What’s the Difference Between a Counselor and a Psychologist?


Which is better, a counselor or a psychologist?Everyone will tell you that a licensed psychologist has a PhD and a licensed counselor has a Master’s degree. Fair enough. But if you’re looking for therapy, what can psychologists do that counselors can’t, and vice versa? And should you expect a better outcome with a PhD psychologist than a counselor with a Master’s degree? In short, what’s the difference between a counselor and a psychologist? And what about exempt, alternative therapists who have taken trainings, but don’t have a license or an advanced degree?

Is Conventional Wisdom True?

How many of these statements do you believe?

  • A counselor deals with simple problems; a psychologist deals with complex problems.
  • The difference in coursework between a counselor (with a Master’s degree) and a psychologist (with a PhD) is that a psychologist spends those extra years focusing on advanced therapy skills.
  • Psychologists can diagnose “mental disorders”; counselors can’t.

None of those statements are true. Here’s the real deal:

  • Counselors and psychologists deal with the same problems.
  • The difference in coursework is that psychologists are trained to do scientific research. Therapy training is about the same.
  • Both counselors and psychologists can diagnose “mental disorders.”

So, yes, I’m claiming that psychologists and counselors are the same thing, unless you’re looking for someone to run rats through a maze. Now, is this just my opinion, or do I have something to back it up? Perhaps something authoritative, like the legal definitions of the two professions?

Practically the Same Definition for Both?

Here in Oregon, state law defines counseling as follows (bear with me):

675.705(7)(a) “Professional counseling” means the assessment, diagnosis or treatment of mental, emotional or behavioral disorders involving the application of mental health counseling or other psychotherapeutic principles and methods in the delivery of services to individuals, couples, children, families, groups or organizations.

While psychology is defined like this:

675.010(4) “Practice of psychology” means rendering or offering to render supervision, consultation, evaluation or therapy services to individuals, groups or organizations for the purpose of diagnosing or treating behavioral, emotional or mental disorders. “Practice of psychology” also includes delegating the administration and scoring of tests to technicians qualified by and under the direct supervision of a licensed psychologist.

Seriously? Legally, counselors and psychologists do the same things, except maybe for stuff about supervision and delegating testing?

But wait, there’s more! Here’s the definition of marriage and family therapy:

675.705(6)(a) “Marriage and family therapy” means the assessment, diagnosis or treatment of mental, emotional or behavioral disorders involving the application of family systems or other psychotherapeutic principles and methods in the delivery of services to individuals, couples, children, families, groups or organizations.

So we’ve got three different professions with whose legally defined areas of practice are practically identical. It that weird, or what?

But Why are They Defined Identically?

Are they peas in a pod?Because, when it comes right down to it, talk therapy is talk therapy. There’s no such thing as “counselor talk therapy” or “psychologist talk therapy.” If you look at the different techniques, theories, or “schools” of therapy, they’re studied and practiced by people with all kinds of licensing.

For example, if you were to drop in on a course in working with people with complex trauma disorders, you’ll find that counselors, psychologists, marriage and family therapist, and clinical social workers are all attending the same course. Why? Because they all work with the same kind of people and use the same kinds of techniques.

Psychologists, in particular, often like to give the impression that they work with more complex problems and are better trained than the rest, but that’s wishful thinking. Their additional years of training taught them how to be scientific researchers, not better therapists.

How do I know? The irony is that it’s the research psychologists who have demonstrated that psychologists don’t get better results than counselors. More on that later.

The State of Oregon recognizes that these educational paths and licenses give interchangeable results, and that’s why Oregon law repeats the same basic definition for counselors, psychologists, and marriage and family therapists.

Even highly advanced mind/body techniques, like Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, aren’t limited to one kind of licensee, or even to talk therapists! Why? As with other mind/body therapies, talk therapists and body workers are both drawn to this “one foot in each world” modality, and each brings an appropriate (though different) prior training to mind/body work.

What About Differences in Training?

But a psychologist, who has a PhD and thus more schooling than a counselor with a Master’s degree, is as better therapist, right? Perhaps not. Here’s the abstract from a research paper on whether therapists with more training get better results (emphasis is mine):

“We examine major criticisms of studies comparing paraprofessionals’ and dodo_bird_verdictprofessionals’ therapeutic effectiveness. Such analysis does not support the contention that methodological weaknesses of the studies produced systematic biases against professional therapists. Thus, despite common beliefs to the contrary, the finding that formal training does not predict successful therapy appears sound. We discuss the implications of this finding for research, training, and clinical practice.”

