Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology

A Ph.D. in counseling psychology builds on foundational knowledge and skills, introduces advanced theoretical concepts, and strengthens the competencies needed to excel as a professional counselor. Going beyond fundamental concepts in mental health evaluation and treatment, doctoral programs allow students to acquire specialized knowledge in areas such as substance abuse, behavioral disorders, reproductive and health counseling, and psychotherapy. Combining research and practical training, Ph.D. programs present cutting-edge trends and techniques in the field, as well as opportunities to apply them in one-on-one and group settings.

Earning a Ph.D. in counseling psychology also opens up a variety of new career opportunities. While candidates with a master's degree qualify for numerous counseling positions, a doctoral degree is typically required to become a licensed practicing psychologist. Demand for psychologists is high. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), psychologists employed in private practices and social service organizations enjoy an above-average job growth rate of 14%. A doctorate in counseling psychology also provides advantages for those seeking academic, research, and supervisory roles.

Should You Get a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology?

While an online Ph.D. in counseling psychology might provide a more flexible option for working professionals, no fully online doctoral programs have received accreditation from the American Psychological Association (APA) -- the nation's most prestigious psychology professional association. However, the APA has approved a few hybrid Ph.D. programs, which allow candidates to fulfill some degree requirements online and the remainder on campus. Another esteemed accrediting body, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), recognizes numerous online and hybrid programs.

Some Ph.D. in counselling programs accept students who hold a bachelor's degree, while others require a master's. Depending on curriculum and degree structure, a program may require up to 10 years of study, and typically include extensive hand-on, observational, and research components. Ph.D. candidates may work with instructors, psychologists, mental health facilities, and social service organizations over the course of their studies.

A doctorate in psychology curriculum typically includes coursework, practicums, internships or residencies, and a research-based dissertation. Candidates build a foundation for licensure and practice as they learn, research, and observe. Internships and residencies present valuable opportunities to work directly with clients and patients. In addition, experiential learning components provide a chance to earn the supervised work hours required to obtain licensure. A Ph.D. also qualifies graduates for roles as professors and researchers. Doctoral programs are full of opportunities to research, publish, and collaborate with colleagues in the field.

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What Can You Do With a Doctorate in Counseling Psychology?

Professionals with a doctorate in counseling psychology help individuals, organizations, and communities in a variety of settings and capacities. Many counselors and psychologists enjoy working with others and providing resources as a part of a healthcare team, in schools, or in private practice. Those who work with other physicians, mental health professionals, and social workers strive to improve client outcomes, and must often come together to implement strategies or compare data. Counseling psychologists who operate private practices enjoy greater scheduling flexibility. The following careers are popular among graduates.

  • Psychologist: Psychologist study human behavior and emotional, cognitive, and social processes. Using observation, examination, and interpretation, they explore relationships between individuals and groups and help patients manage emotional and psychological challenges. Practicing psychologists typically hold a Ph.D. in counseling psychology or a similar field.
  • Marriage and Family Counselor: These counselors specialize in relationships between families and individuals. Most work in private practice, or within a group of mental health professionals. In some states, marriage and family counselors must apply for special licensure, which often requires holding a master's or Ph.D. in counseling psychology.
  • School and Career Counselor: Working in educational settings, school counselors help students identify and apply the skills required for academic and social success. Career counselors aid clients in finding careers appropriate for their interests and abilities. Many seek a Ph.D. in counseling psychology to gain additional hands-on experience working with diverse client bases.
  • Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselor: Substance abuse, behavior disorder, and mental health counselors work with clients to address a variety of substance abuse issues and mental health problems. A Ph.D. in counseling psychology is often beneficial to those who wish to specialize in particular disorders or illnesses.
  • Postsecondary Teacher: Postsecondary teachers with a Ph.D. in counseling psychology teach at colleges and universities. They supervise psychology majors, and provide lectures, assignments, advising, and mentoring while conducting research and publishing in the field. Postsecondary teachers must stay up-to-date on changes and innovations within their discipline.

Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology Salary

Position Median Annual Salary Projected Growth Rate
Psychologist $77,030 14%
Marriage and Family Counselor $48,790 23%
School and Career Counselor $55,410 13%
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselor $43,300 23%
Post-Secondary Teacher $76,000 15%

Source: BLS

How to Choose a Doctoral Program in Counseling Psychology

There are many factors to consider before selecting a doctoral program in counseling psychology. Variables such as program length, course content, research opportunities, and location all have the potential to impact your educational experience. A full-time student may spend between five and 10 years earning a doctorate in psychology. While maintaining part-time status allows you to balance school with work and personal obligations, practicums, internships, and residencies may make it difficult to study part time for the entirely of a program.

Most Ph.D. programs in counseling psychology require a significant amount of independent research surrounding a student's chosen topic, and typically culminate in a dissertation. In addition, some programs feature concentrated academic tracks that emphasize a disciplinary subfield, such as marriage and family counseling, genetic counseling, survivor therapy, and rehabilitation counseling. If you intend to pursue a concentration, it is important to research schools that best fit your academic and professional goals.

A doctorate in psychology curriculum usually includes a practicum, internship, or residency component. School location may strongly influence how and where you fulfill in-person requirements, as well as post-graduation career opportunities. Institutions in big cities, for example, often feature a higher cost of living, but may provide better networking and professional opportunities.

What's the Difference Between a Ph.D. and an Ed.D.?

A doctor of education degree, or an Ed.D., is a professional, practice-based doctorate for educators who wish to implement change within a school or organization. An Ed.D. program emphasizes practical research and administrative application, and may best suit working professionals with significant field experience. Because many Ed.D. candidates are part-time students who are also employed, they receive access to fewer funding opportunities than full-time learners.

A doctor of philosophy, or Ph.D., is ideal for students interested in a research-based program that takes a more philosophical and theoretical approach to counseling psychology. Ph.D. students enjoy more areas of study than Ed.D. candidates, and many graduates go on to work in research or academic positions. Ph.D. students typically study full time and are eligible for a variety of funding opportunities, including assistantships, scholarships, and stipends.

Programmatic Accreditation for Doctoral Programs in Counseling Psychology

In addition to the regional or national accreditation held by the school, a doctorate in psychology may receive programmatic accreditation. A Ph.D. program in counseling may hold programmatic accreditation through a body like the APA. The APA Commission on Accreditation (APA-CoA) is recognized as a national accrediting body by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. CACREP is another CHEA-recognized organization that frequently accredits counseling programs.

Programs accredited by the APA or CACREP meet the rigorous standards, outcomes, and quality guidelines defined by both associations. APA or CACREP accreditation grants doctoral degrees in counseling psychology legitimacy and prestige. Students who attend non-APA or non-CACREP accredited programs may find it more difficult to obtain licensure after graduation, and may struggle to find employment as they compete with graduates of accredited programs.

Doctorate in Counseling Psychology Program Admissions

Every doctoral program in counseling psychology requires that applicants hold a bachelor's or master's degree in the field. Some programs allow students to earn a master's degree as they work toward a Ph.D. Along with transcripts from previously attended institutions, letters of recommendation, and GRE scores, you may need to submit a statement of purpose, evidence of professional experience, and a resume or curriculum vitae. Online and on-campus programs maintain comparable admission processes and requirements.

An academic adviser or member of student support services can help you decide how many schools you should apply to. While most students apply to at least five programs, it is also common to submit materials to as many as a dozen programs. As you research schools, keep in mind the admissions guidelines for each, including specific GPA requirements, supplemental materials, and application fees. Fees can add up quickly, and may influence the number of applications you submit.


