Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology

As a discipline, psychology grows out of a scientific quest to understand human thought and behavior. As a professional calling, psychology is rooted in the idea that studying the workings of the human mind leads to applications or therapies that improve people’s lives. And, as an increasingly in-demand service, psychology offers the promise that through such therapy, or counseling, people can find a greater sense of happiness, wellbeing, and fulfillment.

These foundational ideas all come to fruition in counseling psychology, an area of specialization in psychology that focuses on deploying the science of human behavior through treatments, or interventions, that help people deal with the ordinary and extraordinary circumstances and challenges of life. As the Society of Counseling Psychology (SCP) explains, “The practice of Counseling Psychology encompasses a broad range of culturally-sensitive practices that help people improve their wellbeing, alleviate distress and maladjustment, resolve crises, and increase their ability to function better in their lives. With its attention both to normal developmental issues and problems associated with physical, emotional, and mental disorders, the specialization holds a unique perspective in the broader practice-based areas of psychology.”

In other words, a counseling psychologist is generally what comes to mind when you think of a professional you might meet with weekly to work through personal problems, resolve issues in work and family relationships, or develop better coping skills to deal with the stress and anxiety of everyday life. Counseling psychologists receive specialized training in the assessment and treatment of the individuals and groups they provide these services to. They understand the ethical obligations, cultural sensitivities, and social forces that are at play in a therapeutic setting. And, drawing on a solid foundation of behavioral science, they use their interpersonal skills to help guide patients toward a better quality of life.

Master’s in Counseling Psychology Concepts

  • Counseling theory
  • Individual and group counseling
  • Intervention strategies
  • Testing and assessment techniques
  • Research methodology
  • Diagnostics
  • Lifespan development
  • Multicultural issues in counseling
  • Principles of psychopathology
  • Child and adolescent psychology
  • Relationship between biology and behavior
  • Theories behind psychotherapy
  • Couples therapy
  • Human development

Benefits of Earning a Master’s in Counseling Psychology

Much of the work done by professional psychologists takes place in a clinical setting where research, rather than counseling, is conducted in order to generate data that can be analyzed in an effort to create better models of human thought and behavior. But, another big chunk of the professional practice of psychology happens in offices, clinics, and other real-world settings, where face-to-face encounters with individuals, families, and groups from all ages and walks of life receive treatment. A master’s degree in counseling psychology is a gateway into these settings and into a career helping people session by session. For the right kind of person — someone who is scientifically minded, but who also enjoys the rewarding challenges of meeting with patients, listening to their concerns, and offering guidance — a master’s degree in counseling psychology offers a wide range of possibilities.

Of course, counseling psychologists aren’t the only specialists within psychology who meet with patients one-on-one in this way. But counseling psychology differs somewhat from the other major area of psychological study in that it tends to focus on a less severely impaired population base. As the Society for Counseling Psychology details in a paper highlighting the differences between clinical and counseling psychology, “Counseling psychologists have frequently stressed the field’s historical focus on a normal client population; that is, the research conducted and published in the professional literature is oriented toward people without serious or persistent mental illnesses.”

However, the SCP report does conclude that the differences in the two areas of specialization have narrowed considerably. “Clinical psychologists have traditionally studied disturbances in mental health, while counseling psychologists’ earliest role was to provide vocational guidance and advice. Today, though, the differences between psychologists from each specialty are more nuanced, and there are perhaps more similarities than differences among individual psychologists from each field.”

What to Expect in a Counseling Psychology Master’s Program

The Society for Counseling Psychology highlights several core areas of study for those receiving graduate training. The first encompasses the evolution of psychological theories, including the biological, social, and cognitive bases for human thought and behavior. The next centers around methods of counseling, as well as the principles of vocational psychology, human lifespan development, psychopathology, and psychological assessment and evaluation. In addition, counseling psychologists must be familiar with qualitative and quantitative research methods, including measurement and statistics, research design, professional ethics, supervision, and consultation.

In order to become fully licensed to practice professionally as a psychologist, students must complete a doctoral degree, which can take between five and seven years, and generally includes at least one full year of supervised internships and the completion of a doctoral dissertation. Master’s degree programs in counseling psychology are often thought of as the first step in this process, and may include an internship, independent research design, and/or master’s thesis requirement. These degrees are generally meant to span about two years of coursework, depending upon the program.

