Counseling graduate programs prepare students to help individuals, groups, and families best cope with mental health and interpersonal issues, through consultation and professional counseling services. While the majority of programs are practice-based, top research focused counseling degree programs may be available. Students could earn masters and doctorate degrees, as well as graduate certificates.
Most graduate programs in counseling offer a blend of courses in research, theory, and intervention strategies. Other topics covered may include lifespan development, abnormal psychology, diagnoses, and ethics. In addition coursework, internships and clinical practicum often prepare graduates to seek licensure in their state.
written by Rana Waxman
You may notice that counseling graduate programs tend to have some overlap in terms curriculum and field experience. However, looking closer, you may notice a few different types of programs, which each emphasize different aspects mental health and may work toward slightly different goals.
Counseling programs tend to focus more on lifespan issues (e.g., divorce, relationships, academic problems, etc.) and assessment of those problems. In contrast, clinical programs may address serious mental illness (e.g., depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, etc.), its assessment, and treatment.
When choosing your preferred counseling programs, think carefully about how you’d like to use your degree, and choose a program that aligns closely with these goals. Below, we’ve listed a few different examples of what this decision process might look like.
Employment of mental health counselors is projected to grow 20% from 2014 to 2024.i
In addition to the range of approaches they might take, counseling graduate programs may confer degrees and certificates ranging from masters to doctorate. Within each degree level, several different degree types may be offered, each one emphasizing different approaches to counseling or different aspects of the counseling field.
|Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology - Counseling Psychology||Northcentral University||N/A|
|M.S. in Mental Health and Wellness||Grand Canyon University||MS|
|PhD - Counselor Education and Supervision (CACREP-accredited)||Capella University||DPT|
Below, we’ve broken down several of the options you might consider at each level. Each of these programs may be available in several different formats. These include online graduate programs in counseling, blended counseling programs, and on-campus counseling programs.
Counseling masters programs typically award either a master of science or master of arts in counseling (abbreviated as MS and MA respectively) to students who successfully complete the program. The differences between these degree types are often nominal or may vary by school.
Masters in counseling programs are usually around 60 credits long, though it might be different at some schools. This means a full-time student might earn a master degree in counseling in about two years. To apply, students usually need a bachelors degree from an accredited university and relevant coursework. This may include subjects like statistics, biological and social bases of behavior, and cognitive psychology. However, specific prerequisites may vary depending on the school and the individual program.
Some counseling and therapy masters programs prepare graduates to pursue state licensure as a therapist or Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC). Other Masters in Counseling programs may not lead to licensure, but may prepare students to pursue a doctoral degree. Make sure to read descriptions carefully to determine which might fit your goals.
In addition to MS and MA Counseling programs, some students might choose more specialized programs, or ones in related subject areas. Here are a few examples.
A few different types of counseling doctoral programs may be available. In most cases, the degree type offered reflects the goals of that program and the types of professional roles it’s designed to support. Outlined below are a few of the options you might find.
The Doctor of Psychology in Counseling, often abbreviated as PsyD, is a professional practice degree in the field of psychology. Prerequisites to apply may include a master's degree in counseling, psychology, or related field, and in some cases field experience.
Counseling PsyD programs often require around 85 semester hours to complete. This generally translates to about four years of full-time study, though this may vary depending on the nature of the courses and how the program is designed. This includes coursework, practicum, and pre-doctoral internship. While courses vary between universities, they are likely to first cover topics such as cognitive bases of behavior, patient assessment, ethics, clinical psychology practices, and psychopathology.
Other topics covered may include personality theory, biopsychology, interventions, and other advanced subjects. While in their program, students might also develop high-level research skills. These could be used in a dissertation that demonstrates an original contribution to the field of counseling psychology.
Counseling PhD programs are usually research-oriented, and may be appropriate for current or aspiring licensed practitioners as academic and research psychologists.ii Some PhD programs may fit the needs of post-masters licensed counselors who seek professional development. A PhD in General Psychology might entail a deep look at the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive issues that impact human behavior. Students usually choose an area of focus for their PhD. Health psychology, social psychology, and educational psychology are a few examples.
PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision programs are designed to prepare graduates for potential roles in counselor education, supervision, research, and practice in academic and clinical settings. Courses may cover evidence-based counseling practices, psychopathology, pedagogy, and ethics. Programs may also work to hone leadership and administrative skills.
The emphasis of this degree is typically on research and theory. A pre-internship experience (called a practicum) is usually a key aspect of the program. Some programs require multiple practicums in addition to a dissertation. While program lengths vary, a full-time student might complete their PhD in Psychology in three years post-masters.
A Graduate Certificate in Counseling might consist of about 18 credits. These are more concentrated and shorter counseling graduate programs. Some are designed for students who are in or have completed a CACREP-accredited masters degree in counseling and need extra hours to complete the educational requirements for the Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) licensure in their state.
Some counseling certificate programs may either focus on a distinct concentration, or allow students to choose their own elective courses to tailor their education. Several examples include addictions counseling, counseling children and adolescents, or couples and family counseling.
Many regionally-accredited graduate schools offer counseling degree programs. Some individual counseling programs and schools also hold professional or program-specific accreditation. CACREP (which stands for The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs) accredits masters and doctoral programs. The American Psychological Association also accredits counseling psychology doctoral programs.
Professional counseling is a behavioral health service often regulated at the state level. Though individual states may have differing requirements, professional counselors typically need to hold a masters degree in counseling. Other potential requirements include state-issued license, post-degree supervised clinical practice and a successful outcome on a state recognized exam.i
If this is your goal, some counseling programs may be designed to help prepare you for different types of state licensure. Licensed professional counselors (LPC), licensed mental health counselors (LMHC), school counselors, marriage and family therapy counselors, and counseling psychologists are several possibilities.
Psychologists often perform the similar duties as professional counselors, but they also provide additional psychological services. For instance, they might administer diagnostic tests and consult with MDs about medication for their clients. Another protected title, “licensed psychologist,” is used by counseling psychology professionals who have earned an APA-accredited doctorate in psychology, completed an internship, supervised practice, and passed the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology.ii
Sources: [i] apa.org/ed/graduate/specialize/counseling.aspx | [ii] bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm |[iii] apa.org/ed/graduate/specialize/counseling.aspx |[iv] calpcc.org/lpcc | [v] bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/mental-health-counselors-and-marriage-and-family-therapists.htm | [vi] .bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/rehabilitation-counselors.htm | [vii] apa.org/ed/accreditation/about/index.aspx | [viii] asppb.net |[ix] cswe.org/Accreditation.aspx | [x] cacrep.org