The ubiquitous use of the terms “therapist” “psychotherapist” or “counselor” leaves many confused, wondering what separates one professional from another - psychologists from counselors, psychotherapists from social workers, and therapists from psychologists.
And it’s not only the word therapist or counselor, but the alphabet soup of letters following each name, such as LPC, LCSW, Ph.D, Psy.D, or Ed.D that leave us totally baffled.
But it’s not difficult to figure out these professional designations once you understand what the titles and acronyms following them stand for, and that many of these terms are actually interchangeable. Most of the differences result from the type of educational degree that the mental health professional received.
Also, some of the acronyms following the titles stand for the degree, while others stand for the licensing or certification credentials achieved - such as “LPC” which stands for licensed professional counselor.
To confuse matters, people use the word therapist when talking about nearly any mental health professional, from a counselor to a social worker, to a psychologist. So what do all these titles and letters – and the words psychotherapist and therapist – actually mean?
Most usages of the word therapy refer to psychotherapy, an umbrella term used to refer to any form of talk therapy that involves helping others with problematic ways of thinking and emotions, difficulties with relationships, and moods. Psychotherapy is often shortened to “therapist.”
Psychotherapists – or therapists - use a number of interventions and treatments to teach individuals how to solve their problems, develop cognitive strengths and behavioral skills, and support changes in situations or environments that are dysfunctional or unhealthy.
Therapists go by many titles. Licensed social workers and counselors are called therapists. Psychologists are also called therapists – and so are psychiatrists.
Psychologists, what most of us think of when using the term therapists, are differentiated more specifically by their educational tract or focus while in graduate school.
- Ph.D. The scientist-practitioner model emphasizes psychologists as scientists. Psychologists with this degree stay current with all psychological research, and apply the results from timely and appropriate findings in their psychological interventions.
- Psy.D. The practitioner-scholar model emphasizes psychologists as practitioners, focusing on the assessment of clients’ problems, and applying the correct therapeutic framework and techniques in solving those problems.
- Ed.D. The educational psychologist focuses on the processes involved in teaching and learning. They explore human abilities, motivation, and the effects of race, ethnicity and culture on learning.
The Ph.D, Psy.D and Ed.D designations indicate that mental health professionals have received their doctoral degrees in psychology. These professionals are also called Health Service Providers (HSP) because they provide mental health counseling services in a clinical or school setting or context.
The American Psychological Association (APA) Center for Workforce Studies defines a psychologist as a HSP if the following criteria are met:
- The professional has completed scientific and professional training at the doctorate level, resulting in a doctoral degree in psychology.
- The professional has completed an internship in a supervised health care facility.
- The professional is licensed as a psychologist.
Fields for Licensed Psychologists
Mental health professionals with doctorates in psychology develop a specialty area of practice. Here is a sample of possible career options for those with a Ph.D., Psy.D, or Ed.D:
- Clinical psychologist
- Counseling psychologist
- Educational or school psychologist
- Behavioral psychologist
- Child Clinical Psychologist
- Clinical Neuropsychologist
- Behavioral Neuropsychologist
- Family psychologist
In addition, psychologists develop sub-specialties within their fields, meaning that a clinical psychologist could focus exclusively on adolescents or on those over the age of 65, or working with an underserved population such as gay/lesbian/bisexual individuals, the homeless, military service members, or the disabled. For more information see adolescence developmental psychology
Master’s Degree Level Therapists
Several career specialties exist for those with master’s degrees and desiring to help others with behavioral and cognitive challenges. Keep in mind that in order to practice as a therapist, licensing requirements differ by state. Also, organizations that hire therapists have their own set of licensing requirements, and some require additional certification depending on the area of practice and specialty.
Degrees that Qualify individuals for State Licensing Tests
- M.S.W. A master’s degree in social work. After licensing, social workers often have a LCSW after their names, standing for licensed clinical social worker.
- M.Ed. A master’s degree in education.
- M.S.Ed. A master’s of science degree in education.
- M.S. or M.A. in Counseling or Counseling Psychology. A master’s of science degree or a master’s of arts degree respectively. In the U.S. these degrees differ by the subjects taken in a master’s program. An “arts” degree focuses on a wide number of diverse subjects. A “science” degree requires more in-depth study within more technical and scientific subject areas. Counselors with master’s degrees take state exams to become licensed, earning either the LPC (licensed professional counselor) or LMHC (licensed mental health counselor) designation.
- Ed.S. This is an educational specialist degree, can be thought of as an intermediate degree between a master’s and doctorate. Some counselors that work as school psychologists have this degree.
- M.Div. A master’s of divinity degree. Ministers and others who specialize in pastoral counseling often receive this degree.
Fields for Licensed Counselors
Mental health professionals with master’s degrees often develop a specialized area of counseling. The following lists some of those specialties and fields of employment:
- Marriage and Family Therapists
- Child/adolescent counselors
- Child protection therapists
- Rehabilitation counselors
- School counselors
- Enrollment counselors
- Community counselors
- Career counselors
- Career coach
- Employment counselors
- Substance abuse and addiction counselors
- Correctional facilities counselor
- Mental health counselors
- Emergency mental health therapist
- Life transitions counselors
- Residential and day treatment counselors
- Group counselors
- Oncology (cancer) counselors
- Chronic pain counselors
- Behavioral health counselor
- Hospice counselors
- Outpatient mental health therapist
- Spiritual counselors
- Pastoral counselors
- Geriatric counselors
Keep in mind that for many therapist or counseling positions, the titles “counselor” “therapist” and “psychotherapist” are often interchangeable.
A Career as a Mental Health Professional
Most states require at least a master’s degree to work as a counselor or therapist. Psychology-based courses are required plus additional supervised experience in a clinical setting. Almost all states also require a license to practice, requiring the taking of a state exam. Other requirements for licensing will depend on the hiring organization or facility.
To work as a clinical psychologist, a Ph.D, Psy.D or Ed.D is required.
If you want to work as a therapist, a number of career paths are available. Depending on your desire to work toward a master’s degree or PhD in psychology, a number of programs offer a wide range of coursework that qualifies for either a degree or the requirements to enter an advanced degree program.