PhD in Counseling Psychology

As an academic discipline, psychology is a behavioral science that centers around studying the human mind, its mental processes, and the emotional, physiological, and neurobiological factors that impact its development. While there are career paths in psychology that lead to continuing research in these areas, much of what psychology embodies in practice is the application of this growing body of knowledge to the treatment of individuals and groups of people who are struggling with emotional, behavioral, and cognitive problems. This is the work of counseling psychology. It encompasses a broad area within the larger realm of the behavioral science, one that aims to help people achieve greater wellbeing through the use of psychotherapy and other approved approaches that target cognitive, behavioral, and emotional function and dysfunction.

PhD in Counseling Psychology Concepts

  • Promote functional relationships
  • Foundations of healthy lifestyles
  • Concepts behind positive career choices
  • History and systems of psychology
  • Lifespan development
  • Psychology of personality
  • Biopsychology
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Social psychology
  • Statistics and psychometrics
  • Research design and methodology
  • Multicultural issues in counseling
  • Individual and group therapy methods
  • Observational strategies when working with individual and groups
  • Psychological assessment strategies
  • Psychotherapy theories and applications
  • Psychological theories and applications
  • Psychological theories as a basis for social change
  • Diagnostics and treatment program development
  • Ethics of professional practice as a counseling psychologist

Benefits of Earning a Doctorate in Counseling Psychology

For those interested in pursing a career in the challenging and rewarding field of psychology, there are a number of very good reasons to pursue a PhD in counseling psychology, or the largely equivalent PsyD in counseling psychology. For starters, a doctorate, whether it’s a doctor of philosophy (PhD) or a doctor of psychology (PsyD), is in most states an absolute requirement for anyone wishing to be licensed to practice professionally as a psychologist. There are job opportunities for graduates with master’s degrees, but these are typically either supervised, subordinate positions, or counseling jobs that require lesser certifications. Anyone wishing to work as and be known as a professional psychologist must be licensed as such, and a doctorate degree is a necessary part of reaching that goal.

A PhD in counseling psychology prepares students for top-tier positions in the competitive, challenging, and rewarding realm of professional psychology. In addition, counseling itself is one of the core areas of competence in the clinical practice of psychology. As such, a PhD in counseling psychology can serve as a gateway to a wide array of careers in the profession. A licensed psychologist with a PhD in counseling psychology could move into research and teaching at the university level, or embark on a professional path that might include setting up a private counseling practice; working for a large healthcare provider, hospital, or community clinic; or specializing in any number of areas that we’ll discuss below, including child and youth counseling, substance abuse and behavioral disorder counseling, family and marriage counseling, sports psychology, or some combination thereof.

As the American Psychological Association (APA) points out, “Counseling psychology addresses the emotional, social, work, school and physical health concerns people may have at different stages in their lives, focusing on typical life stresses and more severe issues with which people may struggle as individuals and as a part of families, groups and organizations.” In other words, the field is geared toward understanding and addressing the emotional, behavioral, and cognitive wellbeing of people of all ages, across every aspect of their lives, from childhood through old age, in school, at work, and in their private lives.

What to Expect in a Counseling Psychology PhD Program

The APA’s Society of Counseling Psychology notes that there are several ways to earn a doctoral-level degree in counseling psychology. In some cases, students can move directly from a four-year bachelor’s degree in psychology to a PhD or PsyD program in counseling psychology. However, it’s more common to first earn a master’s degree in a related discipline before applying for a PhD in counseling psychology or its equivalent.

Counseling psychology doctoral programs may be located within a university’s school of psychology or education, and admissions requirements vary from program to program. As a general rule, the Society of Counseling Psychology points out that counseling psychology doctoral programs “typically require at least four to five years of graduate study, involving coursework and integrated training experiences in a variety of topical areas and professional skills.” In fact, it’s not uncommon for graduate studies in counseling psychology, including research, internship, and doctoral dissertation requirements, to take up to seven years to complete, and the APA explains that, “Some institutions require their students to complete their doctoral studies within 10 years of admission to the institution.”

The APA goes on to delineate the core areas of knowledge and skills that should be addressed in an accredited PhD program in counseling psychology. They include:

  • Healthy aspects and strengths of clients (whether being seen as individuals, couples, families, groups or organizations)
  • Environmental/situational influences (how cultural, gender and lifestyle issues shape people’s experiences and concerns)
  • Issues of diversity and social justice (e.g., advocacy)
  • The role of career and work in peoples’ lives
  • School and career/work adjustment concerns
  • Relationship difficulties, including marital and family difficulties
  • Learning and skill deficits
  • Stress management and coping with negative life events
  • Organizational problems
  • Dealing with and adjusting to physical disabilities, disease or injury
  • Personal/social adjustment
  • The development of one’s identity
  • Persistent difficulties with relating to other people in general
  • Mental disorders

