Who can use the term “Psychologist?”

There seems to be quite a significant amount of confusion regarding who can use the term “psychologist” to identify themselves. This may seem unimportant and perhaps you might answer “who cares?” but actually there are legal implications regarding mislabeling oneself and using the term to identify oneself without the proper legal authority to do so.


I recently had a discussion with some attorneys regarding the title of “psychologist.”They were under the impression that someone with a Masters degree in psychology could call herself a psychologist in California. They couldn’t understand why the term “psychologist” in California is reserved for someone who has met the requirements for licensure and has passed the California Psychologist’s licensing exam. They couldn’t understand why psychologists would protect their title so strictly and not allow anyone with a Masters or Ph.D. in psychology to use the term. The reasons for such a distinction became clearer to them when I asked them how they would feel if anyone with a degree in law, such as a J.D. (doctor of jurisprudence) could call themselves a “lawyer” without having passed the California Bar Exam.


I also spoke to a school psychologist who says she is constantly being called a “psychologist” by her employers and has to explain to them that she is a school psychologist and that calling her a “psychologist” might expose them to legal liability for misrepresenting her credentials.


In California, the BUSINESS AND PROFESSIONS CODE, SECTION 2900-2919 covers the state rules that govern the practice of psychology. Section 2903 states: “No person may engage in the practice of psychology, or represent himself or herself to be a psychologist, without a license granted under this chapter, except as otherwise provided in this chapter.” Section 2902(c) states: (c) A person represents himself or herself to be a psychologist when the person holds himself or herself out to the public by any title or description of services incorporating the words “psychology,” “psychological,” “psychologist,” “psychology consultation,” “psychology consultant,” “psychometry,” “psychometrics” or “psychometrist,” “psychotherapy,” “psychotherapist,” “psychoanalysis,” or “psychoanalyst,” or when the person holds himself or herself out to be trained, experienced, or an expert in the field of psychology.


The section clearly indicates that the use of the term “psychologist” is limited to those holding a psychology license. Section 2914 describes the requirements for licensure. Briefly, these requirements include 1. Possessing a doctorate degree in psychology, in educational psychology or in the education with a specialization in counseling or educational psychology 3. Two years supervised experience under a licensed psychologist and 4. Passing the psychology licensing exam.


Does this mean no one else can do counseling or therapy or use psychological techniques such as hypnosis or relaxation training or biofeedback or psychological coaching? What about the attorney who provides emotional support and counseling to his client who is in the middle of a stressful dispute with a family member or partner. Or the law client who is in the middle of a lawsuit or may be in need of psychotherapeutic services. Must the attorney refrain from providing such counseling for fear of being accused of practicing psychology without a license? Although some psychologists I know would like to monopolize all these areas of practice, such is not the case. The public would surely be deprived of the services of many competent and useful practitioners who use psychological techniques and methods to help their clients. Professional psychology does not have a monopoly on these methods. The code provides for this:

Section 2908.  Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to prevent qualified members of other recognized professional groups licensed to practice in the State of California, such as, but not limited to, physicians, clinical social workers, educational psychologists,marriage and family therapists, optometrists, psychiatric technicians, or registered nurses, or attorneys admitted to the California State Bar, or persons utilizing hypnotic techniques byreferral from persons licensed to practice medicine, dentistry or psychology, or persons utilizing hypnotic techniques which offer avocational or vocational self-improvement and do not offer therapy for emotional or mental disorders, or duly ordained members of the recognized clergy, or duly ordained religious practitioners from doing work of a psychological nature consistent with the laws governing their respective professions, provided they do not hold themselves out to the public by any title or description of services incorporating the words “psychological,” “psychologist,” “psychology,” “psychometrist,” “psychometrics,” or “psychometry,” or that they do not state or imply that they are licensed to practice psychology; except that persons licensed under Article 5 (commencing with Section 4986) of Chapter 13 of Division 2 may hold themselves out to the public as licensed educational psychologists.                The last section bears emphasizing and repeating: provided they do not hold themselves out to the public by any title or description of services incorporating the words “psychological,” “psychologist,” “psychology,” “psychometrist,” “psychometrics,” or “psychometry,” or that they do not state or imply that they are licensed to practice psychology;



I should note here that there are some exceptions to the above rules. For example, there are exceptions regarding certain persons who are performing those activities as part of the duties for which they were employed and do not offer or render psychological services to the public for a fee, monetary over and above the salary they receive from the organization in which they are employed. These certain persons include:

(a) Credentialed school psychologists

(b) Credential psychometrists.

(c) Persons employed as psychologists or psychological assistants, or in a student counseling service, by accredited or approved colleges, junior colleges or universities; federal, state, county or municipal governmental organizations which are not primarily involved in the provision of direct health or mental health services.

(d) Persons who basically meet the educational requirements of licensure and who have one year or more of the supervised professional experience, if they are employed by certain nonprofit community agencies. Those persons shall be registered by the agency with the board at the time of employment and shall be identified in the setting as a “registered psychologist.”


What about professors and other academicians who have a masters or doctorate in psychology? Can’t they call themselves “psychologists?” Section 2910 states that  the chapter shall not be construed to restrict or prevent activities of a psychological nature on the part of persons who are salaried employees of accredited or approved academic institutions, public schools or governmental agencies, provided, amongst other things, that  they do not hold themselves out to the public by any title or description of activities incorporating the words “psychology,” “psychological,” “psychologist,” “psychometry,” “psychometrics” or “psychometrist” and that such persons do not offer their services to the public for a fee, monetary or otherwise; and that they do not provide direct health or mental health services.


Clearly then, such person can teach and provide psychological services within certain limits but they cannot hold themselves out to the public by calling themselves a “psychologist.”


There are some other minor exceptions to being able to provide psychological services. These include activities and services of certain graduate students or psychological interns provided that these activities and services constitute a part of his or her supervised course of study and that those persons are designated by the title “psychological intern,” “psychological trainee,” “postdoctoral intern,” or another title clearly indicating the training status appropriate to his or her level of training.


But again, note that although the section indicates that these individual are not precluded from providing their services under this section, they are precluded from using the word “psychologist” or words included in section 2902(c). They are restricted to the titles such as intern, trainee.


There is also a provision for temporary practice by out of state psychologists and a provision for individuals who may practice psychology as “Psychological assistants.” Again, the latter must be designated as psychological assistants and not psychologists.




               These rules are meant to protect the public. Don’t be misled into thinking you are seeing a licensed psychologist when you are not. Also, understand that other professionals may use psychological techniques even though they may not call themselves psychologists and they may be providing legitimate services under the licensing laws of their professions. Future articles will address other  mental health professionals.









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