So You Want to Be a Counselor/Therapist? Let Me Tell You the Different Ways

03/17/2015 03:50 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2015

You know, some individuals are born with a natural talent for helping others. They are the ones from an early age to whom people are drawn. Good listeners who know how to solve problems, as early as grammar school they can be counted on to "be there" for their friends and classmates. Later on in high school, both boys and girls with psychological bents often become tutors, mentors, buddies, peer counselors and/or counselors-in-training at summer camps.

Somewhere down the line, many of these youngsters decide they want to be mental health professionals when they grow up. But the $64 million question is which one? There are many career choices that involve varying numbers of years of formal education, specialty training and supervised field placements. It's important for young people to understand the differences in order to know what career path best fits them.

The list of career areas includes 1. Psychiatrist, 2. Psychologist, 3. Counselor: a. Social Worker, b. Marriage and Family Therapist, c. Licensed Mental Health Counselor, d. Licensed Professional Counselor, e. School Counselor and many others. How do you decide?

In all the years I have helped young people (and adults) sort out whether to be and how to become a mental health professional, I have had trouble finding one reliable source that really explains the different counseling arenas, let alone what degrees are needed to become trained in them, which colleges and free-standing schools offer accredited programs and what licenses are needed to practice them.

Don't you think it's about time someone gathered this information? Me too. Although not as comprehensive as I would like because of limited blog space, here is a start.

It's very important that students become educated about what each of these mental health arenas is all about. I provide links to where professionals explain what they do and also where the training programs are. I think that's better than my writing a description on behalf of psychiatrists, psychologists, etc., etc. It's better for you get the info from the horse's mouth.

All of the professions teach talk therapy, but after that there are significant differences in the conceptual frameworks from which they approach helping, depth of education they require, amount of required supervised work experience, ability to prescribe medications and training to do psychological testing.

Here is a list of the most prominent mental health profession degrees:


MD, Psychiatry Specialty

√ Doctor of Medicine (4 years)
√ Psychiatry Residency (4 years)
√ A state medical license and board certification is required to practice

The website Learnhowtobecomeapsychiatrist describes what a psychiatrist does, what skills are required to do the job, how to get into medical school and then a psychiatric residency program.

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AMC) website offers a list of colleges that offer accredited medical degrees. AMC also offers The Official Guide to Medical School Admissions (print or e-book)

Ph.D., Psy.D, Ed.D.
A Ph.D often has a strong research component, while a Psy.D usually focuses on the application of psychological tenets to treat individuals or groups. An Ed.D is usually offered by a graduate school of education and like the Psy.D, is practitioner oriented.

Doctorate in Clinical or Counseling Psychology (4-7 years)
√ Doctorate in Educational Psychology, Counseling Specialty (3-6 years)
√ All require an American Psychological Association approved program and supervised professional employment for licensure.
√ A state psychologist license is required to practice

The American Psychological Association (APA) website does a great job of describing what a psychologist does. They also offer a list of "Accredited Psychology Programs."

You can also get this information in book form through the APA Graduate Study in Psychology, 2015.

If you are confused about the differences between psychiatry and psychology, a very useful take on this can be found in "Psychologist vs Psychiatrist - What's the Difference," European Foundation for Psychologists and Analysts

There are any number of Master's level counseling degrees, the best known being:

  • Clinical Social Work
  • Marriage and Family Therapy
  • Mental Health Counseling
  • School Counseling

These degrees prepare individuals to be state licensed mental health practitioners.

  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
  • Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)
  • Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPC or LPCC)
  • Licensed Educational Psychologist (LEP)
  • Pupil Personnel Services Credential (PPS)

Every state has their respective licensing agency. For example, in California it is the Board of Behavioral Sciences run by the California Department of Consumer Affairs. The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing offers the PPS credential

3a. MSW
Masters in Social Work, MSW (2 year graduate degree plus supervised professional employment)
√ State LCSW license required to practice

The MSW is a very popular degree that is recognized by all 50 states. More importantly, many insurance companies reimburse MSWs for their services. For a detailed account of what social workers do, go to the Texas State Education website.

The Council on Social Work Education provides a directory of accredited baccalaureate and master's level social work degree programs. College Board's Book of Majors offers a list of the colleges, state by state, that offer Social Work degree programs.

3b. MFT (or MFC)
Marriage & Family Therapist (or Counselor) degree (2 years plus supervised professional employment)
√ State MFT license required to practice

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) explains family therapists , what services they provide and what issues they treat. Go to the AAMFT website and then search for "Marriage and Family Therapists: The Friendly Mental Health Professionals."

