Therapist vs. clinical psychologist: what’s the difference?

As you explore careers in the mental and behavioral health field, you’ll see a lot of words used interchangeably—therapist, counselor, and psychologist, for example. While each of these have some overlap, they’re not completely synonymous.

This article explores the similarities and differences between therapists and clinical psychologists. The difference between these professions boils down to three main factors:

  • Education
  • Licensing
  • Salary

Table of Contents

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What is a therapist?

A therapist is someone who works with patients to diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders. Their practice is sometimes referred to as psychotherapy.

The American Psychological Association (APA) notes five categories of approaches to psychotherapy:

  • Psychoanalysis therapy: Focuses on reorienting problematic thoughts and behaviors by uncovering their true meaning.
  • Behavior therapy: Focuses on the role of learning in acquiring behaviors.
  • Cognitive therapy: Focuses on changing people’s thoughts to change how they feel and act.
  • Humanistic therapy: Focuses on people’s ability to reach their full potential and the importance of respect for individuals.
  • Holistic therapy: Focuses on integrating aspects of multiple approaches based on the patient’s needs.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t provide occupational outlook information for general therapists, but it does have information regarding marriage and family therapists.

Marriage and family therapists help people with their family and relationship problems, while substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors work with patients suffering from addiction, alcoholism or other mental health problems.

What is a clinical psychologist?

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The APA defines clinical psychology as a research-based specialty of psychology in which professionals:

  • Provide continuing and comprehensive mental health care for people and families.
  • Consult with agencies and communities.
  • Train, educate, and supervise other mental health professionals.

Clinical psychologists are trained in a variety of techniques. This enables them to work in many settings such as schools, hospitals, counseling centers, community organizations and health care practices.

Regardless of where they work, clinical psychologists help patients with behavioral and mental health issues.

Similarities between therapists and clinical psychologists

There’s a lot of overlap between the role of a therapist and a clinical psychologist. Both can work with individuals, families, and groups. Each also fosters an open, collaborative environment for patients to discuss their experiences and emotions. Sometimes they can work in similar environments, such as hospitals or government settings.

Psychologists can be referred to as therapists, but not all therapists are psychologists.

Education differences: therapists vs. clinical psychologists

Family and marriage therapists

Marriage and family therapists typically require a master’s degree, such as a master’s in marriage and family therapy (MFT) or related psychology field. A bachelor’s degree is generally the minimum requirement for mental health counselors, according to the BLS.

Clinical psychologists

Most clinical psychologists hold a doctoral degree from an accredited university and have passed a state licensing test. All 50 states require a doctoral degree in psychology to practice as a psychologist, according to the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB).

What’s the difference between a master’s MFT and a clinical psychology degree?

Earn an MA in Psychology Online from Pepperdine

Pepperdine University’s online Master of Arts in Psychology program prepares students to pursue doctoral study or a career in human services.

  • Open to all undergrad majors
  • No GRE required 
  • Can be completed in about 18 months


People who want to become a marriage and family therapist must obtain a master’s MFT or similar degree. Professionals who want to become a clinical psychologist, which requires a doctorate, might begin by earning a master’s in clinical psychology.

Common MFT curriculum topics include family systems, couples’ therapy, child and adolescent counseling, spirituality and counseling, and human sexuality. Master’s in clinical psychology curriculum topics include theories and practice of counseling and psychotherapy, multiculturalism and diversity, research methods, assessments of behavior, and biological basis of behavior.

A master’s in MFT could take two to four years to complete as a full-time student. A master’s in clinical psychology can take at least two academic years of full-time study to complete.

Licensing differences: therapists vs. clinical psychologists

Marriage and family therapists

All states require marriage and family therapists to be licensed, according to the BLS. Licensing requirements for mental health counselors depend on the type of practice and state they work in. While individuals may not need a specific degree, some states may require them to pass an exam.

Counselors who work in private practices, no matter the state, are required to be licensed. They also must have a master’s degree, log supervised clinical hours, and complete continuing education every year. You can find licensure information for your state by visiting the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). You can learn about licensing requirements for addiction and mental health counselors in your state by visiting the Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network (ATTC Network).

Clinical psychologists

The BLS reports that in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, you must be licensed to practice independently as a psychologist. A number of states may allow unlicensed professionals to practice psychology under the supervision of a doctorate-level licensed psychologist in particular settings.

Licensing requirements vary in each state, but most require passage of the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP), which is administered by the ASPPB.

Salary differences: therapists vs. clinical psychologists


The median pay for U.S. marriage and family therapists was $56,570 in 2022, according to the BLS, and median pay for substance abuse and mental health counselors was $49,710. Professionals who work for government agencies and hospitals statistically earn more money, while those who work in residential facilities or individual and family services tend to earn less.

Clinical psychologists

In 2022, the median salary for psychologists in the United States was $85,330, according to the BLS. School psychologists earned lower median wages at $81,500 per year, while industrial-organizational psychologists earned a median annual pay of $139,280.

Job outlook for therapists and clinical psychologists

Employment in the mental health professions is expected to grow faster than average across all occupations through 2030. According to the BLS, employment for:

Reasons for the increase in demand include:

  • The rise in addiction and abuse of substances such as opioids.
  • The aging population.
  • Military veterans seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress.
  • Increased awareness of mental health disorders such as autism.
  • Increased awareness of the connection between mental health and learning disorders.

Explore online mental health degrees

Earning your degree in mental health can prepare you to work with people and communities as a psychologist or therapist. Online programs offer advantages that classroom-based programs might not, including flexibility so you can study on your own schedule. is packed with information for aspiring therapists and clinical psychologists in our mental health degree section.

Last updated November 2023.