–Faust & Zlotnick, “Another Dodo Bird Verdict? Revisiting the Comparative Effectiveness of Professional and Paraprofessional Therapists.” Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 6/95, pp. 157-167.

Degrees and Experience Have Less Effect Than You’d Think

Psychological research has shown that therapy provides strong benefits to people. This should surprise no one, because we’ve all seen people benefit from therapy. But I was surprised to learn that psychological research has consistently shown that some things you’d think would be essential to good therapy don’t seem to matter much, and have little effect on outcomes in randomized clinical trials:

  • The amount of schooling the therapist has: Little effect.
  • The “school” of therapy the therapist uses (Freudian, psychodynamic, CBT, whatever): Little effect.
  • The years of experience the therapist has: Little effect.

This is not the universal result of all studies — unanimity isn’t something you get in research — but this unexpected finding has been repeated consistently for decades: too consistent and too repeatable to be an anomaly.

The “Dodo Bird Verdict”

This result has been dubbed “the dodo bird verdict,” because the original focus of the research was about which style of therapy was best, and they all came out roughly the same. This reminded someone of the scene in Alice in Wonderland, where the dodo bird announced, “EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes.”

The take-away seems to be this: conventional education, degrees, licenses, training, modality, and experience are not the source of superior therapeutic results. Therefore, source of superior results must be something else, and we must look elsewhere to find a way of identifying a good therapist.

The Common Factors Theory

The “something else” conclusion is called the common factors theory. The idea is that, since psychotherapy as been proven over and over to be effective, but the things people assumed caused this effectiveness don’t matter much, therapeutic results must come from elsewhere. The list of candidate for “elsewhere” are called “common factors,” because they are common to all effective therapies.

The list of therapeutic common factors varies. One commonly quoted model is from M. J. Lambert, and gives these estimates:

  • Extra-therapeutic events (including the client’s life outside the office) 40%.
  • Therapeutic relationship (empathy, rapport, unconditional regard): 30%
  • Placebo and Expectancy effects (“Bedside manner,” positive expectations, suggestion, symbolism, rituals of change): 15%
  • Therapeutic Technique: 15%

As you can imagine, these conclusions have been met with skepticism, hostility, and even distress by many therapists, who after all have invested a great deal of time and money — and perhaps part of their identity — into becoming credentialed professionals, generally with the promise that this was the only way of becoming an effective therapist.

Others have seen it as an exciting opportunity: there’s so much we don’t know about the human mind, but we’re living in a time where a lot of information is coming together, creating the building blocks for new and better therapies going forward. And as with any field where the paradigm is shifting, this is where the action is, here and now, and the playing field is more level than usual, favoring anyone who can deliver the goods.  This is good for researchers, because fields have dull times and exciting times, and you’re more likely to make a big contribution in exciting times. And the practical, one-on-one therapeutic possibilities are equally exciting. Reminds me of my Silicon Valley days…

Career Implications for Budding Therapists

So with all that in mind, consider for a moment the different levels of investment in time and money for three career paths:

  • A licensed psychologist who got a PhD and put in a lot of therapy hours under supervision before getting a license. (Note, by the way, that the PhD is a ticket to a career in research in addition to therapy.)
  • A licensed counselor or marriage and family therapist who got an MA and put in a lot of therapy hours under supervision before getting a license.
  • A counselor, marriage and family therapist, or other practitioner (hypnotherapist, NLP practitioner, somatic experiencing practitioner, etc.) who operates under Oregon’s educational exemption for counselors, and has taken specific, targeted, high-quality  trainings for their modality of choice.

Not that there’s anything wrong with investing in advanced degrees. If that’s what you want, do it! I agree completely that the degree and licensure route has many advantages, advantages that are too well-known for me to enumerate here.

That said, if we focus narrowly on doing therapy in private practice — and, granted, private practice is just one small portion of the therapeutic world — you can see that the time and cost savings of the exempt/unlicensed approach can be substantial!

People mix and match, too. I’ve heard of people learning an alternative modality like hypnosis or NLP and using it to put themselves through school, emerging at the end with an advanced degree, a license, and no debt. That’s pretty cool.

