Psychologist vs Therapist: What’s the Difference?

Written by Scott Wilson

To the average person on the street, there might not seem to be any difference at all between a psychologist vs a therapist. You show up, you tell them your problems, they talk to you about them, and you come away with a deeper understanding of yourself and some actionable insights into your internal and interpersonal conflicts.

But within the world of psychology, there is a world of differences between psychologist and therapist perspectives, training, and duties. If you’re looking for a career in either profession, you need to understand those differences before you get started.

What’s the Difference Between Psychologist and Therapist Jobs?

Psychologists and therapists both rely on the science and theory of psychology, but they have very difference qualifications for getting into professional practice. Both professions require a state-issued license, but psychologists have to meet far higher standards to earn that license.

High licensing standards for psychologists give them far greater authority and more skills to handle more severe mental health issues.

Therapists focus on the social elements of mental issues and their qualifications reflect that. They specialize in families and relationships, figuring out how that web of interactions can impact the health and well-being of their clients.

Psychologists are qualified not only to offer that kind of marriage and family therapy, but can also treat dozens of other categories of mental issues. They are also equipped to deal with the most severe kinds of mental illness. Therapists might even refer difficult cases over to psychologists when needed.

Psychologists have more freedom in their treatments and more options for areas to specialize in.

Are psychologists the same as therapists?

Psychologists get a lot more training and have a much broader set of skills than therapists, allowing them to deal with far more serious problems than therapists are qualified to handle. For that reason, psychologists are found working in diverse settings, including in-patient facilities. Therapists focus primarily on couple and family therapy and provide tools to help people manage daily problems in life and relationships.

Do therapists diagnose you?

Therapists usually cannot make a formal diagnosis of mental disorders. There are exceptions, however, with some states allowing some diagnostic authority. But therapists do routinely make assessments and are able to provide treatment on that basis.

Psychologist vs Therapist Careers Have Massive Training Differences

One of the biggest differences between psychologist and therapist careers comes in their training.

Licensed psychologists have all gone through doctoral programs, spending between five and seven years in advanced studies and internship experiences. That’s on top of their four-year bachelor’s degree. They study subjects such as:

  • Psychopathologies
  • The bases of human behavior
  • Assessment and treatment
  • Research and analysis
  • Clinical treatment
  • Ethics and professional standards

Therapists qualify for the job by earning a master’s degree. That’s intense, but it’s only a two-year education. Although they cover many of the same topics that psychologists do, they look at them from the angle of social impacts and how relationships affect them.

Competition is fierce to get a slot in either kind of advanced degree program. You can find a psychology degree program to help you get into either therapy or psychology graduate schools.

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What is the difference between a therapist and a psychologist and a psychiatrist?

  • Therapists - Work with couples and families, handle routine emotional and mental issues using a holistic approach and focusing on relationship issues.
  • Psychologists - Handle complex mental health issues in all areas of psychopathology using psychotherapy and advanced analysis.
  • Psychiatrists - Medical doctors with special training in evaluating mental illness and prescriptive license to hand out psychopharmacological treatments.

Specialty Accreditations for Psychologist vs Therapist Education

For both fields, professional organizations have emerged that set out national standards for educational quality.

With psychology degrees, this is the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Committee on Accreditation. For therapy programs, it’s the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE).

Both organizations use their connections to the community and the educational system to ensure that graduates have a common set of skills that are relevant to the demands in the field today.

Differences in Licensing For Psychologist vs Therapist Jobs

From the 50,000 foot view, the licensing process for psychologists and therapists looks pretty similar. But the details result in psychology licensure taking years longer than licensing as a therapist. The requirements are:

  • An advanced professional degree from an accredited school-
    • Psychologist - Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) or Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology (PhD)
    • Therapist - Master of Marriage and Family Therapy
  • Passing a national-standard test of knowledge-
    • Psychologists - EPPP (Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology)
    • Therapists - MFT National Examination
  • Undergoing a period of supervised practice after graduation-
    • Psychologists - 1500 - 6000 hours
    • Therapists - 1500 - 3000 hours or 2 years

These standards are a big part of the difference between a psychologist and therapist, and their level of authority in professional practice.

Is a therapist and a psychologist the same thing?

No. Although they handle some of the same kinds of mental illness, the depth of treatment and the philosophy of each field are different. Therapists concentrate on the social aspects of mental health, focusing on relationships and society. Psychologists bring in larger theoretical bases of human thought and behavior to look for the root causes of dysfunction and treat them on an individual basis.

Can a therapist become a psychologist?

Yes, they definitely can! Psychologist careers take extra effort, though. You will need a doctoral degree in psychology, adding another five to seven years on top of your master’s program. Your therapy master’s degree may not be accepted. And you have to undergo years of supervised field experience in psychology in order to become licensed. Therapist field experience won’t be counted.

Therapist vs Psychologist: Different Demands On the Job

Out in the workforce, psychologists are far more likely to face intense, demanding cases that challenge their extra experience and education. They get the deep addiction issues no one else has been able to solve, the chronic addiction cases that have stumped counselors and therapists for years.

They also have a wide range of specialties available, including research and academic work outside of traditional clinical counseling. Or they can work in organizational or industrial jobs, advising teams and managers in business decisions.

Marriage and family therapist careers come up against addictions, depression, anxiety, and many similar mental health issues, but they stay in the lane of handling couples and family matters. In their own way, they can become as adept as psychologists in that specialized field of practice.

In both cases, psychologists and therapists go home at night with the satisfaction of having helped patients wake up to a better tomorrow.

Do psychologists make more than therapists?

Psychologists often make a lot more than therapists. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2022 the median salary for therapists was $60,800. Psychologists, on the other hand, have a median income of $81,040. For clinical psychologists, the median is even higher at $90,130.

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Should I see a therapist or psychologist or psychiatrist?

This is a question that has to be answered by a mental health professional. The good news is that you can go to any one of the three, and if you pick the wrong kind, they will be happy to refer you to the appropriate person. Therapists usually work with interpersonal issues, while psychologists can handle any type of mental health problem, and psychiatrists deal with problems that are addressed through appropriate medical and pharmaceutical treatments.

 2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics job market trends and salary figures for therapists (all other), psychologists, and clinical psychologists are based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed July 2023.