So, I Want to be a Therapist in CA, Part II: The Credentials

Welcome to the chair.

In the previous installment, I discussed the difference between master’s-level and doctoral-level credentialing in California.

Here, I’ll discuss the kinds of non-school-based credentials you might seek and why (or why not), as well as the licensing boards for each.

PhD In Clinical Psychology (CA Board of Psychology)

A PhD tends to be more academic and research-oriented than a PsyD. Students receive intensive training in psych research and assessment. After graduate school, individuals often seek work in hospitals, research organizations, or other arenas where their specialized skills will be put to good use.

Despite the strong academic focus, persons in clinical PhD programs are also expected to gain clinical competency, which means that they complete coursework and do internships (totalling about 3000 hours) that focus on working directly with clients.

PhD students are required to complete a dissertation, participate in an approved internship, and pass a credentialing exam before becoming licensed.

Post-credential, PhDs can work in private practice, as well as agencies, universities, and other research settings.

PsyD in Clinical Psychology (CA Board of Psychology)

PsyD programs are often similar in content and scope to their PhD counterparts. The difference? PsyD programs feature a stronger focus on preparing students to become clinicians instead of research. Although research methodology and assessment are essential elements of a PsyD curriculum, the primary focus is on building clinical knowledge, both theoretical and practical.

Like their PhD counterparts, PsyD students engage in extensive clinical training and supervision. They, too, must complete a dissertation and sit for a licensing exam. Although some PhD students obtain grants and tuition wavers, such is rare for PsyD students. Both tend to take 4-5 years from the first class through completion of the dissertation.

After credentialing, PsyDs work in private practice, agencies, hospitals, academia, and more.

Master’s in Counseling Psychology: Marriage & Family Therapy (CA Board of Behavioral Sciences)

The name of this credential is a bit of a misnomer, as licensed marriage and family therapists see a range of clients, including individual adults and children, couples, groups, and families.

Like their doctoral-level counterparts, MFTs complete about 3000 hours of clinical training (practicum and internship before graduation). Master’s-level trainees, however, do not write a dissertation or complete extensive education in research methods and training.

Moreover, MFTs are required to complete a different–more specific–breakdown of hours than doctoral students. See the California Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS) for more information.

After graduation and licensure, LMFTs work in private practice, community health agencies, and hospitals. Pay for CA MFTs in private practice tends to be slightly lower than that of doctoral-level practitioners.

Note: the CA BBS features the strictest licensure requirements in the US (and, I think, Canada). As such, CA MFTs can easily obtain reciprocity in other states, like NY or WA. That said, many of states are just beginning to build counseling psychology programs that lead to MFT licensure; if you’re planning on moving after graduation, check to see of your new state permits MFT licensure or transfer.

Master’s in Counseling Psychology: Licensed Practical Clinical Counselor (CA Board of Behavior Sciences)

The Licensed Practical Clinical Counselor (LPCC) credential is CA’s newest license. Approved just last year, the CA BBS, because of budgetary restrictions, has not yet begun licensing individuals who qualify for this credential, mostly because budget cuts have caused a back-log at the BBS.

The LPCC license is much like the MFT license; indeed, coursework and internship requirements are similar. and LPCCs will have similar opportunities after graduation. Persons who are considering a move after graduation, however, might want to consider this credential, as all 50 states (CA was the last) accept this credential.

Master’s or PhD in Social Work (CA Board of Behavioral Sciences)

Students of social work are expected to develop counseling skills as well as competency in administration and understanding of social welfare policy, and institutional governing services. PhD-level students also take specific coursework in policy development and analysis and administration.

MAs in social work are required to complete 3200 clinical hours in a breakdown that is similar to that of MFTs. Requirements are similar for doctoral candidates, but require additional competency in administration, policy, and research.

After graduation, MSWs and DSWs can work in private practice or obtain employment in government agencies, non-profits, hospitals, and social-welfare policy organizations, among others. Entry-level social workers tend to earn slightly less than their MFT and LPCC counterparts.


Overall, your choice of credential depends on

  • how much time you’re willing to commit to your degree
  • how much you’re willing to pay
  • your desire for a certain kind of credential
  • your specific interests, and
  • the populations with whom you want to work.

In the next installment of this series, I’ll talk about how to choose a program based on your interests and post-licensure goals.

Good luck!