Therapist Vs. Psychologist: Which One Is Right For You?

Updated July 01, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Nicole Gaines, LPC

The divorce rate in the United States has generally been on the decline since 2000. Surely, this drop in divorces is due in part to the success of family and relationship counseling.

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If you’re searching for a relationship counselor, though, you may have run across a confusing distinction— the differences between a therapist vs. psychologist.

So, you may be wondering: what exactly is the difference between a therapist and a psychologist? Primarily, the two professions differ in their formal education and licensing pathways. Still, it may surprise you that therapists and psychologists have much in common.

Curious to find out the real difference between the two professions? We’re helping you answer that question today. This way, you can rest assured you have all the information you need to choose the right counseling professional for your therapy needs.

What Is A Therapist?

“Therapist” is an overarching category for a handful of different professions. For example, a psychologist can be a type of therapist. Licensed social workers, counselors, and marriage and family therapists also fall into this “therapist” category.

With so many titles that fall under “therapist,” you may be wondering how to know the difference. We’re about to tell you, so keep reading!

Education

The first way to tell if you’re looking at a therapist is to look at their education. A therapist will always have at least a psychology degree from an approved undergraduate program. The program will include general psychology and other courses required for graduation.

Depending on what type of therapy they want to practice, there are psychology degrees with different focuses. An aspiring therapist who wants to base their practice on research may want to go the route of becoming a licensed psychologist (see more below). In this case, they could pursue a Ph.D. or Psy.D in psychology.

Conversely, many aspiring therapists prefer to practice marriage and family therapy. This profession is attractive to aspiring therapists who would like to practice at a Master’s degree level.

Most of a marriage and family therapist has a Master’s degree in marriage and family counseling. Other therapy professions that require a Masters include:

  • Psychotherapists
  • Behavioral therapists
  • Cognitive-Behavioral therapists
  • Child therapists
  • Marriage and family therapists
  • Occupational therapists
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There are even some therapy professions that only require a Bachelor’s degree. For example, a career as a recreational therapist or a paraprofessional in the mental health field.

Recreational therapists help mentally or physically disabled people improve their general well-being. They may organize games, physical activities, and other fun events to enhance the lives of older adults in nursing homes.

This profession only requires a Bachelor’s degree in psychology. Depending on the region where the therapist practices, he or she must also pass an exam for certification.

Licensing Requirements

After receiving an advanced degree, most states require therapists to complete supervised clinical work. This work is necessary to obtain a license to practice therapy.

To practice any form of therapy, one must earn between 1500-3000 hours of supervised counseling. In most states (e.g., California), a therapist must have a state-issued license to practice therapy, and therapists can also be licensed in multiple states if they desire.

After getting an advanced degree and state certification, the newly licensed therapist can officially work with clients without supervision.

Approach To Therapy

The approach to therapy a therapist uses depends on their expertise.

For instance, if you need marriage and family therapy, the therapist will work with your family as a group. They’ll help you and your family overcome interpersonal issues or mental health conditions that are causing strain at home. This type of therapist also works with couples who want to improve the health of their relationship.

In contrast, behavioral therapists use what’s known as the behavioral approach. With this approach to therapy and counseling, therapists provide clients tools to change distressing behaviors. They do this by giving clients tools to recognize the external things that trigger those behaviors.

What Is A Psychologist?

As we mentioned above, many psychologists use their expertise to practice therapy. Keep in mind, though, that not all therapists are licensed, psychologists. What’s the difference? Psychologists have higher education and licensing standards than regular therapy and counseling professionals.

We’re diving into all that and more below. Check it out.

Education

Aspiring psychologists must first obtain a psychology degree from an undergraduate program. At most schools, this program includes general psychology, statistics, and developmental psychology courses. Many students will also work in professor-led clinical psychology research labs. Some students may even run their own research projects.

