Master’s vs Ph.D. – Comparing Programs

When pursuing a career as a professional mental health clinician, it can be difficult to discern and decide what particular path suits you best.  Individuals often confuse the difference between psychotherapists, counselors, psychologists, or even psychiatrists.  Although there are many similarities between a psychologist and a psychotherapist/mental health clinician, there is quite a difference in each as well.  For instance, education, coursework emphasis, licensure, workforce eligibility and even salary averages.  All these similarities and differences are important to consider when you are trying to decide what path is right for you.  This article will explore the difference between pursuing a Master’s level degree in Counseling Psychology and a PhD in Counseling Psychology, why would one pick one over the other?

Why a Master's of Arts in Counseling Psychology

A Master's degree in Counseling Psychology on average takes around 2-3 years to finish and usually includes direct clinical experience as a pre-graduation requirement.  An MA in Counseling Psychology consists of a practice oriented curriculum that in general focuses on developing psychotherapeutic and counseling skills, diagnostic and assessment skill sets that can be applied to a range of clinical populations and a variety of emotional and psychological conditions.  The curriculum works to build skills that become effective to treat cognitive, mental and emotional issues including personal growth, adjustment to disability, crisis intervention, and psychosocial issues.   When choosing a program it is important to make sure that the appropriate accreditation is granted towards the licensure desired, for instance a regional accreditation that is approved by the Board of Behavioral Science would complement one who is pursuing a Marriage and Family Therapy License. General costs vary on each program (public or private) or if your in state or out of state so tuition can range from $7,000 (public in state) per year to over $20,0000 + (private).  This is just tuition alone, not including fees, books or living costs.

Professional Mental Health Licensures with MA in Counseling Psychology

Each program is designed to create a pathway to becoming a professional mental health clinician.  Since licenses are issued on the state level rather than a national level, to become a professional in your state you must abide to the licensure requirements of that state depending on the type of licensure being pursued such as a Marriage & Family Therapist (MFT), Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC or LPC), Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMH), and more.  Whether you decide to work with a specific population, all licensed professionals must have a master’s degree and between 2,000-4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience.  Then you must pass a state recognized exam that authorizes you to be a legal professional therapist or counselor in that state.  Something to note, each state has its own requirements for licensing so eligibility of that licensure might not translate to the other so additional courses or exams might have to be completed.  Same goes with working with some specialties such as couples or families, the necessary education and training might have to be fulfilled to be able to work with particular population.

Psychologist LicenseHaving a license in your state as a professional mental health clinician can allow you to work in a variety of settings including schools, hospitals, community mental health agencies, residential programs, and more.  Depending on where you work there is opportunity to take your clinical skills and translate them to different clinical roles such as a clinical supervisor where you can teach and supervise upcoming clinicians.  Many licensed mental health clinicians also start private practice where they can decide what types of populations and specializations to target for their practice and decide whether they work with insurance companies or not.  According to the BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) in 2013, the average national salary for a professional mental health clinicians was roughly $41,000 annually, but the location and specific industry pursued can dictate salary differences.

Why a PhD in Counseling Psychology

A doctoral degree in Counseling Psychology takes around 5 years to complete that usually consists of 4 years of classes, research, and clinical practicum.  Before entering an internship in the 5th year, a dissertation must be completed.  As you can see with the general requirements for a doctoral level degree, the curriculum is research and clinically driven.  Just as in the master’s level, you are being trained to become a practitioner yet through the integration of theory, research and practice with an emphasis of cross cultural sensitivity, there is a general focus on emotional, social, vocational, education, health related, developmental and organizational issues.  Often clinical and counseling psychologists can be confused one from the other, although the difference is very minimal, clinical programs tend to focus on more serious mental illness compared to counseling programs that are driven more towards psychologically healthy individuals in change of life or adjustment issues.  Even though there is a difference in the orientation of training, they both can overlap in many environments where psychological services are provided.   Although some programs can be very competitive to get into, some offer fully funded teaching or research assistantships.  There is a substantial difference in tuition rates depending on departments of public and private settings in the US as well as if you’re a resident or nonresident of that state’s program, ranging from $6,000 (in state, public) to over $22,000 (out of state or private) tuition rates per year.  If you’re desiring to become a licensed counseling psychologist it is important to make sure that the program you choose is accredited to your state’s licensing board.

If following the course towards becoming a licensed counseling psychologist, after receiving your doctoral degree it will usually take at least two more years of supervised post-doctoral clinical experience (hours vary state to state) before taking the necessary exam for licensure.  It is very needed to check specific licensing requirements such as the “Handbook of Licensure and Certification Requirements” that can be retrieved for free at The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards’ website at:  A counseling psychologist in comparison to a licensed mental health clinician, has a wider scope of practice that typically includes the administration of psychological testing such as IQ, behavioral, or neurological functioning tests.  In some cases, a counseling psychologist may conduct psychological testing to patients who they do not see regularly and have follow up appointments to interpret the test results.  Although a counseling psychologist can work in a variety of settings through therapy (individual, groups, or family), it is also possible to work in mental health centers and hospitals to conduct research.  Having a PhD in Counseling Psychology also allows you to teach in counselor education or some psychology departments.  A counseling psychologist can even act as a consultant with a variety of agencies including schools, government, or private organizations.  According to BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) in 2013, the national average for clinical, counseling and school psychologists’ salary was roughly $67,700.

Master's or PhD: Things to Consider

DecisionsAs you can see there are pros and cons on both sides in choosing a Master’s level degree compared to a PhD in Counseling Psychology.  A Masters will not take as long to get and potentially not cost as much money while being able to work virtually in the same way as a therapist as a psychologist would by giving psychological services.  Then, although a PhD might take more time and money to pursue, the potential selection and options of jobs is better than having a master’s level degree and license.  Depending on what you want to do, a Masters level degree and license can allow to practice as a licensed professional therapist faster than a route of a psychologist.  But if you want to have more options and pursue more academic and research oriented training, a licensed counseling psychologist might be the right choice for you.  It is also possible to work without a license with both degrees but having a license in your state validates and acts as a quality control to assure the public of your skills.  If you decide to get licensed, there are continuing education courses that must be taken to maintain licensure so it is important to be up to date with license requirements throughout one’s professional career.

Another thing to consider whether you decide either career path, you must think ahead to be prepared to adjust to the competitive climate and time that it takes to become a professional or even get one’s degree.  Meaning, that a lot of practicums, internships, or even post-doctoral positions might not pay for your services for trade of clinical supervision, training and hours towards licensure.  It is quite possible to get paid internships or positions but it is a good idea to think ahead, either having money saved, a part time job, financial support, or even a loan such as Graduate Plus Program to be able to get by with.  It is important to think what your goals are and be able to map out what the necessary requirements are for that path perhaps doing additional research or even seeking a career counselor.