

Group counseling

Coursework will explore the principles of group dynamics (leadership, member roles, group development) and the theoretical approaches to group counseling with attention to legal and ethical challenges.

Human growth and development

This class will examine research methods used to measure human development, and outline growth that marks social, emotional, cognitive and physical milestones.

Life and career development

This class will help outline the path to licensure and examine the interplay between work life and the personal and social pressures which impact counselors and their clients.

Psychotherapy

Classes will evaluate and discuss the forms of psychotherapeutic interventions through case studies, and will address concepts including transference and resistance.

Psychological testing and assessment

Coursework will examine both theory and practice of administering, scoring, and assessing personality, achievement, aptitude, intelligence, and psychological testing in both childhood and adulthood.

Research and program evaluation

This class will examine and critique research methods and evaluation processes looking at reliability and validity, statistical testing, and the specifics of research design.

Social and cultural foundations

This coursework will attempt to address counselor self-awareness and sensitivity to cultural differences and help outline and develop effective methods for multicultural competencies and counseling skills.

If you’re sure you want to go into behavioral therapy, choosing a psychology or counseling program with an applied behavior analysis track may boost your entry-level earning potential—and save you from having to complete an Applied Behavior Analysis Certificate program later on. You can find graduate programs with an ABA focus at:

California State University – Los Angeles

California State University offers a Master of Science degree in Counseling, with an option in Applied Behavior Analysis.

The Chicago School of Professional Psychology at Chicago

The Chicago School of Professional Psychology at Chicago offers an MA Counseling Psychology/MS Applied Behavior Analysis.

Eastern University

Eastern University offers an MA in Clinical Counseling with ABA concentration.

Florida State University

Florida State offers an MS in Psychology with Specialization in Applied Behavior Analysis.

Northeastern University

Northeastern offers an MS in Psychology with a concentration in Applied Behavior Analysis.

University of Memphis

Memphis offers a dual MSW/MS in Special Education/Applied Behavior Analysis and MA in Clinical Counseling with ABA Concentration.

University of North Carolina Wilmington

UNC Wilmington offers a Master of Arts in Psychology with a clinical concentration in Applied Behavior Analysis.

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

The University of Texas offers an MA in Clinical Psychology with a Board Certified Behavior Analyst concentration.

Board certification may improve your entry-level income (although it’s not guaranteed to). Becoming certified requires completing a degree program that includes a Behavior Analysis Certification Board (BACB) Verified Course Sequence or completing a technical certificate in behavior analysis (Johns Hopkins University offers one) after earning your master’s degree, then meeting professional experience and supervised fieldwork requirements and passing the BACB certification examination.

All clinical therapists need a license to practice, but behavioral therapists do not have their own specific licensing requirements. Some organizations, like the BACB and the Association for Behavioral Analysis International (ABAI), are pushing for a separate licensing process for applied behavioral analysis therapists to make sure that only qualified practitioners practice ABA therapy. Until then, you’ll need to meet your state’s minimum education requirements for clinical psychologists, counselors, or clinical social workers. You’ll also need to complete a set number of supervised clinical hours, pass one or more state exams, and pay a fee to earn the license that allows you to practice independently.

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“I Want to Be A Social Worker!”

There are a couple of significant practical considerations:

- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification

Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:

- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. (source)

A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. (source)

- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees

University and Program Name Learn More

How long does it take to become a behavioral therapist?

You will spend at least seven years training to become an entry-level behavioral therapist; depending on which degree pathway you choose, it could take more. You’ll need to complete a four-year bachelor’s degree program plus either a one- or two-year master’s program or a four-year doctoral program. From there, you might enroll in a one-year applied behavior analysis certificate program if your graduate degree program didn’t include a BACB Verified Course Sequence. Once you’ve completed your educational requirements, you’ll spend time—usually one or two years—working under the supervision of a licensed therapist to satisfy your state’s supervised practice requirements.

Where do entry-level behavioral therapists work?

Lots of behavioral therapists work with children with autism spectrum disorder, addressing their behavioral health issues in private practices, but ABA therapists can also be found in:

Clinics

Behavioral therapists may work in autism spectrum disorder clinics alongside speech and language therapists or in mental health care clinics helping to provide comprehensive care to clients.

