Between affordability, accessibility, and fit, finding a therapist who can meet your needs feels impossible. Most people aren’t even sure where to start when it comes to choosing a therapist. While there are many different factors to consider, one that comes up frequently when I receive referrals is the therapist’s credentials, and this is a consideration I will be exploring today.
When choosing a provider, you absolutely want to make sure you are going to someone with the credentials and training to treat your presenting problems. Ask potential therapists about their license to practice and which licensing board oversees their practice. Unfortunately, “therapist” is not a protected term in a lot of places, so untrained and unlicensed individuals will use the term inappropriately, and this is harmful.
That being said, I frequently get calls from people who want to see a psychologist specifically. I work at an office with social workers and masters-level counselors and therapists, but these individuals want to see a “doctor” because they assume my higher degree makes me the best option.
This is just not the case in practice. According to multiple meta-analyses by the American Psychological Association, it is a strong therapeutic relationship, NOT a specific degree or credential, that makes therapy “work.” As long as the provider is a qualified therapist, which type of qualification they received does not impact treatment outcomes. Basically, I could have the best training in the world, and if we do not have good therapeutic fit and a strong relationship, I am not the right therapist for you. Furthermore, there is debate within the field as to what “expertise” looks like in a field where outcomes can be so subjective. Is a doctoral-level therapist with one year in practice more of an “expert” than a masters-level clinician who has been seeing clients for a decade? Science says no.
While writing this post, I took to Twitter (because of course I did) and got a flood of sources about this. You can check out all the other articles shared here, but the basic consensus is 1) no, psychologists aren’t inherently better therapists; and 2) “therapy outcomes” is such an ambiguous term that anyone claiming they are a “better” therapist has a pretty big burden of proof to show that they could even measure this.
“But don’t doctoral-level practitioners get more training than those with master’s degrees?” Yes, my doctorate required more credits and more variety of training than my colleagues with masters degrees. However, that additional training was not in providing therapy. Doctoral programs include training in psychological assessment (my series on what that means can be found here) and diagnostics. My training in psychotherapy services is comparable to that of someone with a masters in clinical social work or psychology.
So if you need a psychological evaluation, or you need clarity on what diagnosis best fits your symptoms, you might need a consultation with a psychologist. But for ongoing therapy services, a clinician with a masters degree is just as qualified as one with a doctorate.
Some of this attitude comes from within the field – some believe the fact that they have a doctorate makes them “better” than someone who “only” got their masters. We need to rid ourselves of this superiority complex because it impedes access to services when clients feel that they need to narrow down their options even more when there is already a provider shortage. And not to mention, the studies I linked above show that the idea that psychologists make better therapists is just false.
Look for a therapist whose approach and personality fit your specific needs, not one that has a specific degree. I wholeheartedly recommend every masters-level clinician at my organization, especially since I do not know when I will next have therapy openings.