What is the Difference Between a Master's in Counseling and Counseling Psychology?


Updated March 14, 2024 · 5 Min Read

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Explore the Difference Between a Master's in Counseling and a Master's in Counseling Psychology using our guide and choose the right degree program for you.

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At the master's level, counseling degrees become more specialized. To find the program that best matches your career plans and learning goals, you must carefully consider certain details. The slight but important differences between counseling and counseling psychology programs serve as a good example.

This career-focused guide explores the differences between master's degrees in counseling and counseling psychology. Discover key details to inform your search for the program that best meets your needs.

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Comparing Master's Degrees in Counseling and Counseling Psychology

Master's programs in counseling and counseling psychology both offer rigorous education and advanced training. While these two degree types share many similarities, they are also defined by several key differences.

The sections below explore the features that differentiate these academic programs:

Degree Focus and Orientation

Counseling and counseling psychology programs build specialized skills you will draw on in professional practice. However, counseling psychology programs are typically rooted in evidence-based methods, scientific theory, and applied behavioral psychology. Conversely, counseling programs prioritize holistic skills, communication, and individualized client analyses.

Schools offer both types of master's-level counseling degrees as MS or MA designations. In general, MS programs place more emphasis on analytical and research-related components. Meanwhile, MA programs more commonly feature stronger coverage of applied theory and therapeutic techniques.

Course Curriculum

Counseling and counseling psychology programs both tend to cover:

  • Counseling theory and techniques
  • Research-oriented statistical analysis skills
  • Session design in both individual and group settings
  • Ethics and legal considerations
  • Social and cultural aspects of counseling

Also, consider the distinguishing features of each program type. Master's in counseling programs may feature more human development coursework. They can also offer more electives on topics like substance abuse, marriage, family, or career counseling.

In counseling psychology programs, you are more likely to encounter coursework covering research design, psychological testing and measuring techniques, and psychopharmacology. Counseling psychology programs may also include classes in psychological theory and modeling, as these degrees tend to focus more on applied practice.

Specializations and Concentrations

In general, counseling program concentrations tend to focus on clients' specific conditions. For example, you can pursue specializations in addiction counseling, family counseling, marriage counseling, and rehabilitation counseling.

While counseling psychology concentrations may also cover these areas, they also extend to specific population groups and scientific applications. Examples include programs in child and adolescent mental health, clinical mental health counseling, correctional psychology, and counseling research.

Practical Training and Experience

Master's-level counseling and counseling psychology programs offer extensive experiential learning opportunities. Both paths typically require students to complete practicum components — professionally supervised, field-based training placements.

Many counseling programs also feature optional or required internships. These practical training experiences offer valuable learning opportunities but are usually unpaid.

In comparison, master's programs in counseling psychology may supplement practicums with traineeships. A traineeship is similar to an internship but shares more similarities with traditional employment, including pay.

Thesis and Capstone Requirements

Some counseling psychology programs require degree-seekers to complete thesis projects, which is an original, research-focused work of scholarship. Others offer non-thesis tracks or direct students into practical training components as they approach degree completion.

Counseling programs are less likely to culminate in a thesis. Instead, their curricula focus more on field-based learning and practical training. Some involve capstone courses, which prompt students to incorporate concepts they've learned in the program in a single research project.

Curriculum Comparison for Master's Level Counseling Degrees

To better visualize differences in coursework, take a look at the course requirements below, pulled from real universities offering master's-level counseling degrees. Note that each of these degrees offers a general curriculum without concentrations or specializations.

Remember that degree plans vary among institutions. Take the time to evaluate requirements at your prospective schools when deciding whether a master's in counseling or a master's in counseling psychology is the right choice for you.

