Introduction to counseling psychology
The Viennese physician Josef Breuer and his far more famous colleague, Sigmund Freud, are often referred to as the fathers of psychoanalysis. While Freud theorized that sexuality is the central conflict behind most mental illnesses, Breuer’s theories were much closer to contemporary views. Breuer believed that traumatic experiences early in life are the cause of most psychological distress. He also believed that accessing feelings that patients have dissociated from is the key to resolving trauma. Today, trauma has once again taken center stage in the world of counseling psychology, with researchers such as Bessel van der Kolk pointing to trauma as the root of most mental illness.
Counseling psychologists offer treatments designed to address problems such as anxiety, stress, addictions, grief, relationships problems, depressed mood, and eating disorders.
A lot has changed in the field of psychology since the turn of the 20th century, when Breuer and Freud were developing their theories. Counseling psychologists now undergo far more evidence-based training, although the “talking cure” developed by the first psychoanalysts remains their main therapeutic tool.
Counseling psychologists offer their services to people of all ages and walks of life, though some focus on subpopulations such as adolescents, new mothers, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and others. Counseling psychologists offer treatments designed to address problems such as anxiety, stress, addictions, grief, relationships problems, depressed mood, and eating disorders.
Sigmund Freud is often credited as discovering the unconscious, but the idea can be traced back to Galen, an ancient Greek physician who recognized that we make unconscious inferences from perceptions.
Where do counseling psychologists work?
Counseling psychologists frequently work in private practice, although they can be employed in a variety of settings, including community mental health clinics, psychiatric hospitals, addiction rehabilitation programs and agencies, vocational rehabilitation centers, correctional facilities, colleges and universities, residential care facilities, child welfare and other family assistance agencies, and many others.
What is the difference between counseling psychologists and clinical psychologists?
As yet there is not a medical test to determine whether an individual’s depression or anxiety has a clinical cause. Some people and conditions respond better to medication than others. One person may have inherited a tendency towards depression, while in another it could be a trauma response. The main distinction between patients treated by counseling psychologists versus clinical psychologists is the degree to which they can function independently, need for medication, or for hospitalization.
Individuals without specific diagnoses who are experiencing challenges are more likely to see a counseling psychologist than a clinical psychologist.
Both counseling and clinical psychologists may work with individuals diagnosed with severe mental illness, such as bipolar disorder or psychosis. An individual who has been hospitalized or has begun pharmaceutical treatment for a mental illness can be referred to a counseling psychologist for ongoing support. Individuals without specific diagnoses who are experiencing challenges are more likely to see a counseling psychologist than a clinical psychologist.
The difference between counseling psychologists and psychotherapists
In the U.S., the terms therapist, counselor, and psychotherapist are often used interchangeably and can refer to a variety of mental health practitioners. The title of psychologist is reserved for licensed psychologist who hold a Ph.D. or Psy.D., although a counseling psychologist may refer to themselves as a psychotherapist, counselor, or therapist. Only licensed psychologists, psychiatrists, and some medical doctors can diagnose mental illness.
Types of therapy
Counseling psychologists employ a variety of techniques, many also used by other mental health practitioners. Below are some of the most common techniques.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
CBT focuses on dealing with a client’s most pressing issues. Through a series of 5-20 highly structured sessions, the therapist and client work on practical ways the client can address and alter the thoughts, physical feelings, and actions related to their problems.
Psychodynamic therapy is rooted is traditional psychoanalysis, although it is a simpler and less lengthy process. The client and therapist work to understand how life experiences have shaped the way the client sees the world, interacts with other people, and deals with both positive and negative events.
Person-centered therapy encourages the client to find their own answers and solutions, with the therapist acting as a compassionate, nonjudgmental witness to the client’s own process. The therapist does not steer the conversation or make plans for the client but allows these to develop naturally.
What are the academic requirements for becoming a counseling psychologist?
To become a licensed counseling psychologist in the U.S., you need to earn a doctorate-level degree, in most cases either a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in psychology or Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.). There are different degree and licensure requirements depending on the state you wish to practice in.
With a master’s degree in psychology, you may be eligible to become a National Certified Counselor (NCC). Some states may allow limited licensure as a psychologist, although typically you can only practice under the direct supervision of a licensed doctorate-level psychologist.
