Choosing an Aromatherapy Certification Program

After several years of self-study, last winter I finally decided to take the plunge and enroll in an aromatherapy certification program.

I have been a lifelong student, and choosing an aromatherapy course was the hardest schooling decision I think I have ever made! It is so confusing!

What made the choice so hard was trying to balance cost, number of hours of study, and the reputation of the school and teacher. Most programs are based on material/books written by the teacher (as opposed to using a standard textbook), so who the teacher is can make a difference. Add to that two different professional associations with a similar mission setting the standards…head swimming!

Aromatherapists cannot diagnose or treat disease and to use aromatherapy in patient care, you need to do so under the scope of an existing license. For example, if you are already a doctor, you could advise oils for conditions. If you are already a massage therapist, you could incorporate oils into your massage practice. Others can “consult.” So you also need to evaluate your reason for certification—if you are limited in how you can use it, how deep and how far do you want or need to go?

Professional Organizations and Education

As a general rule of thumb, you want to choose a program that is approved by one of the professional aromatherapy organizations. However, like every rule, there are exceptions (read on).

There are professional organizations that are trying to set standards for aromatherapists. In the U.S. it is NAHA (National Association of Holistic Aromatherapists) and AIA (Alliance of International Aromatherapists). In Canada, there is the Canadian Federation of Aromatherapists (CFA).

Organizations such as NAHA have set standards for what they call Level I, II and III education. With each level, they specify what you can call yourself (e.g. Certified Aromatherapist, Clinical Aromatherapist). Interestingly, some organziations have trademarked these designations, presumably so no one unqualified can use them (e.g. Registered Aromatherapist can only be used by those who have passed the ARC exam).

Schools seeking approval by NAHA or AIA have some latitude in what and how they teach so long as the standards are met.  Schools that have gone through the process of having their program approved by NAHA or AIA are listed on their website as approved courses. The problem is that this implies that these are the ONLY schools that qualify. The truth is, these are to a certain extent a paid listing. There is an approval process to go through and a fee to be paid. Some schools meet the requirements of NAHA education, but have chosen not to go through the approval process for whatever reason. Other schools have become approved with one of these organizations but not the other.

The next layer of confusion is when you look at the different associations. The AIA has a different set of registration levels, and a different set of requirements for each level. So do you choose to belong to NAHA or AIA? Do you have to belong to either?

Many U.S. students have taken advantage of the favorable exchange rate and taken courses in Canada. The CFA has its own set of guidelines, which fall somewhere in between NAHA and the top level AIA class. Interestingly, B.C. is the only province or state in North America where aromatherapy is a licensed profession.

Finally, there is the IFPA. As most of the IFPA approved courses are not in North America, we are just going to say we are confused enough without bringing them into the mix.

NAHA Education Standards

AIA Education Standards

CFA Education Standards

So do you even need to take a course?

The short answer is no. Taking a course, holding a certificate, even taking the registration exam (ARC) can demonstrate to the world that you have a certain level of knowledge or training. Unfortunately, too many people seem to think that a 200 hour certificate makes them an authority.

In any health professions training, the goal of the program is to graduate minimally competent practitioners. Graduates know enough to make good decisions and not hurt you. That first 2-3 years on the job gaining experience—that’s where 200% more learning occurs and after about 5 years from the time you started school, you are proficient. But always learning.

Here’s the thing—almost every class you will ever take in college is 80% from the textbook, and 20% or less of the teacher explaining some of the concepts, adding some personal experience or providing supplementary material. The teacher is often just the tour guide, and the textbook is where the content is.

Choose the right books and you can educate yourself. This is what I have spent the last 6 years doing. Only in the last year did I do a certification program to ensure I have covered everything, to try to go deeper, and, yes,  to get that piece of paper demonstrating my knowledge.

Why do you want to be certified?

So, the first thing to ask yourself is why do you want the certification course? If you live in the US, what are your advantages to having that piece of paper? Seriously evaluate what your purposes are and if a course is the best way to achieve that. For some, it absolutely is. Many people need someone to give them a structured way to study step by step. For me, I learn best when I discover the information myself and follow rabbit trails which is why I self-studied for so long.

