Art Therapy as a Second Career

Below is an email conversation between a reader, Lynn, and I:

Hi Liz,

I stumbled upon your blog as I’m debating whether to go back to school for art therapy. I basically have a week or so to put my application together in order to have a shot of starting grad school again this fall.

I have a masters in art education, and I’ve been teaching art in the south Bronx in New York for almost two year. Working with the kids in the Bronx made me realize art education isn’t enough for some of these children. Many kids come from unstructured and broken families which caused a lot of behavioral problems. Some of their behaviors are so disruptive to the point that I can’t teach on a regular basis. After almost two years of teaching, I’ve finally became okay with those disruptive kids who are not able to meet the objective of the lesson; as long as they aren’t being unsafe or disruptive, that’s all the matters to me right now. However, at the same time, part of me feel guilty for not being able to provide those kids art because of their difficult behaviors as they are probably the ones who need art the most of all. It made me wonder how would it be like to provide art therapy for these children, and what it would be like to combine art education and art therapy together in the classroom. I’m not sure if anyone has done things like this before, and I’m just wondering what your thoughts are. I just want to be sure this is something that I’m interested enough in to invest another two years in school. A friend of mine mentioned that some people who work as an art therapist get warped up emotionally which could make their job seem depressing as they are emotionally affected. I just wonder if I have what it takes to work in art therapy.

Any thought and suggestion you may have, I would much appreciate it. Thanks Liz! Hope to hear from you soon.


Hey Lynn,

Your question is a really good one.

I think being an art therapist in a school setting (and there are lots of school art therapists out there!) won’t be that much different from what you’re already doing, except that you’ll be coming from a different perspective. In other words, your primary responsibility will be therapeutic services and case management, rather than teaching. You won’t be seeing as much of the “normal” or “well adjusted” kids that you currently work with. As a school art therapist you’d primarily be working with the disruptive ones (which is why they’ll be referred to you in the first place).

That being said, I used to work with kids in a community mental health center, all of whom had behavioral problems in schools, but somehow most of them didn’t exhibit those behaviors during 1:1 therapy sessions or groups sessions. For the most part, they were redirectable and respectful. I think maybe that had to do with the nature of art therapy—you’re not trying to “teach” anything in particular. No curriculum. Rather, you’re allowing the client to explore the materials, while offering a contained environment and unconditional positive regard. For example, if you know the kid you’re working with gets easily frustrated and then angry, you wouldn’t work with something that takes lots of patience to learn and execute. You would stick to markers and colored pencils, and make sure whatever the client was doing, he’d be successful. When children are given the opportunity to do what they want artistically to express themselves, while at the same time feeling supported by the therapist, wonderful things can happen. Perhaps some of the behavior difference also had to do with the client/staff ratio. It’s also much easier for a child to feel supported when they’re alone with the therapist, or with 5-10 kids, in a group setting. As you know all too well, class sizes are at least double that, and kids that are needy, easily stimulated or socially fragile have great difficulty in that kind of environment.

On the other hand, something that is often frustrating for therapists is that the kids they work with go home to chaotic environments. It can feel like all the emotional and social learning that took place during therapy gets undone at the end of the day. This is something that all therapists who work with kids in an outpatient (or school environment) have to come to terms with, and tends to be a hot topic in supervision, where the art therapy intern (or post-grad) talks with a more senior therapist for advice. Lots of times school therapists also meet with the families, and my provide family therapy with the child present. That can be a difficult experience too because you’re meeting the disfunction head on. Some families may not be interested in changing what’s going on in the home. Also, it’s certainly true that therapists can take on emotional residue from what goes on in session. Self-care, supervision, art-making and your own therapy can help to let go of difficult emotions transferred to you during the day.

So…I guess my point is that being a therapist is an emotionally demanding job. Just like teachers, therapists tend to have high burn-out rates. The fact that you have your eyes open because you already work in a helping profession is good because you understand firsthand how difficult front-line work can be. Everyone comes to terms with these realities in their own way, and usually the thing that gets us through is seeing the good part of our jobs—when a client does connect with you, grow, and learn something about themselves and the world. Thankfully, the amazing part of working with kids is that they are programmed to grow and learn innately. It’s more likely to see that kind of good stuff (on a continuous basis) with kids than it is with other (adult) populations.

I hope this helps Lynn! Good luck in your decision making :) You can always apply and think about it some more while you wait for the acceptance letter.

– Liz

Hi Liz,

Thank you so much for your speedy response! Just few more questions…

How long have you been an art therapist? Do you see yourself continuing working in the art therapy field for a while?

I understand that some schools takes more psycho dynamic approaches to therapy and some places more emphasis on humanistic approaches. What are the differences?


Hey Lynn,

I’ve been an art therapist for 3 years, but if you include my internships, it’s more like 5.

I really love what I do! But, just like being a teacher, there’s the sense that you work really hard for not that much pay….although, going into private practice can be a lucrative venture (if you set it up right). Same with being a health care administrator. But, those are things that are way down the road for me.

