The Difference Between Counselors and a Counseling Psychologists

Woman during a psychotherapy session
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Counselors and counseling psychologists perform similar duties, but there are some key differences between the two professions. Both help people live better lives, but counselors and counseling psychologists have different educational backgrounds, areas of focus and specialization, and work settings.

Similarities

There are similarities between counselors and counseling psychologists, including that both professions:

  • Are mental health practitioners
  • Can diagnose and treat mental health conditions
  • Can provide psychotherapy
  • Help clients improve their well-being
  • May specialize in a particular area, such as working with children, adults, or couples
  • Work in diverse areas including hospitals, government offices, mental health clinics, academic settings, and private practice

Differences

Some of the major differences between counselors and counseling psychologists are in their level of education, the scope of their practice, and the settings in which they work.

Counselors
  • Usually have a master's degree

  • Mainly address clients' emotional and relationship issues through talk therapy and skills development

  • Often work in school or career settings

Counseling Psychologists
  • Have a doctorate degree

  • Primarily treat clients with serious mental health conditions as well as pursue research and teaching

  • Often work in medical and mental health clinics

Education and Training

One of the major differences between the professions is educational and training requirements.

Counselor Educational Requirements

Counselors typically hold a minimum of a master's degree in either counseling or psychology. To become a licensed professional counselor (LPC), an individual must pass a national professional exam and complete a specified number of supervised hours in the field.

Counseling programs require less time to complete than a doctorate, allowing students to enter the workforce faster.

Some master's programs allow for part-time study, making it possible for students to remain employed in their current job while they earn their degree. Many of these programs are also available partially or completely online.

Counseling Psychologist Educational Requirements

Counseling psychologists, on the other hand, hold a PhD, PsyD, or EdD degree in counseling psychology.

The education for counseling psychologists generally has a greater focus on research than master's level counseling programs do.

These doctorate programs typically take at least five years to complete. The first four years are spent on required courses, research, clinical experiences, and a dissertation; a supervised internship in the field is completed during the fifth year.

As with master's programs, some PhD, PsyD, and EdD degree programs can be done partially or completely online.

Accreditation and Licensing

Counseling psychology and counseling degree programs are sometimes housed within a university's College of Education. Both programs receive accreditation from different accrediting bodies in the United States.

In the U.S., counseling programs are accredited through the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), and counseling psychology programs are accredited through the American Psychological Association (APA).

Both counselors and psychologists must also be licensed to practice within the state where they work. To become licensed, counselors and psychologists must meet specific education, training, and testing criteria established by the state.

The requirements typically include meeting a minimum education level, completing required supervised experience hours, and passing state certification exams.

Scope of Practice

Another key difference between counselors and counseling psychologists is in the type of duties they typically perform.

Counseling psychologists often conduct psychological assessments and administer diagnostic tests to clients, while counselors tend to focus less on using these tools.

Additionally, state laws can dictate the types of assessments a counselor can offer and may require that administration of these tests be supervised by a psychologist.

Counseling psychologists typically work with clients who have serious mental health conditions. Clients with emotional, relationship, social, and academic problems, on the other hand, are often referred to a counselor because these professionals typically offer more cost-effective treatments.

Both professionals provide important mental health services that are designed to help people overcome challenges and optimize their well-being.

Specializing

Counselors and psychologists can both choose to specialize in a particular area, which can be related to the setting they practice in or the type of clients they work with. Specializing generally requires additional education, training, and licensure, and may require research, internships, or fieldwork.

Counselors may choose to focus on a specialty area such as school counseling, career counseling, marriage and family counseling, mental health counseling, and addiction counseling.

Counselors can go by different titles depending on the type of education they received, the population of clients they work with, and the settings they practice in. Licensed professional counselor (LPC) and licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) are two common examples.

Counseling psychologists may choose to specialize in areas such as substance abuse, child development, health psychology, community psychology, crisis intervention, or developmental disabilities.

A Word From Verywell

While counselors and counseling psychologists perform many similar job duties in the field of mental health, it is important to be aware of the differences between the two professions. If you are thinking about entering one of these fields, you will need to determine which one is right for you and adjust your educational plan to meet the requirements in the state where you intend to practice.

If you are looking for mental health services, talk to your health care provider about the type of mental health provider who would best meet your needs. For example, if you need help coping with stress at school or work, a counselor might be able to help. If you have a mental health condition that requires treatment, you might be referred to a psychologist or psychiatrist who can manage your care.

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