Counselor vs Therapist vs Psychologist

A counselor, a therapist, and a psychologist walk into a bar. How do you tell them apart?

One way is to shout out a problem you’re having and watch how they respond. The counselor will listen, ask you more about yourself, and help you plan the next step. The therapist may offer massage, music, or exercise as a way to improve your situation and yourself. The psychologist will observe and discern what complex mix of social and medical factors caused all three of you to walk into this hypothetical bar in the first place.

If only it were that easy.

Counselors, therapists, and psychologists are all committed to improving people’s mental health, but they go about it in very different ways. Broadly speaking, counselors are grouped by the population they serve, while therapists are grouped by the medium in which they practice. The more medically-minded psychologists are grouped by the social system in which they specialize. But there’s more to it than that, as each profession has strict educational and experiential requirements that vary from state to state—and vary further by one’s specialization.

There is a lot of overlap between counselors, therapists, and psychologists. But don’t let it drive you crazy. To get a clear look at the differences and similarities among these three professions, check out our side-by-side comparison chart below.

CounselorTherapistPsychologist
DefinitionAccording to the American Counseling Association, a counselor offers a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.
While there are several sub-disciplines of counseling, which are based around specific populations, professional titles are largely regulated to vet practitioners for competency.
“Therapist” is an umbrella term that encompasses several different roles. In some states, such as California, it’s a protected title that refers to a trained and licensed mental health professional who works in a specific context, and with a specific medium.
Where it is not a legally protected title, the term therapist can extend to those who do not meet strict licensure and educational requirements; but every domain of therapy is regulated in at least one state.
According to the American Psychological Association, practicing psychologists are highly trained, licensed professionals who are qualified to perform counseling, psychotherapy, research, and the treatment of mental disorders in a variety of social settings.
However, some domain-specific specialties (e.g., forensic psychology, sports psychology) do not conform to the definitions and requirements of other psychologists.
Types
  • Addiction Counselor
  • Career Counselor
  • Clinical Mental Health Counselor
  • Genetic Counselor
  • Marriage, Couple, and Family Counselor
  • Rehabilitation Counselor
  • School Counselor
  • Art Therapist
  • Behavioral Analysis Therapist
  • Marriage and Family Therapist
  • Massage Therapist
  • Music Therapist
  • Nutritional Therapist
  • Occupational Therapist
  • Physical Therapist
  • Sex Therapist
  • Speech Therapist
  • Cognitive Psychologist
  • Climate Psychologist
  • Clinical Psychologist
  • Counseling Psychologist
  • Developmental Psychologist
  • Experimental Psychologist
  • Forensic Psychologist
  • Industrial and Organizational Psychologist
  • Rehabilitation Psychologist
  • School Psychologist
  • Social Psychologist
  • Sports Psychologist
How Long Does It Take?To become a licensed counselor, one will need a bachelor’s degree (four years), a master’s degree (two to three years), and a certain amount of supervised experience (varies).
On average, it takes between six to nine years to become a professional counselor.
The path to a career as a therapist will vary, depending upon the area in which one chooses to practice. For states where licensure and educational requirements are in place, it’s typical for therapists to have both a bachelor’s degree (four years), a master’s degree (two to three years), and a certain amount of supervised experience (varies).
On average, it takes between six to nine years to become a professional therapist.
The educational and licensure requirements for psychologists are domain-specific. A sports psychologist, for example, may need only a bachelor’s and a master’s degree (six to seven years), while a clinical psychologist will need a doctoral degree (eight to 12 years), an internship, and supervised experience (one to two years).
It can therefore take anywhere between six and 14 years to become a professional psychologist.
Educational AccreditationFor counseling programs, the two primary accreditation authorities are the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) and the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC).
Other more domain-specific accrediting agencies include:
  • Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC)
  • Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE)
  • Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP)
  • National Addiction Studies Accreditation Commission (NASAC)
As an umbrella term, there’s no overarching accreditation authority for therapist programs. More domain-specific accrediting agencies include:
  • Accreditation Council for Art Therapy Education (ACATE)
  • Association for Behavioral Analysis International Accreditation Board (ABAI-AB)
  • Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation (COMTA)
  • Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE)
  • Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE)
  • Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology (CAA-ASHA)
The American Psychological Association’s Commission on Accreditation (APA-CoA) is the national accrediting authority for professional education and training in psychology; but it only accredits institutions at the doctoral and postdoctoral level.
Master’s programs in psychology may be accredited by the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC). Additional resources can be found at the APA’s Office of Precollege and Undergraduate Education and the APA’s Office of Graduate and Postgraduate Education and Training.
Other region-specific and domain-agnostic accreditation authorities for all three types of education (counseling, therapy, psychology) include:
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
  • Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NCCU)
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS)
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
Degree Programs

