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Differences Between Therapist vs. Counselor vs. Psychologist

Alliant International University
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Published on: 08/03/2023
Last Updated: 08/03/2023
9 minute read

Whether you’re seeking treatment or job opportunities, the world of mental health treatment offers an array of providers. On your search, you’ll likely come across these three common roles—therapist, counselor, and psychologist.

But what separates these types of professionals? And what does it take to become each role?

Therapists, counselors, and psychologists all play a vital part in the mental field. However, their training, skills, and scope of practice can vary greatly. To help you consider any future career path or treatment plan, let’s compare the jobs of a counselor vs psychologist vs therapist. 

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Educational Requirements

Education is the basis of every mental health provider’s work. Not only does education create informed professionals, but it also qualifies them to receive a license—the only legal way to practice as a mental health professional.

To understand each role’s background, let's explore the educational pathways for counselors, therapists, and psychologists.

Counselor Educational Requirements

Most counselor positions can be divided into two categories—mental health (such as addiction counseling) and non-mental health (such as school counseling). In many states, non-mental health counselors are only required to hold an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree. However, most states require mental health counselors to hold a master’s degree in counseling.1

Master’s programs in counseling cover a wide range of topics, including ethical practice, cognitive behavior theories, humanistic theories, counseling leadership, and specialty work.2 Counselors often choose between these two common types of master’s programs:3

  • Master of arts (MA) – An MA in counseling emphasizes the theoretical and humanistic aspects of counseling, as well as workshops and research projects. Typically, these degrees cater to students with a bachelor degree in the humanities. 
  • Master of science (MS) – An MS in counseling focuses on research, data analysis, and evidence-based practices. Students conduct their own research and apply empirical findings to diagnose and counsel patients. Typically, these degrees cater to students with a bachelor degree in the sciences.

Therapist Educational Requirements

When comparing the education of a counselor vs therapist, the requirements are about the same. Almost all therapists will need a master’s degree to practice, but a doctoral degree may be required in a few jurisdictions. 

The main difference? Therapists often focus on treating the mental health condition and the mental disorder, rather than day-to-day challenges or life transitions. As a result, they may earn a degree in subjects other than counseling, such as:4

  • Social work
  • Marriage and family therapy
  • Psychology
  • Counseling Psychology
  • Clinical Psychology

Psychologist Educational Requirements

Psychology is a rigorous and research-intensive pursuit—so psychologists require a high level of education to become qualified experts.

Across the United States, a clinical psychologist will need a doctoral degree in psychology to practice, which takes three to four years to complete. Depending on their focus, future practicing psychologists may choose either a Ph.D. (with an emphasis on research) or a Psy.D. (with an emphasis on clinical work):5

Skill Sets

Mental health providers rely on more than formal knowledge—they also require a unique set of skills that enable connection, empathy, and meaningful change. 


No matter the role, every mental health professional will share a range of useful skills that cross their industry, such as:6

  • Empathy and active listening
  • Effective communication
  • Assessment and evaluation
  • Therapeutic techniques and interventions
  • Critical thinking
  • Cultural competence
  • Ethical practice methods

However, different professionals possess various skills to fit their work and title. Let's explore the toolkits possessed by counselors, therapists, and psychologists that enable their therapeutic treatment.

Therapists Skills 

As specialists in mental health disorder and psychological intervention, therapists often rely on technical skills in professional psychology. Additionally, the long-term and layered nature of their work requires inquisitive and regimented practices, such as:7

  • In-depth clinical assessment
  • Psychotherapy techniques (CBT, DBT, psychodynamic therapy, etc.)
  • Relationship building
  • Holding a “big picture” or multi-factor approach 
  • Diagnosing disorders or conditions

Counselor Skills

Counselors are equipped to handle the common emotional and mental challenges that come with life, from marital strife to job changes. As professionals, this means they need skills that empower and engage their clients to overcome obstacles, such as:

  • Practical advice
  • Coping strategies
  • Like skills development (time management, communication skills, etc.)
  • Interpersonal skills development
  • Conflict mediation
  • Solution-focused approach

Psychologist Skills

With a background in research, psychologists carry the in-depth knowledge to handle complex mental disorders and conditions. To help patients receive treatment, clinical psychologists need the following specialized skills:

  • Psychological assessment and diagnosing
  • Treatment plan creation
  • Pattern recognition
  • Research application
  • Advanced therapeutic techniques (trauma-focused therapy, interventions, etc.)

Patient Care

When asked why they started working in mental health treatment, almost every professional will give the same answer—to help patients change their lives. However, not every type of mental health professional is equipped to treat every type of patient.

Between therapists, counselors, and psychologists, each role has a different approach and scope in their patient care:8

  • Therapists – Therapists specialize in providing long-term treatment to individuals, couples, or groups, e.g. family therapist. Typically, their work focuses on mental health conditions with an emphasis on a client’s past. Patients often develop an open and trusting relationship with the therapist, and they may even receive homework to support progress. 
  • Counselors – Counselors focus on short-term treatment for individuals, couples, or groups. Their work usually focuses on everyday and present concerns, teaching clients to navigate personal challenges, make life decisions, and develop essential skills. Clients often set tangible and practicable goals in a specific area of their life.
  • Psychologists – In most cases, psychologists treat mental disorders in individuals. Besides providing long-term counseling, they can also conduct in-depth assessments to evaluate a person’s cognitive abilities, emotional functioning, and psychopathology. Most psychologists specialize in treating particular conditions (eating disorders, bipolar disorder, etc.).

