Counseling Psychology

What is Counseling Psychology?

Counseling Psychology is a term most often used within the context of graduate degree programs. Those who study counseling psychology usually do so toward a career in the mental health field. Counseling psychology is the aspect of the mental health field that focuses on working with people to assist them in exploring and transforming unpleasant and distressing or disruptive mental and emotional experiences into useful personal growth opportunities.

Counseling psychology today is inclusive of many different mental health care professions including psychiatrists, psychologists, marriage, family therapists, social workers, and professional counselors – all of whom utilize counseling psychology methods within the legal and ethical constraints imposed by national and/or state standards.

Who Can Benefit From Counseling Psychology?

So just whom exactly ARE these people seeking counseling assistance? In a word: anybody. Counseling psychology services are not limited to a specific cultural, geographic, religious, or other limited population. And contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be “crazy” to qualify for mental health care services. Everyone who is engaged in any sort of relationship and who is experiencing (or has experienced) any kind of mental or emotional distress, confusion, life crisis, major transition/s, and ongoing negative behavioral patterns (among other things) can benefit from working with a trained mental health professional. Babies and their parents can benefit (Examples: parenting skills, relationship repair, healing from trauma…).

Children and youth can benefit from individual as well as family counseling (Examples: learning more effective behaviors, working through difficult family and/or school situations, understanding and working through grief and loss, overcoming neglect or abuse, learning ways to self soothe and better communicate with others…). Couples benefit from psychotherapy (Examples: pre-marital counseling, increasing deeper understanding and intimacy, working with a neutral third party to resolve conflicts, learning better ways to communicate more lovingly, learning to recognize when past negative experiences are being projected onto the current partner, working through grief, loss, emotional difficulties, and generating ongoing good will toward each other…) Individual adults are able to benefit from counseling in a myriad of ways. Some examples include: contending with addiction, behavior modification, mindfulness, exploring past traumas and how they might be contributing to current difficulties, personal growth, support during existential crisis, relationship confusion/upset, mood swings, dealing with sudden loss, dealing effectively with sexual and gender-related issues, even just needing a steady person with whom to vent and actually feel heard…

Many mental health professionals end up specializing in a particular area of interest and/or narrowing the population/s with whom they work. Some areas of specialization include: pregnancy and perinatal issues, play therapy with children, art therapy, addiction counseling, alternative sexualities, sexual dysfunctions, gender-nonconforming people and their loved ones, geriatric counseling focused on elders and their care providers, grief counseling, personality disorder focus, Buddhist psychology, psychoanalysis, family therapy, hypnotherapy, personal growth, working with people experiencing chronic illnesses, working with victims of crime, working with members of the military, counseling abusers, anger management, and assessment/testing, among many other things.

Deciding on a Career in Counseling Psychology? Becoming a Counseling Psychologist

There are several different career paths available that involve counseling psychology. The most well known include psychiatrist, psychologist, marriage, family therapist, social worker, and professional counselor.

Each path has its own training, education, and licensing requirements, area/s of focus and expertise, regulating organization/s, general connotations in people’s minds, and employment options. Further, each path differs in those requirements by individual state within the U.S.

Many of the most well-known career paths in mental health care require several years of education and training as well as rigorous testing to qualify for state licensure. To even begin on a path toward obtaining a license to practice counseling psychology, a person must earn a masters and/or doctoral degree in a counseling psychology program. The next major milestone towards licensure is to log several thousand hours (3000 to 3500 in many states, sometimes more) of supervised practice, first in a trainee level capacity while still in college and then in the capacity of a registered associate or intern after obtaining the graduate degree. After the state in which you want to practice accepts the required documentation for your supervised practice, you must take and pass one (or sometimes more) examination/s. After successfully passing the exam/s, then you can submit documents requesting state licensure.

Why Choose a Career in Counseling Psychology?

  • Potential Benefits
  • Evolving & Creative Field
  • Providing a Vital Service to Others
  • Personal and Professional Growth Opportunities
  • Income Opportunities

In general, the higher the level of education and training required, the more expensive are the services provided by the professional.

