Should I Choose a Psychologist (PhD) or a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT)?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The number of different degrees that allow people to practice therapy may confuse a lot of people looking for counselors. You may note ads for therapy from people who are psychiatrists, psychologists, marriage and family therapists (MFT), licensed clinical social workers (LCSW), or MFCCs — marriage, family, and child counselors. Whether or not one type better than the other is a highly debatable point, and it may serve you better to see a psychologist or MFT depending upon your needs.

Psychologists often administer behavioral tests.
Psychologists often administer behavioral tests.

A few distinctions can be made between degrees in psychology and degrees that result in a MFT. A psychologist receives a PhD, and has more education than an MFT who receives a master’s degree. This does not mean that greater education makes the psychologist automatically more competent than the MFT. Some of the education for those receiving a PhD in psychology may focus on clinical work, learning to administer tests to evaluate people for learning or cognitive disorders, and using the scientific method to test and evaluate specific functions of human and/or animal brains. This is not therapy focused, as is much of the MFT degree. Both fields must practice a certain amount of hours of supervised therapy prior to receiving licensure.

MFTs often have a more therapy-focused background.
MFTs often have a more therapy-focused background.

Psychologists are often specially trained to administer behavioral and learning tests. Some, like neuropsychologists, specialize in child and adolescent development and diagnosis of learning disabilities like autism spectrum disorder. An MFT or LCSW can administer some standardized tests, if he or she has received the appropriate training; in other cases, the counselor may refer a patient to a neuropsychologist for testing.

A marriage and family therapist (MFT) may be able to help couples re-establish trust and intimacy.
A marriage and family therapist (MFT) may be able to help couples re-establish trust and intimacy.

Other times, psychologists are mainly interested in practicing therapy. In this case they may study a particular school of therapy, but graduation requirements may also have them studying things outside of their interest. Some psychologists function as school counselors and head programs to administer individualized education plans (IEPs) or special services to students. As such, they may not practice therapy at all.

A marriage and family therapist may be more helpful in leading therapy sessions involving groups of people and multiple family dynamics.
A marriage and family therapist may be more helpful in leading therapy sessions involving groups of people and multiple family dynamics.

If you are not seeing a person for a learning problem, then either a counseling psychologist or MFT may be equally equipped to provide therapy. The main issue is not so much what degrees the person holds, though they should be licensed to practice therapy. Instead, your main consideration should be how comfortable you feel with a particular therapist.

If you are seeing a therapist and need to take medication for your condition, you may also want to consider whether seeing a psychiatrist who offers counseling makes more sense than seeing a counselor who can't prescribe medications. Psychologists, MFTs, MFCCs, and LCSWs cannot prescribe medications, and a lack of communication between your psychiatrist and therapist can cause problems. From a purely practical perspective, a psychiatrist, since he or she holds a medical degree, may come under different insurance laws, and you may be able to see a psychiatrist more often, and for smaller co-payments than you can see other types of counselors.

While you are trying to choose a therapist, you should look at the practical situation of your counseling needs, your comfort with the therapist, and the degree to which the therapist has experience in the type of counseling you want or need. If you're looking for a therapist for a child, you may want to know that the counselor, psychologist or otherwise, has experience with children; not all therapists are equally adept in this field. When you want to pursue a certain type of therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or Jungian therapy, you'd look for people who have studied these things extensively and practiced them.

You may require some specialization or extra practice in other things, like counseling the children of alcoholics, providing family counseling, or focusing on counseling to couples. Some therapists see a diverse group of patients and others tend to work in one area only. It's okay to ask a lot of questions in preliminary visits to a therapist to gauge how well his or her experience fits with your needs. In most cases, however, you should feel a sense of comfort with the psychologist or any other therapist you plan to use. Without some trust, it can be hard to be honest, and failure to be honest in therapy may not help you resolve the problems you would like to work on.

Some therapists have specialized degrees or experience related to family counseling.
Some therapists have specialized degrees or experience related to family counseling.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


@GreenWeaver - You know I think that some of the most effective psychologists or therapists have experience with the very problems that they treat.

For example, many addiction counselors and therapist have had problems with drug addiction or other forms of addiction like eating disorders or compulsive shopping. These types of therapist really understand the underlying problems that the addict has because they actually lived that life.

So I would not hold a person’s shortcomings against them. I think that it actually helps them shape their character and be more empathetic. For example, a therapist that battled marriage infidelity would be able to relate to a client that has experienced this more because they understand the pain more. I think that a licensed psychologist should have some battle scars.


@Sneakers41 - I think that what you say makes sense, but sometimes a licensed marriage and family therapist would have more specialized expertise in the area. It ultimately depends on your comfort level with the therapist.

I also think that a therapist that has a successful marriage would be ideal, but I don’t know how much of that information the therapist is willing to disclose on that matter.

To me this in important because, I saw several books written by a famous marriage and family therapist that was divorced three times. Some people may say that the marriage failures actually gives this person more perspective regarding marriage and they probably have a lot of insight as to what not to do to remain happy in a marriage.

However, another side of me thinks that if they were not able to stay married how are they going to help me? So you really have to do your homework when choosing a counseling psychologist.


@Anon121077 - That is really great insight. I think that a clinical psychologist with a PsyD is actually a good fit because the PsyD indicates that they have a doctorate in clinical psychology while the PhD is more research orientated.

It really depends what the reason for seeing the psychologist is. For example, if you are seeking a psychologist for intelligence testing in order to see if your child qualifies for a gifted program or to see if they have any learning disabilities, then a psychologist with a PhD is best.

However, if you are looking for a counseling psychologist I would look at the qualifications of the psychologist and probably would prefer the one with the highest level of education.

To me it does seem like they are more dedicated to the field if they have a doctorate.


In my experience over a few years as client of psychotherapists-in-training (people whose fees I could afford because they were still completing supervised work in a clinical setting prior to getting fully licensed), those who elected to go the master's degree route differed substantially from those who chose the doctorate.

I had far better luck - was able to develop a far more trusting therapeutic relationship and achieve far more positive change in my life - when working with the doctoral candidates. My guess is that the bent of mind that leads people to pursue a research degree (some fondness, maybe, for abstract thought) felt somehow congenial to me and made me feel safe.

Different therapy clients have different needs. What matters, in any given case, may be not the specific training a therapist has, but rather what sort of person the therapist is: how the therapist's ways of thought and feeling mesh with the client's. Choosing one kind of degree or training rather than another may say something important about the therapist.

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