Curriculum Comparison Example #1
Comparison Point MA in Counseling Psychology MS in Counseling
Credits 61-62 credits 60 credits
  • Addiction counseling
  • Advanced psychological statistics I
  • Research design
  • Psychological tests and measurements
  • Professional and ethical issues in counseling psychology
  • Advanced psychopathology
  • Clinical therapeutic group processes
  • Psychotherapy skills I: microskills lab
  • Principles of abnormal human behavior
  • Theories of psychotherapy and counseling
  • Family psychology: theory and practice
  • Psychology of gender
  • Multicultural psychology
  • Advanced developmental psychology
  • Seminar in vocational psychology
  • Ethics in psychology
  • Introduction to counseling
  • Theory and practice in counseling
  • Ethics and law in counseling
  • Intermediate statistics
  • Analysis of the individual
  • Counseling methods and techniques
  • Advanced psychopathology
  • Intro to methodology and research design
  • Group processes
  • Social and cultural foundations in counseling
  • Advanced human development
  • Case formulation
  • Psychopharmacology for practitioners
  • Consultation in human development settings
  • Career and lifestyle development in counseling
  • Marriage and family counseling
  • Elective course in psychology or counseling
Practical Experience
  • Supervised practicum (four semesters)
  • Counseling practicum
  • Internship in counseling I
  • Internship in counseling II
Thesis Track
  • Thesis
  • One of the following: psychology of violence, trauma, and abuse or psychology of human sexuality
Non-thesis Track
  • Capstone proficiencies
  • Psychology of violence, trauma, and abuse
  • Psychology of human sexuality
Curriculum Comparison Example #2
Comparison Point MA in Counseling Psychology MS in Counseling
Credits 60 credits 60 credits
  • Counseling skills
  • Psychopathology and diagnostic interviewing
  • Adult and family development
  • Clinical ethics and law
  • Research methods in counseling psychology
  • Psychological testing
  • Cultural intersectionality in counseling
  • Psychopharmacology
  • Addictions counseling
  • Career development counseling
  • Couple and sexuality counseling
  • Theories of individual counseling
  • Advanced counseling skills
  • Theories of family counseling
  • Theories of group counseling
  • Theories and techniques of developmental counseling with children and adolescents
  • Techniques of group and family counseling
  • Pre-practicum
  • Theories of counseling
  • Psychopathology
  • Ethical and legal issues
  • Foundations of clinical mental health counseling
  • Assessment and testing
  • Statistics and research
  • Multicultural counseling
  • Group counseling
  • Lifespan development
  • Couples and family therapy
  • Career counseling
  • Substance abuse counseling
  • Elective course in counseling
  • Elective course in counseling
  • Elective course in counseling
  • Elective course in counseling
Practical Experience
  • Practicum I
  • Practicum II
  • Traineeship I
  • Traineeship II
  • Practicum
  • Internship I
  • Internship II

Career Opportunities with a Master's Level Counseling Degree

Master's-level counseling and counseling psychology programs can lead to similar careers, including counseling roles in community organizations, educational institutions, human services agencies, and private practice. Advanced degrees in counseling psychology may also lead to research careers.

Payscale data from March 2024 indicates that both degree types offer comparable earning potential. According to Payscale, professionals with MA degrees in counseling and MS degrees in counseling psychology both earn average base salaries of about $59,000 per year.

Most professional counseling positions now require licensure, and each U.S. jurisdiction sets specific licensing standards. However, master's-level counseling and counseling psychology degrees meet the educational requirements in most states.

You can research state-specific requirements more fully through organizations like the American Counseling Association.

Postgraduate Options with a Master's Level Counseling Degree

If you want to continue your education beyond the master's level, counseling and counseling psychology programs can lead to doctoral studies. In general, these programs can prepare students to pursue Ph.D. degrees in counseling. However, counseling psychology programs lead more directly into clinically focused Psy.D. degrees.

To select the right master's-level counseling program, consider your long-term career goals. Both degrees offer a path to hands-on counseling leadership roles focused on individual and/or group therapy. However, if you would like to pursue roles in clinical practice or research, counseling psychology might make a stronger overall match.

Should You Study Counseling or Counseling Psychology?

Master's-level counseling and counseling psychology programs share many similarities. Both support paths to counseling licensure and may lead to counseling careers in institutions or private practice.

At the same time, consider your learning interests and career plans. Broadly speaking, counseling psychology programs often focus more on theory and research. Meanwhile, counseling programs emphasize practical applications of theory and research in live counseling settings.

Master's degrees in counseling psychology more readily lead to opportunities to earn clinically focused Psy.D. degrees. Keep this in mind if you aspire to a career in clinical practice or counseling research.

Advantages of Earning a Master's in Counseling

  • Stronger overall practical emphasis on applied theory
  • Concentration options often have a more targeted, career-specific focus
  • Programs may offer more latitude to customize learning through electives

Advantages of Earning a Master's in Counseling Psychology

  • Stronger focus on theory, statistical analysis, and research design
  • Deeper coverage of psychopathology and psychopharmacology
  • More direct transferability to Psy.D. programs and research-focused or clinical career paths

Graduate Counseling Degrees FAQs

What is the difference between counseling and counseling psychology?

The two disciplines are closely related but approach the management and treatment of mental health disorders in different ways. Counseling emphasizes personal development, encouraging clients to cultivate their strengths. Meanwhile, counseling psychology adopts a more medical viewpoint, viewing client issues as treatable mental health conditions.

If you want to become a licensed counselor, then a master's-level counseling degree is an essential step in your professional development. All U.S. states require counselors to hold licensure, and a master's degree has emerged as the standard minimum education requirement.

A master's in counseling psychology opens up many of the same career paths as a counseling master's, along with additional education and professional options. Counseling psychology master's programs provide an excellent academic background for Psy.D. programs. Their scientific and analytical focus also makes them relevant for research-oriented careers.

At the master's level, counseling degrees usually span 4-6 semesters or about 2-3 academic years of full-time study. Exact timelines vary, depending on the program's credit requirements and your study schedule. If you study part time, it will take you longer to earn your degree.

Page last reviewed on March 10, 2024

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