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What Is Counseling Psychology?

Job Description, Work Settings, and Training for Counseling Psychologists


Counselor Talking with a Man
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Counseling psychology focuses on providing therapeutic treatments to clients who experience a wide variety of symptoms. It is also one of the largest specialty areas within psychology. The Society of Counseling Psychology describes the field as "a psychological specialty [that] facilitates personal and interpersonal functioning across the life span with a focus on emotional, social, vocational, educational, health-related, developmental and organizational concerns."

What Do Counseling Psychologists Do?

Many counseling psychologists provide psychotherapy services, but other career paths are also available. Research, teaching and vocational counseling are just a few of the possible alternatives to psychotherapy. No matter what the job setting, individuals who choose to enter into a career in counseling psychology utilize psychological theories to help people overcome problems and realize their full-potential.

Counseling psychologists work in a variety of settings. Some professionals work in academic settings as professors, psychotherapy providers, and researchers. Others work in hospitals and mental health clinics, often alongside physicians and other mental health professionals including clinical psychologists, social workers, and psychiatric nurses. Still other counseling psychologists are self-employed in independent practice and offer psychotherapy services to individuals, families, and groups. A few other employment settings include private business, military, government agencies, consulting practices, and more.

Counseling Psychology vs Clinical Psychology

Out of all the graduate psychology degrees awarded each year, more than half are in the subfields of clinical or counseling psychology (Mayne, Norcross, & Sayette, 2000). Counseling psychology shares many commonalities with clinical psychology, but it is also unique in several different ways.

Some of the key similarities between counseling in clinical psychology are:

  • Both are trained to provide psychotherapy
  • Both often work in hospitals, mental health clinics, academic settings, and independent practice
  • Both can be licensed in all 50 states as "licensed psychologists' and are able to practice independently

Some of the key difference between the two professions include:

  • There are differences in training and education between the professions
  • Clinical psychologists tend to focus on psychopathology
  • Counseling psychologists tend to focus on overall well-being through the lifespan

While both clinical and counseling psychologists perform psychotherapy, those working as clinicians typically deal with clients suffering from more severe mental illnesses. Counseling psychologists often work with people who are experiencing less severe symptoms (Brems & Johnson, 1997). The treatment outlook can also differ between clinical and counseling psychology.

Clinicians often approach mental illness from a medical perspective, while counseling psychologists often take a more general approach that encompasses a range of psychotherapeutic techniques. Of course, the individual approach a therapist takes depends on a wide range of factors including his or her educational background, training and theoretical perspective.

Required Education and Training for Counseling Psychology

In order to become a counseling psychologist, a Ph.D. , Psy.D. or Ed.D. degree is required. A Doctor of Philosophy or Doctor of Psychology degree will typically be offered through a university's psychology department, while the Doctor of Education in counseling psychology can be found at a school's college of education. Most of these programs receive accreditation through the American Psychological Association (APA).

If you are looking for a program in counseling psychology, start by checking out the list of accredited programs in professional psychology maintained by the APA.


Brems, C., & Johnson, M. E. (1997). Comparison of recent graduates of clinical versus counseling psychology programs. Journal of Psychology, 131, 91-99.

Mayne, T. J., Norcross, J. C., & Sayette, M. A. (2000). Insider's guide to graduate programs in clinical and counseling psychology (2000-2001 ed). New York: Guilford.

Society of Counseling Psychologists. (n.d.). About counseling psychologists. Found online at http://www.apa.org/ed/accreditation/doctoral.html

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