Therapist Vs. Psychologist: Understanding The Difference

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated April 8, 2024by Regain Editorial Team

When it comes to finding professional help, there can be a misconception between therapists and psychologists. How do you know when talk therapy might be best? What is the difference between those who practice therapy and psychologists who specialize in different areas?

Knowing the difference between, say, a marriage and family therapist or social worker and someone practicing behavioral psychology or counseling psychology can make a huge difference. And when it comes to psychology, clinical psychology and behavioral psychology aren’t the only types. 

Before proceeding and finding the right kind of help for your mental health needs, it is essential to understand the differences between a therapist and a psychologist. 

Looking for a therapist or psychologist to work with?

What is a psychologist?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a psychologist is a licensed mental health professional who holds an advanced degree in psychology. That advanced degree can be in general psychology, counseling psychology, positive psychology, or any other psychology degree that the school offers.

Obtaining a general psychology degree can be a good start towards the path of becoming a clinical psychologist. Like clinical psychology and positive psychology, a licensed clinical psychologist works to assist patients by identifying psychological, behavioral, or emotional issues that may be indicative of underlying mental health disorders. Clinical psychologists also help develop treatment plans and then implement them to help improve the lives of those patients.

Clinical psychology helps to monitor the progress of those patients as well. This helps them in their development and progress through those mental health disorders. Being a psychologist is a social position of sorts. 

Psychologists and counselors can work at an independent practice, or psychologists, psychiatrists, and other psychiatric specialists work through hospitals. For those with potential mental illnesses or other mental health concerns, seeking out a psychologist may be the proper avenue to go down. Psychologists also tend to work hand in hand with psychiatrists, which is a whole different thing that will be explored another time.

What is a therapist?

The American Psychological Association (APA) describes psychotherapists (therapists) with some similarity to psychologists. When we think of the term therapist, it sounds entirely different from, say, school psychologists. Like their psychologist counterparts, therapists are also required to have advanced education. A therapist will often have a master’s degree, Ph.D., or certificates in substance abuse, clinical psychology, family therapy, counseling, or clinical social work. And while the differences between a therapist and psychologist may not be night and day, there are subtle divergences. 

Much like psychologists, there are many niches of therapy that those seeking therapy should be aware of. There is family therapy (including marriage and family therapy), cognitive therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and so on. Some therapists work as clinical social workers whereas others may work in acceptance and commitment therapy. A therapists’ approach to therapy depends on their area of study, and it can sometimes be very specific.

For instance, if you are trying to find a therapist, cognitive therapy can differ from marriage and family therapy. Marriage and family therapists may have more expertise than, say, a family therapist. When trying to find a therapist, it is important to know the differences to find the type of therapist you want.

Another example: let’s say you are trying to find a therapist specializing in marriage and family therapy. Will a family therapist include that knowledge of marriage therapy, or do they only specialize in families rather than couples or marriages? That’s important to know when you are trying to find a therapist.


Are there more apparent differences?

The licensed professionals at Regain can help provide clarification. More in-depth explanations may help provide a little more light on the subject and help you find a therapist or psychologist to meet your needs.

A psychologist is what is known as a social scientist. They are trained to study the mental processes and behaviors of human beings. A psychologist can work in several different clinical or research settings. If psychologists plan to open their own independent practice or offer patient care (counseling, clinical, and school psychologists), they will need advanced degrees and/or licensing.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology emphasize research methods and theory. They also prepare students for careers as practitioners or academic work such as teaching.

The Ph.D. emphasizes training in counseling and therapy. Psychologists who have either one of these degrees can then practice in therapy, but they cannot become licensed without years of supervised practice first. While the Ph.D. has more emphasis on research and statistics, the Psy.D. degree is specific for students who want to work primarily as clinical psychologists.

So, what does a psychologist do? Well, they are mental health professionals how are licensed and trained to diagnose a mental problem or disorder. From there, they can determine the best possible care for the patient. Often, they will work with a psychiatrist. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can prescribe medication should it be determined that medication is necessary. Some psychologists do research, which contributes to the profession for both clinical and academic reasons.

Therapists, meanwhile, are a bit broader in terms of their description. A therapist is often licensed and trained to provide several different treatments and provide rehabilitation for their patients. They may treat mental disorders with modalities like psychoanalytic, clinical social work, marriage counseling, substance use therapy, trauma-based therapy, career coaching, and many other specialties. However, contrary to psychologists, therapists cannot legally provide any diagnoses. 

The primary goal is often to assist the patients in making decisions and finding clarity in their feelings. This is done to help resolve issues that they may be having in their life. That is why therapists can also provide guidance and support, guiding the patients towards effective decision-making while providing structure and support.

When it comes to choosing a therapist, there are a few things to keep in mind. Their licensing, education and credentials as a mental health professional should be the essential things to look at. It can be difficult to trust and confide in a stranger; their credentials can help to ease that uncertainty.

What education requirements are there to become a therapist or psychologist?

This, of course, depends on the area of study. For psychologists, it requires five to six years of school. They must graduate with a doctorate degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D., complete one year of post-doctoral work, and have clinical rotations even while in school.

Looking for a therapist or psychologist to work with?

Regulations for a psychology degree vary based on the state but generally require at least a year of supervised practice before becoming fully licensed. Psychologists work in roles that are like counselors in school. They may perform testing, research, teaching, or provide therapy.

Marriage and family therapists can have a similar schooling experience to licensed psychologists, the main difference being that their area of study focuses on family and marriage therapy. While psychologists often need to have a Ph.D. or Psy.D, therapists can obtain this degree but aren’t typically required to obtain a degree higher than a Masters. It tends to take at least two to three years after schooling has been completed for a marriage and family therapist to become a fully licensed practitioner, as they must first intern, complete supervised clinical hours, gain experience, and obtain licensing in addition to their degree.

A counselor is another type of therapist. The difference here is that licensed professional mental health counselors go to school with an exclusive focus on being a therapist and practice the theory, or mix thereof, they believe will help their patients the most. There are, of course, programs with different focuses, but there is a board that oversees the certification programs. This board also mandates the amount of class focus, hours, and experience that a course receives and audits the programs regularly to guarantee quality.

Once a mental health counselor gets through their master’s level classes (which takes two to three years), it takes another 2-4 years for them to finish their strictly supervised clinical hours before they can become fully licensed.

Professional counselors also have a huge range of specializations. Some can become teachers with a Ph.D.; others perform testing and research similar to psychologists.


Depending on your area of need, there can be distinct advantages to going with a therapist or a psychologist. But it is also important to know just how similar they are in nature and their area of study. In any event, both are in practice intending to help improve your life, understand your thoughts and feelings better, and address them in a much healthier manner. If you’d like to be matched with a licensed therapist or psychologist, reach out to Regain whenever you’re ready.

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