Last reviewed November 25, 2019 by PSY Staff

Counselor vs. Therapist Career Comparisons

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People that have spent some time researching careers in counseling and therapy may have noticed that these careers are often used interchangeably in each profession. However, each field has its own unique take on treating mental health and can lead into very different career paths for those pursuing them.

Counseling as a generalized career path can allow professionals to work with individuals that may be working through common struggles present in the life cycle. Depression, anxiety, marital distress, or family relationships are just a few of the concepts that are most commonly treated in the field of counseling.

What is the difference between counselors and therapists?

Counselors can use different types of methods for helping people work through struggles in these areas, including strength-based counseling and trauma-focused counseling. The goal of counseling is to create pathways for healing and develop healthy coping methods for current and future occurrences of stress.

Therapists typically take on the role of treatment professional for individuals that have been diagnosed with more serious mental illnesses. The therapies provided in this domain may be longer-term, providing regular support to individuals that may need guidance through various stages within their life cycle.

The types of therapies that are used in each field can also vary, with therapists having a wide range of behavior-based, trauma-based, and diagnoses-based psychotherapies in their repertoire. Therapists may also have the opportunity to work with a broader client base than the average mental health counselor.

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Methodist University Bachelor Online Bachelor of Science in Psychology Website
Our Lady of the Lake University Bachelor / Master Multiple Psychology & Counseling Programs Website
Pepperdine University Master Online Master of Psychology Website
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Pepperdine University Master Online Master's in Clinical Psychology Website


A lot of people that are considering a career in counseling enter into the field due to their desire to help others work through difficult circumstances. This altruistic state of mind is what can create a community of effective and influential counselors seeking to providing high-quality supportive services to those in need.

Counseling itself is based on the foundation elements of psychology, which focus on healthy emotional and behavioral development. Degree programs in this field may provide students with the opportunity to learn methods of counseling for individuals, families, and even larger groups.

Learning to be an effective counselor can include skill components such as strength identification, mental health assessment, and treatment plan development. Professionals in this field can work to identify the goals of their clients and develop an attainable path for achieving those goals through effective counseling methods.

If you were to pursue a college degree program in counseling, you may also have to opportunity to pursue a specialization that is closely related to the population you are interested in serving. Some of the most common concentration options include School Counseling, Child and Adolescent Counseling, Career Counseling, and Marriage and Family Counseling.

The training for licensure in this field may also include a supervised clinical experience that can allow you to practice your skills in a functioning counseling setting. It is required that trainees work under the supervision of a licensed counselor for the purpose of observation, mentoring, and skill-building.

At the career level, Counselors can pursue job openings that require Counseling licensure, but are in a wide range of settings. Some professionals choose to work directly in mental health agencies, while others may take on unique career opportunities in their community.

Counselors can work in schools, career centers, and even in private practice after achieving their licensure. Rehabilitation centers, retirement homes, and the U.S. Military even employ professionals in this field to provide mental health care to their individual populations.


Students that are considering a move into therapy-based degree programs can take on a slightly different perspective to mental health services through their educational experience. During degree programs that train future therapists, students can learn more about the more complex psychological disorders that require more frequent or longterm services to help manage the symptoms of their illness.

One of the most interesting components of becoming a therapist is that professionals can combine elements from both counseling and psychotherapy to create the perfect educational package for their future career. A lot of the topics and learning subjects including in the therapy distinction are often included in the counseling programs as well.

Once you have completed all of the educational components required for entry into this field, you may be subject to a supervised clinical experience under licensed therapists in the field. This part of the process can be extremely important to your professional development in the field and can provide you with opportunity to learn from effective therapists already working in the field.

As a therapist, you may have the option to engage in more intensive client-based psychotherapies designed for individuals with serious mental health diagnoses, while still maintaining the capability to work with clients with common mental health needs.

In comparison to Counselors, Therapists may engage in more intensive educational programs in order to obtain their career goals. While the most common Therapists can achieve their career success with a Masters in Counseling, some professionals may move on to doctoral level programs in order to earn the title of Psychologist along their path.

At the Psychologist level, professionals can provide a wider range of mental health services to clients, as well as access an abundance of diagnostic tests and assessments to better serve their population. There are many tools that are accessible to Therapists at this level that cannot be used by masters-level graduates.

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In the field of mental health, the terms Counselor and Therapist are often used interchangeably. This is likely due to the fact that both fields use a lot of the same therapies with similar clients at the most basic level.

