Psychologists and counselors are both mental health practitioners. Individuals in both fields are state licensed. They provide services that are reimbursable by insurance companies. In fact, they often have overlapping duties. However, there are some distinctions, both in their training and their scope of practice.
Counselors have master’s level education, though their master’s programs are longer than those in many fields. Clinical mental health counseling programs are transitioning to a 60 semester hour minimum. Some counseling specialties, like school or career counseling, require only 48.
Counseling programs follow curriculum standards set by CACREP. Many of the standards focus on the practical skills needed to help individuals through their life challenges.
Counseling programs do include coursework in research, but the focus typically is on being a good consumer of research and using the latest information to inform practice. Mental health counseling programs include some coursework in psychopathology and some in assessment. Overall, there’s less quantitative work in a counseling program, though, and less “number crunching”.
Most psychologists, on the other hand, have training at the doctoral level. Some specialties, like occupational industrial psychology require less, but it takes a doctoral degree to sit down and work one on one with clients as a clinical or counseling psychologist.
All graduate level mental health programs are competitive, but PhD programs for psychologists are especially so. A strong GPA and test scores are a must. Programs vary in the degree of importance they place on research. Some like to see undergraduate research.
Programs follow standards set by the APA. The program typically includes more statistics and quantitative work. Psychometric assessments are covered in depth. A psychology candidate does put in many hours in the field. A lot of time, though, may be spent completing a dissertation and participating in other research activity.
There is often a greater emphasis on psychopathology. This will vary by specialty, however. Clinical psychologists typically have more training in treating serious mental illnesses like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
A psychologist’s scope of practice typically includes administration of a wide range of tests including IQ tests and tests of neurological function. Psychologists may administer tests to patients they do not see on a regular basis.
Scope of practice varies from state to state, but counselors are generally much more limited in the tests they can perform. The lines and distinctions can sometimes blur. In some states, counselors pursue additional training so that they can administer psychometric assessments. They may, however, be limited to performing only certain types of tests under certain conditions. The state may specify that counselors working on qualification in psychometric assessment must be supervised by a psychologist.
Psychologists are more likely to work with individuals with serious mental illness. They are trained to perform psychotherapy with a range of clients, but in many settings, general therapy roles will go primarily to counselors and other master’s level mental health practitioners. The reason? These individuals are more cost effective.
Of course psychologists who are in private practice can choose to focus on counseling. Individuals who choose private counseling may opt for either type of professional for their counseling needs; often it comes down to their own perceptions and associations. Some psychologists, interestingly, choose to pursue licensing as professional counselors.
Psychologists are more frequently involved in research. Some counselors choose to pursue a PhD and move into these arenas; it’s not the norm, however.
Both fields are showing strong growth, but counseling is growing faster. Jobs for mental health counselors are expected to grow 36% between 2010 and 2020. Jobs for counseling, clinical, and school psychologists, meanwhile, are expected to grow 22%. The mean salary for psychologists in these specialties was $73,090 in 2011. The mean salary for mental health counselors was $42,590.