Counselor vs. Psychologist: Key Similarities and Differences

Both psychologists and counselors play an integral role in helping people improve their mental health, but the roles and responsibilities of these professionals are very different. If you're trying to decide whether you'd prefer to become a counselor or psychologist, examining what each of these career options involves from an educational and professional perspective might help clarify your choice.

Despite the fact that their fields overlap, counselors and psychologists have separate academic requirements, licensure processes, and job responsibilities. Before you enroll in a degree program for counseling or psychology, take the time to discover what sets these career paths apart and which might be the best fit for your interests, goals, and passions.

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Counselor vs Psychologist

The terms psychologist and counselor are sometimes used interchangeably. While they do have things in common, they are also entirely separate professions with different goals and approaches to mental health.

What Is a Counselor?

Many students who want to build careers in counseling do so because they have an innate desire to help others. Counseling is an especially rewarding career if you enjoy guiding and supporting people as they work through the personal circumstances that are preventing them from reaching their full potential. Counseling is an incredibly helpful tool for people that are working through challenging experiences or who are unsure how to manage the symptoms of a serious mental illness while maintaining a normal life.

Through one-on-one or group sessions, counselors help people identify their problems and develop personal action plans for working through them. Counseling can be beneficial for individuals who have experienced loss or stress in their personal lives but otherwise have no mental health concerns. It's also valuable for people suffering from chronic mental health disorders.

Regardless of whether clients have acute or ongoing needs for therapeutic services, licensed counselors with training and education in specialized areas can help them determine the roots of their difficulties and find healthy ways to address them. Because these situations require such different approaches, counselors often focus their work on specific areas of the field. Possible concentrations include:

  • Mental health
  • Addictions
  • Career counseling
  • School counseling
  • Sports counseling

These are just a few of the options that learners can choose from during their educational training. If there are particular areas of study or a client population that you find most compelling, you can seek out degree programs with courses that focus on these areas. Likewise, although psychologists are typically qualified to perform more intensive psychotherapies than counselors, a counseling student or working professional can receive advanced training in order to undertake a wider range of therapeutic processes.

What Is a Psychologist?

Like counselors, psychologists work with individuals struggling with personal problems and challenges, but they typically focus their treatment on evidence-based scientific methods, assessments, and diagnostic processes. As a psychologist, you may use accurate and proven psychological testing tools to score and diagnose clients based on your findings.

Rather than working with clients that are struggling with managing the stresses of life or with common mental health disorders, psychologists often treat individuals with serious or complex psychological diagnoses. They also collaborate with counselors and healthcare providers to strategize intensive therapeutic options for complex mental health conditions. In some cases, psychologists may be called upon to assess and diagnose clients that are showing a broad range of symptoms that could be related to uncommon psychological disorders.

Like counselors, some psychologists have specific areas of practice, including:

  • Clinical psychology
  • Industrial and organizational psychology
  • Social psychology
  • School psychology
  • Forensic psychology

Psychology professionals may also choose to work in fields that focus on research related to mental illness, psychotherapy, and psychopharmacology. While working in research, they can help to create realistic treatment conditions and observe the effects of certain variables on subjects. The work produced through psychological research is useful for developing more effective treatment programs, more informed knowledge of mental health diagnoses, and more sophisticated assumptions about psychopharmacology and its use during mental health treatment.

Job Scope and Daily Tasks

The roles and responsibilities of counselors and psychologists are both founded in psychology, and, in most cases, neither counselors nor psychologists are allowed to prescribe medication to clients. Instead, the tools these professionals use are based on counseling methods or psychotherapies, which can be used alongside psychotropic medication. Although these are common features of both careers, the daily tasks and job scope of counselors and psychologists are distinct in significant ways.

Counselor Job Scope and Tasks

Counselors work with individuals, groups, and families struggling with life challenges, stress, and mental health challenges. They use talk therapy and intervention methods to achieve overall emotional and psychological wellness. They may help clients process traumatic life events or normal but difficult life changes.

The day-to-day tasks of counselors often include:

  • Conducting client intake interviews
  • Listening to clients as they describe their concerns and problems
  • Developing treatment plans
  • Teaching clients about coping strategies

Some counseling professionals work in schools, providing counseling services to students as they work through the normal developmental stages of life, or in rehabilitation facilities with adults that are struggling with addiction. Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs) can also work in private practice, providing care to clients within their communities based on their individual needs. Receiving a license to practice counseling can open up more opportunities for you to work with specific groups of clients during your career.

Psychologist Job Scope and Tasks

Psychologists typically take a more scientific approach to mental health treatment. They pursue careers related to the diagnosis and treatment of serious mental health disorders in private practice or with mental health agencies across the United States. Licensure in psychology allows professionals to open a private practice, which can be a great advantage if you're looking for unique and customizable career options.

Psychologists can also be found in hospitals or other acute care settings, where mental health assessments may be administered when needed. They're sometimes hired as experts or consultants to help make informed decisions regarding the treatment of clients involved with social services.

