Counseling Psychology Graduate Programs : Guide

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Counseling psychologists focus on helping people tackle mental health challenges so they may live more fulfilling lives. In many cases, professionals in this field need to earn a graduate degree. You’ll find counseling psychology graduate programs at different degree levels and with different focuses. So how do you find one that aligns with your career aspirations and interests?

That’s where this guide comes in. It covers many significant aspects of counseling psychology graduate programs, including the different types of programs, the required skills, and your potential job prospects. By the end of this guide, you should have a better understanding of what to expect from a counseling psychology graduate program and could be equipped to make an informed decision about your future in the field.

Types of Counseling Psychology Graduate Degree Programs

Graduate schools offer counseling psychology degree programs at master’s and doctoral degree levels. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), counseling psychologists typically need to earn a doctorate. However, some counseling career paths, such as marriage and family therapist, call for a master’s degree.

Doctoral Degree Programs in Counseling Psychology

Doctoral programs in psychology are available in two paths:

PhD in Psychology—This degree program in psychology is research-based and typically includes courses in areas such as experimental procedures and statistics. To complete the program you usually need to pass a comprehensive exam and write a dissertation.

Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)—A Doctor of Psychology is a clinical degree that generally involves practical work and examinations instead of a dissertation. Students are often required to complete an internship as part of the program

Master’s Degree Programs in Counseling Psychology

Some students decide to earn a master’s degree in psychology before entering a doctoral program. Others may pursue career paths that don’t necessarily require a doctoral degree—for instance, master’s degree graduates may be able to work as psychological assistants under a doctoral psychologist’s supervision. Marriage and family therapists and substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors might only need to earn a master’s degree. Master’s programs in psychology include:

Master of Science (MS) in Psychology—An MS in Psychology degree program typically focuses on scientific research in the field.

Master of Arts (MA) in Psychology—An MA may focus more on applying psychology theory to real-world situations.

counseling psychology graduate programs

Choosing the Perfect Counseling Psychology Graduate Program

Having a clear understanding of your career objectives and interests may be critical to choosing a counseling psychology graduate program. Understanding the potential paths available to you, as well as information such as psychologist licensure requirements in your state, could help you choose a program that might help set you up for success.

Required Skills for Counseling Psychology Graduate Programs

According to the BLS, the skills required to pursue a counseling psychologist career path include:

  • Analytical skills. Collecting and examining information—and drawing logical conclusions from that information—are often key to a psychology career path. For instance, counseling psychologists could use information about patients to understand their challenges and identify solutions. For graduate students, analytical skills are foundational as their career might involve drawing conclusions from your research and course materials.
  • Communication skills. Whether you’re counseling patients or explaining their research findings to peers, as a counseling psychologist you’ll need to be able to communicate effectively—a skill that also involves listening. In addition, speaking and writing skills could be helpful in your graduate program for everything from participating in class discussions to writing papers.
  • Interpersonal skills. As a field that involves working closely with patients and colleagues, psychology is all about interacting successfully with others. With strong interpersonal skills, you may be more likely to gain the trust of your patients and help them achieve their goals.
  • Observational skills. Psychologists study human emotions and behaviors—as such, they usually need to pay close attention to everything from facial expressions to interpersonal interactions. Observational skills may also come into play for psychologists working with patients, since non-verbal cues could provide information that is not evident in what they say.
  • Problem-solving skills. Working in research is all about solving problems, and the experimentation process often requires problem-solving abilities as well. Those who work with patients must be able to help them solve problems that may be causing stress and interfering with their ability to lead fulfilling lives.

Other attributes that may be helpful when pursuing a psychology career path include integrity and patience. Whether you’re conducting research or counseling patients in your practice, you’ll need to adhere to professional ethics. And psychologists often work with patients who may have sensitive problems that don’t have easy solutions. Thus, psychologists may need to demonstrate patience in the face of setbacks.

How a Graduate Program Could Help You Develop Counseling Psychology Skills

Graduate programs in counseling psychology are designed to help you strengthen the skills you could need to succeed in your career and make a positive impact. Your program may help you build skills in the following ways:

  • Coursework. During your graduate coursework in counseling psychology, you’ll typically study theories and techniques you could apply in practice. For instance, a course on psychological assessment could teach you how to use observation and analytical skills to assess and diagnose patients. A course on group counseling might dive into effectively leading a group using interpersonal and communication skills to facilitate discussion.
  • Research. Depending on your graduate program, research opportunities may be a large or small part of your studies. Through courses in research design and methodology, you could explore how to use analytical and problem-solving skills to tackle research questions that might help you enhance your career in the field of psychology.
  • Clinical Practicum or Internship. Practical experience is generally a big part of many counseling psychology programs. These hands-on experiences could take the form of practicums and/or internships that offer you the chance to apply and practice counseling skills in supervised settings, such as community health centers.

Counseling Psychology Career Paths

Graduates of counseling psychology graduate programs could pursue career paths in a variety of different settings—from government agencies and state, local, or private hospitals to their own practices. Professionals in counseling occupations could also work with a range of populations. For instance, maybe you’re passionate about helping children, older adults, families, or people struggling with substance addiction.

Counseling Psychology Job Titles

Earning a graduate degree in counseling psychology could be a step toward pursuing the following careers.