  • Degree: Depending on the program, prospective students should hold either a bachelor's or a master's degree in psychology. Undergraduate and master's degrees in psychology provide a solid academic foundation for more advanced doctoral studies. Students with master's degrees may gain additional opportunities to participate in practicums and internships, and apply for licensure after graduation.
  • Professional Experience: In most instances, you do not need to be a practicing psychologist or counselor to be admitted to a doctoral program in counseling psychology. However, some schools do require previous experience in the field. Even when it is not required for admission, professional experience can strengthen your application.
  • Minimum GPA: Ph.D. programs in counseling psychology expect different GPAs from different kinds of applicants. Programs that admit both bachelor's and master's degree students typically require a 3.0 GPA for undergraduates and a 3.5 for candidates who hold a master's. Other programs uphold GPA and grade requirements for specific courses, such as statistics.
  • License: A doctoral degree in counseling psychology sets future professionals on the path to licensure. Consequently, most programs do not require applicants to be licensed counselors. However, prospective students may need to undergo a background check before participating in fieldwork and internships.

Admission Materials

  • Application: Every doctoral program in counseling psychology maintains slightly different admissions deadlines. Some schools require that prospective students submit application materials at least eight months before the program begins. Along with a formal application, most institutions request supplemental materials such as standardized test scores and letters of recommendation. Resources like CommonApp make it easier to apply to multiple programs at once. This site helps streamline the application process, assists in finding financial aid resources, and answers questions related to graduate admissions.
  • Transcripts: You may obtain transcripts by contacting your previous college or university. While some institutions send your transcripts directly to your prospective school, others mail them to you. Most schools charge a fee to provide transcript copies.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Most doctoral programs request at least three letters of recommendation from former professors, professional associates, or personal contacts who can attest to your academic performance, work ethic, and character. Be sure to give your letter writers plenty of time by asking them to provide references well before the due date. You may wish to keep alternates in mind, in case one of your references is unable to write on your behalf.
  • Test Scores: Individuals applying to Ph.D. programs in counseling psychology are usually required to supply general GRE scores, and some institutions also request results from the GRE psychology subject test. Programs that are affiliated with medical schools or offered as part of a dual medical degree may expect applicants to provide MCAT scores as well.
  • Application Fee: Application fees typically cost between $50 to $100 per submission. Some schools waive application fees for students facing difficult economic circumstances, or who meet an institutions income eligibility guidelines. Individuals requesting an application fee waiver must provide evidence of financial need.

What Else Can You Expect From a Doctoral Program in Counseling Psychology?

While some counseling Ph.D.programs are research-based, others emphasize applied skills and professional practice. In addition, many schools offer concentrations or specialized academic tracks as part of a standard doctoral program in counseling psychology. Concentrations provide candidates with the opportunity to strengthen their expertise in a particular counseling subfield. While specialization options vary between institutions, the examples below are among the most common.

Concentrations Offered for a Doctorate in Counseling Psychology

Concentration Description Careers this concentration prepares for
Marriage and Family Counseling This concentration provides the theoretical concepts and practical experience needed to work with couples and families in therapeutic settings. While coursework emphasizes conflict management skills, candidates also explore the roles depression, self-esteem, stress, and anxiety play in troubled relationships. Learners develop a unique skill set for addressing different family types, dynamics, and problems that arise in marriages or families. Marriage and Family Counselor, Social Worker, Family Advocate
School and Career Counseling This specialization examines the issues and challenges unique to child and adolescent client bases and educational settings. Candidates develop techniques to help clients identify and pursue career goals and examine vocational aptitude theories. Coursework also presents issues such as diversity, economics, and community in light of career opportunities. Elementary or high school guidance counselor, Career counselor, Career coach, College or university career counselor
Substance Abuse and Addiction Counseling Substance abuse and addiction concentrations introduce theories and trends in the field while exploring behaviors common to individuals with addiction problems. Many concentration courses also address addiction issues in nonclinical settings, such the relationship between families, communities, and substance abuse. Substance abuse and addiction counselor, Substance abuse and addiction researcher, Social worker
Rehabilitation Counseling Rehabilitation counselors specialize in helping individuals recovering from physical, mental, and emotional disabilities. Rehabilitation counseling coursework trains students to understand their disabled clients' personal and professional goals, needs, and challenges, as well as and the resources available to them. Rehabilitation counselor at a public or private hospital, health care agency, or rehabilitation facility
Mental Health Counseling Mental health counselors focus on treating specific disorders and issues, including eating disorders, anxiety, grief, and post-traumatic stress. While some doctoral candidates use their studies to explore a particular disorder or challenge in greater depth, others focus on therapeutic methods such as individual, group, art, and music therapy. Eating disorder counselor, Art and music therapist, Grief counselor, Post-traumatic stress counselor, Mental health researcher

