Online Doctorate in Counseling

Licensed professional counselors work with patients struggling with mental health issues, support children managing academic and social problems, and counsel couples facing relationship issues. Professional counselors seeking career advancement and increased salary potential can pursue a doctorate in counseling online. As the terminal degree in the field, a Ph.D. in counseling online builds advanced skills in clinical counseling, counseling psychology, and research-based counseling practice. Graduates pursue careers in academic research and teaching, marriage and family therapy, and school counseling. They also work in policy and research positions within a variety of organizations.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), many counseling careers are in high demand, as marriage and family therapist positions are projected to increase by 23% by 2026. Since counseling is such a quickly growing field, counselors who earn a doctorate in counseling online position themselves to take advantage of new career opportunities, including academia.

Online Doctorate in Counseling Degrees at a Glance

Length of Program 3-5 years
Cost of Program $5,000 to $20,000
Core Courses Advanced counseling practice; quantitative research; qualitative research, internship; dissertation
Specializations Marriage and family, school, mental health, rehabilitation, counseling psychology
Internship Required? Yes
Career Opportunities Counseling professor, marriage and family therapist, rehabilitation counselor, school or guidance counselor

What Can I Expect From an Online Doctorate in Counseling Program?

Doctorate in counseling online programs all include a coursework component, an internship, and a dissertation. Each program has its own curriculum and graduation requirements, so the details of an online counseling program vary by school. Counselors considering a doctorate need to research the specific admissions requirements, curriculum, and cost for their top programs.

Doctorate in Counseling Admission Requirements

While admissions requirements vary by program, most Ph.D. in counseling online programs only accept students who hold a master's degree in counseling or a closely related field. Candidates who meet the educational requirements arrive prepared for doctoral-level coursework. Online counseling programs evaluate applicants' academic background, often requiring a minimum 3.0 GPA and multiple letters of recommendation. Some may also prefer or require standardized test scores, most commonly the GRE.

Most doctorate programs also expect candidates to have work experience and often require a recommendation from a clinical supervisor. Applicants may need to provide proof of a state license to practice counseling or complete additional prerequisites set by the program. During the admissions process, many schools conduct interviews with their top candidates in order to determine which applicants best suit the program. After gaining admission, doctoral students may also need to undergo a background test or drug screening in order to complete the internship requirements.

Courses in an Online Doctorate in Counseling Program

The courses in an online counseling degree vary depending on the school. Each online counseling program creates its own curriculum, with advanced coursework in various specializations. However, most programs include core courses in the areas listed below, which prepare graduates for several different counseling career paths.

  • Advanced Counseling Practice: Doctoral students complete coursework in advanced counseling practice, which builds on their master's-level skills in working with patients. The class prepares students for a counseling internship, which involves at least 600 hours of direct client practice.
  • Qualitative Research: In order to prepare for the dissertation, counseling doctoral students take classes in qualitative research, expanding their knowledge of data collection, analysis and interpretation of qualitative results, and problems in qualitative analysis.
  • Quantitative Research: Many counseling dissertations rely on quantitative research; doctoral students in this course build their ability to create effective research designs, rely on the best practices for counseling research, and conduct ethical research.
  • Internship: Accredited doctoral programs require at least 600 hours of internship experience, during which doctoral students build their counseling practice experience in a supervised setting. Internships may vary depending on the doctoral student's area of concentration.
  • Dissertation: Doctoral students in counseling complete a research-based dissertation project as part of their degree requirements. Students work with a faculty adviser to design a dissertation proposal, conduct research, write the dissertation, and defend it to their dissertation committee.

Doctorate in Counseling Specializations

  • School Counseling: In this educational subfield, counselors work with students of all ages, helping them manage academic and social issues. They also provide career guidance and design programs that support students.
  • Mental Health Counseling: With a clinical focus, mental health counselors assess patients dealing with mental health disorders, offer group counseling, and help patients manage substance abuse disorders.
  • Marriage and Family: Specialists in marriage and family counseling emphasize communication skills, relationship building, and managing difficult relationships, working with adults and children to overcome challenges.
  • Counseling Psychology: By concentrating in psychology, counseling students can pursue a career as a therapist. Prospective students in this specialty may also consider earning a Ph.D. in counseling psychology online.
  • Rehabilitation Counseling: A concentration in rehabilitation counseling prepares graduate students to work with clients managing physical, mental, developmental, and emotional disabilities.

