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Counseling Psychology – PhD Degree Guide

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About the PhD in Counseling Psychology

Degree Type:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Online, classroom, and hybrid


Usually 4–8 Years

Total Credits:

Usually between 90 and 130, including a dissertation

Aid Eligible:

Yes, for accredited programs

Counselors help people deal with the problems of everyday life, teaching them strategies to manage stress, grief, anger, and other negative emotions. There are many paths you can take to start working as a counselor, but a PhD in counseling psychology can allow you to have a wider scope of practice and provide patients with more therapy and treatment options.

A PhD also allows you to research new methods for providing treatment. In addition, you can use the degree to teach aspiring psychologists and counselors, giving you the opportunity to have a significant impact on the overall field.

If this sounds like a great career fit for you, read on to learn more about counseling psychology PhD degrees and what you can expect along the way.

Counseling Psychology PhD Programs

Counseling psychology PhD programs are offered throughout the country. Some of these might be specializations within general psychology departments, while others might be their own degree program. Any PhD program will prepare you for licensure and include research-based learning, independent study, and a dissertation.

PhD vs. PsyD – Which one is right for me?

Students considering earning a doctoral-level degree in counseling psychology have 2 options: a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD). Either degree can be used for licensure, but there are some major differences in what and how you’ll study as you earn each degree.

  • In a PhD program, you’ll focus on research and theory. Your studies will involve broad principles and you’ll do a lot more independent work. You’ll need to complete a dissertation as part of your degree. You might also need to complete an internship or field placement with a PhD, though it’s not always required.
  • In a PsyD program, you’ll focus on practical applications and client interactions. Your studies will teach in-depth techniques for assessment, diagnosis, and treatment. You’ll also need to complete at least a 1-year internship or field placement before graduation.

Admission Requirements for Counseling Psychology PhD Programs

Each school will have its own admission requirements. Many counseling psychology PhD programs are competitive, so it’s important to make your application as strong as possible. Most admission departments will ask for:

  • Transcripts from your previous education
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Writing samples
  • An essay on your career goals
  • A resume of your work and educational experience
  • A formal interview
  • A criminal background check

Is there a GPA requirement?

Not always. However, many programs do have a GPA requirement of at least 3.0, and some require a 3.5 or higher.

Do you need to take the GRE?

For most schools, yes. Many PhD programs require the GRE and want to see either a minimum score or a score that falls in an upper percentile range. Top psychology grad schools report average scores of around 160 out of 170 on both the Verbal and Quantitative sections, and around a 5 out of 6 on Analytical Writing.

However, there are schools that don’t require the GRE at all or replace the exam with their own school-specific test. You’ll want to check the specific requirements of your top choice schools to make sure you’ve taken all of the necessary steps.

Can you get in without a master’s degree?

There are several counseling psychology PhD programs that admit students with only a bachelor’s degreeThese are often referred to as dual or joint degree programs and allow you to earn your master’s degree along with your PhD.

Generally, your bachelor’s degree will need to be in psychology or a closely related field to pursue this option. If your bachelor’s degree is an unrelated subject, you’ll likely need to take some prerequisite courses before applying to a joint program.

How Long Does It Take to Earn a PhD?

Earning your PhD usually takes anywhere from 4–8 years. PhD programs also require anywhere from 90–150 credits, including your dissertation. In some cases, it can take up to 10 years to earn your PhD. Your program, your dissertation, and whether you attend full- or part-time can all affect how long earning your degree will take.

There are some programs, however, that put a cap on the number of years you can take to earn your PhD. If you don’t meet the degree requirements within a certain period of time—often 7 or 8 years—you’ll need to petition the school for an extension.

Accelerated programs

There are a few options for accelerating your degree If you’re looking to save time or money. Some schools have a fast-track option that lets you take more courses at a time and start your dissertation earlier. This can allow you to work through the requirements in less time than a standard program.

If you already have a master’s degree in psychology or a related field, you might have another accelerated option. Some programs let students with a master’s degree apply some of those credits toward their doctoral degree, lessening their total coursework.

What Are the Education Requirements?

Your PhD program will prepare you for licensure and give you a broad scope of knowledge in the field. Some programs will be heavily research-based, while others will include more practical and client-centric coursework. No matter the focus of your program, you’ll study psychology as it applies to people’s everyday lives, and learn about the theories behind methods of counseling.

Core classes

The classes you take will depend on your program and any concentrations that might be offered. For example, some schools allow you to focus on relationship counseling, youth counseling, or other specific topics or populations. No matter what you choose, you can expect your core classes to cover:

  • Theories of counseling
  • Human behavior theories
  • Social issues and counseling
  • Group therapy techniques
  • Research and counseling
  • Assessment techniques
  • Counseling ethics
  • Abuse and trauma counseling
  • Substance abuse counseling
  • Interpersonal relationship counseling

Dissertation requirements

You’ll be required to complete a research-backed dissertation in addition to your coursework. This will require you to:

  • Pick a topic
  • Create a thesis or theory
  • Get it approved by faculty members
  • Conduct independent research toward your thesis
  • Meet with faculty regularly to discuss your progress
  • Write your dissertation
  • Present and defend your dissertation to the faculty

Your dissertation is a major component of your PhD and will count toward your needed credits. Many states require that at least some of your dissertation hours are completed in residency. This means you’ll need to complete them on campus, even if the rest of your degree work is being done online.

Is an Internship or Other Fieldwork Required?