And then there’s the reverse path, where licensed or licensed-track professionals switch to an alternative modality and were pleased with the results: everything from psychology grad students to licensed psychiatrists switching to an alternative or exempt modality.This happens all the time.

That makes four career paths in all:

  1. Conventional all the way (graduate degree followed by licensure).
  2. Alternative, followed by conventional.
  3. Conventional, followed by alternative.
  4. Alternative all the way.

All of these paths have their pros and cons. All of these paths are being followed, right now, by many people.

Wait, So How Do I Pick a Therapist, Then?

If research says that therapists with different levels of education, experience, and licensure still give, on average,  the same kinds of results, what’s left for the consumer to choose from? Try these three things, each of which is helpful in its own way:

  • Local reputation. Local reputation is the most reliable way of picking anything. Therapists with lots of satisfied clients are the ones most likely to be good therapists. If you ask around — and especially if you ask, “Who’s the best?” and not, “Who do you see?” — you’ll likely hear the same names over and over. See one of them!
  • Click.” If you like and trust a therapist, that’s an excellent sign.
  • Approach. If you can’t stand the idea of hypnosis, don’t see a hypnotist. If you can’t stand the idea of “talking out” your problems, don’t see a talk therapist. There are many different therapeutic approaches and styles. Pick one that seems like it’s within your range.



19 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between a Counselor and a Psychologist?

  1. Wow, this is extremely detailed and thorough information. I have seen three different counselors and I haven’t liked any of their approaches. I have never seen a psychologist before, but it seems like this type of therapy would be more in my favor. I often overthink things, and just talking about it doesn’t seem to help very much.

    1. He didn’t mention folks with a Social Work Masters in Clinical work- we can diagnose- once we graduate and take a licensure, we have 2 more years supervision , ethics classes and an advanced clinical licensure to pass- we are held to extremely strict standards –

      1. Susan,

        Let’s face it, people who are well-informed about which practitioners are allowed to do what would realize that psychologists can’t do anything that counselors, marriage and family therapists, and clinical social workers can’t do with a Master’s degree, and would probably abandon plans for the doctorate until they had enough clinical experience under their belt to see if it’s really the right gig for them and worth the extra investment. Or if they really wanted to be called “doctor” and didn’t realize they could do it with a Bachelor’s degree if they became optometrists instead. Lots of graduate students are ill-informed consumers of educational services.

  2. Wow. Im a licensed psychologist in Texas and what you say could not be further from the truth. We have more years of training and education as well as professional exam and orals for licensure that Lpc or other “COUNSELORS” don’t have. You can’t practice in Texas without a license. And a master’s is a house wife degree in psychology. Such as lpc. They are a dime a dozen. You can’t legally diagnose or see certain patients without supervision. You can only administer certain test that anyone else In public could use. Do better research.

    1. Mr. Brown,

      A doctoral degree in psychology requires 4-5 years of training beyond a bachelor degree. Of that training, 2 years is in clinical experience (for clinical degrees) – meaning that you required 3 years of coursework before your pre-doctoral internship and dissertation.

      My husband has the same level of training as a psychologist in Mexico. A 3-year degree in clinical psychology. Most countries do not require a doctoral degree for the practice of psychology; as a matter of fact, the only reason there’s any real distinction between psychology and the other helping professions in the US is because the APA is such a politically active organization.

      Your assertion that psychologists are better trained is absurd. Counselors can (and do) earn doctoral degrees; as do marriage and family therapists and social workers. I have completed 3 graduate degrees which consisted of 6 years of coursework beyond my undergraduate degree. I might be “just” a counselor, but as far as education goes, I’m definitely coming out ahead of you.

      You also claim that counselors cannot diagnose mental illnesses. That, too, is incorrect. Diagnosis is a requirement for reimbursement through insurance. I don’t know of any states where counselors are not permitted to diagnose mental illnesses.

      You pointed out the difference in assessment. That may be valid to a certain extent. In most states, counselors are not permitted to use projective assessment right out of school. That makes sense, since most aren’t trained in it. With training, though, counselors in many states can use any form of assessment they deem necessary and appropriate as long as they are adequately trained and qualified for the use of the assessment method. You would also be aware (if you were to employ standardized assessments) that not “everybody” can access and use them. Test vendors have varying levels of eligibility and require verification of eligibility prior to purchasing.