The first step towards becoming a counseling psychologist is earning a 4-year bachelor’s degree. Majoring in psychology is a good idea, as it can provide the prerequisites for acceptance into graduate programs. If you do not major in psychology, consider taking the following subjects as electives, as they are required for entry into most psychology graduate programs:
- psychopathology or abnormal psychology
- experimental psychology
- research methods in psychology
- cognitive psychology, learning and memory, or physiological psychology
Choosing between a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of science in psychology
B.A. psychology programs offer a more humanities-based overview of the field. Common courses include developmental psychology, personality concepts, abnormal psychology, scientific courses like psychophysiology and biological psychology, and at least 1 course in statistics. B.S. psychology programs usually focus on biology, chemistry, statistics, lab work, and research methods as they apply to psychology. While a B.A. may be more relevant for a career in counseling psychology, both are acceptable for getting into a master’s in psychology.
Careers with a bachelor’s degree in psychology
Human resources (HR) managerMedian salary: $69K
HR managers, particularly those who focus on employee relations, recruitment, and selection, benefit from training in psychology. HR managers focus on the people in corporations–interviewing new candidates, helping new employees settle in, processing payroll, maintaining employee records, and overseeing health and wellness within organizations.See more
Career counselorsMedian salary: $46K
Career counselors assist adults in choosing a career, changing careers, or returning to work after an illness, injury, or other extended absence. Some career counselors focus on giving long-term career support to individuals with disabilities.
Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung’s combined works have had a momentous impact on modern counseling psychology. At one time close collaborators, they parted ways in 1913. One of their biggest disagreements was about the significance of dreams. Freud believed dreams were the final hiding place of human irrationality, while Jung thought they held the key to a healthy mind.
Master’s in counseling psychology
At the master’s level, you can begin specializing in counseling psychology. The program may be designated as a master of arts (M.A.) or a master of science (M.S.), although course content is similar. Most psychology master’s programs take 2-3 years to complete. The following are examples of courses commonly available:
- psychological assessment
- lifespan human development
- counseling theories
- psychopathology over lifespan
- professional identity and ethics
Following graduation, apply to the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) for certification as a National Certified Counselor (NCC).
If you plan on pursing NCC accreditation following graduation, check that your master’s program is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Also check that the program covers the following topics, which are required for NCC accreditation:
- human growth and development theories in counseling
- social and cultural foundations in counseling
- relationship counseling
- group counseling theories and processes
- career counseling and lifestyle development
- assessment in counseling
- research and program evaluation
- professional orientation to counseling
- counseling field experience
The program typically includes field placement training providing the opportunity to assist counseling services in a variety of settings, including hospitals, community mental health agencies, private practice, and correctional facilities.
Careers with a master’s in counseling psychology
Licensed marriage and family counselorMedian salary: $58K
Family counselors help married couples and families work through issues such as infidelity, loss, and behavioral problems. Family counselors work in private settings, hospitals, prisons, and schools to help clients and patients overcome family-related problems. NBCC-certified counselors without Ph.D. or Psy.D. degrees may work as licensed marriage and family counselors.See more
Licensed mental health counselorMedian salary: $50K
Mental health counselors work with people suffering from mental health issues like depression, anxiety, fears and phobias, grief, trauma, and substance abuse problems. They often work in health and rehabilitation facilities or in private practices. Cooperation with medical doctors, social workers, and other mental health professionals is common. NBCC-certified counselors without Ph.D. or Psy.D. degrees may work as licensed mental health counselors.See more
Licensed perinatal therapistMedian salary: $50K
Perinatal therapists provide support and guidance to individuals and families dealing with difficulties during pregnancy and following birth or infant loss. They offer counseling to parents with perinatal mood disorders such as postpartum depression and anxiety, and to those dealing with grief related to pregnancy loss and infant death.
German physician Franz Joseph Gall invented the pseudoscience of phrenology in 1796. His theory was that the measurements of skull contours were indicative of personality traits.
Doctor of philosophy in psychology (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.)
A doctorate is required for licensure as a psychologist in all 50 states, although some states allow partial licensure with a master’s degree.