Not all PhD programs have a fieldwork requirement, but many do. The length of this fieldwork will vary depending on your school and specific program. Common fieldwork requirements are between 1,000 and 2,000 hours. Keep in mind that even if your program doesn’t require fieldwork, you’ll still need to complete your state’s requirements for postgraduate experience before you can apply for a license.

Most Common Instruction Formats

You can choose to earn your degree online, in the classroom, or in a hybrid program. The format you choose doesn’t matter so long as the program is accredited by the APA or is designated by the ASPPB.

  • Classroom programs: Traditional classroom programs allow students to have 1-on-1 interaction with professors, advisors, and classmates. They may provide more opportunities for networking than other formats. Additionally, if you want to finance your education through teaching or research assistantships, you’ll likely need to earn your degree in the classroom setting.
  • Hybrid programs: Hybrid programs are designed to allow you to take some classes online and others on campus. These programs can be a great fit for students who need more flexibility in their schedule or who can’t make it to their campus every day.
  • Online programs: Online programs are a good choice for students who are working while earning their degree, as they can allow you to set your own pace. Keep in mind that if your state has dissertation residency rules, or if your program includes internship or fieldwork, you’ll not be able to fulfill those requirements online.

What Should I Look for in a Program?

Choosing the right counseling PhD program can have an enormous impact on your success in the field. Some important questions to ask include:

  • What’s the total cost of this program?
  • Does this program offer financial aid?
  • Can I attend this program part-time?
  • What kinds of jobs do graduates of this program hold?
  • What are the qualifications of the faculty?
  • Does this program offer classes/concentrations that match my career goals?
  • Does this program have a fieldwork requirement?
  • Can I transfer any credits I’ve already earned into this program?
  • What’s the reputation of this program?
  • Is this program accredited?

What Is Counseling Psychology?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “counseling psychologists help people recognize their strengths and find resources to cope with everyday problems and adversity. Counseling psychologists focus on interactions between people and their environment and on educational and career development.”

As a counseling psychologist, you can work independently or as part of a team of professionals to improve lives by providing services, programming, and support. Many counseling psychologists work with clients from specific populations and use their understanding of the issues that affect these groups to provide better treatment.

Clinical vs. counseling psychology

Clinical psychology and counseling psychology are very similar specialties, and at times, the roles can have some overlap. However, there are some key differences between the professions.

  • Clinical psychologists work with clients who are experiencing sudden or severe mental health concerns. They might see clients who have been hospitalized or who are seeking treatment following an incident. Clinical psychologists are also more likely to work with patients who have diagnosed mental health concerns. They use their expertise to help them manage their conditions through medications and therapies.
  • Counseling psychologists work with clients throughout their lives on a variety of issues. They might counsel someone through the stress their job is causing them, help someone deal with a difficult family situation, or support someone processing grief after the death of a loved one.

For example, if a patient with an eating disorder was admitted to a mental health facility for treatment, they would likely be treated by a clinical psychologist during their stay. If a patient going through a divorce wanted to talk to someone on a regular basis about this major life change, they’d likely be treated by a counseling psychologist.

Careers for counseling psychologists

Counseling psychologists can work in several settings. Many counseling psychologists choose to work in private practice, though some other common employers include:

  • Colleges and universities
  • K–12 schools
  • Resource or counseling centers
  • Community mental health centers
  • Medical facilities
  • Health maintenance organizations

By earning a PhD in counseling psychology, you’ll also have the option to teach at the college level or conduct research.

Counseling psychologist salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)clinical and counseling psychologists earn a median annual wage of $106,420. Keep in mind that psychologist salaries can be affected by a number of factors, including geographic area, experience level, and employer type.

Licensing requirements

The path to your counseling psychologist license will include earning a bachelor’s, master’s, and then a doctoral degree. You’ll then need to meet your state’s requirements for licensure, which include supervised experience and testing. Aspiring psychologists in all states are required to take the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) administered by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB). This exam consists of 225 multiple-choice questions and, in most states, must be passed with a score of at least 500 out of 800.

Counseling psychologists are licensed under the same regulations as other psychology disciplines.You can read more information about psychology licensure requirements, including rules specific to your state.

Financial Aid for Counseling Psychology Students

Earning your PhD can require some financial planning. A study from the APA found the cost of all doctoral-level psychology degrees is on the rise. However, there are several options to help counseling psychology PhD students pay for their education. Many universities offer teaching and research assistantship positions that grant partial or full tuition remission. In these positions, students are often also awarded a stipend for working in a research department or helping teach undergraduate or master’s classes.

Scholarships can also be available at many universities, as well as through private foundations and local psychology chapters. You can also apply for state and federal fellowship research programs. These can be short- or long-term and provide stipends and other additional benefits that help you cover some of your tuition. Spots for these programs are limited, so you’ll need to get your applications in as soon as possible.

Student loans, both private and from the federal government, can also be used to finance your PhD. To get started, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine the amount of need-based assistance you qualify for.

Student loan forgiveness

Psychology students can qualify for student loan forgiveness, though you must meet certain requirements. You need to have made at least 120 repayments on direct loans and be working full-time for a nonprofit or government agency. Programs that counseling psychologists might qualify for include:

You might also qualify for loan forgiveness through your state, especially if you work in a high-need area or with an underserved population. You can contact your state’s Department of Health to find out what options are available.

Professional Organizations for Counseling Psychologists

Professional organizations can boost your career in a number of ways. You can use them to network, attend conferences, find exclusive career opportunities, and keep up on the latest industry news. Some organizations counseling psychologists might find useful include: