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What Different Kinds of Therapists Are There? Decoding the Alphabet Soup
Searching for a therapist can feel confusing. How can you increase your chances of finding a good therapist? How do you choose a therapist who’s a good match for you? We’ve covered these topics before (click the links to go to those articles), but we’ve never fully explained why you’ll see so many different types of licenses when you’re looking for a therapist.
So, what are all those different types of licenses? What do they mean? Is one kind of therapist better than another? Is it always better to see someone with a more advanced degree? If you want to get couples counseling, do you have to find a marriage and family therapist? Why do some social workers work in government agencies and others have a private practice?
In this article, we’ll answer all those questions, and more. Read on to learn about the different kinds of therapy licenses, the steps therapists take to get them, and whether a certain type of licensed professional might be a better match for you than another.
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What Is a Therapy License?
A therapy license is a document that proves someone meets the professional requirements to practice therapy. It is unlawful to practice a licensed profession like therapy without a license.
Licensing laws protect consumers from incompetent or unethical therapists. First, they establish rigorous education and training requirements therapists must meet to get a license. Next, they make sure therapists follow ethical guidelines and professional standards after they’re licensed.
For more information on licensing laws and standards, you can read our article on how to check a therapist’s license. You can also go to our licensing board listings page to find a direct link to the licensing board for the therapist whose license you’d like to check.
What Types of Therapy Licenses Are There?
There is more than one kind of therapist and more than one kind of therapy license. These different therapy licenses were developed to address different issues and needs in the community.
How Many Therapy Licenses Are There?
The most common types of licensed therapists are:
- Licensed professional counselors (LPCs)
- Licensed mental health counselors (LMHCs)
- Licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs)
- Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs)
- Psychologists (PhDs or PsyDs)
- Psychiatrists (MDs or DOs)
This list is not exhaustive. There are a few other kinds of therapists who work in specialized niches. Behavior analysts primarily work with people who have autism. Art therapists use art to help people heal. And in some states, addiction counselors are licensed like therapists. This allows them to offer individual substance use disorder counseling like other kinds of therapists offer individual mental health counseling.
However, in most cases, when you’re researching therapists, the people you’ll find will have one of the licenses listed above. All of these licenses show that people have the training they need to treat mental health conditions and help people achieve their personal growth goals.
What Kinds of Degrees Do Therapists Get?
The minimum level of education a licensed therapist can have is a master’s degree. Most master’s degrees take two to three years to get. Some therapists stay in school longer and get a doctorate, but no licensed therapist should have less than two to three years of postgraduate education. Therapists can’t practice independently with only a bachelor’s degree.
What Degree Does a Master's-Level Therapist Get?
To become an LPC, LMHC, LCSW, or LMFT, a therapist needs to get a master’s degree in their chosen field. Degrees that these therapists may have include:
- Master of Social Work (MSW)
- Master of Marriage and Family Therapy (MMFT)
- Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MS) in Clinical Psychology
- Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MS) in Counseling Psychology
- Master of Arts or MS in Counseling or Clinical Mental Health Counseling
- Master of Education (MEd) in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
It’s possible to become licensed as a master’s-level psychologist, but in most states, these licenses only allow psychologists to work in certain specialist positions and not in private practice.
Most psychologists who practice as therapists have a doctoral degree—either a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in Psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree. Psychiatrists must complete a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree.
All therapists are required to gain a certain amount of internship and supervised practice hours after they get their degree. Psychiatrists must complete a medical residency that includes a clinical rotation in mental health. Psychologists and master’s-level counseling professionals usually must complete between 2,000 to 3,000 supervised practice hours before they are qualified to seek a license. (Psychologists often do this by completing a postdoctoral fellowship.)
How Does a Therapist Get a License?
A therapist gets a license by applying for one after completing a series of requirements. First, they have to get a degree that qualifies them to become a therapist. Then, they have to complete supervised practice hours and take a test. You can read the step-by-step guide below for more details.
The Steps to Getting a Therapy License
A therapist gets a license by following these steps:
- They get a degree that qualifies them to practice therapy (usually a master’s degree or higher).
- After completing that degree, they apply and get a provisional or associate license, usually by taking an exam and paying a fee.
- Next, they complete their supervised practice hours.
- Master’s-level therapists usually do this by getting an agency job that allows them to provide therapy or other clinical services under the supervision of a licensed therapist.
- Psychologists often gain their supervised practice hours by doing a postdoctoral fellowship.
- Psychiatrists complete a clinical rotation in psychiatry while they are a medical resident.
- After gaining the required number of supervised practice hours, they submit an application to the licensing board with documentation of their hours and their degree.
- Once that application is accepted, they take a licensing exam that proves they have the clinical, ethical, and practical knowledge they need to be a competent therapist.
Once a therapist passes their final licensing exam, they get their license. A license allows a therapist to practice therapy independently. This means that once they have one, they can start a private practice or work in a job setting that doesn’t require them to be supervised.
What Is a Provisional or Associate License?
A provisional or associate therapy license shows that a person has completed the educational requirements to become a therapist but hasn’t yet completed their supervised practice hours. It allows a therapist trainee to provide therapy or other clinical services as long as they are being supervised by a qualified clinical supervisor.
A clinical supervisor gives a therapist trainee face-to-face guidance and feedback. If a trainee therapist is troubled by their reaction to a client, or feels stumped about how to help them, they can talk to their supervisor about it. This helps them learn and improve their skills as a therapist. (Think of it as a therapy apprenticeship.)
