What’s with all the letters?
MA vs MS
First, let’s start with the basics. If you’re looking on a website like Psychology Today to try and find a provider, you may start to notice a few trends. Predominantly you will see people list of Master of Arts (MA) or a Master of Science (MS), and occasionally you will also see a Master of Education (MEd). So, what’s the difference? More importantly, does it influence your search for a therapist? Short answer: probably not! The difference between an MA and MS in the context of a counseling degree is very slight. Usually, it’s a distinction based on the focus of the master’s program that the counselor attended. Programs that gear more towards the liberal arts are dubbed MA while programs gearing more towards research are MS.
That might feel like a big difference, and it usually is. However, counselors and therapists have a few checkpoints they must hit before they can actually practice with people. These checkpoints help ensure that even if schools have different focuses, the counselors-to-be are receiving a very similar education. CACREP (I know, I keep adding letters to this equation) is one of these checks and balances, along with each states’ individual licensure board.
CACREP (Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs) is an organization that has been around since 1980s, and its’ mission is to ensure that anyone who holds the title “therapist” or “counselor” has been trained in core competencies. These competencies include Professional Counseling Orientation and Ethical Practice, Social and Cultural Diversity, Human Growth and Development, Career Development, Counseling and Helping Relationships, Group Counseling and Group Work, Assessment and Testing, and Research and Program Evaluation. This ensures that regardless of the school, counselors across the nation are receiving trainings that are similar and standardized.
However, not every counseling program is CACREP accredited. This is where the second check and balance come into the equation. State Licensure Boards also exist to ensure that therapists and counselors are held to a standardized level of accountability within their state. All states differ slightly, so always feel free to check your specific state’s guidelines, just google “(Your state) counseling board”. Despite slight differences, all states have similar requirements. A counselor-to-be needs to have the following regardless of which state they are applying for: certain educational core competencies; proof of supervised internship during completion of the master’s program; proof of continued supervision after graduation with an approved supervisor; and to pass a comprehensive examination on counseling practices.
To sum all of that up, the difference between an MA, MS, or even MEd when choosing a counselor is minimal. Thanks to a handy system of checks and balances you can rest assured that every professional has had a similar educational background. Ultimately, you are your own expert, and you should make a decision for a counselor based on what (or who) meets your needs best.
LPC-A, LPC, LPC-S
I bet you’re thinking to yourself “Holy cow! She said the first bit was going to be the basics. This is going to be crazy!” Well, yes and no. Truthfully, the above sets a really good base to build off of but also covered a fair amount of the technical bits as well. So, while we still have more to cover, the above contains the bulk of nearly everything. Now, we move on to the next letters you might see as you search for a counselor: LPC, LPC-A, and LPC-S. To start, a LPC stands for Licensed Professional Counselor. Branching from that, an LPC-A is an Associate while an LPC-S is a Supervisor.
When a counselor first graduates from their master’s program they apply to a state’s licensure board to become an LPC-A (other states may use a different acronym, but the process and meaning is similar). This means that they can see clients and provide therapy but only under the supervision of an LPC-S.
Once an LPC-A has completed a sizeable number of hours while supervised, they apply to the State Licensure Board to get a new license as an LPC. If you’re a video game player, you can think of this as leveling-up or unlocking new benefits. For Texas, an LPC-A needs a total of 3,000 supervised hours, at least 1,500 of which are direct contact with a client (i.e., therapy sessions). This means that once someone is credentialed as LPC they have completed not only a graduate level program, but they have also had 1,500 (or more) hours with clients. Once at this level, a clinician may increase the cost of a session or open their own private practice.
To become an LPC-S, an LPC needs to complete several years practicing as an LPC before undergoing additional training. Again, these regulations differ slightly state to state, but on average it’s 3-5 years as an LPC as well as a 40-hour course on providing supervision. The training specifically works to ensure that the LPC-S is up to date on the latest techniques, theories, and ethics so they can, in turn, ensure that their supervisees are practicing accordingly.
In the end, the alphabet soup of licensure should only be part of your decision-making process when looking for a counselor. You are the expert of yourself and your need, so you should choose a counselor that makes you feel heard, whatever the credentials. In this blog, I only covered the very basics, so if you have specific questions that weren’t covered in the above blog, please feel free to reach out and ask questions! As always, we are happy to have you here and congratulations on taking such a big step to feeling better.