What are all of those silly initials behind my counselor’s name?

If you’re like most of the world, you don’t have every possible academic initial memorized. It’s difficult enough pronouncing half of the specializations in the medical field let alone knowing what they mean. When looking for a counselor, there are a wide variety of practitioners marketing themselves to help with your counseling needs. Let me break down the initials behind each of their names to give a little more clarity into the complex field of psychology.



Let’s start with those pesky doctors. Many people know what a PhD is. They come from a wide variety of fields and this form of doctor is very well known. PhD is a Doctor of Philosophy. Although it’s a philosophy degree, most individuals possessing this degree do not actually study philosophy. This is a generalized degree that really is very academic based. When a person has received a PhD, you can be sure that they have written a fair share of academic papers, including a dissertation prior to graduating. Many academic individuals seek a PhD in hopes to one day teach at the university level or focus their life in academia, scientific research, or writing. However, many practice as a counselor in the helping profession.



One lesser known doctoral degree is the PsyD. A PsyD is a Doctorate of Psychology. This degree is newer and less common yet has many similarities to a PhD. PsyDs also write many academic papers, as well as a dissertation, yet their primary focus in their degree is on the clinical aspects of psychology. They focus more of their time on the diagnosis and treatment of clients. Many of their classes involve face-to-face sessions with other classmates to learn how to use different techniques and methods with a multitude of clients.



The EdD is a Doctoral degree in Education. Someone pursuing this degree is possibly expecting to stay in the world of academia, not necessarily as a teacher. This individual might be pursuing this degree in order to gain employment as a principal, upper administration, or even on the school board. Those pursuing an EdD have a clear vision of making a difference in the field of academia. Though, those practicing at a counseling level may have decided to use their education and experience to help everyone, not just those in a school-based setting. One of these doctoral degrees is not better than the others; they just require a different focus and varied coursework.



Onto the Master’s level clinicians. Someone with MA initials at the end of their name has received a Masters Degree in Arts; someone with MS initials has procured a Masters Degree in Science. These degrees are very similar. The main difference is the college of study where the degree was offered and the required coursework that was mandatory prior to graduation. Often the coursework is very similar yet some Science programs require more science courses while Arts programs require more counseling courses. The difference between these degrees vary per school and state.



These next initials are more to do with licensure than with types of graduate degrees a person achieves. An MHC is a Mental Health Counselor. This counselor has gone to school and, more than likely, graduated with a MS or MA degree. This initial suggests that the person has become licensed as a Mental Health Counselor. Mental Health Counselors are a masters level counselor who has taken classes that focus mostly on individual counseling, with a possible emphasis on other areas depending on the individual’s course load. Many have concentrations or specializations or certificates that they have also earned while pursuing this degree.



MFT is a Marriage and Family Counselor. Their focus is mainly on children, families, and couples. Often, their education covers a broad range of clients but their emphasis is on children, families, and couples.  This can also be a graduate’s emphasis or he or she can get a graduate certificate in this field as it has become more common. MFTs are a fairly newer specialization and degree but this emphasis has been expanding. Their licensure requirements are on a national level while other licenses are typically at a statewide level.



Now we’ve gotten to the social workers. Social workers are unique in our field as they really should be a field of their own. Social workers mainly study client advocacy and case management services during their education yet also maintain a few courses on counseling. They are notorious for being more hands on with their clients; making appointments for them, driving them places, getting them healthcare benefits or food and clothing, and assisting in transitioning clients into other programs. Their focus is being as helpful to their clients as possible. As such, insurance companies enjoy working with social workers the most. Oftentimes, social workers are paid less in our field because most work in non-profit agency setting where the emphasis is on helping as many individuals as possible. The difference between an MSW and LCSW is not only degree but also licensure. An MSW is a Masters degree in Social Work, while an LCSW is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. An MSW literally holds a masters degree in social work and may be licensed as a social worker. An LCSW is licensed and has an emphasis on the clinical aspects of psychology. As stated above, that means more classes that focus on diagnosis and treatment of clients.


There are also a multitude of different concentrations, certificates, and specializations a counselor can obtain that adds additional initials to the end of their name. There are far too many to name. These degrees, licenses, certificates, and specializations all require many years of schooling and hard work on the part of the practitioner and every school has a different curriculum. If the initials behind someone’s name is too daunting to understand, or gives you mixed feelings, you can always ask about them. Most counselors hear these questions often and some enjoy being asked; they spend years of their time, energy, and money completing a degree that no one knows about. In the end, all of these initials simply mean that the person who you are seeking for counseling has spent many years being educated at helping you. Hopefully that fact can put your mind at ease.


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