Should I Get a Master's or Doctoral Degree to be a Therapist?

Do You Need a PhD to Be a Therapist?

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A career as a counselor or therapist is possible with a master's degree, but whether you choose to pursue a master's or doctoral degree depends on your interests and career goals. If you like working with people but aren't interested in conducting research, consider seeking a master's degree in a helping field such as counseling, clinical psychology, marriage and family therapy, or social work.

Clinical psychology focuses on treatment of mental illnesses and psychiatric problems, while at the other end of the spectrum, a social worker assists clients and families with problems in their lives – unless, of course, she is a clinical social worker who can diagnose and treat mental health issues as well.

The educational path you choose is largely dependent on exactly how you want to go about helping others. 

Opportunities With a Doctoral Degree

If you think you might want a career as a researcher, professor or administrator, a doctoral degree – usually a PhD or PsyD – may be the best choice. Doctoral-level education includes training in research in addition to therapeutic skills. The research training that accompanies a doctoral degree provides opportunities to teach college, work as a researcher, or engage in program review and development. Try to think ahead and imagine your future self as you consider your degree options. Mental health administration may not seem appealing now, but your view might change in the coming years.

Independent Practice for Master's Level Professionals 

Master's level practitioners can practice independently in all states using the label of counselor, social worker or therapist.

A master's degree in counseling, clinical or counseling psychology, social work (MSW), or marriage and family therapy (MFT) followed by appropriate credentialing will enable you to work in a private practice setting.

Look into the certification requirements in your state as you consider master's programs, including education and supervised practice.

Most states require 600 to 1,000 hours of supervised therapy after you obtain a master's degree. Carefully evaluate master's programs to ensure that they meet the requirements for certification or licensure as a counselor in your state so you can practice independently if you choose. There are licensure and/or certification requirements that vary by state before you can set up a private practice after you obtain your degree. Most states require 600 to 700 hours of supervised therapy.

Labels for Master's Level Professionals 

You cannot practice as a psychologist if you decide to pursue a master's degree in clinical or counseling psychology. The term "psychologist" is a protected label reserved only for licensed psychologists, and most states require a doctoral degree for licensure. You can use the term "therapist" or "counselor" instead.