Skills Gained in a Doctorate in Counseling Online Program

  • Research: Doctoral students write a dissertation based on qualitative and/or quantitative research. Students build skills in analyzing data, drawing conclusions from research, and communicating their findings.
  • Observation: Counseling positions require exceptional observation skills, and during an internship or practicum, doctoral students strengthen their ability to closely observe clients.
  • Active Listening: Counselors and therapists use many listening skills, including active listening, which strengthen bonds with their clients and improves the counseling relationship.
  • Communication: Doctoral students build communication skills through client-facing interactions, by writing a dissertation, and through orally defending their research. This strengthens their verbal, written, and nonverbal communication skills.
  • Teaching: Graduates with a Ph.D. in counseling may pursue academic careers, which require skills such as writing lectures, designing assessments, and advising counseling students.

Doctorate in Counseling Internship Requirements

Doctoral standards for a counseling degree include at least 600 hours of internship experience, which meets the guidelines for state licensure for counselors. During an internship, doctoral students gain valuable leadership and advocacy skills. Depending on the student's focus, the internship may emphasize clinical practice or management and teaching abilities. The internship may also provide the student an opportunity to gain research material for their dissertation. In addition to an internship, many online counseling programs include a practicum, during which students gain experience conducting counseling sessions for individuals and groups.

Doctorate in Counseling Research Requirements

As part of a Ph.D. in counseling online, doctoral students research, write, and defend a dissertation, working under the supervision of a faculty adviser and a dissertation committee. These dissertations may include either quantitative or qualitative research. After completing the coursework requirements, doctoral students work with a faculty adviser to craft a dissertation proposal. Most dissertations are book-length projects with approximately five chapters, which detail the doctoral candidate's research questions, methodology, and results.

Online Doctorate in Counseling Program Length

A doctorate in counseling online typically takes three to five years of full-time study, with some doctoral students requiring more than five years. Part-time students typically take more time to earn a doctorate. The program's structure may affect the degree length, with some online counseling programs requiring more coursework or internship hours. Most programs require around 60 credits. In many cases, the dissertation plays the largest role in determining a program's length, because it requires substantial research and writing time, which varies from student to student.

Online Doctorate in Counseling Program Cost

The cost of an online counseling degree varies depending on the program. In general, students should plan to spend between $5,000 and $20,000 a year on doctoral tuition. Several factors affect the cost of a Ph.D. in counseling online. First, some schools offer reduced tuition to in-state residents. Some may also provide discounts for fully online students. Second, students attending part time pay less per year, but spend more time overall in the program.

Prospective counseling students need to consider any additional fees for online students. At some universities, online course fees can add a significant amount to the cost of an online counseling degree.

Is Online Learning Right for Me?

In addition to on-campus programs, many universities offer online counseling degrees. Online learning offers several benefits for counseling students. Online counseling programs provide a flexible, accessible option, particularly for working professionals. Counselors with a master's degree can advance their careers and increase their earning potential by completing a Ph.D. in counseling online while working. Many counseling doctorate programs make their course materials available at any time, allowing graduate students to arrange their degree around work obligations.

Counseling professionals can also enroll in the top programs from across the country without relocating. For many counselors, moving out-of-state to earn a Ph.D. may not be feasible; online counseling programs allow students to complete their degree from home. During an online counseling program, doctoral students complete any practicum or field experience requirements locally, while working with faculty and other students located across the U.S.

Students considering a doctorate in counseling online must possess the independent learning skills to succeed in an online learning environment. At the doctoral level, many students already possess the time-management and organizational skills required for online programs.

Counseling Careers for Doctorate Graduates

An online counseling degree prepares graduates for a variety of career paths. While some positions, such as marriage and family therapy or school counselor, require a master's degree for entry-level positions, a doctorate allows professionals to hold the highest-level positions in the field. Candidates with a Ph.D. may command higher salaries, qualify for policy and research positions, and be more competitive on the job market.