I hesitate to answer the question regarding whether I see myself long-term in the art therapy field, because I’m in the process of rethinking my goals…and much of that has to do with the ridiculous bureaucracy in California when it comes to state licensure. California is in the process of making a new license for Professional Counselors, which is usually the license art therapists practice under. CA was the last state to make this law, and they’re making it extremely difficult for people who already hold an out of state masters degree to obtain the license (I got my degree in Philadlephia). So…I’m worried that I may not get a license here, and will need to move to another state if I want to continue practicing art therapy. This is not something that you would have to contend with in NY, because there is a specific license for art therapists in your state, although I’m not up-to-date on all the schtick about art therapy and NY state. I suggest contacting an art therapist in NY to see what the bureaucratic pitfalls are.

So…when it comes to psychodynamic vs. humanistic approaches, below is my opinion:

Art therapy was founded in the principals of psychodynamic theory by Margaret Naumburg, who called what she was doing Art Psychotherapy. Around the same time, however, Edith Kramer founded a more humanistic/person centered approach to art therapy, Art as Therapy. So, the practice of art therapy is on a spectrum between Art Psychotherapy and Art as Therapy. There is a time and place for both, and therefore it’s important to have experience with both.

For me (and I suspect for you as well, since you’re already an art teacher), Art as Therapy came natural to me. It’s based on the principal that making art and being supported by an attuned art therapist will, by nature, facilitate self expression and healing. The psychodynamic part, however, requires lots of reading, training and practice before mastering (and it does take a lifetime to master). That’s not to say that one doesn’t need practice at staying attuned to our clients, because that also takes a lifetime to master. But, for me, I cannot imagine being an art therapist without the rigorous training on the psychotherapeutic aspects of the human psyche.

The school I went to (Drexel) was very psychodynamically oriented, and this annoyed many of the people in my cohort. However, by the second year, other ways of approaching clients were discussed, including humanistic. And I don’t see why someone can’t come from a place of understanding art therapy from a psychodynamic perspective, while at the same time being client centered—giving the clients unconditional positive regard and meeting them where they’re at. In fact, at Drexel “meeting the client where they’re at” was a mantra in our courses. In other words, being in a psychodynamically oriented program doesn’t mean that they train you to put the client on the couch and say nothing during sessions. Also, the more learning you do about other philosophies and ways of practicing therapy, the more you can integrate these ideas into your practice. Most students don’t have a clear idea of what philosophies resonate most with them until they’re at the end of their studies/internships, and this continues to develop once you’re a practicing professional.

I encourage you to visit the schools you’re thinking of attending—meet the director of the program, talk to students, see what the classes are like. This will help narrow down what school works best for you.

– Liz

5 Replies to “Art Therapy as a Second Career”

  1. Hi Liz

    I was wondering if it is possible to do OT with art therapy on the side? Would that be too demanding? In the end, do you not see it working out? I’m just a little confused, and hopefully you’ll steer me in the right direction.

    Thanks for your time

  2. Hi Rose,

    I think art therapists work hard to separate themselves from occupational therapy, simply because art therapy is coming from a mental health perspective rather than a rehabilitation perspective. That said, there is overlap and the fact of the matter is there is much much higher demand and higher pay scale if you go into OT. Also, OTs do not deal with mental health issues traditionally. But, it could be an interesting merging of fields.

    If I were considering one or the other profession, I would get a degree in OT and see if I could do some kind of certificate for training in art therapy that is complementary. Again, the return on investment (time, tuition and licensing) is better for the OT field versus art therapy…at this point anyway.

    Hope this helps!
    – Liz

  3. Hi Liz!

    I am considering returning to school for an MA in Art Therapy and have quite a few questions for you. I am 25 years old with a MST in Elementary education, certified in NJ to teach K-5 and students with disabilities. After earning my degree I received a Fulbright to go teach English in Malaysia for a year. I returned about a year ago and have been struggling to find a teaching position, or any job with a salary for that matter. During my time abroad things about my life and my career choice became more clear to me and I have decided I do not wish to pursue a career in education. (Although I think it’s a very admirable profession!)

    Art, photography and painting particularly, is something I have always been incredibly passionate about. I’ve come to realize that it’s something that needs to be an integral part of my life. Earlier, I never had enough confidence in myself as an artist to think that I could somehow make a career out of it. I had been interested in the little I knew about art therapy, but never bothered to pursue or study it. I now realize much more how art is more about the creative process than the outcome.

    What originally attracted me to teaching was the thought that I would be helping people. That ultimately, I would be making a difference in the lives of others. I really enjoy making art, I enjoy working one-on-one with children and adults, and I am incredibly patient. At the end of the day I want to have been able to employ all of these things in order to impact others positively, which is why I feel Art Therapy is the right career for me.