Licensure and Certifications

Obtaining licensure is a pivotal—and necessary—milestone for mental health professionals. To clients, these credentials signify a commitment to excellence, adherence to ethical standards, and the ability to practice legally. No matter the role, all mental health professionals will need to complete specific standards to receive their license.

Licensure for Therapists and Counselors

Therapists and counselors share nearly the same licensing process. For both professions across all states, candidate will need to meet the following standards to receive a license in order to become a licensed professional counselor and therapist:9

  • A degree in counseling, psychology, or a related field from an accredited program (bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral)
  • Supervised clinical hours (typically from 1,500 to 4,000 hours)
  • A passing score on a licensure examination for counseling (National Counselor Examination, National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination, etc.)
  • Approval from a state licensing board

However, depending on their specific area of practice, both therapists and counselors can pursue different types of licensure, such as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) or Licensed Mental Health Practitioner (LMHP).10 To maintain licensure, certain jurisdictions may also require counselors or therapists to complete continual education.

Licensure for Psychologists

Unlike therapists or counselors, psychologists apply for just one license—a psychologist license. While different from state to state, most candidates must meet the following licensing standards:11

  • A doctoral degree in psychology from an accredited program
  • Supervised clinical hours (anywhere from 1,500 to 4,000 hours)
  • A passing score on the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology
  • A passing jurisprudence exam by the state board
  • Approval from a state licensing board

To be licensed, certain states may also require candidates to complete postdoctoral hours, internship hours, an oral exam, a residency, or accreditation from the American Psychological Association. Make sure to research your state’s requirements before pursuing any licensure.

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Which Career Should You Choose?

Embarking on a career in the mental health field can be an exciting, fulfilling, yet difficult choice. Every role opens the door to different clientele, methodologies, and opportunities—how to choose?

If you’re unsure whether to explore becoming a therapist, counselor, or psychologist, it’s time to explore your needs and desires as a mental health profession. Consider these important factors in order to make an informed decision:

  • Educational path – Therapists and counselors hold a master's degree (a more generalized program that lasts two to three years), while psychologists hold a doctoral degree (a more research-heavy program that lasts four years). It’s important to know which educational path would suit your learning skills and time best.
  • Clientele – Counselors often specialize in clientele with life issues like marital problems, job changes, and addiction. Therapists and psychologists usually take on clientele with specific conditions, from schizophrenia to depression. Think about the specific populations or issues to which you feel most drawn. 
  • Personal interests – Do you love leading clients with practical advice and empathy? Then counseling may be your path. Do you enjoy applying an analytical eye and research-based methodologies to clients with mental health conditions? Then psychology may be your path. Align your personal attributes with the skills required in each profession to determine where you’d thrive.
  • Work-life balance – Some professions, such as private practice therapists, offer more flexibility in setting your own schedule. Other professions, such as being a school counselor, may have more set work hours. Reflect on your preferred work environment and schedule for a suitable work-life balance.

Start Your Career in Mental Health with Alliant International University

There is no singular approach to treating mental health—or becoming a mental health professional. It’s important to understand the different paths and opportunities these three different roles offer. 

However, there’s one similarity between every career in mental health—they all began with a robust education.

At Alliant International University, our clinical counseling master program will provide you with the practical skill development and comprehensive curriculum you need to thrive in the counseling profession. From grief counseling to play therapy, our program will equip you to become a licensed therapist and an impactful member of the field.

Learn more about our Clinical Counseling master's degree today.


  1. Ke’alohi Wang. “Everything You Need to Know about a Master’s in Counseling – Forbes Advisor.” Forbes Advisor. January 27, 2023. Accessed June 21, 2023.
  2. Ke’alohi Wang. “Everything You Need to Know about a Master’s in Counseling – Forbes Advisor.” Forbes Advisor. January 27, 2023. Accessed June 21, 2023.
  3. “MA vs MS In Counseling (Master Of Arts vs Master Of Science).”  April 15, 2023. Accessed June 21, 2023.
  4. Coursera. “Master of Psychology: 2023 Degree Guide.” Coursera, June 16, 2023. Accessed June 21, 2023.
  5. Cione-Kroeschel, Jennifer. “The Differences Between PsyD and PhD Programs Explained.” CareersinPsychology.Org. November 17, 2021. Accessed June 21, 2023.
  6. Cherry, Kendra, MSEd. “Mental Health Counselor Training, Skills, and Salary.” Verywell Mind. December 17, 2022. Accessed June 21, 2023.
  7. Wang, Keʻalohi. “How To Become A Therapist: Skills And Requirements.” Forbes Advisor, May 18, 2023.  Accessed June 21, 2023.
  8. Cherry, Kendra, MSEd. “Mental Health Counselor Training, Skills, and Salary.” Verywell Mind. December 17, 2022. Accessed June 21, 2023.
  9. “Licensure & Certification Requirements for Counselors.” American Counseling Association. Accessed June 21, 2023.
  10. Dean, Janan. “Certificate in Counseling”. Counseling Degree Guide. December 20, 2022. Accessed June 21, 2023.
  11. Dittmann, Melissa. “What You Need to Know to Get Licensed.” American Psychological Association. Accessed June 21, 2023.

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