Counseling Psychologist Career Guide

What is Counseling Psychology?

Counseling psychology is a very broad field of mental health work that includes individual counseling, group counseling, marriage and family counseling, social work, and psychiatry, to name a few. The common thread between these different occupations is that they focus on helping people improve their lives through personal growth. Counseling psychology is particularly concerned with the social, emotional, vocational, educational, and developmental aspects of people’s lives. Additionally, counseling psychology also seeks to address problems related to physical health and organizational issues.

Counseling psychology is very broad based. Counseling psychologists work with individuals of all ages and cultural backgrounds. Interventions used can be short-term or long-term. Rather than focusing on one area of concern, counseling psychologists typically take a macro approach to helping clients resolve issues in their lives. While much of counseling psychology focuses on maladaptive behavior that causes distress, it also takes into account normal developmental issues that cause individuals to suffer from mental health issues.

What are Job Duties of a Counseling Psychologists?

An initial duty for all counseling psychologists is to get to know their clients. The intake process can involve a number of tasks, from reviewing a client’s previous mental health records to administering questionnaires or assessments in order to get a better feeling for who the client is and the extent of their mental health issue.

A central component of a counseling psychologist’s job is to listen to their clients’ concerns. This active listening takes place in a therapeutic setting, in individual, group, or family counseling sessions. Counseling psychologists offer insights to their clients based upon numerous factors, including what clients say in sessions, the client’s nonverbal communications, and their interactions with loved ones. A counselor’s insights can be on a wide range of topics, although, the most common issues for which an individual seeks counseling are problems related to  marriage, mental health issues such as depression, substance abuse issues, and employment issues.

Providing therapeutic services is the most involved – and most well known aspect – of this job. Counseling psychologists offer instruction on methods that can help their clients improve their mental health functioning. This can occur in a variety of ways. Counselors might teach clients techniques for managing stress or anger. They may work with married couples to help them improve their communication with one another. Behavior modification strategies can be employed as well, such as to help a child improve the manner in which he socializes with his peers.

Some counseling psychologists also offer emergency services. In this context, they may respond to mental health emergencies, such as for individuals admitted to the emergency room after a psychotic breakdown. Additionally, counseling psychologists often provide services to individuals that have had a traumatic experience, such as violence at school or in the home, or in the aftermath of a manmade or natural disaster. In these settings, counseling psychologists strive to stabilize an individual in the short-term, and identify their long-term needs, as well as methods for meeting those needs.

What is the Career Outlook for Counseling Psychologists?

The demand for counseling psychologists is expected to experience average growth in the coming years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates counseling psychology jobs will increase by 11 percent through 2022. Demand for these jobs will continue to be heavily influenced by the prevalence of mental health issues in the United States. People continue to seek help for common problems such as anxiety and depression, driving up the need for counseling psychologists.

Particular populations, including the elderly and veterans of the armed services, are also seeking mental health care in greater numbers, thus increasing the need for qualified counseling psychologists even further. Additionally, more insurance companies are including mental health care in their coverage, so many people that might not have sought counseling services a few years ago are now doing so with improved health care coverage.

How Much Does a Counseling Psychologist Make?

The BLS estimates the average annual salary for counseling psychologists to be $74,030 per year, as of May 2014. Among the industries that have the highest wages include health practitioner offices, educational support services, and specialty hospitals. Pay for these industries runs much higher than average, from $81,480 per year in health practitioner settings to just over $90,000 per year in hospital settings.

The geographic area in which one practices also heavily impacts wages. Metropolitan areas tend to see higher salaries for counseling psychologists. The Waterloo-Cedar Rapids, Iowa area tops that list with an average annual salary of $116,470. Several metropolitan areas in California see higher than average wages as well. Counseling psychologists in the Hanford-Corcoran, California area have an average yearly wage of $109,900 while those in practice in the San Luis Obispo, California area make $105,780 per year.

What Degree is Required for a Counseling Psychologist?

Individuals who wish to enter the counseling psychology field need to obtain at least a master’s degree, and in some instances, may be required to have a doctorate as well. However, the first step is to get an undergraduate degree in psychology. Usually lasting four years, undergraduate studies include general education courses such as math, English, and the humanities, in addition to approximately 60 credit hours of psychology courses. These courses are introductory in nature and cover many topics from abnormal psychology to psychological statistics to developmental psychology.

Master’s degree programs in counseling psychology can run from as little as two years and as much as 3-4 years, depending on the coursework that is required. Shorter graduate degree programs may only require 30-35 credit hours whereas others can require as many as 60-65 credit hours. Typically, graduate programs include practicum and internship placements, in which prospective counselors hone their therapeutic skills with clients in a real world setting under the supervision of a mentor counselor. Practicum placements usually involve several hundred hours of clock time, while internships are usually at least 1,000 hours of supervised practice.

The highest degree a counseling psychologist can obtain is a doctorate. Most counseling psychologists acquire either a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. Either degree program will involve much research, a dissertation defense, and advanced coursework in psychology, counseling, and therapeutic techniques. Doctoral programs are most often five years in length, and like graduate studies, include lengthy internship requirements. Additionally, post-doctoral studies may be required, which includes one to two years of supervised practice.

Counseling psychologists also must be licensed in order to practice. Licensure is regulated by each state, and therefore requirements can vary somewhat. The American Counseling Association provides contact information for each state’s licensing body. Certification as a counselor is voluntary. Certification is meant to serve as evidence of a practitioner’s professional competence. The National Board for Certified Counselors offers counseling certifications, as well as numerous specialty certifications for counseling psychologists.

How Does a Counseling Psychologist Differ from a Psychiatrist?

A counseling psychologist has a Ph.D., or a Psy. D, (Doctor of Psychology) or in some states, a master’s degree in psychology. They have completed a bachelor’s degree, which can be in any field, although psychology will confer a clear advantage. They have completed at least a master’s degree, in psychology, applied psychology, or counseling. An internship which can be 3,000- 4,000 hours, depending on the state in which they are practicing is a requirement, as is a rigorous written test.

Counseling psychologists evaluate people to determine their needs and goals for counseling, conduct psychological testing, and provide psychotherapy to their patients, but generally cannot prescribe medication. The rare exception to this is psychologists practicing in the states of New Mexico, Louisiana, Illinois, or the US Army Medical Corps. These jurisdictions allow psychologists to take a resident training program in psychopharmacology so they can prescribe medication for mental illnesses. Counseling psychologists typically do not work with the severely mentally ill. They work with individuals who have a baseline of mental health and are high functioning, but currently overwhelmed with stressors, or using psychotherapy as an avenue to personal growth and development.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. They have earned an MD degree, after four years of undergraduate work. Psychiatrists typically need to complete three to five year residency in psychiatry. They write prescriptions for medication for mental illnesses, evaluate those with mental illness, and can provide psychotherapy as well. They are qualified to perform ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy), and if they have also completed a surgical residency, psychosurgery. Psychiatrist will work with a broad range of patients, including those with severe and persistent mental illness, those who are mentally retarded/developmentally disabled, patients with TBI’s (Traumatic Brain Injuries), or senile dementia. They may also see patients who are much higher functioning and have less severe pathology.

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