Courses in a Doctoral Program in Counseling Psychology

Every doctoral program in counseling psychology is slightly different, and curricula tend to vary from school to school. However, most programs include some form of the foundational courses described below.

  • Theories of Counseling: Candidates survey numerous counseling approaches and styles, exploring the claims of efficacy and challenges associated with each. Using real-world case studies, students learn to select and apply the most appropriate theory or methodology to a variety of patient scenarios.
  • Assessment and Testing in Counseling: This course provides students with the diagnostic principles and practices needed to perform accurate client evaluations. Coursework presents common assessment and testing methods, situations in which they are typically used, and techniques for analyzing and interpreting results.
  • Social Issues in Counseling: Coursework addresses themes such as ethnic diversity, gender relations, racial identity, and cultural factors, as well as their impact on the mental health field. As social issues often vary between geographical regions and demographics, some programs emphasize topics specific to certain client bases, locations, or counseling specializations.
  • Research Methods in Counseling Psychology: Covering both quantitative and qualitative research techniques, this class introduces a spectrum of methods used to obtain and analyze psychological data. Students acquire interview techniques, create surveys, and explore other methodological approaches to data collection.
  • Group Counseling: In this course, candidates examine the challenges unique to group counseling settings, such as managing multiple patients and clients simultaneously. Lectures and assignments focus on the theories behind group dynamics and therapy, as well as the importance of role-playing and active participation.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Doctorate in Counseling Psychology?

On average, doctoral programs in counseling psychology require between 90 and 150 hours of study. Depending on per-semester course load and whether you study full- or part-time, it may take as many as 10 years to earn a Ph.D. in counseling psychology. Some online and hybrid programs feature self-paced coursework that may be completed quickly. However, all doctoral candidates should plan on at committing to at least four to five years of full-time coursework and applied study before completing a dissertation. While time frames vary from program to program, most students spend one additional year composing and defending their dissertation.

Some schools require that learners take at least one credit hour each academic term to maintain active student status. Others charge lower tuition rates for internship or dissertation credit hours.

How Much Is a Doctorate in Counseling Psychology?

The cost of a Ph.D. in counseling psychology depends on several factors, including whether you attend a private or public institution in- or out-of-state, housing fees, and individual school policies. Overall, candidates can expect to pay between $50,000 and $150,000 for a program. However, fellowships, scholarships, and assistantship opportunities can mitigate some expenses, and there are many financial aid and funding options available to students pursuing a Ph.D. in counseling. Some schools offer lower tuition rates for in-state students and distance learners, while others charge technology fees for online courses.

Many doctorate in counseling psychology programs include on-campus residencies, internships, and practicum components, and you may need to pay for housing on or near the campus, transportation, or relocation. In addition, major universities are often based in urban areas, where the cost of living is typically higher than in rural regions. Exam and licensing fees can also add up. Licensing costs vary from state to state, and depend on the type of licensure you intend to pursue.

Certifications and Licenses a Doctorate in Counseling Psychology Prepares For

All professional counselors must be licensed by the state in which they practice. While counseling Ph.D. programs offer the knowledge and experience needed to pass most licensing exams, it is important to thoroughly research exam specifics before taking the test. Instead of mandatory licensing exams, some states require candidates to submit supporting materials when applying for licensure. Although each state adheres to different general counseling licensure requirements, some uphold reciprocity agreements with other states.