AAMFT also provides a Directory of all the MFT training programs in the country. College Board's Book of Majors offers a list of the colleges, state by state, that have Marriage/Family degree programs.

3c. LMHC
Licensed Mental Health Counselor (2 years plus supervised professional employment)
√ State LMHC license require to practice

The New York State Education Department, Office of the Professions, has an excellent description what Licensed Mental Health Counselors do. Just so you know, The American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA) is the professional group for these counselors.

The Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP ) offers a listing of colleges that offer Clinical Mental Health counseling degrees. That information can also be found in College Board's Book of Majors under the heading of Mental Health Counseling.

3d. LPCC
Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (2 years plus supervised professional employment)
√ State LPCC license require to practice

The American Counseling Association defines what a Licensed Professional Counselor does.

The American Counseling Association beautifully describes in a pdf "Who Are Licensed Professional Counselors." Since pdfs sometimes aren't clickable, Google the pdf title and it will pull-up the article for you. As noted for LMHC's, The Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP ) offers a listing of colleges that offer Professional Clinical Counselor degrees. That information can also be found in College Board's Book of Majors under the heading of Mental Health Counseling.

3e. PPS
SCHOOL COUNSELOR, with a Pupil Personnel Services credential

Depending on the state, individuals must have at least a BA in Counseling, sometimes a teaching credential, and/or a Master's Degree in Counseling and a state license (such as the Pupil Personnel Services credential)

As noted by the American School Counselor Association, "school counselors help students, pre-school through high school, focus on academic, socio-emotional development and career that they can achieve success in school and lead fulfilling lives."

In College Board's Book of Majors under School Psychology you will find a list of the colleges that offer degrees and credential programs in that area.

There are many other degree and/or certificate and special training programs available in the mental health arena, including

  • Addiction Counseling
  • Anger Management Counseling
  • Art Therapy
  • Attention and Learning Problems Counseling
  • Bereavement Counseling
  • Career Counseling
  • Child Abuse Counseling
  • College Admissions Counseling
  • Community Mental Health Counseling
  • Crisis Intervention Counseling
  • Domestic Violence Counseling
  • Eating Disorders Counseling
  • Geriatric Counseling
  • Grief Counseling
  • Music Therapy
  • Multicultural Counseling
  • Pain Management Counseling
  • Psycho-educational Testing
  • Rehabilitation Counseling
  • Spiritual Counseling
  • Sports Psychology Counseling
  • Substance Abuse Counseling
  • Suicide Intervention Counseling
  • Veterans Counseling


Courses in High School
In high school, it is important that you take an academically rigorous curriculum in which you get good grades in these courses:

A. History/social science 2 years
B. English 4 years
C. Math 3 years
D. 2 years of laboratory science
E. Language other than English 2 years
F. Visual and performing arts 1 year
G. 1 year of a college-preparatory elective*

* These are the a-g requirements for the University of California system. Check college websites and/or College Board's College Handbook 2015 for colleges' specific requirements.

Courses in College
In order to be prepared for a psychology-related graduate program, most colleges recommend that students either major in psychology as an undergraduate or have taken some of the following courses: abnormal psychology, social psychology, personality development, learning and memory, testing and measurement, cognitive psychology, statistical methods, child psychology, perception, developmental or life span psychology, research methods in psychology, biological bases of behavior. Every program will have its own recommended or required courses to take before applying; consult the colleges and/or their respective websites to see what.

Every program will have its own recommended or required courses to take before applying; consult the colleges and/or their respective websites to see what.

Many programs also require that students take the general Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and some the GRE Psychology test.

It is very useful to have been involved with a variety of people-oriented activities during high school and college. Admissions people especially notice students who have had paid or unpaid work in clinical settings. If you are interested in either psychiatry or psychology, it is important to have research experience.

Some Excellent Summer Opportunities
One way of figuring out whether you want to enter the counseling/therapy field is to attend Gettysburg College's Summer Camp in Psychology where students spend a week exploring psychology as a possible career.

The American Psychological Association also offers a list of other summer programs in psychology for high school students at

Finally, here are useful resources for learning about and making decisions about entering a mental health field:

• The APA offers a very useful examination re "What Is the Difference between Psychologists, Psychiatrists and Social Worker" on their website.

• The Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs lists by state many Masters and Doctoral counseling programs in the US

• If you need a little help in choosing a Master's Level Counseling Program, take a look at the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs" website.

• offers some useful information about deciding which counseling programs and areas of specialty are "right" for you.

• And if you're confused about whether you want to get an MA/MS or a doctoral degree, have a look at "Master's vs Ph.D--Comparing Programs," Counseling

Know that most of the hard copy books to which I refer can be found in college and/or public libraries.