    I feel like I am finally in the direction of the right path but there are a lot of important factors to consider. I have about $60,000 in existing student loan debt. I am working full-time as a nanny and continuing to apply to full-time teaching and entry-level salary positions in order to pay off this debt. Therefore it is very important to me that I plan this next step in my life carefully before taking out even MORE loans and accruing MORE debt. I am in the process of scheduling information interviews with university programs that have been approved by the AATA in NY, NJ and PA (Drexel’s program looks fantastic) in order to choose the program that is best for my needs. I would like to set up some sort of internship or shadowing experience with an art therapist who works in a nearby facility or organization so that I can confirm that this is the direction I want to go in. (I did work at a children’s hospital in the Bronx for 5 months before Malaysia where I worked alongside an art therapist and liked it.) I am also trying to find out more about what the job market is like for an art therapist. I have read the job prospects are excellent, yet when I do job searches nothing really comes up. I know therapists average about $35-45,000 a year and while making $ is not important to me I do need to make sure I can support myself and pay off my loans upon finishing my MA program.

    So I am hoping you can help with answering the following questions:
    – Can you recommend an organization or a resource to contact for an internship/shadowing experience in the tri-state area? I tried emailing the AATA weeks ago but no one has responded.
    – To your knowledge, what is the job market like for art therapy? Is there a certain area of the country where that field is in higher demand? I am not at all opposed to relocation.
    – Are there any other alternative routes to the end goal I have in sight?

    Really anything and everything you can share with me would be so GREATLY appreciated. I wouldn’t mind your personal opinion either! What would you do in my shoes?

    I’ve found your blog incredibly insightful and empowering – so thank you! And my apologies for the life story, I just thought you might be better able to assist me if I provided you with a bit of a background.

    I look forward to hearing from you.

  4. Hi Nina,

    I’m sorry I didn’t reply sooner to your email and post. I feel torn about how to guide you because I know how powerful the need to follow your dreams can be, and how art therapy can feel so right. But the reality of Art Therapy is that you should expect to earn approx 35-40K out of school. The potential of bringing in a bigger paycheck may grow (private practice, working for the gov’t in some capacity), but it will take years and many people don’t earn very much more than 50K. Your area – NJ, PA, NY are hubs for art therapy. If you’re not seeing art therapy jobs advertised, I would take that as a bad sign. And, as someone who learned new skills (graphic design and web design) after graduating school so that I can supplement my income, and possibly even change career paths, I gotta tell you that making 40-50K a year doesn’t cut it in CA (and probably where you live as well)…even if your partner makes 2-3x more than you. Not if you want a family.

    My advise is not to take on more debt to get an art therapy degree. You’ll have a hell of a time paying off your first student loan on an art therapist’s budget. Plus, an art therapy MA can easily be 60K-70K after tuition, living expenses, etc… I recently read in the Wall Street Journal how young people are delaying things like buying a car, a house, getting married or having children because of their 4-digit student loan debt repayments. I think my grandfather had some excellent words of wisdom for me (and all of us) when he said, “the most money I ever made was never paying interest”.

    So, if I were in your shoes, knowing what I know now, I would get an MA in a field that would yield a much higher return on invenstment. There are so many ways of helping people that doesn’t involve drowning in debt. If you like healthcare, nursing, occupational therapy, physical therapy, etc… are rewarding, much higher paying and are in high demand. Even working in a business setting can offer you lots of opportunity to help people. For example, I’ve been interested in working at start-ups within the education field. That could be a good choice for you too, given your background. A revolution beginning to take hold in the education sector, democratizing education.

    Actually, that’s another reason why I wouldn’t get into student loan debt right now. There are so many places online to self-educate, that once you have a good basis, why not learn on your own and do something that isn’t bogged down by licensing and bureaucracy to help people? That’s the thing I like about working in the business world – if you have the skills to pay the bills, then you’ll move forward and have the potential to do much more with your career than if you stayed in a blue model job.

    That being said, it does sadden me deeply that I’m encouraging you to look elsewhere for your career. I wish art therapy was evolving with the times, but it’s not (AATA not responding to your question is an indicator…) And it’s not 2004, a year before I started grad school, when art therapy was declared a “Hot Job”. The recession combined with the changing nature of work in general is transforming the needs of the work force in unprecedented ways. If there is any way to merge your interests in goals with technology, I encourage you to do so.

    —Lecture Ended—

    To answer your other questions:

    I don’t know any organizations that help connect those who want internships/volunteer work in art therapy prior to entering the field. But, I have a few suggestions:

    1. Try the Art Therapy Alliance message board on LinkedIn
    2. Email local organizations with art therapists, asking if they are open to an intern
    3. Email art therapy schools in your area to see if they have any ideas

    A side route to art therapy is to get your MA in Counseling, Marriage and Family Therapy or other MA’s in the psych field, and then get an art therapy post-MA certificate. This is a good option because it may help you be more mobile (if you ever need to move to another state) and it may open up more jobs to you.

    I hope this answer helps! I’m also going to repost your question so that it’s easily found by others :)

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