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Once they’ve received an undergraduate degree in psychology, aspiring psychologists get an advanced degree in psychology. Usually, this is a PsyD or a Ph.D., which takes at least five years to complete. The program will incorporate hands-on research and standard courses. To graduate, students have to complete a significant psychology research project or thesis to earn their degree.

The specific program an aspiring psychologist chooses will depend on what type of psychology he or she wants to practice. There are all kinds of psychologists out there, from school psychologists to forensic psychologists.

Subjects like forensic psychology aren’t the most ideal for a career as a therapist. Instead, aspiring psychologists can choose an advanced psychology degree more fit for a therapist, including:

  • Clinical psychology
  • Behavioral psychology
  • Organizational psychology
  • Counseling psychology
  • School psychology

Some professions require additional degrees in related fields. For instance, school psychologists may need an Ed.S. degree, which certifies education professionals.

Licensing Requirements

After graduating from the advanced program, psychologists must then enter a strenuous internship. The exact requirements depend on the state where the therapist wants to practice. Still, most states require an American Psychological Association (APA)-approved 2-year or longer supervised doctoral internship before issuing a license.

Once a psychologist finishes his or her APA-certified internship, they must pass an exam. This exam includes a case study students must present to a board of psychology professionals.

As long as students fulfill these and any other state-deemed requirements, they can get a professional license. They can then practice in the field.

To remain certified, psychologists must uphold strict codes of ethics and confidentiality. They should also keep up with the latest research in their field.

Approach To Therapy

As with therapists in general, a psychologist’s approach to counseling clients depends on their expertise.

Some psychologists use behavioral approaches when working with clients who suffer from behavioral disturbances. Others use a research-based approach, relying on the latest scientific studies of the connection between brain and behavior.

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Deciding Between A Therapist Vs. A Psychologist

By now, you may be wondering: what does a therapist and psychologist’s education or licensing have to do with you? And why does all that stuff about their approach to therapy matter?

When it comes to choosing the right mental health professional for you, your prospective therapist’s or psychologist’s credentials and expertise are essential. Keep reading to find out why.

  1. Higher Credentials May Equal More Professionalism

Many psychologists use their credentials to practice with a higher level of professionalism than do regular therapists. As you just read, psychologists receive much higher education. They also have to fulfill more stringent licensing requirements than regular therapists.

With that said, keep in mind that even non-psychologist therapists must be licensed to practice. That means you can rest easy knowing that whether you see a therapist or a psychologist, your health is in good hands.

  1. Specialization Might Be Better For Your Needs

Are you looking for couples therapy? Are you suffering from a mental health condition you want to overcome? Or are you seeking help for your child who’s dealing with angry outbursts?

These questions may seem to pry, but they’re essential to choosing between a therapist vs. psychologist. After all, you wouldn’t go to a dentist for surgery or seek a plastic surgeon’s advice about brain cancer.

While many psychologists do specialize, some prefer to offer general therapy. They may not have expertise in couples therapy, for example. In that case, you might prefer to see someone with more experience with the type of counseling you need.

  1. Availability Will Determine How Quickly You Can Get Help

As we’ve mentioned already, psychologists have more stringent requirements to get and remain certified. What does that mean for you? There will likely be fewer psychologists in your area, meaning a longer wait time to get in to see them.

For example, there are fewer than 162,000 certified school psychologists in the US. That’s compared to more than 320,000 regular therapists and counselors who work in schools.

In that case, deciding between a therapist and psychologist may simply depend on availability. Need help now and can’t wait to search for a certified psychologist? Then you’ll probably have better luck finding a regular therapist in your area.

What To Do If You Need Therapy Now

By now, we hope you feel confident enough to decide whether a therapist vs. psychologist is right for you. Getting the help you need is vital to your happiness. So, we want to go one step further to help you find the right psychology professional for your needs.

Sometimes therapy just can’t wait. That’s why the licensed relationship counselors at ReGain are always ready and waiting. Get started now to find out how we can help you overcome your relationship challenges and get your life back on track.


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