For More Information
For more information about how licensure supervision works, you can read this article.
Therapists with provisional or associate licenses usually work and gain their supervised practice hours at agencies or other professional organizations. These can be private therapy agencies, community mental health agencies, hospitals, hospices, or other settings that hire therapists.
What Are the Differences Between Therapy Licenses?
Some therapy licenses require more advanced degrees than others, but for the most part, the differences between types of therapy licenses are philosophical differences.
This means that while some licenses allow therapists to do additional tasks, like prescribing medicine, one type of therapist is not necessarily more skilled at providing therapy than another. Different types of therapists just approach therapy from different perspectives.
What Do the Different Licenses Mean?
- Psychiatrists have medical degrees and approach mental health from a medical perspective. They study how the brain works and are qualified to prescribe medication.
- Psychologists with PhDs specialize in testing, social science research, and applied psychology. Psychologists pursuing PsyDs have similar degree requirements but spend more time studying clinical techniques and less time doing research than PhD candidates.
- Like psychiatrists and psychologists, all master’s-level therapists, including LPCs, LMHCs, LMFTs, and LCSWs, are trained to provide clinical mental health treatment. However:
- Therapists with LPC and LMHC licenses study individual psychology and human development and specialize in therapy for individuals.
- Therapists with LMFT licenses are trained to understand relationship dynamics and specialize in providing relationship, couples, marriage, and family counseling.
- Therapists with LCSW licenses specialize in understanding the social contexts that affect mental health, including how policy, law, and social realities affect mental health on a mass scale.
It’s important to note that all licensed therapists learn clinical methods and all of them are qualified by their licenses to provide individual (and group, couples, and family) therapy. Their differences are matters of specialization, not reflections of the absolute limits of their knowledge.
As therapists build their careers, what they become specialized in has as much to do with what they’re interested in and where they choose to develop their talents as it does with their original degree and training.
So, unless you specifically require service only one type of licensed therapist is qualified to provide—such as wanting to see a psychiatrist (or, in some states, a psychologist) who can provide both medication and therapy—it’s usually more important to focus on finding a therapist who’s a good match for you than on which specific license they have.
Really, Though, Which Kind of Therapist Should I See?
We really mean it: the kind of therapist you should see has more to do with the kind of person you should see than the kind of license they have. It also depends on the options available to you.
Is a Psychiatrist an Option for Talk Therapy?
Honestly, it’s rare these days to find psychiatrists who are accepting new clients at all, much less psychiatrists who still provide therapy as well as medication management. So, it’s unlikely you’ll be choosing between therapy with a psychiatrist or therapy with another kind of professional.
What about psychologists? First, the simple fact they go to school longer than master’s-level therapists doesn’t necessarily mean that they spend more time studying therapy methods than other therapists. Many spend more time in school doing research than anything else.
But the reality is that no matter what they study, some people have stronger “people skills,” and some people spend more time after graduation getting certified and trained in therapy methods than others. Highly-trained research psychologists often become skilled and warm clinicians. Just keep in mind it’s equally true that psychologists aren’t better-trained as therapists by default than other kinds of therapists just because they have a doctoral instead of a master’s degree.
Does a License Limit What Kind of Therapy a Therapist Can Provide?
The kind of master’s degree a master’s-level therapist gets often has more to do with what academic programs are available to them and what they believe will improve their job prospects than a specific idea of what kind of therapist they want to be.
Any therapist with training in family or couples counseling can become good at it, not just LMFTs. (And LMFTs can be just as good at individual therapy as other kinds of therapists.)
Similarly, people with LPC, LMFT, or LMHC licenses can be just as interested in social justice as social workers with LCSW licenses.
Really, the best way to find a therapist who has the right expertise to meet your needs is to take the time to research and screen therapists until you find the right one. Online reviews, personal webpages, profiles on sites like ours or Psychology Today, and word of mouth will tell you more than the type of degree or license a therapist has. (It can also be really helpful to know what methods a therapist has been trained or certified in.)
The range of degrees and licenses that therapists can have can be confusing, but it doesn’t matter as much as you might think it does.
It’s definitely important for you to make sure that a therapist has a license (read our article on how to check a therapist’s license to find out why). But it’s way more important to find a therapist whose personality, skills, and expertise match your needs than to find a therapist who has a specific kind of degree or license.
Therapists choose one particular degree program over another for a variety of personal reasons. But in the end, their careers are shaped more by what they learn and find out as they practice than what they studied in school.
Over time, therapists learn where their natural talents lie, what kind of clients they serve best, and what certifications, methods, or training make the most sense for them to pursue.
That said, it can help to understand the differences between therapy licenses. It can help you feel more comfortable reaching out to a therapist who seems like a good fit if you know what those letters after their name mean. It helps to know you’re not making a mistake by picking the “wrong letters” in the alphabet soup of therapy titles.
And yes, there are cases where it makes more sense to see one kind of licensed professional over another. Master’s-level therapists can’t prescribe medications like a psychiatrist or administer the psychological tests a psychologist can. And many master’s-level therapists do choose to specialize in the areas they focused on in school.
But if you’re only looking for therapy, you’ll usually find out more by reading individual profiles than by making assumptions based on someone’s license. It’s more important to find a therapist who uses methods that suit your needs and who has experience working with clients like you than to find a therapist who has a specific kind of degree or license.
At OpenCounseling, we believe choosing the right therapist is essential for success in therapy. But we also believe there is no shortcut that lets you skip the research and get the same results. Please trust us that it's worth it—finding the right therapist can change your life.
Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments.