Psychologists are highly-trained experts in human behavior. They hold a doctoral degree in psychology and are typically licensed by their state board regulating psychological services. Their background and experience provides them the expertise to engage in mental health treatment at hospitals and private offices, hold academic positions in universities, consult for top companies and nonprofits, and many other varied professional roles.
What Is a Psychologist?
Psychologists are experts in human behavior who have an expansive breadth of skills that can be applied to many different aspects of everyday life, such as health, education, criminal justice, business, and even sports. When most people think of psychologists, however, they think of those who specialize in the treatment of mental health disorders, typically referred to as clinical psychologists.
Clinical psychologists work with patients who experience all levels of behavioral concerns, from personal growth difficulties to diagnosable conditions that include severe symptoms and psychological distress. Most clinical psychologists focus on the behavioral, emotional, and social aspects that contribute to the patient’s problems, and they employ evidence-based practices into their treatment plan. Some may incorporate psychological testing, neurological assessments and interventions, and other advanced methods into their clinical work.
In order to provide clinical services independently, they must be licensed by their state board regulating psychological services. In all 50 states, the term “psychologist” is regulated by law as a protected title. The use of the title and root “psycho-,” such as when describing services like “psychotherapy,” requires a license by the state board that regulates the provision of psychological services.3 Exceptions to this rule are minimal and do vary by state.
How Do Licensed Psychologists Differ From Other Mental Health Treatment Providers?
Treatment for mental health diagnoses and concerns can be provided by many different types of licensed clinicians. Treatment approaches vary considerably based on credentials, educational background, clinical experience, and level of training.
Licensed psychologists are trained to provide various mental health treatment and assessment services, such as psychotherapy and psychological testing. Often, licensed psychologists who focus primarily on providing direct treatment to patients will have a specialized degree in clinical psychology in a program focused on evidence-based treatment approaches to diagnosable conditions. Licensed psychologists are highly-trained to provide services for disorders with the highest level of psychological severity.
The following are some distinctions between licensed psychologists and other clinicians licensed to treat mental health issues:
Licensed Psychologists vs Psychiatrists
The primary difference between the two professions is that psychologists, broadly, are experts in human behavior and hold doctoral degrees (PhD, PsyD, EdD), while psychiatrists hold a medical degree (MD or DO) and have expertise in treating mental health disorders through medication.
Psychiatrists mostly work with individuals experiencing symptom-level mental health concerns such as persistent depression, generalized anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other mental health disorders that respond well to medication. A psychiatrist has graduated medical school like any other physician. After medical school, doctors who want to pursue a career in psychiatry do a multi-year training program called a residency where they get more training in the field. In the current medical system, their primary treatment approach is medication. But most psychiatrists have received advanced training during their residencies that allows them to also engage in psychotherapy if they desire.
Some psychological concerns may respond better to psychotherapy than to medication, other conditions may be controlled by medication alone, or a combination of both might be most beneficial. As such, it is not uncommon for licensed psychologists and psychiatrists to collaborate both in hospital settings or through coordination at the outpatient level. A small number of states do permit licensed psychologists to prescribe certain classes of medication, provided the psychologist has received additional post-graduate training.
Licensed Psychologists vs Therapists
Mental health professionals identifying as therapists often include licensed marriage and family therapists and licensed clinical social workers. These professionals will typically have a two-year masters degree. Choosing Therapy has a list of these and other types of mental health professionals, as well as an explanation of their professional roles, which you may find here.
Licensed psychologists with a clinical specialty have a doctoral degree earned over approximately four years (Doctor of Psychology or PsyD) to five years (Doctor of Philosophy or PhD). Their training often compromises a medical model of treatment for mental health concerns and diagnoses.
The additional years of training allow licensed psychologists to enhance psychotherapy with their research skills, psychological testing and assessment experience, and instruction in advanced psychopathology, which may be applied – directly or indirectly – to benefit the treatment plan at various stages.2
These credentialing and training distinctions are important for helping you determine which type of mental professional makes the most sense for your needs and concerns. Complex cases, mental health concerns fitting the medical model, and symptom-heavy presentations may benefit more from treatment by licensed psychologists; although, it is just as common for licensed psychologists to work with people on personal growth and life satisfaction issues.
There are times when seeing a licensed psychologist may perhaps not be immediately advised, such as in pursuit of couples therapy, which is much more reliably, though not exclusively, in the realm of training of licensed marriage and family therapists. For an individual who needs assistance navigating complex systems alongside their mental health needs, licensed clinical social workers may be more adept at integrating outside resources.
Note that “therapist” is a general and often undefined term. It typically denotes a provider of mental health treatment; however, that provider could have any number of various degrees or licenses, and it is important to investigate whether the provider is properly credentialed to manage your specific mental health concerns. While some states do have similar title protections for the term “therapist,” and its use, it is not universal. That is to say, in some states, a person may advertise themselves as a therapist without any relevant education or experience.
Types of Psychologists
As mentioned, “psychologist” is a broad term. The title itself does not fully describe the specialty of a psychologist nor the setting in which they perform it. A psychologist’s specialty rests in their educational background and where their training has focused.
Alongside clinical psychologists, the following is a non-exhaustive list of some of the most common psychological specialties and their particular focus:1,7
- School psychologists help children and parents cope with emotional, behavioral, educational, and social concerns specific to school settings.
- Forensic psychologists help navigate when psychology and the law intersect. They have a stronger focus on abnormal psychology, criminal and antisocial behavior, and victim / perpetrator treatment. They will often work for the court or in prison and rehabilitation settings.
- Social psychologists focus on how groups of people behave rather than people as individuals.