  • Requirements & Limitations
  • Clear and Consistent Boundaries
  • Ethics & The Law
  • Mandatory Reporting
  • Suitability Considerations
  • Time & Costs Toward Getting & Maintaining Credentials

Each career path has its attractive features as well as its prohibitive drawbacks. Further, those features and drawbacks are subjective in nature - an attractive feature to one person may be a considerable drawback to another. If you are drawn to a particular career path, then that is the best one for you. However, if you are unsure about which path to take, you might list the features and drawbacks side-by-side in a pro and con type comparison to give you better perspective for making your decision.

Some things to consider when creating your list include the following:

  • Personal reasons for choosing a counseling psychology career
  • How you see yourself contributing in the field (academia, clinical practice, medical intervention, research, preferred populations, and so forth)
  • Where you want to practice your chosen profession (geographical location and specific state requirements) and what is required should you move to another state and want to continue working in the field
  • Cost of education and training (time and money)
  • State and National credentials
  • Placement opportunities and options (employment and private practice)
  • Cost of obtaining the license (time and money)
  • Licensing examination requirements (time, complexity, cost)
  • Ethical and legal requirements and implications in your life
  • Continuing education requirements
  • Potential return on investment
  • OTJ training, internship options (paid vs. unpaid)
  • Employment opportunities (licensed vs. unlicensed)
  • Future earning potential
  • General history of career path and future outlook

What are the Licensing Requirements for Each Career Path?

The most commonly known licensed career paths involving some aspects of counseling psychology include but not limited to the following:

Psychiatrist

This path is usually the longest, the most expensive, and requires graduation from medical school. A psychiatrist carries the title of M.D. and has the ability to prescribe medications that can assist in the alleviation of distressing mental health related symptoms. Psychiatrists can provide psychological counseling or they may focus only on the medical/chemical side and work in concert with another professional who provides more psychotherapeutic counseling. Psychiatrists are trained in the process of assessment toward specific mental health issues that can be better treated using medication in conjunction with ongoing counseling. The following table outlines some of the significant milestones required for this career.

Requires Approx. Time Approx. Cost
Earn undergraduate degree in any field - pre-med, biology, or psychology is recommended. Maintain high GPA. Must include classes in biology, physics, chemistry, and advanced math 4 years $9000 to $35000 per year
Pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) Study time varies. $250 fee
Graduate from medical school. Required classes include human anatomy, immunology, pharmacology, and histology. 4 years $19000 to $39000 per year
Complete a residency program under supervision of licensed doctors. 4 years None. Salary is $50000 per year.
Pass 3-part exam (USMLE). 3 to 6 days in addition to study time Fees: $1160 to $1230
Obtain medical license to practice in chosen U.S. state. Application: several hours. Wait time: up to 9 months. Application fees: $200 to $800.License fees: $300 to $900.
Pass exam to get certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) 2 days in addition to study time Application fee: $700. Exam fee: $1810

Psychologist (PhD or PsyD)

This path is also quite long and requires a doctoral degree in psychology. The PhD is historically skewed toward training a person toward how to conduct and apply research and is less focused on the clinical aspects of psychology. The PsyD emerged during the early 1970s with a focus on preparing people to become clinical practitioners with clients. The PsyD contains less emphasis on the research than the PhD. However, a PhD may perform counseling psychology with clients and a PsyD may conduct and apply research. The following table outlines some of the significant milestones required for this career.

Requires Approx. Time Approx. Cost
Earn undergraduate degree in any field –sociology or psychology highly recommended. Maintain high GPA. 4 years $9000 to $35000 per year.
Earn graduate degree in psychology (toward either PhD or PsyD). Coursework must include the following subjects: aging & long-term care, child abuse, human sexuality, law & ethics, substance abuse, and spousal abuse. PsyD: 4 to 7 years,
PhD: 6 to 8  years.
$20000 to $40000 per year.
Complete supervised post-doctoral training hours under supervision of licensed mental health professionals in your state. 1 to 2 years (between 1500 and 3000 hours) Varies widely. Some placements pay salary while some supervisors charge you.
Pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) 4 hours in addition to study time Fees: $600
Pass exam/s to get certified by the state in which you plan to practice and apply for initial license. At least 4 hours total in addition to study time. Fees vary state to state but generally +/-$800.

