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Online PhDs in Counseling Psychology and Clinical Psychology

student studying online for phd in counseling psychology

About the Online PhD in Counseling & Clinical Psychology

Degree Type:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Online and hybrid


Usually 5 years, including dissertation

Total Credits:

Between 74 and 145

Aid Eligible:

Yes, for accredited programs

As you consider a traditional or online PhD in counseling psychology, you may have noticed that this course of study overlaps considerably with another popular subfield: clinical psychology.

In fact, about half of all psychology graduate degrees are in these two subfields. In general, both subfields can treat a similar population of patients. So what are the similarities and differences between online PhDs in counseling psychology and clinical psychology, and how should you decide which to pursue?

Are the Programs the Same?

At first glance, clinical and counseling psychology share enough commonalities to seem cast from the same mold. For example, the American Psychological Association no longer distinguishes between the accredited internships available for the subfields: They’re on the same list and all prepare psychologists for work in health care. Duties, work settings and benefits of psychologists in either subfield can be similar, too.

Primary duties: Psychotherapy, teaching, research, supervision

Potential work settings: Individual practice, hospitals, schools, colleges and universities, community mental health facilities

Benefits: Psychology licensure, independent practice, insurance reimbursement

How do the Programs Differ?

Perhaps the most key distinctions between careers in counseling psychology versus clinical psychology are in training and the type of patient being treated. Among several minor differences, two include work settings and program availability.

Patients: Counseling psychologists usually work with mentally stable individuals to provide general life-skills guidance and adaptive strategies in navigating common stresses such as academic issues, career planning, and family and marriage problems. Clinical psychologists tend to focus on those with serious mental disturbances such as depression, schizophrenia, substance abuse, etc.

Training: Counseling psychology evolved out of vocational psychology. Considering the subfield’s strong educational elements, it’s no surprise that a good number of counseling psychology programs can be found in schools of education. Clinical psychology programs are nearly all based in schools or departments of psychology and usually train students in a medical orientation toward disease treatment such as psychological illness.

Work settings: Although private practice and universities are two most common settings where clinical and counseling psychologists work, clinicians typically work in hospital settings and counseling psychologists in universities (e.g., counseling centers).

Program availability: When considering doctoral programs accredited by the American Psychological Association, available clinical psychology programs outnumber counseling psychology nearly 3 to 1.

Decisions, Decisions

Choosing between getting a traditional or online PhD in counseling psychology or clinical psychology should be a thoroughly considered decision based on your own interests and what you want to accomplish in your career. If you define these things first, it may be easier to find a program that suits you, rather than conforming your preferences to what a school offers.

Consider getting an online PhD in counseling psychology if you:

  • Want to work mostly with healthy individuals across their life span on everyday problems.
  • Prefer to not work in a medical or hospital setting.
  • Relish the idea of having a broad range of applicable therapeutic skills.

Consider getting an online PhD in clinical psychology if you:

  • Prefer to work with patients suffering from serious mental disorders.
  • Want to focus primarily on the treatment of one or two specific psychological illnesses.
  • Wish to work in a medical or hospital setting.
  • Desire a very broad range of programs from which to choose.

Keep in mind that the line keeps blurring between these general distinctions as the overlap between the two subfields continues to grow. Loosely defining some of these broadly accepted characteristics should at least get you started in deciding if you’ll pursue a program in clinical psychology, or a traditional or online PhD in counseling psychology.

Sources: psichi.org; science.fau.edu; div17.org