If you think life coaching is about sitting, cross-legged, in a haze of patchouli, listening to a stranger talk about their childhood, forget it. This is not an airy-fairy profession, and it has little in common with traditional on-the-couch therapy.

Life coaching helps people to improve their lives by setting and achieving goals – anything from getting married to finding a new career. Sessions are structured and results are measurable. Life coaching is relatively new to the UK, but the industry is expanding rapidly, and people are clamouring to join a profession that can be both fulfilling and financially rewarding.

Gill Dickers, a former lecturer in social work at Leeds Metropolitan University, began life coaching full-time last year. She also works as a corporate coach.

"When I first told people I was training to become a life coach, I was treated with cynicism and amusement. I just ignored them – I knew how useful I'd found it, and had the confidence that I could make a go of it."

Gill's thriving business has proved the doubters wrong, but this success has not come without considerable effort. Armed with basic counselling skills from her time as a social worker, Gill embarked upon a range of coaching courses.

She had no shortage of options – centres on the UK offer courses ranging from two-day taster sessions to year-long Masters degrees. All claim to turn students into accredited life coaches, yet vary in terms of depth, structure and cost.

There is no official body that regulates the industry.

This has prompted criticism from some quarters, as it can leave clients struggling to distinguish between novice coaches and those with extensive training.

A good guide for aspiring life coaches is to pick a course recognised by an established accreditation body, such as the International Coach Federation, the International Association of Coaching and the UK-based Open College Network.

Dickers chose to do two part-time distance learning courses with Newcastle College. One was a certificate in life coaching, and the other was in performance coaching.

Both courses were approved by the Open College Network. That, says Dickers, influenced her choice.

"The life coaching course was quite reflective – a big part of it was working out why students wanted to help people," she says. "It involved a lot of practice sessions with clients, which were then appraised and sent to the tutors for feedback."

Generally, the courses teach students the theory behind life coaching, and how to translate this into structured and productive sessions. Tools such as the "Wheel of Life" are taught. Each of the wheel's eight segments represents an aspect of life, such as friends, work or love, and the client rates their satisfaction in each area out of 10. This technique helps coaches to pinpoint the cause of a client's dissatisfaction.

Because most life coaches are self-employed, entering the profession effectively means setting up one's own business – never an easy task. Along with the sense of freedom and control that this gives, it also brings added stresses.

In addition to learning how to successfully help clients, aspiring life coaches must get to grips with the nitty-gritty of life as a "sole trader" – from the printing of business cards to marketing and sorting out tax returns. There are, however, a number of introductory courses on offer.

"I attended free Business Link training programmes, which are run by the government to help people set up small businesses. They were enormously useful," says Dickers.

Another challenge for newly qualified coaches is drumming up clients. Offering free sessions, advertising locally and attending networking events can all help to generate custom.

Once established, life coaches charge anywhere between £25 and £300 an hour, although anyone hoping to get rich should bear in mind that each session requires both preparatory and evaluation work, and coaches also need to cover overheads such as the running of an office.

Many life-coaches supplement their income by branching out into other areas of coaching. Corporate and business coaches can charge upwards of £600 a day. Although life-coaches may be able eventually to earn a decent living, few enter the profession purely for the financial rewards. Most, like Gill Dickers, are motivated by a genuine desire to help their clients lead fulfilling lives.

"It is very exciting to see people make progress. The changes that some people make in their lives are just spine-tingling."

The facts

What does it involve?

Life coaches help their clients to achieve their personal goals. Most coaches are self-employed, and sessions are usually one-on-one.

What skills do I need?

Good communication, a non-judgmental attitude, and previous experience of working closely with others.

How do I train?

A number of colleges and universities offer courses in life coaching. These range from distance-learning to weekend courses, as well as postgraduate MA qualifications. The International Coach Federation, the International Association of Coaches, and the National Open College Network are all good guides to accredited courses.

How much can I earn?

Novice coaches will struggle to earn more than £20,000, but experienced ones with a number of clients can earn up to £45,000.

Is there an organisation I can join?

When qualified, it can be helpful to have the support of a professional body. One of these is the Association for Coaching, which connects members with a network of other life coaches in the UK.