Marriage, Family Therapist and Social Worker (LMFT and LCSW)

These paths both require at least a master’s degree in the field of psychology. There is a lot of overlap in the education requirements and a few significant focal differences. LMFTs (Licensed Marriage, Family Therapists) are usually trained toward more in-depth clinical methods of working with clients while LCSWs (Licensed Clinical Social Workers) are usually trained toward how to effectively utilize a broad spectrum of resourcing within the community. The LMFT is focused on helping individuals, couples, groups, and families with improving their relationships using psychotherapeutic techniques that include psychosexual and psychosocial aspects of relationships. The LCSW focus is more on helping people with social adjustments and includes special emphasis on human capabilities as well as knowing and providing social resources. The goal for those working with the LCSW is improved psychosocial adaptation. Another significant difference between the two fields is that LMFTs have historically been limited in employment opportunities with mental health organizations. Social workers are often sought after and hired by mental health organizations sometimes even before they become licensed (at the level of ASW or Associated Social Worker). While LCSWs can practice counseling psychology, that aspect of the career is not as commonly known due to the stronger emphasis on assessment and resourcing. The following table outlines some of the significant milestones required for these careers.

Requires Approx. Time Approx. Cost
Earn undergraduate degree in any field –social work, sociology or psychology highly recommended. Maintain high GPA. 4 years $9000 to $35000 per year.
Earn graduate degree (masters or doctoral): LCSW - Social Work LMFT – Clinical or Counseling Psychology. Coursework must include the following subjects: aging & long-term care, child abuse, human sexuality, law & ethics, substance abuse, and spousal abuse. For LMFTs, coursework must also include psychological testing and psychopharmacology. MA or MS: 2 years minimumPsyD: 4 to 7 years,
PhD: 6 to 8  years.
$20000 to $40000 per year.
Complete supervised post-graduate training hours under supervision of licensed mental health professionals in your state. Must be registered with your date to practice under supervision. 2 years minimum LCSW: 3200 hours
LMFT: 3000 hours
Registration with state: $100.Training fee varies widely. Some placements pay salary while some supervisors charge you.
Pass Licensure Examinations:
1) Standard Written
2) Written Clinical Vignette
Exam 1 = 4 hours. Exam 2 = 2 hours plus study time. Fees: $100 for initial exam application and $100 per exam.
Apply to your state for initial license. Application package: 1 or more hours. Wait time: up to 9 months. Fees vary state to state but generally $100 to $200 per renewal period.

Clinical Counselor (LPCC)

This path is similar to the LMFT and LCSW paths in that Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors are trained in counseling and psychotherapeutic techniques and must attain at least a master's degree with "counseling or psychotherapy” as the content. However, they cannot assess or treat couples or families without specific additional training and education.

Requires Approx. Time Approx. Cost
Earn undergraduate degree in any field –social work, sociology or psychology highly recommended. Maintain high GPA. 4 years $9000 to $35000 per year.
Earn graduate degree (masters or doctoral) in Counseling Psychology. Coursework must include: aging & long-term care, child abuse, crisis counseling, human sexuality, law & ethics, partner abuse, psychopharmacology, and substance abuse. MA or MS: 2 years minimum PsyD: 4 to 7 years,
PhD: 6 to 8  years.
$20000 to $40000 per year.
Complete supervised post-graduate training hours under supervision of licensed mental health professionals in your state. Must be registered with your date to practice under supervision. 2 years minimum At least 2 years to complete 3000 hours. Registration with state: $100.Training fee varies widely. Some placements pay salary while some supervisors charge you.
Pass Licensure Examinations:
1) Law and Ethics
2) National Clinical Mental Health Counselor
Exam 1 = 4 hours Exam 2 = 2 hours plus study time. Fees: $180 application and $100 per exam.
Apply to your state for initial license. Application package: 1 or more hours. Wait time: up to 9 months. Fees vary state to state but generally $100 to $200 per renewal period.

Educational Psychologist (LEP)

This path requires at least a master’s degree in psychology, educational psychology, school psychology, counseling and guidance or another approved degree and is specific to the realm of education and learning processes. Within the educational realm, Licensed Educational Psychologists can evaluate, diagnose psychological disorders related to academic learning processes, administer and interpret diagnostic tests, and provide psychological counseling.

