Psychologist vs Therapist: What's the Difference?

Have you ever heard the words “psychologist” and “therapist” used interchangeably? Are you looking into therapy or online therapy but are not sure whether a psychologist or a therapist is right for you? Even though they have similar roles, which causes some people to confuse the terms, there are a few significant differences between them. Let’s take a closer look at psychologists and therapists to determine how these two professions differ.

What is a Psychologist?

A psychologist is a highly educated mental health professional who helps patients who have a behavioral or mental health issue. Trained in a variety of techniques, psychologists are equipped to provide comprehensive mental health care for a wide range of people. This also allows them to work in various settings including hospitals, schools, health care practices, governmental agencies, counseling centers, and community organizations.

Though the primary focus of psychology is providing care to patients, there are many psychologists who choose to concentrate on research or teaching instead of providing clinical care. Research and teaching jobs are most commonly found in the university setting; psychologists who follow this career path are typically qualified to train, educate, and supervise others who are working towards becoming mental health counselors or professionals.

Psychologist Educational Requirements

There’s a lot of education involved in becoming a psychologist. The psychology program requires that you complete a four-year bachelor’s degree; common degree choices for aspiring psychologists include psychology and sociology. The next step is to enter a master’s program that’s focused on psychology. While you could choose the generalist route and earn a Master of Arts or a Master of Science in Psychology, there are also many specialties within the field to choose from, such as:

  • Addiction studies

  • Applied research

  • Child and adolescent development

  • Experimental psychology

  • Forensic psychology

  • Industrial/organizational psychology

  • Marriage and family therapy

  • School psychology

  • Social and community services

  • Sport psychology

But a master’s isn’t considered a terminal psychology degree; if you want to become qualified as a psychologist, the American Psychological Association (APA) requires candidates to earn a doctorate in either clinical psychology or counseling psychology. This can be done through either a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) or Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology).

Psychologist Licensing Requirements

Though the regulations for licensing can vary from state to state, there are typically three additional requirements that need to be met once the educational portion has been completed: participate in a post-doctoral fellowship, pass the licensing exam, and apply for your license through the state board.

After earning their doctoral degree, psychologists must participate in a post-doctoral fellowship, which usually takes one or two years to complete. Sometimes referred to as a clinical internship, the purpose of this requirement is to provide candidates with an opportunity to provide psychological treatment in real-world settings and develop their skills while under the supervision of an experienced, licensed psychologist. This allows aspiring psychologists to receive valuable support, guidance, and feedback while gaining confidence in their ability to help patients.

The next step toward licensure is to take (and pass) the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). Developed by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB), this 225-question test covers core areas of psychology including growth and lifespan development, the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health issues, plus the biological, social, and multicultural bases of behavior. While this test is required by all states, the score required for passing does vary.

Once you’ve successfully passed the EPPP, the final step is to apply for state licensure. This is done through your state psychology board and typically involves filling out paperwork, providing documentation of your credentials, and paying an application fee.  

What is a Therapist?

There’s a lot of confusion surrounding the term “therapist” and different therapy techniques. Broadly speaking, a therapist is a person who helps patients improve some aspect of their physical or mental health. That means the general term “therapist” doesn’t necessarily have to refer to a psychotherapist—it also applies to occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech therapists, just to name a few.

That’s not the only confusing aspect of the term “therapist.” Even when it’s used within the context of mental health treatment, there’s still a lot of confusion about its meaning. This confusion typically stems from the fact that “therapist” is used as an umbrella term to describe anyone working in the field of psychotherapy.

The issue with this is that the term doesn’t necessarily apply to all mental health counselors and professionals. For example, psychologists are often referred to as therapists; the problem is that not all psychologists provide clinical care. Instead of practicing therapy and providing direct care to patients, many psychologists choose to focus on research and teaching. That means referring to them as “therapists” is technically incorrect.

So what exactly is a therapist and what is therapy for? In essence, a therapist is a licensed professional who uses psychotherapy to diagnose and treat patients’ mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. When wondering what is behavioral therapy or cognitive therapy, 

Therapist Educational Requirements

When considering how to become a therapist, the educational requirements can vary depending upon where you reside, but the vast majority of states require a minimum of a master’s degree in either counseling or social work in order to qualify for licensure. Of course, before that you’ll have to complete a bachelor’s degree. As with licensed psychologists, there are two degrees that prospective therapists tend to prefer: psychology and sociology.

