The Alphabet Soup of Mental Health Professions in California

Marriage and family therapy therapist psychotherapist graduate student masters degree doctorate phd MFT licensed prelicensed clinical social worker trainee intern associate

Personally, I made the choice to pursue marriage & family therapy because, after reading about the different licenses, the MFT most strongly resonated with me in terms of philosophy and approach. Early on in my research of local programs, I came across CSUN, which seemed like a perfect fit for me, so I never did expand my search to investigate social work programs. In some corners of the internet, proponents of each license can get in some pretty brutal debates over which is "better." It seems to me now, however, that there isn't a vast difference between the two options. I'm getting a sense that, at my school at least, the social work program seems to have more scholarships available. However, I've also learned that MSW students cannot count hours earned during their graduate program towards the hours needed for licensure; MFT students can count up to 1300 hours earned during graduate school towards the 3000 hours required by the state of California to become licensed. So ultimately I think there are pros and cons of each option--which is best for YOU is  completely subjective.

This post first appeared on MFT California.

Before beginning the search for a graduate program, you need to decide what license you ultimately want to hold--and in order to do that, you need to determine what scope of practice in the mental health services field appeals to you.

Psychiatrists can both provide psychotherapy (talk therapy) and prescribe medications. As medical doctors, they are the only mental health providers qualified to prescribe medication. To become a psychiatrist, you must go to medical school, specialize in psychiatry, and ultimately be licensed by the state medical board.

Psychologists are also required to have a doctorate degree (PhD or PsyD) in order to become licensed in California. Psychologists provide psychotherapy as well as psychometric assessments; additionally, if research and academia is of interest to you, most universities require full-time faculty to have a doctorate degree.

However, if you want to focus on the clinical practice of psychotherapy--that is, if you're mainly interested in interacting directly with clients--you may be most interested in the LMFT (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist), LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker), and LPCC (Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor) licenses. In California, these licenses are administered by the Board of Behavioral Sciences (the BBS). According to the BBSmarriage and family therapy is a "service performed with individuals, couples, or groups wherein interpersonal relationships are examined for the purpose of achieving more adequate, satisfying, and productive marriage and family adjustments." Clinical social work is defined as "a service in which a special knowledge of social resources, human capabilities, and the part that unconscious motivation plays in determining behavior, is directed at helping people to achieve more adequate, satisfying, and productive social adjustments." Finally, professional clinical counseling is the "application of counseling interventions and psychotherapeutic techniques to identify and remediate cognitive, mental, and emotional issues, including personal growth, adjustment to disability, crisis intervention, and psychosocial and environmental problems."  Many MFT master's programs in California also qualify graduates to sit for the LPCC licensing exam, either with no modifications to the curriculum or as a specialization that includes some coursework beyond what is required for the master's in marriage and family therapy. To become an LCSW, however, you must attend a program at an accredited school of social work. You can qualify for these licenses with a doctorate degree, but only a master's-level degree is required.

If you are interested in working with children in school, you may want to consider the LEP (Licensed Educational Psychologist) license and/or the PPS (Pupil Personnel Services) credential. Both of these designations require a master's degree only, even though an individual licensed as an LEP is called an educational psychologist. LEP's work "in an educational setting to provide testing, counseling, and intervention to promote academic learning," while the PPS credential is "is required for those who work in public schools in California and is offered in the following four sub-specialties: School Counseling, School Psychology, School Social Work, and School child welfare/attendance services." Some MFT master's programs in California offer the ability to earn the PPS credential as well as a master's degree in marriage and family therapy. The LEP is administered by the BBS, while the PPS credential is administered by the  Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

Which license to pursue is a highly personal decision and depends on future career goals, interest in the curriculum, and intended location of practice. We strongly encourage you to browse the resources we've assembled below to educate yourself on the differences between the licenses and the pros and cons of each.

If you are just beginning your research, I recommend reading "Pathways to the Helping Professions: A Guide to Graduate Study," provided by Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. Intended for psychology students in the bachelor's degree program, it both elucidates the field of mental health services and offers guidance for self-reflection on what path you may find the most fulfilling.

Professons and Licenses 

Definitions of Possible Degrees and Licenses, provided by California State University, Fullerton
Careers in the Helping Professions, provided by UCLA
Overview of Licensed Mental Health Professions in California, by Dr. Denise Gretchen-Doorly, PhD.
"So You Want to Be a Counselor/Therapist? Let Me Tell You the Different Ways," by Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz
"Knowing is Half the Battle, Part 1," by Laura E. Buffardi Ph.D. for
"Knowing is Half the Battle, Part 2,"by Laura E. Buffardi Ph.D. for

Difference Between Master's and Doctorate Level Degrees

"Masters vs. Doctorate in Clinical Psychology," by Jonathan Golding, Ph.D. and Anne Lippert, PhD for
"About Graduate Study in Psychology," by Heidi R. Riggio for California State University, Los Angeles
"Masters versus PhD: Which Should You Apply For?", by Laura E. Buffardi Ph.D. for

Marriage and Family Therapy

"Who Are LMFTs?", provided by the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists
"The MFT Career Spectrum," provided by the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy
"Where People with MFT Degrees Work," provided by

Social Work

Accredited Schools of Social Work in California, provided by the BBS
"Pathway to Social Work Licensure in California," provided by the University of Southern California
"Careers in Social Work," provided by
"How to Become a Clinical Social Worker," provided by
"What does a clinical social worker do? An insider's look at a day in the life," provided by the College of St. Scholastica

Difference Between LMFT, LCSW, LPCC

Master of Marriage and Family Therapy vs. Master of Social Work Comparison Table, provided by University of Southern California
"What’s the difference between an MFT, an LPC (or LPCC), and an LCSW?," by Dr. Benjamin E. Caldwell, PsyD
What are the Differences MFT vs MSW (LCSW) Degree, provided by
"Therapist, Counselor or Social Worker?", by David Joel Miller
"Social Work Vs Counseling: Which Degree Is Right For You?", by Brian Childs
"Understanding the Differences between LPCC vs. MFT Fields," by Gabe Duverge for Touro University Worldwide

Dual Licensure

"LPCC & LMFT: The Guide to Dual Licensure," provided by the Chicago School of Professional Psychology
"LPCC vs. LMFT: The Benefits of Dual Licensure as a Marriage and Family Therapist and Professional Clinical Counselor," provided by Argosy University

School-Centered Mental Health Services

Becoming a School Counselor, provided by the California Association of School Counselors
Licensed Educational Psychologist (LEP) Requirements, provided by the BBS
Requirements for the PPS Credential, provided by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing
"What’s Right for Me? Clinical Counseling Versus School Counseling," by Gabriela Acosta for
"Who Are School Psychologists," provided by the National Association of School Psychologists


Points of Interest:

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