Most people aren’t very concerned about the therapist’s credentials when they “shop” for a therapist and rightfully so.
You can encounter PhDs, who lack basic emotional intelligence essential for their line of work, and paraprofessional counselors, whose wisdom, kindness and dedication made them highly effective therapists, sometimes more effective than their professional counterparts with high academic degrees and special training.
Even though academic and licensing credentials aren’t a reflection of how good therapists are at what they do, it is still helpful to know what each credential means, because sometimes they influence a practitioner’s philosophy and approaches to work.
First, let’s review the difference between academic and licensing credentials. Essentially, academic credentials are academic degrees and certifications, while licensing credentials represent different types of professional licenses.
When you are looking for a therapist, you will most likely see them hold the following academic credentials: PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) and PsyD (Doctor of Psychology), MA (Master of Arts) /MS (Master of Science) in psychology and MA/MS in social work.
The difference between two doctoral degrees, PhD and PsyD, is that the former is research focused while the latter has a clinical focus. In other words, PhD is more research oriented and PsyD is more clinical practice oriented. This doesn’t mean that all those who have a PhD work in research. All it means is that their academic program is more research oriented, but after they complete the program, they don’t have to do work in research. Many of them only work in clinical practice like those with other types of academic credentials.
The difference between two master degrees in psychology and in social work, MA and MS, is fundamental in theory but practically non-existent in reality. In theory, MA refers to the area of liberal arts studies, while MS refers to the area of empirical studies/research. In reality though, both MA and MS psychology programs prepare their graduates for working in the field of mental health in the same capacity, so their curriculum largely overlap. Very often those programs include specific areas of clinical practice such as Marriage and Family Therapy, Art Therapy, Counseling, etc.
Licensing credentials refer to a specific type of license held by a practitioner. Here are some licensing credentials you will encounter: Clinical Psychologist, Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT), Licensed Social Worker (LCSW) and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC).
Different types of license are supposed to differentiate the types of service provided by a therapist. In reality though, those differences are often blurred. For example, a Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT), formerly known as a Marriage, Family and Child Counselor (MFCC), license was specifically established for doing work with families, couples and children. However, many MFTs in private practice often do the same work as clinical psychologists with the exemption of forensic evaluations and psychological testing. In California, MFTs may also conduct psychological testing, if they get additional training in that area.
In practice, a practitioner’s area of expertise develops from their experience and their personal interest in that area and doesn’t have much relevance to their academic and licensing credentials. Therefore, if you and your spouse are considering marriage counseling, pay more attention to prospective therapists’ experience and personal interest in that area than their credentials. If you see a therapist who built his or her practice around one specific issue or one specific area, it’s an indication that this issue/area is this therapist’s specialty, that this is something the therapist is passionate about and has most experience working with. While this is not a guarantee that they will be a good match for you, they are a better choice than someone whose practice is generic.
An effective therapy is much more about a therapist’s wisdom and compassion, their ability to connect and to combine humanity and professionalism than it’s about their credentials. For tips on how to “shop” for a therapist read the article “How to Select a Therapist.”