The next step—decide if the title that comes along with professional membership is something you want. If yes, which association and which level? Once you decide, the AIA makes it fairly easy to narrow your choices in that their list of approved schools is divided into the levels they qualify for. NAHA’s list of schools give no indication whether the school’s courses are for Level 1, 2, 3 so you need to check with each school.

Which school should I choose?

I find that laying out the pros and cons of a school visually helped me to see  my answer a little more clearly. What follows is a table I have prepared of the schools I considered. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and there are many other great options. All of these courses are available by distance.

Some additional food for thought.

There are some real pioneers in aromatherapy that are teaching courses. This is a blessing. Consider if you might want to study under one of them while we still have them with us. Kurt Schnaubelt, Jeanne Rose, and Sylla Shepard Hangar are some heavyweight names in aromatherapy who offer courses. And, while the Tisserand Institute does not offer certification courses, they do offer a handful of excellent courses for anyone just wanting to expand their knowledge.

If you can afford it, consider taking a couple different courses over time. Each teacher and course will have a different perspective. I don’t have a big budget for this, but I have decided to invest in a second course in a year or two and benefit from these different perspectives. Some courses offer payment plans, which can help spread out the cost to something more manageable.

Other considerations

Every course leading to NAHA Level II or higher, or AIA Advanced Practitioner will require case studies. For distance learning, this means you will need to find some practice clients and write up your experiences consulting and recommending blends for them. Depending on the course level, you may need to do between 10 and 30 case studies. As an introvert with a small family and small circle of friends, this was a huge stumbling block for me.

You will also have to do a research paper and take a final exam. Depending on the school, you may need to find a proctor to administer the exam.

How to decide?

  • Do some soul searching and evaluate what you want out of an aromatherapy program.
  • If you intend to practice (within the limitations if you are in the U.S) what is your intent and what level of certification do you need to accomplish this?
  • Consider if learning from a pioneer aromatherapist would be valuable to you.
  • Consider if more than one program over time might fit your needs better rather than agonizing over choosing just one.
  • Read the books and/or take free courses from the schools you are interested in to get an idea of the teaching style. Very few courses allow refunds if it turns out to not be your cup of tea.
  • Evaluate your learning style—many courses are correspondence style. A few are delivered online. What works best for you? Are you self-motivated enough to follow through with studying on your own, or would finding an in person class work better for you?
  • Do you want to take the ARC exam to become a registered aromatherapist? Check out this article for more about that decision.
  • What is your budget? Does the course offer a payment plan?
  • Can the course be taken in parts or modules so you can spread out the cost?

In the end, even though the professional organizations don’t always make things simpler, by having curriculum guidelines that most programs do follow, you are likely to get all the required knowledge at any of these programs. So, in that respect, there are no wrong choices. I had to narrow my choices to 2-3 and then bite the bullet and pick one. Usually if there is no clear choice, then all the choices are equally good.

What did I decide?

When I read a piece of advice about learning from the pioneers, I narrowed my choices to Atlantic Institute, Jeanne Rose, and Pacific Institute of Aromatherapy.

One of my favourite aromatherapy authors is Kurt Schnaubelt, and his books have been very helpful in deepening my aromatherapy knowledge and understanding. This was one of my aims in taking a certification program.

As I alluded to above, I decided not to limit myself to one course and to learn from as many of the top names in the field as I can. Shortly after signing up for the Pacific Institute of Aromatherapy, I also signed up for the Tisserand Institute’s Therapeutic Foundations course and Complete Skin Care course.

As I write this, I am taking a break to clear some projects off of my plate and saving my pennies for the next step, which will be a 600 hour program. Right now, my front runner is West Coast Institute of Aromatherapy, but I am also strongly looking at Essence of Thyme, since my main interest is skin care and the teacher Colleen has a spa background. Stay tuned!

What about you?

If you have taken  a course, or are currently taking a course (even if it is not one of these), I would love it if you would share your experiences with your school and what made you choose it.

Escentual Web