Getting a Ph.D. Degree in Counseling

| Staff Writers

Counseling psychologists guide individuals through many difficult facets of life: anxiety, school troubles, career difficulties, relationship issues, and excessive stress, to name just a few examples. Counseling psychologists help their clients find mental well-being, allowing them to live more fulfilling lives.

The path to becoming a counseling psychologist involves many years of education, including a counseling psychology Ph.D. This degree introduces students to a wide scope of practice where they can provide multiple therapy and treatment options to their patients.

For those who want to work as clinical psychologists, a doctor of psychology (Psy.D.) may better prepare them for their career.

When searching for counseling Ph.D. programs, look for programs with accreditation from organizations like the American Psychological Association (APA). Licensure standards require candidates to hold an accredited degree.

Keep reading to learn how a Ph.D. in counseling psychology can impact your career options and salary potential.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the difference between clinical and counseling psychology?

    Clinical psychology focuses on treating individuals with more serious mental illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder. In contrast, counseling psychology concentrates on mental wellness. The field also deals with a larger umbrella of issues that don’t necessarily qualify as mental illness, like relationship or career challenges.

  • How long does it take to obtain a Ph.D.?

    This depends on both the program and the student. Some doctoral programs last as few as 3-4 years, while others last 8-10 years. Part-time learners generally take longer, and some might need more time to complete their dissertation research.

  • What's the difference between a Psy.D. and a Ph.D.?

    A Psy.D. and a Ph.D. share many similarities: both function as terminal degrees and cover advanced psychology theory. However, a Psy.D. focuses more on clinical practice, whereas a Ph.D. concentrates on research. A Ph.D. prepares graduates for careers in academia and research in addition to counseling, whereas a Psy.D. only prepares graduates for clinical counseling work.

  • Is someone with a Ph.D. a doctor?

    A person who earns a Ph.D. in counseling is a doctor in title but not in the same way as a medical doctor. In psychology, only psychiatrists work as medical doctors. They can diagnose patients and administer medication, but they must go to medical school first. Psychologists with a Ph.D. cannot prescribe medication like psychiatrists can.

Admissions Requirements For a Ph.D. Program

Ph.D. programs in counseling

can be challenging, and many feature similarly competitive admissions processes. Applicants should possess a master’s degree in psychology or a related field. Ph.D. admissions standards generally expect applicants’ GPA to meet a minimum standard ranging from 3.0-3.5.

Each program sets minimum quantitative and qualitative GRE scores. Prospective students can increase their chances of gaining admission by submitting high GRE scores.

Candidates should also submit supplemental materials, like their undergraduate transcripts, resume, and recommendation letters. Many programs require applicants to write personal essays about their academic and career goals. Finally, candidates may need to participate in an admissions interview.

Curriculum Focus in a Ph.D. in Counseling Program

When it comes to curricula, counseling psychology Ph.D. programs can look very different from one another. Ph.D. programs include many foundational and advanced psychology theory courses, along with classes on counseling skills and techniques.

Some programs follow a primarily research-based curriculum, while others offer practical, client-centered courses. Students who prefer research-focused programs often go on to work in academia, while those who enroll in more practical programs offer psychological counseling services.

Federal data shows that Ph.D. candidates spend almost six years pursuing their degree. However, the timeline varies for each individual. Part-time Ph.D. candidates usually spend much longer pursuing their degree, with some even dedicating a decade to their doctoral studies. Full-time learners can graduate more quickly, even within four years.

Although course offerings vary, most programs include courses like counseling theories, group counseling, assessment in counseling, and research methods in counseling.

Dissertation Requirements For Ph.D. Programs

A research-based dissertation is a major component of most Ph.D. programs. Students contribute a unique and new piece of knowledge to the psychology field through their dissertation research, which they usually complete over the course of a few years.

Ph.D. candidates begin their dissertation by choosing a topic within a niche field of interest. They must develop a thesis, design their research with quantitative or qualitative methods, conduct the research, and write a dissertation. Candidates must defend their dissertation in front of a faculty committee, which also guides students throughout the dissertation process.

Many — though not all — Ph.D. programs require supervised counseling fieldwork. Usually comprising 1,000-2,000 hours, the fieldwork experience typically lasts at least one year. Supervised work experience is also a common requirement for counseling licensure.

Online Ph.D. in Counseling Degree Programs

Online Ph.D. programs have become increasingly common over the past decade. Many students prefer the flexibility that comes with online learning because it allows them to balance school and other responsibilities like work. Distance learning can also be a great option for individuals who live far from campuses and want to save the time and money involved with commuting.

Many programs offer asynchronous courses, which allow students to stream lectures or participate in class discussion boards at their convenience. Even courses with synchronous components usually schedule meetings for evenings or weekends to meet the time constraints of busy adults.

Be sure to consider only accredited online programs. An accredited online degree holds just as much value as a traditional, on-campus degree.

Licensure Requirements for Ph.D. Graduates

A license allows psychologists to legally offer counseling services. Aspiring psychologists can obtain licensure from their state government, which sets the requirements to apply.

Because this information varies by state, you should look up the specific rules from your state licensure board. However, all counseling licenses require at least a doctoral degree in psychology. Each state also requires a certain number of supervised clinical hours, although that figure varies. Many doctoral programs build these hours into the curriculum, but not all do.

Finally, candidates must take at least one exam. They need to pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP), which tests their general knowledge about psychology and counseling. Some states require candidates to sit for a state-specific exam.

What’s the Difference Between a Ph.D. and a Psy.D.?

Prospective psychologists must decide whether to pursue a Ph.D. or a Psy.D.

A Psy.D. focuses on clinical practice. Psy.D. graduates go on to become clinical psychologists, offering services to people with serious mental illnesses. While a Psy.D. doesn’t always offer the same flexibility of a Ph.D. in terms of career pathways, people who want to become clinical psychologists often choose this degree.

In contrast, a Ph.D. in counseling psychology appeals to candidates who want to offer a variety of services not limited to treating psychological disorders. The degree is more versatile, and graduates can become counseling psychologists, professors, or researchers.

You can learn more about the differences between a Ph.D. and Psy.D. on this page.

What Can I Do With a Ph.D. in Counseling?

A Ph.D. in this field prepares graduates to become counseling psychologists. These professionals help patients overcome life’s challenges and enhance their mental well-being. A Ph.D. also qualifies graduates to conduct research professionally or teach psychology at the university level.

The projected job growth for psychologists as an industry is on par with other industries in the United States. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the number of psychologists could increase by about 3%, or nearly 6,000 jobs, from 2019-29. BLS data also shows that psychologists earned a median salary of $80,370 in 2019.

That same year, postsecondary teachers, or professors, earned a similar median wage of about $79,540. The BLS also projects that the number of postsecondary teachers will increase by 9% from 2019-29 — much faster than average for all occupations combined.

Some graduates may find psychologist jobs within certain specialties, such as school counseling, forensic psychology, family and marriage therapy, or industrial-organizational psychology.

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