Counseling Psychologist. This type of psychologist uses counseling techniques to help people understand and manage the problems impacting their lives at home, work, or in the community. Counseling psychologists may assist patients with identifying their personal strengths and finding strategies to handle their challenges.

Median annual salary (BLS): $85,330

Marriage and Family Therapist. These therapists help patients solve relationship challenges. Marriage and family therapists may counsel individuals, couples, or families—but even when treating just one person at a time, they use a family-centered approach that focuses on how relationships impact mental health. They also use techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy to help patients develop healthier thought patterns.

Median annual salary (BLS): $56,570

Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors. Also called addiction counselors, these professionals work with patients to help them get treatment for substance dependencies and to address challenges such as stress and family problems. They may counsel people in individual or group settings.

Median annual salary (BLS): $49,710

Mental Health Counselors. This type of counselor treats people for conditions such as anxiety and depression and helps them handle emotional and relationship problems. Mental health counselors may focus on specific populations, such as older adults or children.

Median annual salary (BLS): $49,710

Counseling Psychology Job Prospects

Many counseling professions are growing much faster than average, according to the BLS. For instance, marriage and family therapist roles are projected to grow 15% between 2022 and 2032. This expected growth may be because more practices are using integrated care, which means bringing in a group of specialists to treat multiple problems simultaneously. Plus, as workers retire, more are needed to fill their roles.

Roles for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors are projected to grow even faster: 18% from 2022 to 2032. One cause of this expected growth could be that more states are opting to help people with addictions and mental health issues get treatment as an alternative to jail time. Counselors are also needed to work with military veterans who are struggling with mental health.

Choosing the Perfect Counseling Psychology Graduate Program

Choosing the perfect counseling psychology program could be a big decision—you’ll want to make sure your program could help set you up to achieve your goals. These tips are a good starting point for evaluating prospective graduate programs:

  • Look at the course outline. Even degree programs that look the same at first glance may have very different course requirements. Look for a program with a curriculum that covers topics you’re excited about and that seem relevant to your career interests.
  • Consider which credential meets your career goals. You likely don’t need to earn a doctoral degree if you are pursuing a career path such as an addiction counselor or mental health counselor. However, many counseling psychologists need to earn a PhD or PsyD. Understanding the requirements for your intended career could be key to choosing the perfect program.
  • Weigh thesis vs. non-thesis options. Not all counseling psychology graduate programs require a thesis. If you’re interested in further graduate study—such as applying to doctoral programs after earning your master’s—completing a thesis might be a good choice. Otherwise, you could consider programs without this requirement.
  • Talk to a college advisor or faculty member. Understanding what credentials you need for your career objectives and your state’s licensure requirements could be complicated. Fortunately, faculty members and representatives of the program you are considering may provide some insight. So, don’t be hesitant to ask for help figuring out your next move.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Counseling Psychology Graduate Program

In addition to the above tips, think about the following factors when selecting a program:

  • Accreditation. Accreditation is like quality assurance—it helps you to know your program measures up to standards in the field. The American Psychological Association (APA) is the only authorized accrediting organization to accredit doctoral-level psychology programs in the United States. Organizations that accredit counseling programs include the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP), the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE), and the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC).
  • Faculty. Consider faculty members’ research interests and areas of expertise when selecting a program. The opportunity to learn from knowledgeable faculty on the topics you’re most interested in could be the deciding factor when you’re choosing your program.
  • Research opportunities. Some graduate psychology programs focus more on conducting original research, while others focus on practical work. If you’re more interested in potentially contributing research to your field, look for programs with the former focus.
  • Location. Not everyone wants to move far from home to attend graduate school. If attending a program nearby is a priority for you, that could narrow down your options but also make it easier to choose. You could also consider online or hybrid options.

Resources to Learn More About Counseling Psychology Graduate Programs and Careers

Visit the Bureau of Labor Statistics to learn more about becoming a psychologist or pursuing other career paths that involve counseling. In addition, the following resources provided by could help you learn more about earning a graduate degree in counseling psychology:

  • Psychology Graduate Programs. Learn about earning a master’s or doctoral degree in psychology—and browse programs that could help you fulfill your career objectives.
  • The Role of Psychology in the Workplace. Want to explore career paths that might be similar to being a counseling psychologist? Learn more about pursuing a career as an industrial-organizational psychologist.
  • APA Accreditation for Psychology Programs. Learn why it’s usually important to choose accredited programs.


In summary, many counseling psychology career paths require a graduate degree, whether it’s a master’s, a PhD, or a PsyD. In your graduate program, you could expect to study the theory and practice of counseling psychology and work on developing skills such as communication, observation, and analyzing information. And after earning your counseling psychology degree, you could be one step closer to career paths such as counseling psychologist, marriage and family therapist, substance abuse counselor, or mental health counselor.

If counseling psychology sounds interesting and rewarding, take the time to learn more about graduate programs in this field. Doing your research could make the difference in your future success in your chosen field.

This is an offer for educational opportunities that may lead to employment and not an offer or guarantee of employment and that may help prepare students to meet the licensing or certification requirements of the field they choose to study. Students should check with the appropriate certifying body to make sure the program they apply to will help meet any licensing or certification requirements. Students should also consult with a representative from the school they select to learn more about career opportunities in that field. Program outcomes vary according to each institution’s specific program curriculum.

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