Therapists are often labeled based on their use of therapies with clients in the mental health setting. While this can be an accurate assumption, it often does not complement the diversities that can be present between Counselors and Therapists.

Both career fields are based in the field of psychology, which includes significant learning experiences about normal and abnormal emotional development, studies into simple and complex mental health disorders, and insight into how to manage the symptoms of these disorders.

Counselors and Therapists can – in some cases – complete the same degree program in order to achieve their career goals. The Master of Counseling is the leading educational program for both fields, with career distinction typically arising from the type of specializations chosen by students in these programs.

Since the educational training is identical through the Master of Counseling, the processes of assessment and treatment for professionals in both realms are essentially the same.

Counselors and Therapists may work with clients from the same population and can even treat some of the same emotional and behavioral disorders. Both clinicians can provide specialized therapeutic methods such as trauma-focused therapy, behavior therapy, and some group therapies.

If you are torn between which field to pursue for your career, you should consider what type of careers each of these options could lead you in. Becoming a Counselor or Therapist could qualify you for positions in mental health agencies, while some specialized positions may require specialization in one over another.

Degree Requirements

Some of the most profound differences in Counselors and Therapists may be found through reviewing the educational requirements for both fields. In some cases, the educational paths for both fields can merge, making the distinguishing characteristics between the fields emerge at the career level.

Students that are prepared to enter educational programs on the path to a counseling career may complete an undergraduate degree in Counseling, Psychology, or Social Work to begin their journey. Most masters-level programs require that students engage in these types of programs at the bachelors level in order to learn the foundation elements required to be effective mental health counselors.

Licensure for the field of Counseling begins at the masters-level, so this is the most popular degree program for people interested in being a part of this field. If this is the field you choose, you can pursue a Master of Counseling, Master of Arts in Counseling, or pursue specialized programs such as a Master’s in Mental Health Counseling.

Completion of this program and the required supervised clinical experience can lead you into licensure. Most Counselor positions require that you already hold licensure in your state and have some experience working with clients with mental disorder or illness.

If you are pursuing a career as a therapist, there are a few different educational paths that you can pursue to bring your dream to life. The prerequisite undergraduate requirements are the same for Therapists as they are for Counselors, making a Bachelor’s in Psychology, Counseling, or Social Work appropriate for this career path.

At the graduate level is where Therapist tend to stray away from Counselors in terms of their degree requirements. The most primary option for becoming a therapist is through the Master of Counseling degree program, which can then lead into degree specializations focused on providing therapies to a wide range of clients.

Some students focused on the science of Psychology and Therapy may choose to pursue doctoral level programs in Clinical Psychology in order to fully explore what Therapists can provide to their clients. The doctoral program can take extra time to complete, but can lead into more in-depth careers providing therapies to clients in the field.

Students that are interested in providing therapy to more intensive psychological disorders may benefit from pursuing doctoral level licensure in Psychology, while those interested in working in general mental health could meet their goals through Master of Counseling programs. There is currently no availability for licensure for Master’s in Psychology programs, making Counseling options the most popular for Counselors and Therapists alike.

Career Options

The terms Counselor and Therapist can be considered generalist titles for professionals entering into this field. Under these umbrella terms, there are many different classifications of these professionals based on what type of services they provide and the clients that prefer to work with in the field.

The field of Counseling may consist of many diverse career titles that you can obtain through specialized training in your degree program. One of the most popular career optios for professionals in Counseling is Mental Health Counselor – which focuses on providing general mental health counseling to clients diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and stress-associated disorders.

In addition to Mental Health Counseling, professionals in this field can obtain popular careers in Addiction Counseling, School Counseling, and even Marriage and Family Counseling. Classifications in this field that are associated with different populations can also be obtained according to the type of career you choose.

Child and Adolescent Counselors, Geriatric Counselors, and Rehabilitative Counselors may work primarily with certain age groups or populations of people with categorized needs. Specific career options can be found within each area at various facilities throughout the U.S.

As a Therapist you can also have access to a wide range of career options depending on your preferences and training. Psychotherapists are some of the most well-known Therapy professionals in the mental health field and can provide many intensive and in-depth therapist to patients with serious mental health disorders.

Alternative career options may also be obtainable by graduates in this field, including popular career titles such as Behavior Therapist, Cognitive Therapist, and Clinical Therapist. Each of these Therapy-focused career options can allow you to work with a diverse set of clients with varying mental health needs.

As you progress through either career path in the field, it is likely that you may be referred to a Counselor or Therapist by the general public. People generally tend to identify professionals based on the services they provide, making this a common misconception when differentiating between the two career fields.