Clinical and counseling psychology – degrees and career options


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HomeClinical and counseling psychology overview

Introduction to clinical psychology and counseling psychology

To most people, clinical psychology and counseling psychology are pretty similar. Most obviously, both types of psychology are based on working directly with people with mental health issues that limit the quality of their lives that can negatively impact their employment, social interactions, safety and general well-being. Both involve assessments, and long-term interventions based on psychological research about cognition, behavior, human development and mental illnesses. Clinical and counseling psychologists can be similarly engaged in research. Where clinical psychology differs to counseling psychology is in the specifics of the client diagnosis and the treatment scope.

Clinical psychologists are clinicians, professionals who directly treat clients, of all ages, often with their professional engagement starting at the time the client is diagnosed. Clinical psychologists see clients with pathologically based mental health problems. In other words, patients with chronic mental illnesses like schizophrenia, affective bipolar disorder, and chronic mood disorders that generally require medication and often require periods of hospitalization.

Clinical psychologists are often employed in hospitals, especially in psychiatric units, and are professionally engaged in the treatment of their clients over long periods of time. They often collaborate with psychiatrists, neurologists, and allied healthcare workers to ensure that the client receives adequate support to live in the community, either independently, in supported care facilities, or with family members. Many clinical psychologists also work in their own, or in group, private practices and offer their services as consultants as required.

Counseling psychologists work with healthy people who are struggling due to issues that are negatively affect their mental health. These mental health issues are not pathological, and are often rooted in a specific situation, event, or change in status like unemployment, death of a family member, or trauma. The clients a counseling psychologist sees may require professional help to deal with social, emotional, vocational, developmental and educational problems they have encountered but are unable to solve independently. As such, counseling psychologists provide assistance and professional support to people of all ages and walks of life.

Counseling psychologists often treat clients utilizing a time-limited treatment plan that has been designed to treat problems related to anxiety, stress, addictions, depressed mood, etc. Further, a counseling psychologist guides, informs and supports their clients by helping them learn to change the way they think or behave to a specific stimulus. They guide them to make decisions and take actions that the client has been unable to take alone. Their clients generally live independently, are rarely hospitalized for the problem they are seeing the psychologist about. Clients are seeking help to change or remove the psychological factor that is negatively impacting their lives: for example, a university student unable to pass exams due to stress and anxiety. Possible psychological interventions with the student may include teaching relaxation and breathing techniques, time management and planning skills, or cognitive behavioral techniques that reframe and reduce the stress impulse.

Step 1. Bachelor’s degree required

  • Entry requirements for either clinical or counseling psychology programs are similar to most specializations in psychology. First step is the earn a bachelor’s degree, ideally in psychology, although this is not actually a prerequisite to many programs. To improve your chances of admission to either program your undergraduate degree should include electives like biology, communications, sociology, statistics and introductory psychology subjects.
  • Undergraduate degrees are available on campus, online or as hybrid programs. Contact schools directly for the exact cost of tuition in these options.
  • For 4-year online bachelor degrees fees for in-state students vary considerably, but most seem to cost around $27,000.
  • For on-campus bachelor degrees, you can expect to pay between $12,000-$40,000 a year in tuition.
  • Financial assistance is available to students who meet eligibility criteria. Visit Federal Student Aid Office website for information on federal aid, scholarships, grants, loans – for all levels of study.

The study requirements for a degree in clinical psychology

Master’s degree in clinical psychology

Should you wish to study clinical psychology at the graduate level but you don’t have a bachelor’s in psychology, you may find that completing some psychology classes is required to be considered for enrollment in some programs. These classes commonly include abnormal psychology, developmental psychology, and social psychology. Many graduate programs will also request that you take the GRE test as part of your application and submit academic transcripts and a letter of academic recommendation from a professor or tutor that knows your work from your undergraduate studies.

At the master’s level you have two tracks available to choose from Master of Arts (M.A.) or a Master of Science (M.S.) in clinical psychology. These qualifications differ in their specific focus and in some coursework that is contained in the separate programs. The M.A. program provides a greater focus on the study of people and behaviors from a humanities basis, whereas the emphasis of the M.S. program leans towards research and theory. Your decision regarding which track to take, will be based on the academic and career goals that you have set for yourself. Both programs are 2 years in duration. Fieldwork is not always required, although practical experience is regarded highly.

