There are many paths to becoming a licensed psychotherapist. One is to obtain a Masters in Counseling. Another is to pursue a graduate psychology degree. Still others choose to earn a Ph.D. Finally, there is the common and well-traveled path of earning an MSW.

What is psychotherapy? And what is a psychotherapist?

These terms are not quite scientific, and. as such, they are not easy to define.

Who hasn’t heard someone say, “I need therapy.” Or, “I’m going to my therapist.” We nod our heads knowingly, but really, just what does therapy entail? As it turns out, therapy can take many different forms. The terms psychotherapy and therapist loosely blanket a range of counseling modalities and treatments provided to individuals with problems such as mental illness, emotional distress, PTSD, addictive behavior, family concerns and more. Practitioners providing psychotherapy hail from a range of academic disciplines, and utilize many different approaches.

Although the concept of psychotherapeutic counseling may have broad interpretations, the common thread is that all practitioners delivering these services must be licensed.

Because there is no consistent model for the profession, however, psychotherapy licensing can be tricky. Many states don’t share the same titles for counseling licensure. For example, some states have a category called “marriage and family therapist.” Others have a catch-all title: “licensed professional counselor.” Typically, licensed clinical social workers are free to practice as therapists in any state, so it is worth contacting your state licensing board to become fully informed about your local requirements. You should ask how they classify and license counselors.

Regardless of title, all states typically require practitioners to possess a graduate degree or a doctorate in clinical psychology, counseling or clinical social work. These degrees demonstrate a strong emphasis on clinical training. Both masters and doctoral programs require students complete two years of supervised clinical practice in a health care setting. Post-graduation, social workers pursue additional training for a period of time – typically two years – before taking and passing a state licensing exam to become clinical social workers. During this additional training time, MSWs are permitted to seek employment as therapists.

Why should aspiring licensed psychotherapists consider an MSW?

Because a variety of practitioners provide mental health therapy, it’s important to understand the difference between a therapist and an MSW. There are distinct differences and even advantages to the MSW.

First, among the graduate school options leading to counseling licensure, the MSW offers the fastest route. The MSW generally takes two years to complete. It can be even faster, depending on your background. Many schools will apply prior work experience or the coursework from a pre-existing Bachelors of Social Work degree to Masters level graduation requirements. If you qualify for this advanced standing, you may be able to earn the degree in one year. Another option is to enroll in an accelerated program, where your studies continue over the summer and the degree is earned in 16 months. Many reputable and accredited online MSW programs offer these same program options.

Second, the MSW is the preferred credential in many health care settings. This is because the training social workers receive is so broad based and versatile. This not only makes the degree highly marketable, it makes it preferred for third-party insurance and Medicare reimbursement. Compared to their more expensive counseling peers, MSWs offer clients and insurance companies a better bang for their buck. Sure, they can provide counseling to a patient, but they can also arrange for him to have home nursing care and get on Medicaid.

Third, social workers are trained in a treatment modality known as the person-in-their-environment. This allows the MSW to consider not just an individual’s struggle with mental illness, but broader contexts including what is occurring around that person. Is there an unhealthy relationship impacting the patient? Should the patient be encouraged to move? Many clinicians feel this person-in-the-environment approach is more effective than other modalities. It says that the world in which the patient lives is an important part of the clinical picture.

Finally, MSWs are at an advantage because they can readily transition to another career or position within the field of social work. They can also market their degree to an entirely new field. In fact, with a new emphasis on emotional intelligence emerging in corporate America, many feel the MSW is the new MBA.

The ability to pivot careers is possible because MSW students are required to complete a foundational curriculum that entails the study of advocacy, diversity, and social policy and welfare. The MSW teaches students to think critically about a broad range of societal issues. Students who pursue a graduate psychology degree or a master’s in counseling will receive intensive training, but their knowledge and expertise will be confined to their narrow field of study.

If you hope to become a well-rounded psychotherapist, and hope to keep your options open for future possibilities, you may find that an MSW is the right degree for you.

Nedda Gilbert

Ms. Gilbert is a certified social worker and 30 year educational consultant with an interest in helping college-bound and graduate school students manage the process and stress of admissions effectively. She is one of the senior founding managers of the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company, and the author of The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and another book, Business School Essays that Made a Difference (Random House). She is a guest contributor to Forbes Magazine on college and college life. Ms. Gilbert is also certified as a collaborative family law professional in New Jersey. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MS from Columbia University.