Three Tickets to the Same Event

“There are three masters-level licenses for counseling offered by the State of Texas. Which one is the best?”

I’m often asked this question by prospective counseling students who visit our campus here at the Seminary of the Southwest. In this post I will attempt an answer, but not directly because I don’t believe there is a “best” degree. Instead, I want to rephrase the question as, “which license is the best fit for you?

In order to be fair and objective, I asked several friends and colleagues with various licenses to answer from their own — admittedly biased — position. As you read the descriptions of the licenses, imagine which one might be the best fit for you.

All three licenses are “tickets” to the same event. Regardless of which license you earn, you can work with individuals, couples, and/or families who are in need of professional mental health services. The main difference will be the “lens” that is formed in your mind and heart during your training, which will guide you in formulating what your clients need, and which resources will best enable them to adapt to their circumstances.

What is a Licensed Professional Counselor?

First, I asked Dr. Gena Minnix for her perspective on the LPC license. Here is her response:

A counselor with an LPC license has been particularly trained to understand the inner world of the client — mind, body, emotion, and spirit. Professional counselors are also trained social justice advocates. The counselor can work with an individual, couple, family, group, or organization to achieve a desired goal. That might mean recovery from mental illness, trauma, or grief. It might also mean greater relational intimacy, or spiritual, career, psychological, and/or life satisfaction. It could further mean greater self-acceptance and awareness of systemic oppression. By drawing out and harnessing the natural strengths and resources already present in the client, a counselor enters into a short or long-term relationship to champion that person to creatively engage the areas of life in which they most wish to cope, learn, grow, and develop as human beings. Once they receive their full license, LPCs can work in many settings, such as private practice, non-profit agencies, clinics, hospitals, the VA, and/or schools.

What is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker?

Next, I asked a LCSW who preferred not to be named. As you read her response, you will see that there is a similarity to Dr Minnix’s description of the LPC, even though the language reflects the specific academic and professional discipline of social work. Here is her response:

Social work promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing.

What is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist?

I went back to Dr Minnix who is also an LMFT. Note in this description there are similarities to the other two licenses mentioned, along with some differences. Here is her response:

A marriage and family therapist has been trained in the same fundamentals as an LPC, with additional emphasis on the systemic world of the client — their childhood, partnership, family relationships, place of work, community, and the larger society. MFTs are trained to intervene at whatever level in a client’s system will have the greatest “ripple effect”, changing the way the client and others interact with one another. Counselors and social workers can also be trained to work systemically to apply interventions to change the lens through which the client and others are looking at one another. Therapists who work in this manner might coach the client and others in new relational or communication skills. MFTs are trained, along with the other licensed professionals, to assess, diagnose, and treat individual mental health concerns as well. Drawing upon the natural care and concern clients and their loved ones have for one another, the MFT joins the client system temporarily in order to generate change where relationships feel “stuck”, and empower clients to achieve the relational and life satisfaction they desire.

Summarizing the similarities and differences

After reading the three descriptions of the State licenses for masters-level counselors, did anything stand out to you?

Probably the similarities seemed most obvious. The degrees for these licenses do share much in common, yet each offers a different philosophical perspective. Though all share ideas in common, each chooses one as their overall guiding principle.

LPCs may focus a bit more on the inner world of the client. LCSWs may emphasize resources in the community, and have historically been especially trained to serve the traditionally underprivileged. And LMFTs may see healing and wholeness as most profoundly connected to family and kinship networks. As the professions have evolved, each degree now trains students to work with family systems, provide advocacy and guidance to community resources, and pays attention to the inner life and development of the individual client.

A suggestion for you

Now that you’re aware there are three tickets to the same event, and that all three professional licenses are able to offer similar services from their unique perspectives, how do you answer the question of “which one is the best fit for you?” Here are a few suggestions:

1. Interview people who hold each license and find out what they love. Imagine yourself doing their job and see if that excites, threatens, or bores you.

2. Visit graduate programs for each of the degrees. Look at their accreditation levels to see if they are top level programs or not. If you are looking to become an LMFT, ask if the program is COAMFTE or if it plans to apply for that top accreditation. For future LPCs, pay attention to whether or not the program is CACREP, or is in the process of applying for that high level of accreditation.

3. Look at the required courses for that degree. You might find that they are training you for something that doesn’t fit your interests. For instance, if you wish to offer deep, long-term psychotherapy to individuals, the MFT or MSW program classes may not excite you.

4. Ask about post-graduate internships. Many graduates are surprised to find these internships may not be paid, and it may take 3–5 additional years to earn the full license.


Like any career decision, it is essential to get proper guidance to ensure your degree, license, and profession are a good fit. Take your time and visit the program you’re most interested in. Pay attention to your feelings and impressions as you look at the place, the community, the professors, and the current students. Making the commitment to a program may seem like a daunting challenge, but each of our lives is full of risk and adventure.

May your journey be exciting!

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