Topics in a master’s degree in clinical psychology include:

  • Clinical assessment
  • Crisis intervention
  • Individualized therapy
  • Family and relationship therapy
  • Group therapy

The study requirements for a degree in counseling psychology

Master’s degree in counseling psychology

As for the master’s program options for clinical psychology, a master’s degree in counseling psychology can also be earned with both a M.A. or M.S. Competition for places in the master’s program can be tight, so a high score on the GRE will improve your chances. Again, your undergraduate degree does not necessarily need to be in psychology, although if it is in psychology or a related field, or you have completed psychology subjects, you will be a strong candidate for entry to the master’s program.

Topics that are usually included in a master’s degree in counseling psychology:

  • Diagnosis, assessment and treatment
  • Counseling theories and techniques
  • Family and Group counseling
  • Issues of social and cultural diversity
  • Lifestyle and career development
  • Loss and Grief
  • Crisis counseling
  • Professional counseling ethics
  • Developmental perspectives in counseling

As a stand-alone program, these master’s degrees should take 2 years to complete, and can vary between 60-75 course credits. After this, you can apply to the National Board for Certified Counselors for certification, before deciding to proceed with further study, or to launch yourself into the world in search of a job. Please remember that employment options with a master’s level degree are limited and that most students continue with their studies to the doctoral level.

Cost of a master’s degree in psychology

The median annual cost of an on-campus 2-year master’s degree in a public institution is slightly less than $19,500 per year, according to figures from NCES. For online master’s programs, the total program cost is between $19,000 and $45,000.

For information about financial support for students visit the website of the Federal Student Aid Office, where you can also complete the free online application form for student aid (FASFA).

Things to know when choosing a degree

Doctorates in clinical psychology

A doctorate in clinical psychology is the highest qualification available for clinical psychologists and is often demanded to work as a clinician. Again, there are 2 options available, a Ph.D. or a Psy.D., and your selection will depend on which option meets your future needs the best. Note, for entry to a doctoral program, a master’s degree in not essential. It is possible to move from a bachelor’s program in psychology, or a related field, to a Ph.D. or Psy.D. program at some colleges, but like everything to do with university choices, there are factors that you need to know and that will impact on your decision to apply.

To begin, doctorates that take less time to complete do require a master’s degree. This is because the practical experience and theoretical knowledge gained by studying for the M.A. or M.S. is an essential component of the Ph.D. or Psy.D. program. As such, some doctoral courses allow you to get a master’s degree while studying, but because these programs are literally double-level programs, they tend to be longer in duration. The master’s degree is earned within the first 2 years of the 5-year doctoral degree.

Applicants to doctoral programs should also be able to show their suitability and interest in the field by showing prior coursework as an undergraduate in courses like an introduction to psychology, abnormal psychology, developmental or social psychology, personality psychology, and other cognitive psychology courses.

Before applying, make sure that the program and institutions has been accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Ph.D. in clinical psychology

A Ph.D. is the highest academic level possible in clinical psychology. The most basic requirement to be accepted on a Ph.D. course is a GPA of 3.0 or higher. Typically, a Ph.D. program can be completed in 5-8 years, although many people have taken considerably longer to earn their doctorate. The program includes coursework, learning research techniques and methods, and real-life application of psychological theories in clinical interactions under strict supervision. You can study on campus, online, or a hybrid of the two.

Some examples of the topics you will cover on a Ph.D. course are:

  • Abnormal psychology
  • Developmental or social psychology
  • Ethics in psychology
  • Statistics and research
  • Scientific writing
  • Theories of psychology

This may be a good option for you if you’re interested in research and training methods or if you wish to become a professor or educator in this field.

Psy.D. in clinical psychology

A Psy.D. allows you to work at the highest level in clinical psychology. Again, you will need a minimum GPA of 3.0, to be considered for a Psy.D. course. This program will focus more on the practical application of theories to the work you will eventually do with clients in clinical settings, and less on research. A Psy.D. in clinical psychology is usually completed within 4-6 years, and can be studied on campus, online, or as a hybrid program.

Some examples of the topics you will cover on a Psy.D. course are:

  • Behavioral and cognitive therapy
  • Ethics in psychology
  • Psychodynamic psychotherapy
  • Psychological assessment
  • Research
  • Statistics
  • Theories of the mind

This degree is the preferred route for clinical psychologist who want to work directly with clients.

Doctorates in counseling psychology

The path to a doctorate in counseling psychology is very similar to a doctorate in clinical psychology described above. While a master’s degree is the obvious stepping stone to these doctoral programs, there are many schools that accept students who have only bachelor’s degrees. A good GRE score and a GPA of 3.0-3.5, letters of academic recommendation, a resume, personal statements, and official academic transcripts are needed to apply. Any evidence of paid or voluntary work in a related field will strengthen your application. Checking that your program and school have been accredited by the APA or other nationally recognized organization is a crucial first step.