- Industrial/Organizational psychologists apply psychological principles and research to the workplace setting to increase productivity and improve work life.
- Neuropsychologists focus on brain systems and behavior. Often they will work in hospitals and in coordination with brain imaging departments. They will also typically provide assessment and treatment.
- Testing psychologists primarily engage in assessment and psychological testing using empirically-validated tests and instruments. They may work for police departments, school systems, large companies, or in private practice.
Education & Experience of a Licensed Psychologist
In order to become a licensed psychologist, the applicant must meet rigorous educational, experiential, and testing requirements.
More specifically, they must:6
- Have earned a doctoral degree (PhD, PsyD, or EdD) in psychology. That degree can be in the general field of psychology, or it can be more focused, for example, such as a doctoral degree in clinical psychology or educational psychology.
- Pass the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology (EPPP). This national exam for licensure evaluates scope of competency in all areas relevant to psychology such as treatment, psychopharmacology, psychobiology, statistics, diagnosis, research, development, etc.
- Pass a state licensing exam, which typically involves the law and ethics of practicing psychology in that jurisdiction.
- Complete 1,500 to 6,000 hours of approved, supervised professional training.
Note that a license to practice psychology is a general license indicating broad competency over a variety of domains in the field. Clinical psychology is just one of many specialties under that umbrella, so while you may see people say “licensed clinical psychologist,” the most accurate term would be “licensed psychologist with a clinical specialty.” Additionally, not all holders of a doctorate in psychology choose to become a licensed psychologist.
If a person holding a doctorate in psychology is not providing direct clinical services to the public, then a license is not germane to their job functions; however, they are then not permitted to refer to themselves as “psychologists” in most cases. One such example would include those who wish to solely focus on research or academics.
Where & With Which Populations Do Psychologists Work?
The versatile nature of both a degree and license in psychology allows psychologists to work in many different settings and roles. It’s not uncommon for a single psychologist to have multiple professional roles, such as providing direct clinical services to patients in their private practice, conducting research at universities, writing scholarly or editorial articles, and teaching courses. Some, instead, prefer to keep their role focused on one endeavor.
Private & Group Practice
Licensed psychologists who offer clinical services such as psychotherapy and psychological testing may work in private practice where they schedule their own hours, establish their own office policies, and focus on their treatment specialties only. They may also work in a group practice where they share space and administrative functions with other mental health professionals.
It is common for licensed psychologists to have leadership positions in mental health departments at the hospital level. They will often supervise students in masters and doctoral level programs focused in psychotherapy and psychology. They may or may not work alongside a psychiatrist or administrator.
Organizations & Businesses
Industrial-Organizational psychologists use their training to work in corporate, business, and non-profit settings to improve workplace harmony, solve complicated interpersonal and human resources problems, provide testing to job applicants, and many other functions. They are more likely to work as consultants.
Licensed psychologists with a specialization in forensics will often work in prison settings, rehabilitation centers, or for the court. They typically will provide assessment in terms of competency to stand trial, personality testing, and witness testimony.
Licensed psychologists with an academic focus may be university professors at the undergraduate or graduate level, and they will likely conduct research in their department.
Cost of a Licensed Psychologist for Therapy Sessions
It has been estimated that the average cost of an individual therapy session in the United States is between $60 and $120 with a range of $20 to $250 per session.4 Accounting for credentials, the average session fee for licensed psychologists ranges between $75 and $150 an hour. The standard rate in larger cities, however, trends more toward the $250 per session range.
Some licensed psychologists with highly specialized practices may charge $300+ per session. The methodology for these estimations, however, is largely anecdotal. The reality is that fees for psychotherapy are market dependent and based on credentials, expertise, numbers of providers in the region, and other factors.
Do Licensed Psychologists Charge Higher Fees for Therapy?
Typically, yes. All professional services that require a high-degree of skill consider length of education and level of experience when establishing fees, and this is no different for mental health. Just like any other professional service, you can expect to pay higher fees when seeing a professional with higher credentials.
Are Licensed Psychologists Covered by Insurance?
If your insurance has mental health benefits, your plan will likely have licensed psychologists on their panel of providers, as well as masters level clinicians; although some private and government-backed mental health plans exclude certain masters level clinicians.5 In terms of finances, your co-pay, if any, will usually be the same regardless of the credential of the clinician that you choose to see.
Note that insurance will only cover services if there is a diagnosable condition present (depression, anxiety, etc.) and will not typically cover couples therapy or personal growth concerns. There is also the reasonable expectation that treatment will lead to improvement. Insurance plans have the right to evaluate treatment progress, at which point they can reduce session frequency, duration, or discontinue sessions entirely.
They may deem further treatment no longer medically necessary, or if there appears to be no benefit from treatment, they may determine the patient to be at “baseline” and discontinue the work if the patient is not in crisis. Of course, treatment should always be discontinued when goals are met or if there isn’t any benefit to continuing, but patients, clinicians, and insurance companies do not always agree on these matters.
If you intend to use insurance, spend as much time researching prospective licensed psychologists as you would on any other life changing decision. Don’t decide solely based on whether the clinician takes your insurance and is accepting new patients. Choosing the right licensed psychologist for you and your needs improves the probability of better treatment outcomes. Note that insurance won’t pay for treatment in perpetuity. Some plans will only cover a certain number of sessions. You don’t want to realize 10 sessions into treatment that a little more time researching would have helped you find the best clinician for your goals.
How to Find a Licensed Psychologist
Choosing Therapy provides a useful guide on how to choose a therapist in your area, how to evaluate their credentials and services, and questions to ask during your consultation. Choosing Therapy also has a searchable therapist directory to find licensed psychologists.