In addition to positions that involve practice, such as rehabilitation counseling or therapist positions, a Ph.D. in counseling online also qualifies graduates for academic positions. Colleges and universities hire doctoral graduates to teach classes at the undergraduate and graduate levels and to conduct research and publish their findings. Professors may still see clients.

  • Counseling Professor: With a doctorate, counselors can apply for academic positions that involve research, teaching, and practice. Many college and university professors must hold a Ph.D. and split their time between teaching classes and conducting research, which is often published in academic journals and books.
  • Marriage and Family Therapists: Therapists who specialize in marriage and family counseling help individuals, couples, and groups manage problems in their relationships. While the field requires at least a master's degree, a doctorate in counseling online prepares professionals for competitive positions in a field with faster than average job growth.
  • School Counselor: School counselors work with K-12 students, helping learners develop academic and social skills in order to succeed in school. The field requires a master's degree in counseling and a state-issued credential or license. With a doctorate, professionals qualify for advanced positions in the field and can earn higher salaries.
  • Rehabilitation Counselors: Rehabilitation counselors work with clients struggling with physical, mental, developmental, or emotional disabilities. Practitioners must hold a master's degree and often must apply for a license or credential, and with a doctorate in counseling online, professionals can hold policy-related positions or play a role in setting guidelines and conducting research.
  • Counselors, All Other: In addition to specialized fields, counselors also work in family services positions, for social services organizations, in government jobs, and for outpatient care centers. In these positions, a doctorate qualifies counselors for advanced, management-level responsibilities, including in research and policy planning.
Position Median Annual Salary Projected Growth Rate
Counseling Professor $76,000 15%
Marriage and Family Therapists $48,790 23%
School Counselor $55,410 13%
Rehabilitation Counselors $47,600 N/A
Counselors, All Other $58,980 8%
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Salaries for Counselors by Experience

  Entry-Level (0-5 years) Mid-Career (5-10 years) Experienced (10-20 years) Late Career (20+ years)
Mental Health Counselors $38,000 $41,000 $44,000 $46,000
Substance Abuse Counselors $34,000 $38,000 $41,000 $44,000
School Counselors $43,000 $49,000 $57,000 $63,000
Marriage and Family Therapists $45,000 $51,000 $59,000 $66,000
Source: PayScale

Certifications and Licensure

  • Licensed Professional Counselor: Each state sets its own licensure process to become a licensed professional counselor. In many states, candidates must earn a degree from an accredited counseling program and pass the national counselor examination offered by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). Typically, counselors must renew their license on a regular basis and meet continuing education guidelines.
  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor: Many states offer a license for mental health counselors. Applicants must first earn a master's or a Ph.D. in counseling online or from an on-campus program. States may set curriculum, test score, training guideline, and work experience requirements to earn the license, and counselors must renew it on a regular basis.
  • National Certified Counselor: In addition to offering examinations for state licenses, NBCC provides national certification for counseling professionals. Candidates must meet educational, testing, and work experience requirements, as well as submit a professional endorsement from a colleague. Certified counselors must meet ongoing requirements to maintain their certification.
  • Certified Rehabilitation Counselor: The Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification offers this certification to recognize professionals excelling in rehabilitation counseling. Applicants must meet minimum educational standards, which a doctorate in counseling online fulfills. Candidates must then pass the 175-question examination and submit transcripts, work experience documentation, and additional required forms.
  • National Board Certification: School counselors can apply for board certification in school counseling through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Applicants must meet work experience requirements and pass an examination to earn the certification.

Accreditation for Online Doctorate in Counseling Degrees

Accreditation assures students and future employers that an institution or program meets the highest standards for academic excellence. Regional and national accreditors review colleges and universities, with regional accreditation holding a more prestigious status. Counseling programs undergo specialized accreditation from the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Doctoral students planning a career in counseling should choose a CACREP-accredited program.

