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FAQ: What Are the Differences Between Counseling and Psychology?

Answer: Counseling and Psychology are related fields with different educational tracks, different licensing requirements, and different scopes of practice. Licensed professional counselors (LPCs) and psychologists are both qualified to use psychotherapy to assess and treat those in need of mental health services. LPCs require a master’s degree and their scope of practice is limited to providing therapy. Psychologists are trained in doctoral programs and are licensed to provide a wider range of treatments, engage in psychological research, and administer certain psychological tests.

Counseling vs. Psychology

Counseling is a profession primarily concerned with offering psychotherapy to individuals, couples, families, and other social groups. LPCs may be employed in hospitals, clinics, schools, and private practice, and they see clients with a range of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, family dysfunction, grief, trauma, and substance abuse. Psychologists practice in many of the same settings, but often treat patients with more severe emotional and behavioral problems and more acute mental health needs. Unlike counselors, who are trained at the master’s degree level, psychologists must earn a doctoral degree (PhD, PsyD, or EdD) in order to be licensed. As a result, while the role of counselors is confined to providing counseling services, psychologists may also engage in psychological research involving human subjects. In several states, psychologists who complete an additional master’s program in pharmacology may also prescribe certain medications.

Professional DesignationLicensed Professional Counselor (LPC)Psychologist
Educational RequirementsMaster’s in CounselingPhD in Psychology
EdD in counseling, developmental, or educational psychology
Accreditation BodiesCACREP
Licensure ExamsNCE
Supervised Clinical Hours700 as part of a master’s program + post-graduate internships as mandated by each state2,000 as part of a doctoral program + post-graduate internships as mandated by each state
Typical WorkplacesHospitals, mental health clinics, residential care facilities, schools, and private practiceHospitals, healthcare clinics, mental health centers, research hospitals and universities, and private practice

Defining Counseling vs. Psychology

Counseling is defined by the client-counselor relationship and the role of the counselor in this relationship. The American Counseling Association (ACA) stresses that, “counseling is a collaborative effort between the counselor and the client.” The organization also clearly delineates the scope of professional counseling: “Professional counselors help clients identify goals and potential solutions to problems which cause emotional turmoil; seek to improve communication and coping skills; strengthen self-esteem; and promote behavior change and optimal mental health.”

Psychology has a broader definition that encompasses clinical counseling services and much more. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines psychology as “the study of the mind and behavior,” and stresses, “the discipline embraces all aspects of the human experience – from the functions of the brain to the actions of nations, from child development to care for the aged.” In addition, the APA definition of a professional psychologist specifies that, “psychologists have a doctoral degree in psychology from an organized, sequential program in a regionally accredited university or professional school.”

Training in Counseling vs. Psychology

A major area of difference between counseling and psychology is in the education and training required to work professionally in these fields. The APA considers only those with a doctoral degree in psychology to be professional psychologists, and all states require a doctoral degree for full licensure in psychology. It is possible to work in some areas of psychology with a master’s in psychology, for example, in the field of industrial-organizational psychology, which involves the application of theories of psychology to issues in various workplaces. However, clinical, counseling, and research psychologists must hold a PhD or PsyD and be licensed by the state in which they practice. This is also true for psychologists in private practice, and for school psychologists, who typically receive their training in EdD programs. While EdD programs may be housed in schools or departments of education, PhD in psychology and PsyD programs are housed in departments of psychology and/or schools of medicine.

Instruction and training for professional counselors, or LPCs, takes place in master’s in counseling programs. These programs are typically two years long, as opposed to the four-to-seven years it takes to complete a doctorate in psychology. While a master’s in counseling and a doctoral program in psychology both include supervised clinical internship training, the number of hours differs significantly: 700 hours is typical for a master’s in counseling program; while 2,000 hours is normal in psychology doctoral programs.

It should be noted that there are master’s in psychology programs. These programs may qualify graduates for work in the field of industrial-organizational psychology, or to become assistants in clinical, counseling, and/or research psychology. They may also be stepping-stones to an eventual doctorate in psychology. Thus, a master’s in psychology is not equivalent to a master’s in counseling and does not prepare graduates for the same careers. This is also true of most master’s in counseling psychology programs, which are psychology programs and generally do not provide adequate training for licensure in counseling or in psychology.

Accreditation for Counseling vs. Psychology Programs

The APA provides accreditation to doctoral programs in psychology. These programs must meet the APA Commission of Accreditation’s standards for teaching, research, faculty qualifications, laboratory and training facilities, and student outcomes. The APA only accredits programs that provide a minimum of three years of full-time academic instruction, at least one of which must be in-residence at the degree-granting institution. In addition, an APA-accredited psychology program must include a full year of internship training or the equivalent over a period of not more than 24 months. The APA does not offer accreditation to bachelor’s or master’s programs in psychology.

The largest accrediting body in the field of counseling is the Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP), which recently merged with the Council on Rehabilitation Education (CORE), the body that formerly oversaw the accreditation of master’s in rehabilitation counseling programs. CACREP accredits master’s and doctoral programs, and maintains curricular standards based on eight core areas of counseling instruction and training. CACREP also requires programs to include a 100-hour practicum, and 600 hours of supervised internship experience.

While CACREP provides the most widely recognized type of accreditation, it is not the only organization that accredits master’s in counseling programs. The Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC) is a separate organization that accredits master’s in counseling and master’s in psychology programs, including master’s in counseling psychology programs. In addition, the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) accredits master’s in marriage and family therapy programs, and the National Addiction Studies Accreditation Commission (NASAC) accredits master’s in addiction and substance abuse programs.

Licensing in Counseling vs. Psychology

Licensure for counselors and licensure for psychologists are separate processes, with different requirements, different exams, and different licensing boards. Licensure in both professions is handled by the state in which an individual intends to practice as a counselor or a psychologist, not by the accreditation bodies. However, most states align their licensure requirements with the curricular recommendations of the APA in psychology, and CACREP in counseling.

In psychology, it is fairly standard for states to require the completion of an accredited doctoral degree in psychology plus an additional 2,000 or more hours of post-doctoral internship training. Applicants must then pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP), which is administered by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB). Some states have additional requirements, including a criminal background check and/or a state jurisprudence exam.

The path to licensure for counselors is in some ways parallel to that for psychologists. Applicants must attain a master’s level degree in counseling from an accredited program and then complete a designated number of supervised clinical hours, typically in the range of 1,000-3,000 or more. Applicants then sit for one of two tests commonly used by state boards: the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE), and the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). States may also require applicants to pass a criminal background check and/or a state jurisprudence exam.

One significant way in which the licensure process for counselors differs from the licensure process for psychologists is that some states have a tiered system for counseling licenses, which allows applicants to attain a provisional license prior to completing the requisite number of supervised post-graduate internship hours. Many states also have separate licensing for different types of counselors, including school counselors, substance abuse counselors, and marriage and family therapists. In order to determine the specific requirements for licensure in counseling and psychology, students should contact the licensing boards in the state in which they intend to practice.

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