On the surface, the differences between a therapist and a psychologist might seem minor. Our image of both occupations has been shaped by the culture in which we live. Based on these assumptions, one might presume that psychologists and therapists are simply professionals that listen to other people’s problems.
But the Analyze This construct is easily debunked when you examine the academic path a person takes to become either a psychologist or therapist and how those graduates apply their education.
What Is a Psychologist?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a professional psychologist is defined as someone with “a doctoral degree in psychology from an organized, sequential program in a regionally accredited university or professional school.”
Psychologists are social scientists trained to study human behavior and emotional and cognitive processes, as well as the way humans interact with their environments and others around them. This knowledge can help you improve daily decision-making, avoid stress, increase mindfulness, manage relationships, and self-regulate.
Psychologists may hold a PhD or PsyD, and many work as researchers or practitioners, or both, in roles that may or may not require licensure. Psychology graduates can be found in many areas of business or academics, in private offices, mental health facilities and hospitals, or treatment programs.
What Is a Therapist?
A therapist, as defined by the APA, is a person “who has been trained in and practices one or more types of therapy to treat mental or physical disorders or diseases.” In the context of mental health, the organization states, the term therapist is often used synonymously with psychotherapist. They define psychotherapy as “any psychological service provided by a trained professional that primarily uses forms of communication and interaction to assess, diagnose, and treat dysfunctional emotional reactions, ways of thinking, and behavior patterns.”
Therapists provide mental health services in several specialties, working with individuals, couples, and families to address a variety of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders.
A therapist, according to the APA, can be “a clinical psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, social worker, or psychiatric nurse.”
Similarities and Differences Between Psychologists and Therapists
To understand the major differences between psychologists and therapists, you need to go back to the beginning and follow the educational path for both professions.
“To become a psychologist, it depends on one’s sub-field, interests, and goals,” explains Dr. Michelle Rosser-Majors, Professor and Lead Faculty for the Bachelor* and Master of Arts** in Psychology programs in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arizona Global Campus (UAGC). “Earning a doctoral degree in psychology†, however, would be the necessary first step.”
Psychology students have several options when it comes to areas of study, and finding a school with a doctoral program that supports your interests and goals should be among your first considerations.
While psychologists hold doctoral credentials, it’s not always necessary for therapists. A person who wants to become a therapist may pursue a master’s degree in psychology or a related field. They must also be licensed by their state in several specialties.
One of the most important considerations when comparing psychologists and therapists is licensure. State boards of licensing set the rules for each license type and define who and what qualifies the psychologist or therapist and how they can refer to themselves. Thus, the requirements will differ depending on your location of practice.
Licensure for Psychologists
To become a licensed psychologist in Arizona, for example, one would need to identify the requirements of the Arizona Board of Psychologist Examiners. “Arizona also requires 3,000 hours of supervised professional work experiences, and there are several stipulations to this as well, so making sure one knows the requirements is important,” Dr. Rosser-Majors explains.
It’s important to note that not all psychology graduates work in roles that require licensure. You may want to pursue an undergraduate psychology degree to gain foundational knowledge about human behavior and mental processes but have no intention of pursuing licensure.
Licensure for Therapists
To become a therapist, you will, however, need to meet the requirements of your state’s licensing board, and the rules are often much different when compared to those for psychologists. For example, Dr. Rosser-Majors says, if you want to be a marriage and family therapist in Arizona, you would need to first earn a master’s degree from an institution accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy. You would also need to complete 3,200 hours of supervised work experience and at least 1,600 hours of direct client contact with 100 hours of direct clinical supervision, among other requirements defined by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
Psychology graduates are currently benefiting from a healthy job market for their services. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the agency that tracks employment trends, the job outlook for psychologists remains positive – growing as fast as average compared to other careers. Overall, employment in life, physical, and social science occupations, which includes psychologists, is projected to grow five percent through 2029, the agency reports.
In terms of career paths, there are many options one can pursue.
“Psychology is applicable to practically any career field that is interested in better understanding and adapting to human behavior and mental processes,” Dr. Rosser-Majors says. “These might include applications in business, law, government, gerontology, childcare, and health care, to name but a few.”
What Area of Psychology Interests You?
