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.


What does it mean that my counselor is an intern?


You’ve started seeing a counselor that you really enjoy but then you come across his or her business card and see that they are just an intern. What does that mean? Are they still in school? Do they have no experience? Am I safe with them? All of those questions are valid and reasonable. You should be aware of who you are trusting with your secrets and struggles. This question is quite complex yet is definitely an important one to answer.


First, let’s break down the different types of interns to understand that there are many. When a counselor is in school they are required to “volunteer” their time at local agencies and organizations to gain knowledge and experience in their field. Many begin this work during their Bachelor’s education. It is a requirement for graduation once the counselor is at the Masters or Doctoral levels. Many of these internships don’t pay any money and require standard business hours which hinders the student counselor’s ability to maintain employment. Let’s just say, that internship is typically some of the most trying years of a counselor’s life.



Every school uses different terminology to classify the first semester or year of internship. Many graduate schools consider the first “volunteer” opportunity as a practicum. During this period, the intern is still in school and taking a class devoted to discussing what happens at the practicum site. Practicum sites are generally non-profit agencies willing to take on the responsibility of training a counselor when first starting out. Because counselors first starting out are not licensed, licensed supervisors must be aware of and approve of all of the practicum student’s decisions and activities. With that said, the practicum experience is oftentimes just an observation or shadowing experience. When the counselor is just starting out they might not know or understand the inner workings of an agency and how to conduct the therapy process. Watching other clinicians work is paramount to the new counselor’s learning and development. Sometimes practicum experiences will lead to more hands-on encounters with clients but that often takes a few months of training.



Internship placement can be the same as practicum, as different schools call it different things. Internship is usually the more advanced level of interning, typically a student’s second year “volunteering” at a site. Again, this generally involves a non-profit agency that pays the intern nothing. This time; however, the intern is completely immersed into the counseling process. They are seeing clients themselves, completing paperwork, being audited, and picking up more hours of “volunteer” work instead of working a paying job. They are still enrolled in school, taking a class designed to help with the internship process, and being supervised by the licensed professional on staff. These interns are generally overworked and get the most difficult clients and cases as part of their education.


Registered Internship

If a counselor has reached this portion of internship that means that they have graduated from their graduate program and are now registering with their state for “future” licensure. Many things have to happen before this process can begin. They had to have accrued a certain number of face-to face hours with different types of clients (children, families, couples) based on their degree and hours of supervision from both their school and practicum/internship sites. After graduating, all of that information has to be mailed to the state licensing board to ensure that the information is accurate. Next, the counselor must find a clinical supervisor who is licensed in the state they are pursuing licensure and eligible to supervise them. These supervisors are not cheap. They charge anywhere between $50-$150 per hour for supervision. Each license requires a certain number of hours of supervision within a certain amount of time.


For example, in the state of Florida, someone trying to gain licensure as a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) is required to accrue at least 1,500 face-to-face contact with clients, 180 face-to-face time with families or couples, and at least 100 hours of supervision within a 2 year period. Counselors must see their supervisors AT LEAST once every 2 weeks. If that supervisor charges $150 for each supervision session, it can get pretty costly. Those hours must be accrued in a 2-year time span or they have to re-register with the state and complete more hours.


Many practitioners choose not to get licensed due to the strict regulations. Some get pregnant during registered internship or suffer financial hardship that doesn’t allow them to continue. The good news is that once a counselor has a degree in hand, he or she can get paid for their internship at this point. Most of the work is still at non-profit agencies; however, and the pay is extremely minimal. It’s often not feasible for a counselor to begin internship directly out of school as a result. That means, your counselor could have gotten his or her education fifteen years ago but is just now pursuing licensure. Or moved from a different state and is required to start the process completely over again. Registered interns have at least 1-2 years of experience under their belt  prior to applying so there’s at least a comfort there knowing that they’re more experienced and out of school already.


Seeking counseling from an intern is a scary thought but many interns have years of experience prior to pursuing licensure in your state. The only thing we know for sure from research is that the most important aspect of counseling, the part of counseling that has shown to influence the most amount of change, is the relationship that the client has with his or her counselor. If you enjoy your counselor, they make you feel comfortable, and you don’t feel that they’re totally off base with you then that counselor can be beneficial for you. It’s important for you to feel comfortable with your counselor so experience multiple counselors and decide which one suits you best. Who knows, it could be an intern.