      I think that maybe you took offense to having completed a doctoral degree to do the same thing that others can do with a master degree. One of the first things you should have learned in your helping relationships course should have been that it’s not personal.

  3. The article makes some good points, but is clearly misleading. Many counselors do possess the Ph.D., or Ed.D. degrees thus they received a doctorate. Finally the comment about the LPC being a house wife with a degree in psychology or whatever by Mr. Brown is insane! It stands for licensed professional counselor. It requires at least a master’s degree in counseling, often thousands of hours of supervision, an the ability to pass a very tough exam. Don’t believe me? Just ask any LPC.

    1. Dennis, I couldn’t agree more.

      Frankly, I think some of it comes down to allowing psychologists to call themselves “doctor” professionally. If you call yourself “doctor” but aren’t a physician, you’re setting yourself up for a lifetime of answering “NO” to the question, “Are you a real doctor?” Some psychologists respond by downplaying the PhD. Others turn the pompous/arrogant dial up to 11.

      And just think of all the mountains of bad research and wasted resources by grad students who have no interest or aptitude in psychological research, but want to be called “doctor.”


  4. That’s interesting that so many professions use talk therapy. It must be an effective technique for therapy. I’ve emotionally drained lately, so I’ve been thinking about finding a professional to talk to.

    1. Larry,

      Talk therapy has been demonstrated to be effective in innumerable studies. Also, it’s clear (to no one’s surprise) that some therapists are far more effective than others. (The dirty little secret of talk therapy is that 65 years of research into therapeutic effectiveness has been unable to demonstrate that one method of talk therapy is better than another. Or that degrees matter, or that experience matters. Obviously, this can’t be true unless something is wrong. Presumably, either the education given to budding therapists is largely irrelevant, or the experiments are weak. Likely both are true.) So you’re best served by asking around and finding a therapist who comes highly recommended by clients and who seems like someone you can happily spend an hour with.)

  5. While I realize this article is aimed at those seeking therapeutic help, strictly in terms of answering the question posed in the title, the answer is: “Counselors are experts in problem behaviors, whereas psychologists are experts in all behaviors.”

    1. Interesting distinction … though I doubt I’ll ever meet anyone who will claim with a straight face to be an “expert in all behaviors.”

      I agree that in a sensible world, the term “psychologist” would include research psychologists, industrial psychologists, etc., and not just clinical psychologists. Here in Oregon, the licensing boards are a lot grabbier than that, though. Recently an engineer was fined by the engineering board for calling himself an engineer without having a professional engineering license (which in reality is relevant only to a small subset of the profession. And not so long ago, an Oregon geology professor was prosecuted (unsuccessfully) for referring to himself as a “geologist.”

      So, here in Oregon, at least, only licensed clinical psychologists are entirely in the clear when calling themselves “psychologists.” Legally speaking, an Oregon licensed psychologist has a narrower scope of practice than a licensed professional counselor. Fun fact.

  6. I have decided to start making a new distinction related to psychologists. The distinction is one I think will be congruent with current trends in “organized” (not organizational) psychology. We will call the “real” psychologists (wink, wink, nod, nod), “APA psychologists.” They represent less than half of the psychologists in the U.S., but due to their courtship with state regulatory boards and psychology programs, they may become the majority. An APA membership may not be required (yet) to practice psychology, but an APA indoctrination soon may be. Beginning at the end of 2017, The Oregon Board of Psychologist Examiners will no longer license any psychologist who has not been indoctrinated at an APA accredited school. Other schools if they hold strong against the APA oligarchy will need to fight this trend with all their rational might and means to justice or they will need to plan to shut their doors. Psychology is not about free thought anymore. It is about political association. At present we still have two types of
    practicing psychologists – the one’s who must still find their professional success by merit, and APA psychologists who may find professional success by APA affiliation alone. This does not mean that no APA psychologists could also succeed on merit, but they CAN succeed without it whereas, if we don’t do something about it, an otherwise GREAT psychologist won’t be able to succeed without an APA indoctrination and stamp to prove it. APA has power, and yes, they have a doctrine. APA is not about psychology anymore. APA is about APA.
    To repeat, I am hoping to start a practice which will catch on. That is to call APA Psychologists exactly that. The other psychologists? The will be called “Honest,” “Real,” “Free Market (open competition of ideas)” or something along these lines. I haven’t decided yet, but use of any of the above will help to make the new distinction complete.