PhD in Counseling Psychology Coursework

The doctoral-level study and training involved in becoming a professional counseling psychologist has two distinct facets. Students have to understand the theoretical foundations of psychological research, or how the human mind works, and then they must be able to apply that knowledge in a clinical setting or to counsel patients. Curricula may vary from program to program, but a PhD in counseling psychology generally requires a research or dissertation project of some kind, and at least a year of supervised counseling experience. As for coursework, counseling psychologists are expected to have working knowledge in the following areas:

  • Developmental Psychology
  • Theories of Personality
  • Social and Group Psychology
  • Abnormal Psychology
  • Neuropsychological Basis of Behavior
  • Emotional and Cognitive Development
  • History of Psychological Theory and Practice
  • Statistics in the Behavioral Sciences
  • Research Design and Methodologies
  • Clinical Psychological Assessment
  • Individual Counseling
  • Group Counseling
  • Cross-Cultural Counseling
  • Marriage and Family Counseling
  • School Counseling
  • Ethical and Legal Issues in Professional Counseling

Doctoral Degrees in Counseling Psychology: the PhD, PsyD, and EdD

There are actually three different degree options available to students aiming for a doctorate in counseling psychology: doctor of philosophy (PhD), doctor of psychology (PsyD), and doctor of education (EdD). They are generally considered to be equivalent, and in most cases cover much of the same material. However, they emerged out of somewhat divergent training models.

A PhD in counseling psychology is the oldest of the three, and it relies on the research university model, which gives equal weight to theoretical research and clinical practice. The PsyD in counseling psychology is based on the medical school model for training physicians, which has traditionally placed a greater weight on clinical practice than on pure research. And the EdD, the newest of the three, emerged from schools of education that specialize in training clinical and counseling psychologists, many of whom opt to focus on the uniquely pressing psychological issues within the realm of education and educational research. While there may be some general variances among these degrees — for example, a PhD program is more likely to include a doctoral dissertation requirement — it is widely accepted that there are far more similarities.

Popular Specializations in Counseling Psychology

Due to the broad nature and wide ranging application of counseling psychology, it is common for doctoral students to gravitate toward an area of specialization in the field. This can include everything from working with children and families, to developing the skills and knowledge base to address the psychological issues in competitive sports, the workplace, or in situations that involve substance abuse, behavioral disorders, learning disabilities, or other specific problems.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists several areas of specialization within psychology that can and do fall under the purview of counseling psychology, including health psychology, developmental psychology, school psychology, and industrial-organizational psychology. To get a better sense of some of the specific areas addressed under the general heading of counseling psychology, the APA’s Division 17, which is also known as the Society of Counseling Psychology, has 13 sections that address discrete areas of concern and concentration within the field. These include the following:

  • Section for the Advancement of Women
  • Section on Racial and Ethnic Diversity
  • Health Psychology Section
  • Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues Section
  • University Counseling Center Section
  • Society for Vocational Psychology

Getting Licensed as a Counseling Psychologist

Working as a professional psychologist generally requires licensure at the state level, and the requirements for this vary slightly from state to state. Counseling psychologists in private practice must be licensed. The typical prerequisites for licensure are as follows: a PhD in psychology or the equivalent (PsyD, EdD); one to two years of supervised clinical internship experience; and passage of the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). Accredited doctoral programs in counseling psychology are designed to prepare students for state licensure, and typically include a mandatory internship, or practicum, and a course of study that covers all areas pertinent to the EPPP. In addition, the American Board of Professional Psychology offers voluntary certifications in 15 areas of psychological practice, including counseling psychology, couples and family psychology, group psychology, and school psychology.

Career Opportunities and Salary Projections for Counseling Psychologists

According the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook, there were 160,200 people employed as licensed psychologists in the U.S. in 2012. That number is expected to grow at an overall rate of 12 percent through 2022, creating nearly 19,000 new jobs in the field. Nearly one third of the psychologists the BLS documented in 2012 were self-employed; 31 percent worked in educational services; and 29 percent in the healthcare and social services sector of the economy. A PhD in counseling psychology, or the equivalent PsyD and EdD degrees, qualifies graduates for a career in any of these areas, whether its working as part of a treatment team in a hospital, clinic, or community health center; entering the educational system as a counselor for students; setting up a private practice; or consulting with businesses or other large organizations to improve productivity and workplace conditions.

The latest data from the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics indicates that the average annual salary for clinical, counseling, and school psychologists was $74,030 as of May 2014. However, earnings can and do vary from region to region, and depend on the kind of practice one opts for in the field of psychology. Those in the highest tenth percentile earned upwards of $113,640 annually according the latest OES report, while the lowest tenth percentile earned $40,080 or below. The top-paying industries for clinical, counseling, and school psychologists had average annual salaries of $96,180 (child day care services), $90,050 (specialty hospitals), $87,430 (scientific research and developmental services), $82,070 (general medial and surgical hospitals), and $81,510 (offices of physicians). But the most common areas of employment for psychologists were elementary and secondary schools, offices of other healthcare practitioners, individual and family services organizations, outpatient care centers, and general medical and surgical hospitals.

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