What Is a Psychologist?

The title “psychologist” is protected by California law, and is reserved for doctors trained in professional psychology and licensed by the Board of Psychology (BOP) to diagnose and treat mental and emotional problems.  All of the states delineate similar requirements in order to practice psychology.  (Neuropsychologists are licensed psychologists with extensive training in neuroscience and brain-behavior relationships that is in addition to their training as psychologists.  Neuropsychologists are minimally required to be doctors who hold a license through the BOP.)

Consumers may be understandably confused because the title “psychologist” is often erroneously used to refer to those who are not doctors, and do not hold a clinical license.   For example, a “school psychologist” typically holds a master’s degree and is not licensed (see “What is a School Psychologist”).  To make matters even more complicated, other master’s level practitioners such as social workers (LCSW), marriage & family therapists (MFT), and licensed educational psychologists (LEP) sometimes incorrectly identify themselves as psychologists.  LEPs, LCSWs and MFTs are licensed by the Board of Behavioral Sciences.

The differences? Too many to mention, but simply put (and probably most understandable to the layperson), is the amount and difficulty level of the training involved.  A master’s degree in psychology generally takes 2 years to complete, whereas a doctorate takes an additional 4-6 years of training past the master’s level. Besides doctoral-level coursework, the Ph.D. in professional psychology requires prolonged supervised fieldwork.  It also requires training as a scientist…in research methodology and statistics, as well as completion of a major research project (dissertation).  Additionally, the doctor who is licensed is required to complete lengthy post-doctoral training and supervision, as well as national and state examinations (boards) that evaluate competency.

As will become clear from information provided here, it is imperative for consumers to always ask: “What degree(s)?  In what field?  From what school?  Was the primary focus of your doctoral training with adults or with children?  What license(s) is (are) held?” Those of us with legitimate qualifications will be happy to tell you! 

Consider the following 3 factors when buying services or accepting services for your child:

Level of training: The minimal level of training for practitioners in mental health is a master’s degree in psychology. Weekend courses and training camps are called “continuing education” for those of us who hold professional degrees and licenses, and do not constitute professional training in and of themselves.  Beware of those who pump themselves up with meaningless letters after their names.  “Ph.D. or Psy.D.” (doctor) and “M.A. or M.S.” (master’s degree) are the letters you are looking for.  The rest is fluff. 

Licenses: For yours and your child’s protection, be sure that the person holds a license through the California Board of Psychology (doctors) or the California Board of Behavioral Sciences (all others).  Mental health licenses in the state of CA are the following: Psychologist, educational psychologist (LEP), social workers (LCSW), marriage and family therapists (MFT).

Specialty area: You should make sure that the person holds a master’s degree or doctorate in psychology, and that the main emphasis of their formal training was with children and adolescents.

If you wish to obtain a diagnosis, choose a doctor (licensed psychologist).  Even if subdoctoral-level specialists claim to “diagnose,” be aware that most governmental agencies won’t accept “diagnosis” from sub-doctoral level specialists (e.g. licensed educational psychologists, school psychologists, MFTs, etc.).

A special education teacher who is certified by the California Dept. of Education may be an invaluable resource for providing “coaching” services to your child if they are being supervised by a doctor and/or have received recommendations from a diagnostic assessment performed by a doctor.

Beware of “learning centers.”  These outfits claim to provide “assessment” and some even claim “diagnosis.”  They have no one qualified to do either, as no licensed doctor would work for these corporations. Besides false claims, it is unethical to be testing children with the intent to sell their parents services (talk about bias!).  Even if these services were free, parents stand to waste their child’s time and energy if they do not have a legitimate diagnosis. Since the folks who work at these outfits are far from being doctors who would be reprimanded by their licensing boards, no one can stop them. “Caveat emptor.”

A note about prescription medication:  Although properly trained licensed psychologists have gained prescription privileges in New Mexico and Louisiana, in California it is currently illegal for anyone other than a physician to prescribe medication. Licensed psychologists are permitted to discuss the appropriateness of the prescribed medication or to suggest a medication to the physician. Licensed psychologists are also permitted to discuss medication with patients (See the Board of Psychology’s “Statement on Medication” for more information).

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Further Reading:   What Is a “Coach” or “Behavioral Consultant?”
Special education questions 
What is the difference between a Psychologist, a Neuropsychologist, a Licensed Educational “Psychologist,” and a School “Psychologist?”
The What & Why of Psychological Assessment
Neuropsychology questions
 What Is Psychotherapy?