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, a social worker, or a 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 themselves "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 with therapy.

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 pursuing psychiatry 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 M.D.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 planning and development. Psychologists often have this degree as well. Psychologists generally cannot prescribe medication, although in the states of Idaho, Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana, and New Mexico, adequately 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 5 to 7 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 psychology 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. typically takes around 4 to 6 years to complete and 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)

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

In the United States, the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) recommends that 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 will usually take 3 to 6 years to complete.

Master's Degrees

Whereas medical doctors may have 3 to 4 years of education plus years of internship and residency beyond a bachelor's degree, and the other specialized advanced degrees have their own education combinations, as mentioned, master's programs are generally closer to two years.

Some degrees you may encounter include:

  • M.S.W: Stands for Master of Social Work. This is the degree that social workers generally possess. After completing a bachelor's degree, it typically takes 2 to 3 years of graduate study to earn an M.S.W.
  • M.Ed.: Stands for Master of Education. Many counselors have this degree. It may be given in any field of education. This degree usually takes around 2 to 3 years of graduate study to complete.
  • M.S.Ed.: Stands for Master of Science in Education. Like an M.Ed., this degree usually takes 2 to 3 years to earn.
  • M.S. or M.A.: Stands for Master of Science and Master 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 Master's 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 (see above). 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.

Licenses

Licensed counselors in the U.S. use different titles depending on their area of expertise. Those may include:

  • L.P.C. (Licensed Professional Counselor)
  • L.M.H.C. (Licensed Mental Health Counselor) 
  • L.C.P.C. (Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor)
  • L.P.C.C. (Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor of Mental Health) 
  • L.C.M.H.C. (Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor)
  • L.M.H.P. (Licensed Mental Health Practitioner)
  • 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:

  • CADC: Stands for Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor. This person usually has at least a high school diploma or bachelor's degree and some additional training in alcohol and substance abuse. A person obtaining their CADC must train under a licensed professional. A CADC certification is not available in every state.
  • CAC or NCAC: Stands for Certified Addiction Counselor. Similar to a CADC, a CAC is certification at the intermediate level and requires clinical supervision. The CAC is for those who plan to work alongside clinically trained staff to provide services to individuals with substance use conditions. The NCAC designation is certification at the national level (National Certified Addiction Counselor). NCAC credentials can be obtained at Level I and Level II.

Board Certifications

Physicians like psychiatrists generally pass "specialty boards" to become "board-certified" in their chosen specialty. Those may include:

A Word From Verywell

It's important that you develop a trusting relationship with your psychotherapist so that you know your mental health is in good hands. If you are not sure of your psychotherapist's credentials, just ask. Reviewing credentials is typically part of an initial interview.

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