Course descriptions, core requirements, and elective classes will vary from program to program, but below are some of the subjects that are typically covered during a master’s degree in counseling psychology:

  • Biological Basis of Behavior: A core psychology class that explores the relationship between physiology, neurobiology, and psychology.
  • Developmental Psychology: Core course exploring changes in cognition and behavior across the human lifespan.
  • Psychopathology and Abnormal Psychology: How various psychological dysfunctions in the normative and abnormal spectrum are assessed and treated.
  • Social and Behavioral Science Research Methods: Designing, implementing, and interpreting quantitative and qualitative research experiments in psychology.
  • Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy: The philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of psychological counseling and treatment therapy.
  • Group Counseling: Theories and approaches to conduction counseling in groups.
  • Ethics and Standards in Psychological Counseling: Best practices and the legal and ethical issues that impact psychotherapy and counseling.
  • Child Counseling Psychology: Approaches to conducting counseling treatments and psychotherapy with children and teenagers, and the special challenges that can pose.
  • Counseling Adults: Approaches to conducting counseling treatments and psychotherapy with adults, and the special challenges that can pose.
  • Family Counseling: The psychological dynamics of family interactions and family dysfunctions as they relate to counseling and psychotherapy.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: The theory and application of CBT, an approach to psychotherapy that aims to change underlying thought patterns around an issue of concern.
  • Crisis Intervention Counseling and Psychotherapy: Applying the theories and techniques of counseling psychology in extreme and unusual situations that call for incisive interventions.
  • Grief and Trauma Counseling: Theories and principles of psychotherapy in situations that involve trauma and grief.

Choosing the Right Program: MA vs. MS in Counseling Psychology

At the master’s level, there have traditionally been two different types of master’s degrees available: the MA (master of arts) and the MS (master of science). On a pedagogical level, the MA in counseling psychology was thought to be a more classroom-based, research and theory oriented degree, while the MS in counseling psychology emphasized practitioner training. However, the differences are now thought to be rather slight, and there tend to be more similarities than differences in the MA and MS in counseling psychology. Both focus equally on clinical research and applied science in the field of psychology, and its more important to take notice of the differences between different programs and their requirements, than between MA and MS degrees.

Counseling psychology is itself an area of specialization within the larger discipline of psychology. And, at the master’s degree level, the options for specialization beyond choosing a program that focuses on counseling or clinical counseling psychology are fairly narrow. In general, formal specialization within counseling psychology tends to take place in PhD and PsyD programs. However, it is possible, through various electives and in some cases a clearly defined choice between two or three pathways in a master’s degree program in counseling psychology, to focus on particular types of counseling, like marriage and family counseling, substance abuse counseling, child counseling, or career and vocational counseling.

Licensing and Careers in Counseling Psychology

It’s important understand that a master’s degree in counseling psychology is only the first step toward becoming a counseling psychologist. Those aiming to become licensed to practice counseling psychology professionally have to complete a doctoral program and an additional one to two years of supervised clinical counseling experience before taking the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology and applying for state licensure.

For those aiming to complete a doctoral program in counseling psychology and apply for licensure, there are a number of rewarding careers paths to choose from. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes in the newest edition of its Occupational Outlook Handbook that, “Nearly 1 in 3 psychologists were self-employed in 2014.” Counseling psychologists also work in outpatient clinics, hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, and community and mental health centers. Elementary and secondary schools employed close to one quarter of the psychologists that were counted in the OOH data.

The average annual salary for licensed psychologist, as of the latest BLS data, is $70,700, with the following five industries paying the highest median salaries:

IndustryAverage Annual Salary
Child Day Care Services$96,180
Specialty (except Psychiatric and Substance Abuse) Hospitals$90,050
Scientific Research and Development Services$87,430
General Medical and Surgical Hospitals$82,070
Offices of Physicians$81,510

With a master’s degree in counseling psychology, the career options are somewhat narrower. An MA or MS in counseling psychology qualifies graduates to become licensed as a marriage and family therapist in most states. And each state has different guidelines for licensure as a professional counselor (LPC) or licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC), both of which can be pursued with a master’s degree in counseling psychology. Jobs in the community and social services sector are also often open to those with a master’s degree in counseling psychology.

The chart below uses BLS data from the latest edition of the OOH to provide an overview of the kinds of occupations that graduates of counseling psychology master’s programs might pursue, along with salary information, job growth projections, and typical entry-level degree requirements:

Occupation2014 Median SalaryJob Growth Through 2024Entry-Level Degree
School and Career Counselors$53,3708%Master’s Degree
Social Workers$ 45,50012%Bachelor’s Degree
Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists$42,25019%Master’s Degree
Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors$39,27022%Bachelor’s Degree

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