Requires Approx. Time Approx. Cost
Earn undergraduate degree in any field –psychology highly recommended. Maintain high GPA. 4 years $9000 to $35000 per year.
Earn graduate degree (masters or doctoral) in psychology, educational psychology, school psychology, counseling and guidance (or equivalent per licensing board). MA or MS: 2 years minimum PsyD: 4 to 7 years,
PhD: 6 to 8  years Minimum 60 semester hours post grad work in pupil personnel services.
$20000 to $40000 per year.
a. Work as credentialed school psychologist for 2 years and b. Work as supervised professional (EITHER in an accredited school psychology program OR as credentialed school psychologist in public schools) for one year. Supervision must be under licensed educational psychologist or licensed psychologist. 3 years full-time work experience. Registration with state: $100.Training fee varies widely. Some placements pay salary while some supervisors charge you.
Pass one (or more) Licensure Examination/s. 2 to 4 hours Fees: $100 application plus $100 for the exam.
Apply to your state for initial license. Application package: 1 or more hours. Wait time varies widely. Fees vary state to state but generally no more than $100 per renewal period.

Deciding Against the License

There are several reasons some people forgo getting licensed in the counseling psychology field. Some reasons include increased costs and time required to obtain and maintain the license, the need to get into the workforce as soon as possible, dislike of and incompatibility with the limitations associated with being licensed, and not wanting to go through the application and exam process. In fact, after earning a bachelor’s degree in a psychology-related field, there are many non-licensed career directions available to you including but not limited to professional coaching, human resources, organizational development, user interface design, and training program design and consultation.

What is the History of Counseling Psychology?

Interestingly, mental health care and the concept of psychological counseling has existed and been evolving for ages, well before the mid-1800's and the dawn of what we currently consider the roots of modern counseling psychology. Most people today are familiar with the concept of psychoanalysis as one of the earliest forms of counseling psychology. It is rare for a college graduate who has not at least heard of Sigmund Freud, the man who developed psychoanalysis around the turn of the twentieth century. Long before Freud, the ancient Greeks identified mental illness as a medical condition. Before that, mental and emotional distress was routinely attributed to the wrath of ill-tempered deities.

Unfortunately, during the Middle Ages, supernatural beliefs such as demonic possession returned with a violent vengeance as the perceived cause of mental illness. Later, during the early 1500's, a physician called Paracelsus provided the first clinical and scientific focus on the role of the human unconscious in mental illness. Another quite well known figure in the field of mental health, Dr. Carl Jung, studied in-depth the works of Paracelsus. Jung subsequently wrote about the relationship between the unconscious and symbolism and how that relationship applies in psychological counseling.

The introduction of the term “psycho-therapeia” (precursor to the term, psychotherapy) came about in the mid-1800's. For the first half of the twentieth century though, it was Freud’s methods of psychoanalysis (and various versions of it, including Jung’s) that were the main psychotherapy used in clinical settings. In the United States starting in the 1950's, the modern field of psychology began its major growth spurt. From that time to the present, there have been many significant new theoretical developments and incredible growth of active therapies involving the psychotherapeutic process.

Even with the last few centuries of research, growth, and evidence-based practices in the art and science of counseling psychology, there are still those who view mental health care as something to be avoided. Many cultures still hold strong superstitious beliefs (many rooted in Judeo-Christian mythological teachings). Instead of seeking counseling by a trained professional, when they are experiencing mental/emotional distress such as hallucinations or delusions, extreme anxiety, tantrums, depression, and so forth, they blame the phenomenon on evil spirits or karma and convince themselves that they deserve to suffer instead of receive help.

Today, we see the attention being put on training more culturally sensitive mental health professionals. Multiculturalism is now a required focus of study during graduate school. Many new and specialized areas of academic focus have been developed such as somatic (body-oriented) psychology, Buddhist psychology, LGBTQ psychology, holistic psychology (mind, body, spirit inclusiveness), environmental psychology, and transpersonal psychology (spiritual/personal-growth oriented). As new needs arise, the field of counseling psychology has continued to evolve to meet the needs of people seeking help to relieve psychological distress.

Next Guides: Considering Counseling Psychology Degrees > Counseling Psychologist Work

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Counseling Psychology PhD & PsyD Rankings

To help students find the right PhD or PsyD program in counseling psychology, we have compiled over 60 programs across the country, with rankings based on EPPP licensing exam performance. See ranking methodology and exam details of the top PsyD & PhD counseling psychology programs.