What Do Those Abbreviations Mean After a Psychotherapist's Name?

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Psychotherapy is conducted by a professional with specialized training, for example, a psychiatrist, a trained counselor, social worker, or psychologist.

But how do you make sense of the alphabet soup after their names? What are the qualifications of the person treating you?

Doctoral Degrees

Although it's common to associate the title "doctor" with a medical doctor, this title can refer to anyone who has an advanced degree. That being said, just because someone calls him or herself "doctor" doesn't mean they are qualified to offer you treatment. They could just as easily have a Ph.D. in English or Archaeology. If you are in doubt, ask to see their full credentials.

Here are some professional titles you may run into:

M.D. (Medical Doctor)

Training for an M.D. begins by earning a bachelor's degree that includes coursework in subjects such as biology, physics, math, chemistry, and social sciences. After passing the Medical Competency Aptitude Test (MCAT), students then enroll in medical school where they complete two years of classroom coursework followed by two more years of clinical rotations in different medical facilities. After finishing medical school, students then complete a four-year residency in their specialty area.

M.D.'s are also required to pass tests to earn a medical license and obtain medical board certification.

Psychiatrists are usually MD's. Because they possess a medical degree, they can prescribe medications, as well as administer psychotherapy.

Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)

Ph.D. programs may offer degrees in many diverse areas ranging anywhere from agriculture to urban economic development. Psychologists often have this degree as well. Psychologists generally cannot prescribe medication, although in the states of Illinois, Louisiana, and New Mexico, appropriately trained psychologists may be granted the right to prescribe medications. 

A Ph.D. requires first earning a bachelor's degree, which usually takes four years to complete. Students may choose to earn an undergraduate degree in a subject such as psychology, sociology, counseling, education, or social work. The next step is to complete graduate school, which usually takes between four and seven years to finish.

While degree requirements vary, Ph.D. programs tend to be research-oriented and require students to complete original research and a dissertation. Students are required to complete a supervised internship in a clinical setting and pass state exams before becoming a licensed psychologist.

Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology)

This type of degree focuses more on the practice of psychology than scientific research and teaching. The Psy.D. degree option emerged as an alternative to the Ph.D. and focused on training psychologists as mental health practitioners.

A Psy.D. also takes between four and seven years to complete but is focused more on professional practice rather than research. Course work is focused on topics such as diagnosis, assessment, and clinical interventions.

For psychologists, both a Ph.D. and Psy.D. require students to complete a supervised internship in a professional setting and pass state exams in order to be licensed.

D.Min. (Doctor of Ministry)

This is a degree which may be held by a minister. The D.Min. degree is a professional degree that allows religious ministers to offer pastoral counseling.

In the U.S., the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS) requires students to first earn a Master of Divinity (M.Div.) or an equivalent degree and complete a minimum of three years of full-time ministry work before earning a D.Min. degree. A Doctor of Ministry degree usually takes between three and six years to complete.

Masters Degrees

Whereas doctors may have three to four years of education plus years of internship and residency beyond a bachelor's degree, masters programs are generally closer to two years.

Some degrees you may encounter include:

  • M.S.W: Stands for Masters in Social Work. This is the degree that social workers generally possess. After completeing a bachelor's degree, it typically takes two to three years of graduate study to earn an M.S.W.
  • M.Ed.: Stands for Masters in Education. Many counselors have this degree. It may be given in any field of education. This degree usually takes between two to three years of graduate study to complete.
  • M.S.Ed.: Stands for Master of Science in Education. Like an M.Ed., this degree usually takes two to three years to earn.
  • M.S. or M.A.: Stands for Masters of Science and Masters of Arts, respectively. These are the traditional degrees given by colleges of arts and sciences in the United States. Generally, a master's degree is not sufficient to be licensed as a psychologist, although some states and Canadian provinces do allow it.
  • Ed.S.: Stands for Educational Specialist. This degree is actually intermediate between a Masters and a Doctorate. Some school psychologists and counselors have this degree. After earning a master's degree, students may opt to earn an Ed.S. as a way to advance their degree and skills. This degree often takes about two years to complete.
  • M.Div.: Stands for Masters in Divinity. Ministers who are pastoral counselors may have this degree. This degree (or its equivalent) is required for those interested in earning a D.Min. degree.


Some states required counselors to be licensed, conferring the titles L.P.C (Licensed Professional Counselor) or M.F.C.C. (Marriage, Family and Child Counselor).

In some states, the title L.C.S.W., for Licensed Clinical Social Worker, may be used for social workers.

Special Certifications

Certifications are similar to licenses, but with a more limited scope of practice. Some certifications you may see include:

  • CSAC: Stands for Certified Substance Abuse Counselor. This person usually has at least a bachelor's degree and some additional training in substance abuse.
  • CAC: Stands for Certified Alcoholism Counselor. Similar to a CSAC, but with an emphasis on alcohol abuse. Depending on your state, CAC may also stand for Certified Addictions Counselor. In this case, the person would be qualified to deal with both drug and alcohol abuse.

Board Certifications

Physicians generally pass "specialty boards" to become "board-certified" in their chosen specialty.

  • A.B.P.P: This board certification is a credential available through the American Board of Professional Psychology. Any psychologist who passes their exam may use these initials. Many psychologists do not get this certification, however.
  • F.A.C.P.: Fellow, American College of Physicians.

A Word From Verywell

It is important that you develop a trusting relationship with your psychotherapist. If you are not sure of your psychotherapist's credentials, please inquire, so you can feel at ease with your care. 

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Article Sources

  • American Psychological Association. (2016). Doctoral degrees in psychology: How are they different or not so different?
  • APA Practice Organization. About Prescribing Psychologists.
  • NetworkTherapy.com. (2016). A Mental Health Network: Credential Abbreviations.