Why get a degree in counseling psychology?
Psychologists work in many settings, from mental health centers to university research departments, and it is common to associate the career with counseling. Counselors are licensed professionals working in a mental health capacity to help clients cope with difficult life situations and emotions.
The field of counseling psychology is similar to counseling but includes a broader array of specialization, including areas like forensic psychology, eating disorders and crisis intervention. The other area where counseling psychology departs from counseling is in its increased academic focus. While degree programs include coursework on client care, counseling psychology has a larger research component.
Those considering a career in counseling psychology or who have already earned a master’s degree in the field often wonder what advantages they may have in earning a doctoral degree. The answer to this question depends largely on career goals. If your professional goals include high-level postings in academia or hospital settings, earning a doctorate allows you more opportunities.
Do I need a Psy.D. or a Ph.D.?
Counseling psychology at the doctorate level has 2 possible degree paths: Psy.D. and Ph.D. While both have the potential to work directly with patients in a therapeutic setting, there are important distinctions between them.
If you want to work as a licensed psychologist, mental health counselor, school psychologist or similar position, a Psy.D. is the best choice. This doctorate program includes coursework on human behavior, providing care, assessment and diagnosis and psychotherapy. Professionals with a Psy.D. in counseling psychology usually work with patients dealing with life stressors in areas of relationships, coping with change or social challenges rather than those with serious pathologies. For those interested in helping patients with conditions such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, a Psy.D. in clinical psychology, rather than counseling psychology, is a better fit.
A Ph.D. in counseling psychology is designed for students interested in training in the scientist-practitioner model. In this model, students conduct research based on their work helping patients. The goal of the research is to develop techniques and broaden the field of knowledge in their area. Ph.D. programs include coursework on analyzing data, statistical models and research methodology. While those who have earned a Ph.D. may be found working in therapeutic positions such as that of a licensed psychologist, they often develop careers as researchers and university professors.
About the degree
A doctorate in counseling psychology is generally completed in 5 to 6 years, most frequently in 70 to 110 credit hours. Your degree will include an internship, research and a dissertation.
- 3.0 GPA or higher
- GRE scores
- written statement
- professional and educational letters of recommendation
- transcripts from your previous degree
There are some programs that admit students with only a bachelor’s degree. These programs manage this because they offer a dual degree program that allows you to earn your master’s and doctorate at the same time. For this option, your bachelor’s degree should be in psychology or a closely related field.
Experience in counseling psychology before you study for your Ph.D. is recommended although not required for most programs. Applicants will often list internships and fieldwork completed in prior degrees on their application. Though transferring is possible in the early stages of your degree, it is not recommended. Transfer students may be required to retake courses and internship hours at the new institution to meet program standards.
Earning your doctorate in counseling psychology requires a lot of in-person study and practice. The degree is based on research methods and face-to-face interactions such as supervised internships, psychotherapy assessments and research. With these requirements, online programs are rare. Some schools offer hybrid options including remote lectures, but an in-person internship is required to graduate.
Most doctorate in counseling psychology programs are full time. Luckily, assistantships, grants and internships will help students pay for their degree and living expenses, making it feasible to work while earning your degree. Doctoral degree students also often engage in research as a professor’s assistant and receive financial aid towards their degree for this work.
The first place to start when looking for financial aid is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form calculates your eligibility for federal aid. To find information on the specific scholarships, grants and other forms of support offered by a particular institution, check the financial aid or admissions tab on the institution’s website.
Theory and practice of group counseling
This course focuses on the role of the psychologist as the facilitator in working with different groups of clients. Students in this course take part in mock group counseling sessions to perfect their skills of critical thinking, active listening and de-escalation. Beyond practice counseling sessions, students undergo live group counseling with their class, facilitated by their teacher.
Neuropsychology of behavior
Students in this course learn about the structure and function of the brain with lectures on the relationship between nervous system functions and behaviors. This course also focuses on the neuropsychological assessment methods and techniques used in this discipline.
Univariate statistical models
Statistics help psychologists present data in ways that are easy to understand and apply to real world situations. In this advanced course, students interpret multivariate, or variable, data. This course gives students guidelines for identifying the most important data points tied to real-life situations. Students also learn how to analyze errors and provide procedures to validate statistical models.
Assessment and appraisal in counseling
This course is focused on the historical and current strategies for testing and assessment techniques used in psychology. Students learn about the different types of tests and the situations in which each is best applied. Statistical concepts, strategies, ethical and legal considerations of assessment are also discussed.
You will be required to complete a dissertation based on a topic of your own choice. This process involves conducting independent research, writing the results of your research and presenting and defending your dissertation to department faculty. A faculty member oversees the process and meets regularly with you to discuss your progress. Your dissertation is an opportunity to contribute new knowledge, practices or theories to your field.
An internship is required for Psy.D. programs in counseling psychology and often a part of Ph.D. programs as well. Students usually conduct individual or group therapy in a variety of settings including community health centers, government agencies and clinical settings to meet this requirement. Students may also be able to get internship credit indirectly by writing clinical case notes, attending faculty meetings or covering clerical duties for the department. Internships are always supervised by a faculty member.
Licensure, certification and specialization
Students who earn a doctorate in counseling psychology have 2 ways to earn recognition: state licensure and board certification. State licensure is required to begin working as a counseling psychologist. Licensure requirements vary by state but most oblige students to complete the following steps:
- earn a doctoral degree by an American Psychological Association (APA) accredited program
- accrue at least 2,000 supervised clinical practice hours after graduating
- pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP)
Board certification, while not required to practice, is also an option for those who have earned a doctorate in counseling psychology. Through the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP), psychologists get certified to improve their reputation among their peers, clients and employers. Getting ABPP certified also allows professionals to demonstrate competency in a specialty area. Those who are board certified can then bank their credentials in a national organization like the National Psychologist Trainee Register.
The APA recognizes several specialty and sub-specialty areas for licensed psychologists. Counseling psychologists with a doctorate tend to specialize in areas like substance abuse, child development, crisis intervention or health psychology. Specialization is not required, but many professionals specialize to increase their marketability when applying for jobs. As insurance companies are increasingly requiring counseling psychologists with a specialization to become certified, the number of board certified counseling psychologists is increasing.
The primary accrediting body for counseling psychology doctorate programs is the APA. This organization is the gold standard for all psychology-based educational, doctoral and post-doctoral programs. The APA is currently sponsoring nearly 400 doctorate programs nationwide. You can only transfer from an APA accredited program to another, as any credits earned outside the APA won’t be accepted.
Career options with a doctorate in counseling psychology
There are several paths available to those who have earned a doctorate level degree in counseling psychology. Graduates with a Psy.D. often take a therapeutic route working as a licensed psychologist providing psychotherapy to clients in mental health centers. Those with a Ph.D. are also found working as psychotherapists but also work as professors or researchers. Listed below are 2 common career paths for graduates of a doctoral programs in counseling psychology.