The Deal with Degrees

You’ve done it. You’ve finally started the hunt for a therapist. And congratulations to you, for making it this far. Even just opening your laptop, and typing in the phrase “therapists near me” can be one of the most difficult mental barriers to get through. And what is your reward for your efforts? List after list of available therapists, all with different degrees, specialties, ages, genders, and so forth. The bright side is that you have such a diverse group of individuals to choose from. The down side?

How do you choose?

It can be extremely overwhelming, adding to a process that is already stressful, to differentiate between all of the mental health professionals advertised on the Internet or in any database. And while the ability to connect with to a person who will be assisting you on the rollercoaster ride of recovery is probably the most important, understanding what training a therapist has had can also give insight in the decision process. There are many different degrees that an individual can get within the realm of psychology, ranging from the almighty doctorate to the volunteer work done as a peer counselor. Let’s spend some time going over the basics of a few that you are bound to see in your search.


A PhD is generally more accepted in the world of psychology, but mostly when it comes to academic or research positions. For clinical work, both degrees are equal. One confusing factor: individual’s can get a doctoral degree in marriage and family therapy, social work, and counseling. These degrees are just more involved than a masters in the same.


Requirements: Bachelor’s degree + 4-7 years of doctoral study

A PhD, or a doctorate of philosophy, is the highest level degree (aside from a PsyD) that one can obtain in psychology. A PhD student has many areas of focus they can choose from, but they are generally in the academic or research field (as teachers or scientists). That being said, many individuals with PhDs go on to become therapists or work in clinical settings.


Requirements: Bachelors degree + 4-7 years in doctoral study (includes 1-2 years in a clinical internship)

A PsyD,  is a doctor of psychology. It’s a more newly established method of gaining a doctorate, focused on clinical work or work more in contact with clients. More specifically, you can gain a PsyD in clinical or counseling work.  It takes about the same amount of time as a P.D, but with one to two years spent in a clinical internship. This degree prepares an individual to provide more one-on-one care with clients , but this could be private or within a school, a mental health clinic, or the government.


Masters programs are typically a minimum of two years after the bachelor’s degree is obtained. When it comes to therapy, Masters programs come in a variety of flavors:

Masters in Counseling

Requirements: Bachelor’s degree + 2 years in graduate school

A master’s degree is a less intensive post-graduate program, approximately 2 years in length. A focus in counseling, while similar to clinical, helps individuals with situational stressors (economic, social, death or loss) vs. more serious illnesses. For example, a counselor could assist you with a breakup or the loss of a loved one.  You might find these individuals working on college/school campuses, but not all choose this route.

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT)

Bachelor’s degree + 2 years in graduate school

An MFT is a marriage and family therapist. This individual would have gained either a master’s or a doctorate degree (more often it is a master’s degree), focusing on psychotherapy or family systems/ relationships and how they affect a client’s mental health. The MFT will work through the individual’s interpersonal relationships to promote healthy change, and often encourages the family to get involved if there is an issue. This is a very common therapist in the field, and they are very helpful even with more severe illnesses.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Requirements: Bachelor’s degree + min. 2 years in graduate school

A LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker, which is actually similar to an MFT. While this title may remind you more of the foster-care system, clinical social workers are also trained to provide effective therapy to clients in different settings as well. They focus a lot on how the social environment affects the client and often work to advocate for them in social settings (in the workplace, hospitals, schools) throughout their life. We often see their involvement in more community-based areas, vs. within a family system or in private therapy.

Substance Abuse Counselor

Requirements: Bachelors + min. 2 years in graduate school

A substance abuse counselor is trained to assist individuals through therapy for their addictions (drugs, alcohol, sex, etc.) This includes helping people with underlying emotional problems such as depression, anxiety, suicidal impulses, self-esteem issues, or situational issues such as loss. They offer support in individual or group settings, and have the capacity to give resources where needed for employment opportunities.

Peer Counselors and Volunteers

Last, but certainly not least, we have peer counselors and non-profit volunteers. While these individuals may not hold fancy degrees, sometimes their deep passion for their work and ability to empathize may make them equally or even more qualified than their pedigreed counterparts.

Peer Counselors and Volunteers

Requirements: months of training within the non-profit or school

These individuals do not need to obtain a degree before offering their services. They obtain training in specific tasks/ environments such as suicide hotlines, women’s shelters, cancer support, free clinics, peer counseling groups and so on. They are not licensed to practice therapy specifically, but are allowed to assist people in certain aspects of their mental health recovery. Schools often gather students with a counseling interest to volunteer as peer counselors, providing a listening ear and resources for other students.

Now that we’ve gone over the basics of psychology careers, hopefully you feel more prepared to pick out a therapist from the endless lists online. Or maybe you feel just as confused, and that’s perfectly okay. The field of psychology is wide and vast, which only means there are many, many professionals ready to help you with whatever struggles you are going through right now. And once you’ve selected some options, you can get to the more important portion of the process: getting to know the therapist first-hand. So, go ahead, click a profile and get reading.

Disclaimer: a degree does not determine if a therapist is going to work for you as an individual. Its informative to know what training someone has obtained, especially if you have a particular issue you are aware of, but try not to write people off based on this information alone. Higher degrees ≠ better therapists.

Dr. Aaron Trinh, PsyD
APA (American Psychological Association)

This post was written by Lia Freitas as a part of the Therapy  101 collection. Please send any questions or concerns to

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