On a daily basis, psychologists complete a wide range of tasks, such as:

  • Utilizing psychological tests, including personality tests and ranking scales
  • Observing and interviewing patients
  • Diagnosing psychological disorders
  • Developing treatment plans and documenting patient progress
  • Conducting scientific studies of human behavior

If you're not interested in working as a practicing psychologist, a degree in psychology can also help you build a career in education. Psychologists with doctorate degrees have valuable insights to share with upcoming psychological professionals who are only beginning to explore the essential elements of the field.

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Key Skills

Counselors and psychologists often have shared skills, such as listening and taking detailed notes, that are necessary in order to properly treat a client's mental health disorder. In other ways, the skill sets required to succeed in these roles diverge.

Counselor Skills

At their core, counselors are people who can connect with patients from a variety of backgrounds. The best counselors are sensitive, cognizant of other people's emotions, and aware of their surroundings. They also excel at other essential skills, including:

  • Effective communication
  • Deep empathy and understanding of other people's feelings
  • Problem-solving
  • Remaining calm and intervening during a crisis
  • Setting appropriate boundaries with clients

Psychologist Skills

The professional roles of psychologists are in some ways more varied than those of counselors, so the skills that they need are also much broader. For example, a clinical psychologist should be especially attuned to people's thoughts and feelings, while a research psychologist is adept at conducting studies and communicating findings. Depending on their career focus, most psychologists have some combination of the following skills:

  • Clearly explaining and administering assessments and evaluations
  • Critically observing patients and identifying behavioral patterns
  • Conducting thorough and accurate research
  • Maintaining confidential records
  • Analyzing and understanding data

Salary and Job Outlook

Psychologists and counselors both earn competitive salaries and are experiencing steady job growth as a result of the wider acceptance of mental health treatment. However, there are differences in how much these professionals typically earn and how many job openings are expected over the next several years.

Counselor Salary and Job Outlook

The median pay for counselors depends on what type of counseling you do. The median pay for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors as of 2021 is $48,520, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In contrast, school and career counselors and advisors have median salaries of $60,510 per year.

Regardless of the type of counseling, the BLS projects that growth rates for counselors will be faster than average through 2031. School and career counselors have a 10% projected growth rate, and mental health counselors have a rate of 22%. Both of these rates are significantly higher than the average growth rate for all occupations, which was 5% as of 2021.

Psychologist Salary and Job Outlook

Despite the similarities in their job descriptions, psychologists typically earn higher salaries than counselors, in part because of their higher level of education. Based on data from 2021, the median annual salary for psychologists is $81,040, according to the BLS. Your potential earnings as a psychologist differ significantly based on your location and type of employer. For example, school psychologists have median earnings of $78,780 per year, compared to $105,310 for industrial-organizational psychologists.

On the other hand, the job outlook for psychologists is slightly lower than that of counselors. Data from the BLS shows that the projected growth rate from 2021 to 2031 is 6%, which is as fast as the average for all occupations. Keep in mind that, as with salaries, the projected growth rate for psychologists depends in part on your specific focus. Clinical and counseling psychologists have a 10% rate, which is higher than other types of psychologists, including school and industrial-organizational psychologists.

Education Requirements

Both counseling and psychology have unique approaches to improving the public's mental health, and taking on that responsibility requires a high level of education. Counselors and psychologists must reach specific academic milestones before working in the field.

Counselor Education Requirements

In order to meet the licensure requirements for counselors, you will need to earn a minimum of a master's degree. A typical online Master of Counseling program requires that students complete a bachelor’s program in psychology, counseling, or social work prior to being accepted.

Once in the program, students can begin their progress toward the goal of completing a well-rounded curriculum of educational courses, which include both foundational and specialized classes. Many counseling master's programs require that students complete between 35-60 credit hours during their program. The courses you take are diverse depending on the type of concentration you choose for your degree, but possible subjects that you might study include:

  • Group counseling methods
  • Individual counseling strategies
  • Human growth and development
  • Multicultural considerations in counseling
  • Ethics
  • Family and relationship dynamics
  • Career and school counseling
  • Assessment and treatment of common mental health disorders

One benefit of choosing a degree in counseling rather than a degree in psychology is that it can generally be completed in around half of the time it takes to become a psychologist. Accredited online Master of Counseling programs typically take around two years to complete and include a supervision requirement prior to professional licensure.

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredits master-level degrees in the field of counseling. If you are seeking out accredited degree programs to help you pursue a career in this field, you should choose programs that have received approval from this agency. Furthermore, earning an online master's in counseling allows you to design a course schedule that accommodates your other obligations, such as caretaking or work.

Psychologist Education Requirements

Becoming a psychologist generally requires a lengthier period of education than becoming a counselor. In addition to completing an online master's in psychology, you may also need to complete a doctoral-level degree program through a university accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA). Since the APA only accredits doctorate programs, this is the minimum degree level in psychology that can lead you to licensure.

