Counseling is a vital and multifaceted career discipline, but it’s rare to find someone outside of the field who has the whole story on what counselors do. The broadest definition of the profession may be fairly accurate — that counselors are professionals who help people work through difficult periods in their personal, professional or academic lives — but it tends to leave out most of the nuance that defines each individual counseling career.

There are marriage and family therapy counselors, substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors, mental health counselors, rehabilitation counselors and many other subdivisions within the greater discipline of counseling. And, while they certainly share some ground with one another, they often work with distinct populations and spend their professional energy on issues that are situational and unique.

The occupational group that includes counseling psychologists reported a nationwide mean annual salary of $76,040 in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and job opportunities in the field are expected to grow by 20 percent between 2014 and 2024. Now, you’ll need an advanced psychology degree and a counseling license to join the growing ranks of counseling professionals, so we’ve put together some information to give you an idea of what you can expect if you choose to set out on this professional journey, as well as an overview of some of the top U.S. colleges for counseling according to U.S. News and World Report and other national ranking agencies.

Counseling psychology degrees online and on campus

Counseling psychology programs tend to approach the discipline in broad strokes during undergraduate study, in order to best prepare aspiring counselors with the prerequisites necessary for the more complex and difficult work awaiting them in graduate school. Here’s some information about counseling psychology degrees and other study plans at the associate and bachelor’s levels:

Associate degrees in counseling

Two-year counseling psychology programs are somewhat few and far between, but associate-level students who are committed to the study of psychology should be able to find Associate of Science (A.S.) and Associate of Arts (A.A.) degrees that prepare them for dedicated counseling study by laying a foundation of psychological knowledge. Junior, community and online colleges are the prime destinations for degrees like these, although vocational schools, career academies and technical institutes may have options at the associate level as well.

It’s typically the case that associate degrees in psychology are designed for students who intend to continue on into a bachelor’s program, but there are a few jobs on the market where a two-year degree may be able to help your employment prospects. Positions for social and human service assistants, for example, who provide client support in fields such as psychology and social work, may be more likely to fall to applicants who have education beyond just the high school diploma commonly cited as a minimum requirement for the occupation.

Notable counseling psychology associate degree programs

Liberty University

Faith-based institutions are well-represented among schools that feature psychology associate degrees, and Liberty University offers students a degree that allows them to provide specialized counseling services to members of their religious community. The A.A. in Christian counseling at the Virginia-based institution features courses in communication, history and the psychological particulars of each stage of human development and includes a survey of Biblical literature and an introduction to the issues and methods unique to Christian counseling.

  • Department: Liberty University Department of Psychology
  • Location: Lynchburg, VA
  • Online options: The associate degree in Christian counseling at Liberty University is offered through the university’s online extension school.

Bachelor’s degrees in counseling

Bachelor’s degrees in psychology usually focus on a range of psychological concepts on which to build more specialized knowledge and skills during more advanced study. The pure psychology coursework is largely the same between Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) and Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree plans — the main difference between the two usually lies in the composition of the program’s general education curriculum.

That said, students at many institutions can find avenues through which it’s possible to align their undergraduate psychology curriculum toward the counseling profession. Some schools do in fact provide a bachelor’s in counseling psychology, where students can study theories, techniques and contemporary issues in the counseling profession, and introduction to counseling courses are not uncommon among undergraduate psychology catalogs.

A bachelor’s degree in psychology can prepare you to work in several of fields of employment, including marketing, management and other areas of the business world where an understanding of human behavior and motivation can be advantageous. Some jobs in substance abuse and behavior disorder counseling are also available to bachelor’s degree graduates, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Notable counseling psychology bachelor’s degree programs

Ohio State University

This longstanding Columbus institution ranks among the top 25 psychology schools in the country, according to the latest ranking data from U.S. News and World Report, and that’s not its only national recognition. Ohio State University also earned the No. 3 spot nationwide according to the Social Psychology Network, a global education organization, in terms of the research productivity of its counseling psychology program. Students can choose between B.A. and B.S. degree tracks for their undergraduate psychology degree at OSU, and a total of seven psychology minors are also available as of 2016.

Arizona State University

The Social Psychology Network lists Arizona State University among its research productivity top 10, and U.S. News has it in the top 50 for both clinical and general psychology at the graduate level, so it’s a fairly safe bet that psychology bachelor’s degrees at the Tempe school are subject to the same high-ranking approach. Both a B.S. and B.A. in psychology are available, and an additional B.S. with a focus on psychological science for students who want to concentrate their undergraduate efforts on the quantitative side of the discipline.

Certificates and non-degree awards in counseling

Certificates and other non-degree programs aren’t as common in counseling psychology as they are in the clinical specialty, but several do exist for students committed to finding one. Graduates with a master’s in counseling or psychology who still need a handful of credits or field experience hours to qualify for the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or their state’s Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) credential can often make up any deficiencies in their transcript with a certificate program, and aspiring psychology graduate students who aren’t quite ready to commit to a full degree plan in the field may be able to first test their interest with a certificate curriculum.

Most certificate programs in counseling psychology are designed for students who have earned at least a bachelor’s degree, but certain institutions offer programs in educational psychology, applied positive psychology, child psychology and other specific subject areas in psychology.