Ph.D. in counseling psychology

Should you wish to continue your study after a master’s program, the next step is a Ph.D. in counseling psychology. This degree is very research-based and might be a good fit for you if you wish to go into a research-based career. These courses generally take approximately 4-6years to finish.

In both the Ph.D. and Psy.D. in counseling psychology programs, variations on the following courses are typically included in the curricula:

  • Developmental psychology
  • Theories of career development
  • Counseling diverse populations
  • Psychotherapy
  • Ethics
  • Psychological measurement and research design
  • Counseling
  • Social Psychology

Supervised fieldwork is an important component of both the Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs and doctoral candidates are expected to complete 1-2 years or 3000-6000 hours to meet the internship stipulations, which vary by state.

Psy.D. in counseling psychology

This degree is suited to you if you want to work one-on-one with patients in different settings. Considered as a more generalized counseling degree, your clients will be as diverse as the potential problems they may present with. Counseling psychologists are often employed in programs that are staffed by a team of medical and allied healthcare workers, such as an addiction treatment center or a university health service.

There are some Psy.D. in counseling psychology courses that don’t require a master’s degree in psychology, although the vast majority do require at least an undergraduate degree in psychology and/or counseling. The Psy.D. in counseling psychology program focuses on how research works in practice. In these programs, you will learn how to assess and provide help in counseling sessions. Similarly, to Ph.D. courses, a Psy.D. takes 4-6 years to complete. This must be followed by the internship program that is required by the state you plan to work in, and is generally 1-2years of supervised fieldwork. See Ph.D. in counseling psychology above, for the list of typical courses included in both the Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs.

With a Psy.D. you are also on the way to receiving the necessary licenses to become a practicing psychology counselor.

Cost of doctorate degrees in psychology

According to the APA the annual cost of a doctoral degree in psychology is $11,000 for in-state students and $24,000 for out-of-state students at a public university, and $34,000 at a private university. Considering that a doctoral degree take over half a decade to complete, financial support is a serious consideration. Fortunately, of all the degree levels, financial help to support a doctorate programs is common. This topic is covered detail on Get Paid to get your Ph.D.

Should my program be accredited?

Before choosing the degree that you will study at any level, it is important to check that the program is accredited by the APA. This accreditation informs future patients, employers, and licensing boards, that your qualifications have met the highest standards and you are trained to provide appropriate care to your patients. Psychology research and study are continuously ongoing. Colleges and programs with accreditation update their programs to stay current and ensure that those studying psychology are informed about new happenings in the discipline.


To be qualified to practice as a clinical psychologist, you must be licensed. To do this, most states demand a doctorate level degree, a state-approved internship, and 1-2 years of professional experience. After meeting these requisites, you must pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) to be granted your license.

Some states also insist that licensed clinical psychologists complete continuing education programs to maintain their licensure. You can find more detailed information about the state you plan to practice in is available on the ASPPB website (The Associate of State and Provincial Psychology Boards).

All counseling psychologists must have licenses in their specific fields. For example, mental health counselors need different licenses than addiction or marriage counselors. Licenses for becoming a counselor vary depending on which state you would like to practice in but some requirements are the same across the board. For example, clinical experience under the supervision of a licensed counselor is necessary to receive all counseling psychology licenses, although depending on the state and specialization this can vary from 2,000-6,000 hours.

As well as meeting state-required licenses, you must, as with all psychology professions, pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) before being able to practice.

Although licenses depend on the state you want to practice in, certification for counselors is done through the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC). The NBCC offers certifications that show you have voluntarily met the standards to practice as a counselor across the United States. To receive this certification, you must have at least a Master’s degree in counseling or counseling psychology. Once you have your license, it is still necessary to renew it to stay on top of new studies and practices in your specific area. This also depends on which state you practice in but it can be every 1-3 years.

American Psychological Association

With 121,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants, and students as its members, APA is the biggest and most stand-out organization for psychologists in the United States. Here you can find more information about specializing in counseling.

U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics

Is an independent national statistical agency that collects, processes, and analyzes data for the public. Usefully, the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics and provides information on employment and wages.

National Board of Certified Counselors

This is the official website for the National Board of Certified Counselors, who are the leading certification board for counselors and counseling psychologists. The NBCC was created in 1982 and was originally a non-profit organization. Since then, they have endeavored to help provide the best possible mental health services for people.

Psychology Today

Psychology Today is a magazine and online resource that has been published every 2 months since 1967. Writers of the magazine include psychologists, psychiatrists, and academics who share their experiences, thoughts, and ideas.

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