Psychotherapy 101: What Do All Those Initials After the Names Mean?

Psychotherapy is conducted by a professional with specialized training, for example, a psychiatrist, a trained counselor, social worker or psychologist; but, how do you make sense of the alphabet soup after their names? What are the qualifications of the person treating you?

Doctoral Degrees

Although it's common to associate the title "doctor" with a medical doctor, this title can refer to anyone who has an advanced degree.

Just because someone calls him- or herself "doctor" doesn't mean they are qualified to offer you treatment. They could just as easily have a Ph.D. in English or Archaeology. If you are in doubt, ask to see their full credentials.

Some professional titles you may run into are:

  • M.D. - Stands for Medical Doctor. Psychiatrists are usually M.D.'s. Because they possess a medical degree, they can administer medications as well as psychotherapy.
  • Ph.D. - Stands for Doctor of Philosophy. Ph.D. programs may offer degrees in many diverse areas ranging anywhere from Agriculture to Urban Economic Development. Psychologists often have this degree as well. Psychologists with Ph.D.'s may have degrees in Clinical Psychology (focused upon research and practice), Counseling Psychology (focused upon counseling people with day-to-day problems), School Psychology or just Psychology. Psychologists generally cannot prescribe medication, although the state of New Mexico does allow it.
  • Psy.D. - Stands for Doctor of Psychology. This type of degree focuses more upon the practice of psychology than research.
  • D.Min. - Stands for Doctor of Ministry, a degree which may held by a minister. Ministers may offer Pastoral Counseling.

Masters Degrees

Whereas doctors may have three to four years education plus and internship or residency beyond a bachelor's degree, masters programs are generally closer to two years.

Some degrees you may encounter:

  • M.S.W. - Stands for Masters in Social Work. This is the degree that social workers generally possess.
  • M.Ed. - Stands for Masters in Education. Many counselors have this degree. It may be given in any field of education.
  • M.S.Ed. - A similar degree to the M.Ed.
  • M.S. or M.A. - Stands for Masters of Science and Masters of Arts, respectively. These are the traditional degrees given by colleges of arts and sciences in the United States. Generally, a master's degree is not sufficient to be licensed as a psychologist, although some states and Canadian provinces do allow it.
  • Ed.S. - Stands for Educational Specialist. This degree is actually intermediate between a Masters and a Doctorate. Some school psychologists and counselors have this degree.
  • M.Div. - Stands for Masters of Divinity. Ministers who are pastoral counselors may have this degree.


Some states required counselors to be licensed, conferring the titles L.P.C (Licensed Professional Counselor) or M.F.C.C.

(Marriage, Family and Child Counselor).

In some states, the title L.S.C.W., for Licensed Clinical Social Worker, may be used for social workers.

Special Certifications

Certifications are similar to licenses, but with a more limited scope of practice. Some certifications you may see:

  • CSAC - Stands for Certified Substance Abuse Counselor. This person usually has at least a bachelor's degree and some additional training in substance abuse.
  • CAC - Stands for Certified Alcoholism Counselor. Similar to a CSAC, but with an emphasis in alcohol abuse. Depending on your state, CAC may also stand for Certified Addictions Counselor. In this case, the person would be qualified to deal with both drug and alcohol abuse.

Board Certifications

Physicians generally pass "specialty boards" to become "board certified" in their chosen specialty.

  • A.B.P.P - This board certification is a credential available through the American Board of Professional Psychology. Any psychologist who passes their exam may use these initials. Many psychologists do not get this certification, however.
  • F.A.C.P. - Fellow, American College of Physicians.
  • B.C.F.E. - This certification has little value. With very little training and a large fee, it has been easy to obtain this credential. It may look impressive if someone has these additional initials after their name, but it really doesn't mean much.

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