The 2 main types of doctorate degrees in psychology are the Ph.D. and the Psy.D.
The most basic requirement for acceptance into a Ph.D. or Psy.D. program are:
- a GPA of 3.0 or higher
- professional and academic letters of recommendation
- personal statement
- official academic transcripts
- undergraduate coursework in psychology (recommended)
- evidence of paid or voluntary work in a related field (will strengthen your application)
How long does a doctorate in psychology take?
Typically, a Ph.D. is earned in 5-7 years, while the Psy.D. is earned in 4-6. Both programs include coursework, learning research techniques and methods, and real-life application of psychological theories in clinical interactions under strict supervision.
Do you need a master’s degree to apply for a Ph.D. or Psy.D.?
It is possible to move directly from a bachelor’s program in psychology or a related field to a Ph.D. or Psy.D. program at some colleges, but there are some factors that may impact your choices.
Doctorates that take less time to complete usually require a master’s degree. This is because the practical experience and theoretical knowledge gained during a master’s degree are an essential component of Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs. Some doctoral programs allow you to get a master’s degree while studying, but these tend to be longer in duration.
Supervised work experience and internships
Supervised work experience (SWE) and predoctoral internships are an important component of both the Ph.D. and the Psy.D. Doctoral candidates are expected to complete anywhere from 1,500-4000 hours. SWE is usually completed after graduation, while the predoctoral internship is completed before. Each state has very specific requirements regarding internship and work experience hours, so it is essential to ensure your program’s requirements meet those of the state you wish to be licensed in.
What is the difference between a Ph.D. and a Psy.D. in counseling psychology?
Other than the length of program, as mentioned above, there are some important differences between Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs.
In terms of academic content, the Ph.D. is slightly more focused on research, while the Psy.D. is more focused on clinical work. This difference makes the Psy.D. more appropriate for aspiring counseling psychologists. Ph.D. programs are usually more difficult to get into as they accept fewer students than Psy.D. programs. On the other hand, it is easier to receive funding for Ph.D. programs. Part of the reason behind this is that Ph.D. programs often include opportunities to act as a teaching or research assistant. The fewer numbers of students in Ph.D. programs also mean more funding opportunities.
It is important to ensure that your doctoral program is accredited. There is variation between states, yet most stipulate attending attend a regionally or nationally-accredited program, or a program accredited by the APA. Some states also offer licensure to psychologists from Canadian Psychological Association (CPA)-accredited programs.
Accreditation informs future patients, employers, and licensing boards that your qualifications have met the highest standards to provide appropriate care to your patients. Colleges and programs with accreditation also update their programs to stay current and ensure that those studying psychology are informed about new developments in the discipline.
Essential licenses and requirements to become a psychology counselor
All counseling psychologists need to have psychological accreditation and licenses in their specific fields. For instance, mental health counselors require different licenses than addiction or marriage counselors. Licenses for becoming a counselor are state dependent, although there are requirements that exist across the country. For example, clinical experience under the supervision of a licensed counselor is necessary for all counseling psychology licenses; depending on the state and specialization the required hours can vary from 2,000-6,000 hours.
Successful completion of the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) is required by all states. The EPPP is a 225-question multiple-choice test developed by Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB).
National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC)
Although licenses to practice psychology are the responsibility of the state, 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, requires a minimum of a master’s degree in counseling or counseling psychology. Remaining certified means staying on top of recent studies and practices in your specific area. Renewal requirements, typically every 1-3years, depend on which state you practice in.
Careers with a Ph.D. or Psy.D. in counseling psychology
Counseling psychologistMedian salary: $55K
Counseling psychology is a broad field, but at its core is focused on improving and promoting mental, behavioral, and emotional health. Counseling psychologists usually work with clients in face-to-face therapy, addressing everything from minor worries to more serious mental health struggles. Counseling psychologists also undertake risk assessments and evaluate the outcomes of therapy sessions.See more
With 121,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants, and students as its members, APA is the largest and most influential organization for psychologists in the United States. Here you can find more information about specializing in counseling.
This is the official website for NBCC, 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.
This PDF document issued by the NBCC contains detailed information on the criteria and process for becoming a National Certified Counselor (NCC).