But that doesn’t mean you must have a 4-year degree in either of these disciplines. While it is helpful to acquire experience or education in these areas beforehand, it’s still possible to earn your master’s degree in counseling or social work even if your bachelor’s degree is in a different field. This leniency is due to the rigorous nature of the master’s programs; they’ll equip you with all the skills you’ll need to work as a licensed therapist. For example, master’s-level classes will teach you about:  

  • Social and cultural foundations of counseling

  • Counseling theory & practice

  • Human growth and development

  • Relationship and group dynamics

  • Counseling and consultation processes

  • Assessment & appraisal of individuals

  • Individual interventions and treatment planning

  • Clinical skills and instruction

  • …and much more

The master’s degree is the last level of education required to become a licensed therapist; unlike psychotherapists, a doctorate is not required to practice as a therapist.

Therapist Licensing Requirements

The licensing requirements for becoming a therapist are similar to those for psychologists; you must complete supervised clinical practice, pass a comprehensive licensing exam, and apply to get your license from the state board.

Just like psychologists, aspiring therapists are required to participate in supervised clinical practice prior to licensing. Aspiring therapists can range from someone wondering how to become a marriage and family therapist all the way to someone wondering how to start a group therapy practice. The requirement to participate in this supervised clinical is put in place to ensure candidates are sufficiently prepared for practicing therapy on their own. The amount of clinical practice required differs from state to state but tends to range between 1500 to 3000 hours, with 1000 hours equaling approximately one year of experience.

Similar to psychologists, therapists are also required to pass an examination before earning their license. However, this exam is not the same one that psychologists take; instead of taking the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP), therapists are typically required to pass either the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) or the National Counselor Examination (NCE). Each state has its own set of regulations governing licensing, so it’s best to check with your state’s board to find out which exam is required. Once the testing requirements have been met, you can apply for your license to practice therapy.

Psychologist vs. Therapist: Similarities and Differences

Psychologists and therapists share a lot of similarities; they’re both licensed professionals who have studied psychology and use psychotherapy to help improve the mental health of their patients. However, there are a few key differences between the two.

For starters, each profession has its own educational requirements. In order to become a psychologist, you must complete a doctoral degree. The requirements for becoming a licensed therapist are less stringent; you only need to earn a master's degree to qualify for licensure.

Another major difference between psychologists and therapists is the examination that’s required prior to licensure; psychologists must take the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) while therapists usually take either the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) or the National Counselor Examination (NCE).   

The third key difference between psychologists and therapists can be found in the positions they can fill. Therapists typically spend most of their time in clinical practice, providing direct care to patients. Psychologists, on the other hand, may choose to focus on research and/or teaching instead of providing psychological treatment to patients.

Psychologist or Therapist: Which Is Right for You?

There’s another key difference that must be taken into account: the level of care that psychologists and therapists are able to provide. While therapists are fully equipped to help you improve your mental health and subsequent behavior, they aren’t really qualified to diagnose serious mental illnesses—that’s the job of a psychologist.

Here’s a bit more guidance to help you decide whether you’re better off with a psychologist or a therapist. If you’re looking for general help in improving your life and relationships, then visiting a therapist would be an excellent choice. For example, therapists can help you:

  • View your life from a broader angle and provide a clearer perspective on your issues

  • Discuss your feelings and learn how to address them in constructive ways

  • Analyze and improve your decision-making abilities

  • Talk through issues to gain a clearer understanding of their cause and how to address them

  • Provide you with techniques to improve the overall quality of your life

For most people, a therapist is all they need in order to improve their mental health and quality of life. However, there are some who require the help of a psychologist. For example, if you suspect that you’re suffering from a major mental illness, you’ll want to make an appointment with a psychologist instead of a therapist. Psychologists are able to:

  • Diagnose a mental health condition based on observations and assessments

  • Conduct research into your conditions in order to provide the best treatment options

  • Offer therapeutic solutions to improve your condition

  • Work with a psychiatrist to get prescription medication for your condition, if necessary

In short, if you’re looking for general counseling regarding relationships, grief, addiction, anxiety, depression, etc. then either a therapist or a psychologist will be able to offer assistance. For more serious conditions such as mental illness, you’ll need to turn to a psychologist for help.

How to Find a Psychologist or Therapist in Your Area

There are various ways to find either a psychologist or therapist in your area. One way would be to ask your doctor for a referral; they’re sure to know of a qualified professional or two in the area. You might also consider asking friends or family members if they have any recommendations. Alternatively, you could contact your health insurance company and ask for a list of approved mental health professionals near you.

Unfortunately, these methods may lead to mixed results. If you want to be able to specify your criteria for a mental health provider and choose one that best meets your needs, then you should try Advekit. Advekit is a matching service that helps bring together therapists and potential patients. As an added bonus, Advekit also takes care of out-of-network insurance billing, simplifying the payment process. If you’d like to get started, all you need to do is answer a few quick questions on Advekit’s website.