Notable counseling psychology certificate programs

Penn State Behrend

As a commonwealth campus of The Pennsylvania State University, whose graduate psychology programs tied at No. 30 nationwide in the most recent U.S. News Survey, the behavioral health and counseling psychology certificate available to undergraduates at Penn State Behrend is connected to a firm reputation for quality in the field. Students are required to complete 15 credit hours before the certificate can be awarded, including mandatory intro courses in abnormal and clinical psychology and a three-credit internship.

University of Baltimore

Graduates and current students of master’s degree programs in psychology or counseling can enroll in the 18-credit program at the University of Baltimore to deepen their understanding of the field before sitting for state or national licensing exams. Subjects studied on the way to the professional counseling studies certificate include advanced treatment techniques, psychopathology and diagnosis, group counseling, personality assessment, treatment of trauma and statistics for the behavioral sciences.

Master’s degrees in counseling

Master’s programs in counseling are often designed to be terminal degrees, which means many of them aim to fully prepare students for professional practice as a counselor without taking on much more formal schooling after they graduate. Unlike clinical psychologists, who typically need a full doctoral degree to begin their official practice, school counselors, marriage and family therapists and other counseling professionals may qualify for certain licenses after completing just a master’s degree program and a certain amount of supervised clinical experience.

  • Many master’s-level counseling psychology degrees can be completed in two years, including at least one summer session of either coursework or internship experience.
  • Because these programs focus on professional practice rather than academic research, they generally do not include a master’s thesis or dissertation.
  • Instead, master’s degrees in counseling psychology typically have built-in practicum requirements, supervised internships or clinical fieldwork sections designed to give students a comprehensive idea of the realities and opportunities that await them after graduation.

If you can’t find a master’s degree in counseling psychology at the school of your choice, don’t forget to check with their College of Education. Some counseling psychology degrees at this level take the form of a Master of Education (M.Ed.) degree with a counseling emphasis.

Notable counseling psychology master’s degree programs

University of Missouri – Columbia

The counseling psychology programs at the University of Missouri earned the No. 1 spot on the Social Psychology Network’s research productivity rankings list, and its psychology department at large tied at No. 52 in the country according to analysis by U.S. News. As of 2016, the counseling psychology degree at the Columbia school is offered as an M.Ed. with a counseling emphasis and includes 21 hours of practicum and research training alongside its coursework in counseling theory, statistics and the methods and practices of the discipline.

The Chicago School of Professional Psychology

There were no fewer than 11 counseling programs in force at the flagship campus of The Chicago School of Professional Psychology in 2016, and all but one of them resulted in an M.A. or M.S. degree. Concentrations available for aspiring counselors include health psychology, child and adolescent treatment, Latino mental health, addiction disorders, trauma and crisis intervention and marital and family therapy. A general M.A. in counseling psychology is also offered, as well as a dual degree that leads to both an M.A. in counseling psychology and an M.S. in applied behavior analysis.

Doctoral degrees in counseling

While most counselors may be able to take their skills to market with just a master’s degree and the appropriate license, some may decide that they’d rather contribute to the discipline as professional scholars or leaders in independent research. Earning a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree is typically necessary to make that particular career shift, and the American Psychological Association (APA) works to recognize outstanding counseling psychology programs at this level by awarding accreditation.

The APA lists a total of 79 accredited doctoral programs in counseling psychology, offered variously by departments of psychology and education at universities across the country. Coursework requirements and other specifics of programs at this level tend to vary from one institution to another, although extensive research training, advanced practicum and internship sections are common among most of them.

Students with experience in other branches of psychology or the social sciences may also be able to cap their educations with a counseling psychology doctorate, depending on the admissions policy of the individual school.

Notable counseling psychology doctorate programs

University of Minnesota

Counseling psychology is just one of the areas of specialization available to students at the University of Minnesota, which occupies something of an esteemed place in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. Not only do the graduate programs in its psychology department rank among the top 10 nationwide, but its developmental psychology and industrial-organizational psychology programs each came in at No. 1 in the country on their most recent surveys. The six-year doctorate in counseling psychology at the Minneapolis campus is APA-accredited and includes coursework in psychological data analysis, developmental psychology, multicultural psychology and psychological ethics to go along with the standard practicum and research training.

  • Department: University of Minnesota Department of Psychology
  • Location: Minneapolis, MN
  • Online options: The counseling psychology Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota is on-campus only, but the school does offer a bachelor of applied science degree in psychology for online students.

University of Florida

The 90-credit doctoral program at the University of Florida typically takes five years to complete and structures itself as a sort of apprenticeship, where students work closely with a member of the faculty to earn guided experience developing and working toward specific research goals. Program coursework for the APA-accredited clinical psychology degree is typically tailored to suit the research interests of current students and faculty, and the university works to encourage students to pursue their research ideas. On top of all that, U.S. News ranked the Gainesville school’s graduate psychology programs among the top 40 nationwide.

  • Department: University of Florida Department of Psychology
  • Location: Gainesville, FL
  • Online options: University of Florida students can attend an online bachelor’s degree completion program in psychology, but the counseling psychology doctoral program requires that students attend in person.

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