Psychology-focused students may be accepted into psychology PhD or Psy.D. programs after completing a bachelor’s or master’s psychology degree program. Most APA-accredited psychology programs consist of around four years of coursework for students that are entering from the bachelor’s level.

Students in a online doctoral psychology programs usually take courses that allow them to draw conclusions based on psychological testing and create effective treatment plans that align with the standards for psychological disorders. They might also learn how to become skilled researchers and effective educators. Common courses in these programs include:

  • Theories of psychology
  • Cognition and perception
  • Health and social psychology
  • Research methods
  • Program evaluation
  • Ethics and law pertaining to psychology
  • Quantitative and qualitative analysis
  • Neuroscience

As part of a psychology doctoral degree program, you may also complete a dissertation or research project that demonstrates your knowledge and expertise in your field. This involves developing a unique research question, creating a study or project that tests certain hypotheses regarding your question, and organizing your process and results according to research expectations.

Most psychology doctoral programs also require students to participate in a residency or on-campus research seminar prior to completing their degrees. These experiences can provide students with more opportunities for growth and learning via observations and hands-on practice under the supervision of licensed psychologists in the field.

Master's in Counseling vs. Psychology

Whether you choose to become a counselor or psychologist through your educational degree program, you can look forward to helping those struggling with emotional, behavioral, or relationship-focused mental health problems. Thus, when you compare a master's in counseling vs. psychology, you may discover that these degree programs have several things in common:

  • Foundational courses: The roots of psychology and counseling can be found in the basic field of psychology, so both degrees begin with a look into what is known about the brain and its processes. Since counselors and psychologists are equally concerned with normal and abnormal functioning in mental health, the first few classes in each program may be remarkably similar or even identical.
  • Focus on diagnosis: Psychology and counseling master's degree programs provide students with skills related to the assessment and diagnosis of mental illness. While the specific diagnostic methods may differ, the basic process for assessing the client and developing a treatment plan is often the same.
  • Theoretical elements: The theoretical foundations of counseling and psychology focus on cognitive processes, memory, and natural brain development. Since it is crucial to have a baseline for consideration when developing treatment plans for clients with mental illnesses, both practitioners must understand what normal functioning looks like in the general population.

This is not to suggest that counseling and psychology master's programs are exactly the same. If you were to decide on becoming a counselor through your degree program, you would likely have a different type of learning experience than your psychologist counterparts. For example, you might spend more time learning about psychotherapy strategies rather than clinical research, which is often a central point for psychologists. Counseling programs are also more focused on holistic treatment rather than an in-depth understanding of specific mental health disorders.

Licensure and Certification

In most states, licensure and certification are basic requirements to work as a professional counselor or psychologist. Understanding what’s necessary to become licensed is essential when selecting your degree program.

Counselor Licensure and Certification

Different states use distinct titles to refer to professional counselors. The most frequently used titles include:

Each state also has its own requirements to obtain licensure and certification for these titles. These typically include a minimum of a master’s degree, a certain number of clinical supervision hours, a background check, and a state-recognized counselor exam.

Psychologist Licensure and Certification

Although psychology professors and researchers may not need a license to work, practicing psychologists must meet licensure and certification requirements or risk violating the law. Most states require psychologists to have a PhD or PsyD, both of which are doctoral degrees in psychology.

Practicing psychologists often have a PsyD because it emphasizes clinical practice and theory, such as face-to-face counseling, while a PhD is more research-centered. However, state licensure boards generally accept either degree as long as it is from an accredited college or university.

In addition to holding a doctoral degree, the American Psychology Association explains that most states also typically require:

  • A passing score on the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology
  • The minimum number of supervised clinical hours, which usually ranges between 3,000 and 6,000
  • Licensure fees that cost anywhere from $500 to $1,000

Only after meeting all of these requirements is a psychologist legally authorized to provide services to clients in the state where they are licensed.

PsyD vs. LPC: What’s the Difference?

A PsyD and an LPC are different titles used for mental health professionals. An LPC is a licensed professional counselor. To receive this title, counselors must generally complete a master’s degree. A PsyD, on the other hand, is a Doctor of Psychology. This doctoral degree program prepares students to become licensed psychologists who specialize in clinical practice.

Should You Become a Counselor or a Psychologist?

There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to deciding whether to be a counselor or a psychologist. Ultimately, the decision depends on your answers to a few key questions:

  • How much time do you feel comfortable committing to school?
  • What type of work environment would you prefer?
  • Do you want to have the option to work as a researcher or professor?
  • Are you more interested in the concept of holistic wellness, or do you want to have a thorough knowledge of specific mental health disorders?

Your responses should help you identify whether you are better suited to a career as a psychologist or counselor. This, in turn, will help you find the degree program that will help you reach your academic and professional goals.

Sources

American Psychological Association, What you need to know to get licensed

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Psychologists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, School and Career Counselors and Advisors

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

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