To maintain your counseling license, you must submit a renewal application every one to two years. You may also need to acquire a certain number of continuing education credits before renewing your license. Many counselors enroll in continuing education and certification programs through organizations like the ones below.

  • American Board of Counseling Psychology Specialist Certification: This board certification is intended for specialists who wish to strengthen their knowledge and professional skills. Candidates must request a mentor, submit their credentials for review, and pass a formal examination. The entire process can take up to one year.
  • National Counselor Certification: Offered through the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC), this prestigious credential is awarded to mental health professionals that meet all educational, experiential, and ethical guidelines established by NBCC. National certified counselors are eligible for lower insurance costs, and may take part in advocacy and policymaking efforts related to psychology.
  • National School Counselor Certification: NBCC bestows this certification on family and child counselors who have completed two years in a school counselor position. Recipients gain continuing education opportunities, access to therapy directories, NBCC publications, and a role in NBCC initiatives.
  • Master Addictions Counselor Certification: Developed in a joint venture between the NBCC, the American Counseling Association, and the International Association of Addictions and Offenders Counselors, the master addictions counselor certification gives practitioners access to continuing education resources and networking opportunities. Certified master addictions counselors are also eligible to apply for substance abuse professional status with the U.S. Department of Transportation.
  • Certified Mental Health Counselor Certification: This NBCC certification is available to national certified counselors who successfully complete 10 clinical simulations that assess field competencies. Required to gain general licensure in some states, the credential is mandatory for those seeking a certified mental health counselor certification.

Resources for Graduate Counseling Psychology Students

  • American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS): This branch of the APA exists to provide master's and doctoral degree students with resources, options, and experience. As an advocate for future psychology professionals, APAGS offers numerous benefits, from grants to internships.
  • Association for Psychological Science Student Caucus (APSSC): The APSSC is a student-operated division of the Association of Psychological Science (APS). The APSSC promotes, enhances, and protects the research, professional, and educational goals of the APS by working to improve human welfare through the science of psychology.
  • National Association of School Psychologists Student Membership: To help graduate students acquire professional opportunities and skills, the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) offers discounted student membership rates. Candidates must be enrolled at least part-time in a master's program.
  • American Psychological Association Graduate Student Membership: Graduate students who join the APA receive mentorship and professional development opportunities along with access to a national student network, newsletters, and continuing education resources. Students pay discounted membership dues for the duration of their education.
  • Society of Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) Student Membership: Student SPSP members receive a regular newsletter that highlights cutting-edge research, projects, and professional development opportunities in the field. The group's listserv provides a place for graduate students to network, converse, and share discussion and announcements.

Professional Organizations in Psychology

Joining a professional counseling organization is a great way to connect with other students and professionals, both online and in person. In addition to networking opportunities, these organizations offer continuing education and certification resources, exclusive events, and career guidance. Professional associations like the ones below provide both advocacy and resources to enhance practice and research in the field.

  • American Board of Professional Psychology: Best known for providing board certifications, the ABBP also offers referrals and continuing education programs in 15 specialties and one subspecialty. ABBP members may also access resources from other groups, such as the American Psychological Association.
  • National Board of Certified Counselors: NBCC membership is open to psychology professionals who meet their educational, supervisory, and professional standards. After joining, certified counselors may take advantage of numerous general and specialized certification opportunities, continuing education programs, and networking events.
  • American Counseling Association: The ACA is a professional and educational association that emphasizes social justice, proactive leadership, and scientific practice and knowledge. and Members enjoy discounted insurance programs, professional resources, and support from the national professional community.
  • American Psychological Association: Featuring a membership base of more than 115,00 psychology practitioners, educators, researchers, and students, the APA is the country's leading professional organization dedicated to psychology. APA members enjoy continuing education programs, free publications, funding and award opportunities, and other useful tools and educational resources.
  • International Association of Counselors: The IAC is a nongovernmental organization that seeks to reduce suffering and change lives through counseling advocacy and recognition. Members gain global networking opportunities, conference and advertising discounts, and access to academic journals, newsletters, and webinars.
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