Bio-psychologists, also called biological psychologists or physiological psychologists, study and perform research on the brain and behavior.
Cognitive psychologists investigate how people think, including topics such as metacognition, decision-making, and problem-solving. They are interested in how the brain processes, learns, stores, recognizes, and utilizes information.
Community Psychologists conduct research on community health issues. They may also provide community support learning opportunities and develop prevention programs.
Comparative psychologists study how animal and human behavior differs.
Cross-cultural psychologists look at how people vary across cultures and how culture impacts behavior.
Developmental psychologists research human development across the entire lifespan.
Educational psychologists study how people learn and evaluate educational processes, which may include creating instructional and teaching strategies.
Engineering psychologists study how machines, equipment, technology, and work environments can enhance the human potential.
The list of possible career pursuits goes on and includes:
- Environmental Psychologists
- Forensic Psychologists
- Health Psychologists
- Industrial-Organizational Psychologists
- Social Psychologists
- School Psychologists
- Health and Wellness Psychologists
- Social Psychologists
- Child Psychologists
- Sports Psychologists
No matter which academic path you choose, you will find your career options are plentiful. Psychologists can be found in industries across the globe, as more companies invest in psychology graduates to better understand employee behavior, build compatible teams, and improve overall processes.
Unlike psychologists, therapists generally do not conduct clinical research. Like psychologists, however, therapists can be found working in many areas of business and academics, and the occupation is in demand. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment of marriage and family therapists, for example, will grow 22 percent through 2029, a rate much faster than average.
Like psychology, an interest in therapy can lead you to many different career opportunities.
What Area of Therapy Interests You?
Behavioral Therapy. A wide-ranging approach with many subtypes, focusing on ways to change behavioral reactions and patterns that cause distress.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. A short-term approach to mental health treatment that involves replacing negative thought patterns and behaviors with ones that are more helpful.
Humanistic Therapy. An approach geared toward living your most fulfilling life by enabling your true self.
Psychodynamic Therapy. A longer-term approach to mental health treatment that involves examining emotions, relationships, and thought patterns.
Marriage and Family Therapy. An approach that helps people manage and overcome problems within the family and other relationships.
Social workers, mental health counselors, and substance abuse counselors also fall under the “therapist” umbrella.
Where to Begin
Now that you recognize the differences between psychologists and therapists, you can start to plot your career path, and it begins with your education. If you want to learn more about human behavior, how the mind works, and how you can help others, you can seek out a holistic psychology bachelor’s or master’s degree program. The latter, especially, should offer you the opportunity to learn about differing psychology fields so that you can make the best decision about your future and whether to pursue a doctorate after graduation.
The Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) program at the University of Arizona Global Campus, for example, is designed for students who are seeking to become a psychologist in sub-fields such as Criminal Justice, Mediation and Conflict Resolution, Sports and Performance Psychology, and Industrial Organizational Psychology.
If you’re ready to take the next step, connect with a student advisor today.
*Successful completion of the Bachelor of Arts in Psychology degree by itself does not lead to licensure or certification in any state, regardless of concentration or specialization. Further, UAGC does not guarantee that any professional organization will accept a graduate's application to sit for any exam for the purpose of professional certification. Students seeking licensure or certification in a particular profession are strongly encouraged to carefully research the requirements prior to enrollment. Requirements may vary by state. Further, a criminal record may prevent an applicant from obtaining licensure, certification, or employment in this field of study.
**This program does not lead to certification or licensure. The Master of Arts in Psychology is not a licensure program and does not prepare an individual to become a licensed psychology professional. The University of Arizona Global Campus does not guarantee that any professional organization will accept a graduate’s application to sit for any exam for the purpose of professional certification or licensure. Students seeking licensure or certification in the field of psychology should carefully research the requirements prior to enrollment. Requirements vary by state. Further, a criminal record may prevent an applicant from obtaining licensure, certification, or employment in this field of study.
†The Doctor of Psychology program is not a licensure program. The University of Arizona Global Campus cannot confirm whether its courses or programs meet requirements for professional licensure in your state. For information regarding professional licensure requirements in your state, you should contact the applicable licensing board or agency in your state and determine whether the program meets requirements for licensure in the state where you reside.
Certain degree programs may not be available in all states.