Supervised Hour RequirementsRequirements vary by state, but counselors often need between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience to earn state licensure, according to the BLS (2019).Supervised experience requirements for therapists vary widely based on location and domain.
To become a marriage and family therapist in California, for example, requires 3,000 hours of supervised experience, while becoming a massage therapist requires only 500 to 1,000 hours of instruction.
Supervised experience requirements for psychologists will vary by state, from 1,500 hours (California) to 6,000 hours (Michigan). The American Psychological Association recommends 2,000 hours during internship, and 2,000 hours during the postdoc.
Licensing & CertificationCounselors will need to be licensed by the state in which they choose to practice, and the American Counseling Association maintains a database of each state licensing entity, and all requirements have been detailed on the licensed mental health counseling (LMHC) licensure and career page. All states require a relevant master’s degree and some amount of supervised fieldwork.
Counselors may also choose to earn domain-specific certification, such as:
  • Certified Career Counselor (CCC)
  • Certified Genetic Counselor (CGC)
  • Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC)
  • National Certified Addiction Counselor (NCAC)
  • National Certified Counselor (NCC)
  • National Certified School Counselor (NCSC)
In states where therapist is a protected title, therapists will need to be state-licensed or certified in order to practice. Eligibility often includes a master’s degree and a certain amount of supervised fieldwork, but requirements will vary by location and by domain.
The following agencies offer registration, certification, and other credentialing information:
  • American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT)
  • American Board of Physical Therapy Residency and Fellowship Education
  • American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy
  • Art Therapy Credentials Board
  • Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists
  • Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards
  • National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT)
Most states require practicing psychologists to be licensed. Licensing laws will vary from state to state, and specialty to specialty. For clinical and counseling psychologists, eligibility requirements typically include a doctoral degree, an internship, and one to two years of supervised experience. Specific state requirements can be found at the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB).
Other domain-specific and voluntary certification information can be found at:
  • American Board of Professional Psychology (Forensic Psychology)
  • American Board of Sport Psychology (ABPS)
  • Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP)
Typical ResponsibilitiesWhile it will vary depending upon the population served, some typical responsibilities for counselors may include:
  • Evaluate a client’s mental health or goals through a client-centered approach
  • Recommend new treatments and/or goals
  • Work with clients to develop new and healthy habits
  • Connect clients with other resources within their community
While it will vary depending upon one’s specialty, some typical responsibilities for therapists may include:
  • Encourage clients to express their emotions and experiences
  • Guide clients through a period of recovery
  • Advise clients on proactive measures to ensure physical and mental wellbeing
  • Refer clients to other resources within their community
While it will vary depending upon one’s specialty, the BLS lists some of the typical responsibilities for psychologists as:
  • Observe, interview, and survey individuals
  • Discuss the treatment of problems with clients
  • Conduct scientific studies of behavior and brain function
  • Write articles, research papers, and reports to share findings and educate others
  • Supervise clinicians and counseling professionals
SalaryThe average salary for a counselor will depend upon their domain, experience, and geographic location.
According to the latest BLS (May 2019) data, substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors make an average of $46,240 per year, with the top ten percent earning over $76,080 per year.
School and career counselors make an average of $57,040 per year, with the top ten percent earning over $96,090 per year.
The average salary for a therapist will depend upon their domain, experience, and geographic location.
According to the latest BLS (May 2019) data:
  • Marriage and family therapists make a median salary of $49,610 per year
  • Massage therapists make a median salary of $42,820 per year
  • Occupational therapists make a median salary of $84,950 per year
  • Physical therapists make a median salary of $89,440 per year
The average salary for a psychologist will depend upon their domain, experience, and geographic location.
According to the latest BLS (May 2019) data, psychologists make an average of $80,370 per year, with the top ten percent earning over $132,070 per year.
The Bottom LineCounselors are mental health professionals who are split into domains based upon the population they serve.Therapists are mental health professionals who are split into domains based upon the method of psychotherapy they practice.Psychologists are advanced mental health professionals who are split into domains based upon the social system they specialize in.

Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog

Writer

Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California, and he believes a strong society demands a stronger mental health system. Since early 2018, he’s written extensively about emerging topics in counseling, research, and healthcare education. Drawing upon interviews with hospital CEOs, healthcare professionals, professors, and advocacy groups, his writing and research are focused on learning from those who know the subject best.