    1. I’m an LPC in Tennessee and have been for about 25 years. I have a PhD in Psychology. As in your state, in Tennessee, both the education and licensure process for counselors/therapists, whether through the psychology board or the professional counselors board, are also politically influenced. Yet, as in Oregon, the legal scope of practice for LPC’s with a “Mental Health Service Provider” endorsement is virtually identical to that of licensed psychologists, except for the later’s inclusion of psychological testing.

      In Tennessee, to become licensed as a psychologist, one’s PhD must come from an APA approved university. Mine didn’t. Here, ones Masters degree must include 60 units of graduate coursework and must come from a CACREP (Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs) approved program (I was licensed many years before this requirement).

      So in Tennessee, people who would like to be therapists but whose Masters degrees are not from CACREP accredited programs, are out of luck just as those with PhD’s who would like to become licensed psychologists but have not attended an APA approved program.

      I hope that one of these days licensing boards across the country will catch up to the research and exclude these politically-influenced requirements and focus more on the content of training, and include a requirement of involvement in a lengthy professional mentoring process that emphasizes the therapist’s development of therapist characteristics that promote the therapeutic relationship (development and appropriate demonstration of accurate empathy, etc.), within his/her preferred therapeutic approach.

      But since licensure has evolved to become increasingly politically-influenced, I can’t imagine this happening. I’m just glad that here in Tennessee the people we see as clients don’t usually know the difference between an LPC, a LP, or an LCSW. And those in the field usually don’t either, except on their signs and advertisement. Here word of mouth usually determines who gets the business and that’s all about what really works, rather than politics. (Of course the licensed psychologists are still paid more by insurance companies and the rest of us don’t like that much 🙂 )

  7. You have shared a lot of useful information. I came to understand that what is the difference between counselor and psychologist. I got a valuable information of counselor and psychologist difference. Thanks for sharing the great information. Good Luck!

    1. Thomas,

      In Oregon, there’s no practical difference between a counselor and a psychologist, except that psychologists are legally allowed to put on airs and call themselves “doctor,” while counselors aren’t, even if they have a PhD — which many counselors do.

      Some psychologists will tell you that they’ve done original research as part of their doctoral program — just like counselors with PhD’s — and that performing experiments on rats and students somehow makes them better therapists. There is no evidence to support this, however.

      Research psychologists are cool, because psychological research is (in my opinion), the most important area of science, because at some point the main thing is understanding ourselves. Whether a given clinical psychologist has actually participated in this endeavor is another question. (I remember the dissertation of one of the Oregon Psychology Board’s members. It was not up to the standards of a winning small-town science-fair entry. Or a fourth-place entry.)

  8. Basically, there is no actual difference between psychologists and counselors aside from the degrees or papers. That’s surprising, intriguing, and interesting to learn since that means I could get the same result by seeing a counselor rather than a psychologist who costs more. That’s perfect for us who are aiming to just get help with our psychological needs and doesn’t have the cash for a psychologist’s counseling. Hopefully, we do get the same treatment from them. I’ll do try to read more about their differences and what else others say about the interesting topic. Thanks!

  9. This so far has been a very helpful article for me when trying to decide my career path as a soon to be graduate with a BA in psychology. For a long time, I wanted to be a clinical psychologist but recently I found a very great program in Counseling, both MA and PhD, that is studying the field of therapy I am interested in (AAT assistance in psychotherapy). I actually based a lot of my own self identity on becoming a “doctor”, and I felt like becoming a counselor wouldn’t help me reach my professional goals. I am starting to change my mind as graduation inches closer as to what I ultimately want to do, but this has been very helpful.

    1. Brenna,

      I think you’re wise. If you become a licensed psychologist and refer to yourself as “doctor,” you’ll spend the rest of your life answering “No” to the question, “Are you a real doctor?” This always struck me as being kind of painful! Of course, you could become a licensed psychologist and never refer to yourself as “doctor,” and just be who you are and do what you do, and that wouldn’t be a problem.


  10. Thanks for helping me understand that a psychologist has further training than a therapist that focuses on research. I just need to know about this since I will be getting one for my daughter. This is because she has been traumatized by the accident that she had when they had an educational trip last month.

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