Community organizations

These types of settings may focus on collective trauma in neighborhoods impacted by drug and sex trafficking, community violence, or substance abuse.

Government agencies

Therapists may work within any number of government agencies, focusing on veterans services, corrections departments, welfare agencies, or within the court system.

Hospitals

Hospitals with behavioral therapists on staff are able to treat patients for both physical and mental health challenges.

Nursing homes

Nursing home patients can require long-term care, and may involve dealing with intergenerational family challenges, group work, or end of life care.

Prisons

Work with incarcerated individuals can involve addressing past trauma, life in the prison environment, and education and positive behavior reinforcement to support plans for life after prison.

Schools

The school environment provides the therapist additional professional input from administrators and teachers for constructing care for students, allowing for comprehensive care opportunities.

Substance abuse clinics

Treatment in substance abuse clinics supports recovery by helping focus patients on the connections between their behavior, and their feelings and thoughts.

The military

Military personnel can require care during the course of duty or upon returning home from combat, and can involve issues specific to the individual or include the spouse and family.

As you search for entry-level behavior therapist positions, keep in mind that practitioners in some settings are paid more than those working in others (more on this below). Look for employers who are searching for counselors or psychologists with an ABA background versus behavioral analysts or technicians.

How much does an entry-level behavior therapist make?

The sad reality is not much. PayScale reports that the average entry-level behavioral therapist rate is just $16.39 per hour. Indeed reports $19.84. To put that into perspective, you could make more working in the ground crew at a tree-service company, walking dogs, or tutoring students online.

What this means is that you really shouldn’t go into this line of work unless you’re motivated by a desire to help people. You’re going to spend a lot on an advanced degree, and it may be some time before your annual salary is earning you good money.

What factors influence entry-level behavioral therapist salary?

Degree type

Psychologists are paid more than counselors and clinical social workers, so if you want to increase your chances of earning the highest-possible entry-level behavioral therapist salary, get a psych degree.

Experience

Entry-level doesn’t have to mean totally inexperienced. If you join the workforce with multiple internships and years of experience under your belt, you may be able to negotiate for a higher salary.

Region or state

Employers in larger cities tend to pay the most, though keep in mind the cost of living also may be higher.

Where you work

A behavioral therapist working full-time for a government agency could make around $100,000. In a healthcare setting, that therapist might make $57,630. Jobs in residential facilities tend to pay the least.

Your skills

When you’re just starting out, having any of the following on your resume can put you in a higher pay grade:

  • Counseling experience: Previous work experience is always an asset, and time in a specific setting can add value.
  • Experience in data collection and data analysis: Technical practice and experience can help set you apart.
  • Experience working with children: Work with children in specific age groups can bring a unique skill set.
  • Fluency in Spanish: Being bi- or multi-lingual can be a tremendous asset to those working in some neighborhoods and communities.
  • Knowledge of autism spectrum disorders: Experience with autistic children and adults prepares you for work in these unique settings.
  • Knowledge of cognitive-behavioral therapy: An understanding of these important and effective techniques can increase your value in the job market.

What does the typical advancement path for a behavioral therapist look like?

You’ll only be an entry-level behavioral therapist for so long. As you gain experience, you’ll be in a better position to negotiate salary terms regardless of where you work. Chances are that it won’t be too many years before you’re making more than your original entry-level behavioral therapist salary even though your day-to-day responsibilities have mostly stayed the same.

You also can make more by specializing. Some behavioral therapists work exclusively with specific populations like older adults, children with autism, or combat veterans. If you want to maximize your earning potential, you can open your own private practice or partner with other clinicians and open a group practice where you offer counseling with an ABA focus.

In addition, there are non-clinical career paths open to behavioral therapists who’ve paid their dues in social services. You can apply for higher-paying supervisory or administrative positions that involve little or even no direct counseling work. If your background is in psychology, you could become a program evaluator and work at a nonprofit or NGO. The Department of Homeland Security employs psychologists, mental health professionals and behavior experts in their efforts to understand terrorism and its impact. Behavioral therapists work in many government agencies, contributing to research and helping shape policy.

In other words, once you’ve gotten past your entry-level years, there’s a lot you can do as a behavioral therapist to boost your income and job outlook.

(This article was updated on December 2, 2021.)

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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