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How do I Earn an Art Therapy PhD?

By Brandi Lessner
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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An Art Therapy PhD typically can be earned by completing all of the necessary coursework outlined by the university that offers the art therapy program. In order to be accepted to a PhD program, there usually is prerequisite coursework and an application process that every candidate must fulfill before he or she is admitted to attempt a degree. Every institution has its own set of guidelines for people who wish to earn a degree, but there are also standards set by national organizations that must be met in order to be certified as an art therapist.

Before any PhD can be attempted, there generally is a standard path that should be taken that begins with a bachelor’s degree, which is usually completed within four years. Institutions in 15 states, including Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and New York, offer undergraduate programs in art therapy. It is not always necessary, however, to receive a Bachelor’s Degree in Art Therapy to be admitted into an Art Therapy PhD program; some schools admit students as long as a certain amount of art and psychology classes have been taken. Like other bachelor’s degree programs, general education requirements, such as English and math, are included in the overall coursework. It also could be helpful for students to participate in internships to gain experience in the field and ensure that it is a profession that appeals to them.

Once a bachelor’s degree is earned, the next step typically is to complete a master’s degree program. The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) and the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB) are authorities in approving Art Therapy PhD and master's programs, and in administering examinations for certification. Before selecting an institution, it could be wise to make sure it is approved so certification may be obtained upon graduation.

There are about 30 colleges in the United States and Canada that are approved by the AATA and each has its own set of guidelines for admission and completion. Some require applicants to submit Miller Analogies Test (MAT) results. The Miller Analogies Test focuses on solving problems with the use of analogies, which typically is important for anyone interested in fields relating to psychology.

Depending on whether or not all prerequisite coursework is completed before entering the master’s program, and how much time can be devoted to school, it may take anywhere from one to four years to complete an Art Therapy PhD. Students enrolled in graduate art therapy classes can usually expect to spend a large amount of time observing interaction with patients and interacting with patients themselves. Emphasis is also placed on ethics, counseling, and the differences in treatment between children and adults. Most master’s curriculum require a thesis or portfolio to graduate, of which art therapy is no exception.

While a career as an art therapist is possible with only a master’s degree, continuing on to an Art Therapy PhD or doctoral program is also an option. Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or MAT scores usually are required along with a master’s degree, related field experience, and certification to be considered as a PhD candidate. The amount of credits it takes to become a doctor varies with the amount of coursework that is completed beforehand and how many credits the institution requires, which typically is somewhere between 40 and 50 credit hours.

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Discussion Comments
By anon282333 — On Jul 28, 2012

To be a qualified art therapist, the American Art Therapy credentialing board requirements are met with a master's degree from an approved program. For the person that wants to practice with autistic students, you cannot call yourself an art therapist unless you have completed an ATA approved program.

Beyond the master's level, it's really up to you what you study. The master's level is all that is needed to meet licensure guidelines.

By anon164826 — On Apr 02, 2011

I have a Bachelor's in Art, and a Master's in a psychology-related field. I would like to pursue a Doctorate in my psychology-related field, and have found a program that offers dual-enrollment.

In addition to pursuing the doctorate in my psychology-related field, I was entertaining the idea of simultaneously earning a Doctorate in Art Therapy. Does this sound feasible? Or would I be able to conduct art therapy-oriented research with my Doctorate in a psychology-related field, and a Master's in Art Therapy would be sufficient?

Essentially, I want to be able to qualify as a professional to conduct psychological testing, but I want to do research applying to Art Therapy as well! Any ideas? Great article, by the way!

By anon134171 — On Dec 13, 2010

get a degree in Occupational Therapy. you can work with children in the school system, in private sensory-integration clinics/gyms, hospitals with all ages, industry doing job analyses, and NGOs treating the community or social system as the client. really, it's an amazing degree: all the stability of healthcare with the flexibility and unlimited potential of the arts.

By anon102144 — On Aug 06, 2010

If my ultimate goal is to use art therapy with autistic students, would getting my masters and PhD in SPED be beneficial? I already have an undergrad in art and psychology. Thanks, Aaron

By anon90872 — On Jun 18, 2010

Second comment-- the AATA does not grant approval of PhD programs, only masters programs. There is no formal approval process of art therapy doctorates, so please potential students, beware of any claims to this effect.

By anon90871 — On Jun 18, 2010

My goodness, run Forrest run! Think twice before throwing money into a doctorate in art therapy. Masters level grads in this field are barely making a living.

Be smart -- at the PhD level, get a degree in psychology, counseling, social work, or something else that is a widely recognized field. You can generally focus your dissertation on art therapy, but end up with a marketable degree-- and many more possibilities for getting a good job post graduation.

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