So, I want to be a therapist in CA… What do I need to know?: Part 1

The process of becoming a licensed psychotherapist in CA can be exhausting, time-comsuming, expensive, and very, very confusing. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how to sail through your education and  training with your income and sleep schedule intact. I can, however, help you make informed decisions about your choice to become a graduate-level psychotherapist in CA.

Doctor or Master?

If you want to see clients/patients, you’ll choose between several types of credentials, which I’ll explain below.

At the doctoral level, you’ll apply for either a clinical PhD or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) programs. If you’re seeking a master’s degree, you’ll apply to Marriage & Family Therapy (MFT), Licensed Practical Clinical Counselor (LPCC), or Master’s in Social Work (MSW) programs*. Some psychiatric nurses and physician’s assistants also see clients. Pre-requisites vary among individual programs, so look carefully before you apply.

All  PhD, PsyD, MFT, LPCC, and MSW students must complete at least 3000 hours of clinical hours (in varying combinations of individual, couples, family, group, and child therapy; as well as training, supervision, advocacy, and more) work before sitting for licensure exams. In addition, much of the course work is similar, as are training sites and supervision. Indeed, students at various levels mingle throughout training and into their professional careers.

Doctoral-level students are licensed by the CA Board of Psychology, while MFT, MSW, and LPCC practitioners fall under the auspices of CA’s Board of Behavioral Sciences. Know these institutions well, as they are the gate-keepers of your career.

In any case, doctoral-level psychotherapists differ from master’s level practitioners in a few significant ways. First, doctoral students complete training that allows them to conduct psychological assessments, such as the MMPI; this type of testing is not part of the scope of practice of CA master’s level therapists. Second, doctoral students receive extensive training in psychological research and must exhibit their knowledge by composing and defending a dissertation. Although some MA programs require a thesis (and all require at least one research methods class), MA students–for the most part–don’t conduct advanced research. Third, the title “Licensed Psychologist” is reserved for doctoral-level professionals, while MA-level professionals become psychotherapists with various designations.

In financial terms, doctora-l and master’s-level practitioners pay, pay, pay to attend graduate school. Grants, work study, tuition remission are sadly scarce in this field, which means student-loan debt will likely be part of your equation. Take special care to compare costs and seek out alternate lines of funding when you apply to any program.

After licensure? The above-mentioned therapists make similar salaries when working in private practice and some agency settings. PhDs and PsyDs, however, can earn healthy additional income by conducting psych testing and consulting (i.e. forensic consultation with law enforcement), as well as from academic positions that are not available to MA-level therapists.Moreover, some clients simply want a practitioner who they can call “doctor”.

Finally, MAs tend to obtain licensure more quickly than do PhDs or PsyDs. At the very least, most MA students  (depending on the academic program) spend fewer hours in school than do their doctoral-level counterparts. In reality, the time it takes from your first class through licensure can vary greatly–from 4-8 years, depending on myriad factors; I’ll explore the reasons why in a future installment. Either way, the journey from student to therapist is a long one.

Until next time…


Check back soon for a list of important links and resources.

Important Note: Many academic disciplines require that a one obtain a master’s degree before seeking a doctorate. Such is often NOT the case with clinical psych degrees. Indeed, people who seek to obtain a clinical doctorate AFTER obtaining a master’s (my original goal) will receive minimal waivers for their coursework and no break in clinical hours, which translates to many, many thousands of unpaid internship hours.

* School psychology and Pupil Personnel Services are also viable options, despite recent cuts in funding for school-based mental health. Check the CA Commission on Teacher Credentialing for more information.


7 thoughts on “So, I want to be a therapist in CA… What do I need to know?: Part 1

  1. Hi Alison,

    Another alternative that you did not mention in your blog (although perhaps the academic and licensure requirements may be different in California) is the area of School Psychology. This area offers either a MS or PsyD/PhD. With an MS in school psychology, you are eligible for certification and can work in the schools. With a PsyD/PhD in school psychology, you have the flexibility to work in the schools or (albeit once licensed) in private practice/clinical settings. There are also combined School/Clinical doctoral programs. I also am not aware of master’s level psychologists being eligible for licensure (again perhaps the requirement is different depending on state) though typically licensed psychologists are at the doctoral level.

    Good luck!
    Natascha Santos

      • Indeed. Governments from the top down are saving money but cutting school budgets and school mental health is often the first to go.

        The legal bare minimum is (mostly) in place and interns are filling some clinical gaps. It’s unfortunate and scary.

      • Unfortunate, indeed.

        School across California have lost a ridiculous amount of funding and school-based mental-health professionals have not been spared. Districts are often meeting the legal bare minimum by pushing school psychologists to take on enormous caseloads. Some of the clinical gaps are filled by interns, which leaves many young students without direct access to experienced clinicians. It’s sad.

  2. Hi Alison,

    I think that one of the common misconceptions is that MA-level psychotherapists cannot consult or conduct testing. There are two important points that cannot be left out here. First, MA-level clinicians can conduct testing if they have had the appropriate training, certification, meet appropriate test user qualifications (which can be found on testing publication websites for individual tests), and they closely monitor whether such duty falls within their scope of practice (legal and ethical limitations) and competence (which is all the training and education). For example, an MFT may conduct certain tests if they have been trained, certified, meet test user qualifications, and it falls within the scope of practice as it pertains to treatment or assessment for the purpose of assisting a client with improving their interpersonal relationships. It is crucial, though, to be well-read when it comes to ethical codes in murky situations like these.

    The second point is that MA-level clinicians can and often do consult. They can also hold adjunct positions at various universities, particularly private universities or community colleges. It is a common misconception that you have to have a doctorate to teach. The perks of being on tenure are an added bonus of PhD/PsyD-level education, but they are not necessarily the only routes available. It is just a bit trickier to get the job.

    • Excellent points, all.

      I will add that MA-level therapists must, indeed, seek extra training (i.e., outside the academy) and–as you mention–should pay careful attention to laws before they participate in this work.

      You’re correct as well regarding opportunities for teaching. Potential therapists should know that institutions that offer clinical degrees often have less mainstream pedigree than do their more traditional counterparts. That said, many clinical programs employ teachers who have real clinical skills rather than brand-name credentials. I would, I’d say, hesitate to matriculate at a school that does not offer classes taught by experienced clinicians versus–say–“pure” researchers.

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