CACREP evaluates programs, including online counseling programs, that submit to the voluntary accreditation process. Accreditation benefits students in several ways. Most importantly, many state licensing boards only license counselors with a degree from a CACREP-accredited program. Similarly, a CACREP-accredited program meets the state standards to qualify for licensure, which may not be the case for unaccredited programs. CACREP also reports that graduates from its accredited programs perform better on the national counselor examination for licensure and certification.

Financing Your Online Doctorate in Counseling Degree

Earning a Ph.D. can be expensive, but many doctorate in counseling online students benefit from financial aid. By researching options such as loans, scholarships, and grants, doctoral students can finance their degree. The first step in securing financial aid is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Graduate students provide financial information, and based on their anticipated educational costs and financial need, the federal government may offer a mix of loans, grants, and work-study opportunities.

Federal loans come in two forms: subsidized and unsubsidized. In general, doctoral students prefer subsidized loans, because the government covers interest costs during the program and for six months after completing the Ph.D. With unsubsidized loans, the student must pay interest from the loan's start date, although they can defer interest until graduation.

Counseling students can also qualify for multiple scholarships. Scholarships, grants, and awards for counseling doctoral students can provide thousands of dollars a year toward a degree. Some online counseling programs also offer scholarships and fellowships to financially support students. Doctoral students focusing on certain areas of counseling may also qualify for specialized scholarship opportunities.

Scholarships for Counseling Students

NBCC Minority Fellowship Program
Who Can Apply: Doctoral students in counseling who commit to providing mental health or substance abuse counseling services to minority populations qualify for this NBCC fellowship. Applicants must hold a national certified counselor certification or a state license and must be enrolled in a CACREP-accredited program.
Amount: $20,000

Melanie Foundation Scholarship
Who Can Apply: Offered through the American Psychological Association (APA), this scholarship awards funds to candidates pursuing a doctoral degree in a mental health field. Applicants must submit a CV, cover letter, unofficial transcripts, two letters of reference, and an essay.
Amount: $2,500

National Association of Junior Auxiliaries Scholarship
Who Can Apply: NAJA awards scholarships to graduate students in counseling who plan to work directly with children. Applicants must be a resident of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, or Tennessee.
Amount: varies

Roy Scrivner Memorial Research Grants
Who Can Apply: This grant provides funds for an advanced graduate student to conduct empirical and applied research focused on lesbian, gay, and bisexual family psychology and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender family therapy. Applicants must submit a research proposal, a letter of recommendation from a faculty adviser, and an abbreviated CV.
Amount: $11,000

Violet and Cyril Franks Scholarship
Who Can Apply: APA offers this scholarship for doctoral students pursuing research projects that aim to understand and reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. Applicants must submit a research proposal, a letter of recommendation from a faculty adviser, and a CV.
Amount: $5,000

Corey/Ivey Tomorrow's Counselor Essay Competition
Who Can Apply: The American Counseling Association (ACA) holds an annual essay competition for members who are master's or doctoral students pursuing a counseling-related degree. Applicants must submit an essay of less than 500 words on a specified topic.
Amount: $500

Resources for Doctorate in Counseling Students

Professional Organizations

Counseling students and professionals can benefit from joining professional organizations. Both broad organizations like the ACA and specialized groups that focus on a particular subfield, like rehabilitation counseling or mental health counseling, provide opportunities to network with other professionals, continuing education resources for licensing and certification, and annual conferences. Many also provide career services or job boards, including career counseling. By joining professional organizations while completing a doctorate in counseling online, students may also qualify for members-only scholarships and awards.

  • American Counseling Association: ACA represents counselors in practice settings and provides continuing education resources, books and journals, and professional resources for counselors.
  • American Mental Health Counselors Association: For counselors specializing in mental health, this association offers ethics and professional standards information, publications, career support, and continuing education resources.
  • American Rehabilitation Counseling Association: The association offers awards, an annual conference, and research publications for professionals in rehabilitation counseling. Members also receive access to workshops, professional liability insurance, and continuing education opportunities.

Internship and Career Opportunities for Doctorate in Counseling Students

Additional Resources for Doctorate in Counseling Students