Clinical Psychologist Vs. Counseling Psychologist – Differences & Similarities

Psychology is a fascinating field with many different applications. You can conduct research, teach at a university, and provide services to individuals who are struggling with mental health issues.

Even within these different realms, there are different types of psychology jobs. For example, if you want to work with people that need help with a mental illness, you can specialize in any number of areas, including clinical psychology or counseling psychology.

Of course, while having many different career options available to you is nice, it can also make it extremely difficult to decide which career path to choose.

This guide will help you decide if clinical psychology or counseling psychology is the best choice for you.

Counseling Psychology Vs. Clinical Psychology  – Key Differences

While there is overlap between these two fields of practice, counseling psychologists tends to focus more on typical life issues – daily stressors, conflict with family members, anxiety, and depression. Clinical psychologists, on the other hand, tends to focus more on the diagnosis and treatment of serious mental health disorders like schizophrenia, personality disorders, and dissociative disorders.

Some differences make these fields distinct from one another. The job descriptions of each shed some light on the differences that make them unique areas of practice:

  • Counseling psychology is defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as a “generalist health service specialty” that helps people with all manner of mental health issues, mental illness, and crises. Likewise, counseling psychologists help their clients “improve their well-being, prevent and alleviate distress and maladjustment…and increase their ability to function better” in their day-to-day lives. Furthermore, counseling psychologists typically focus on lifespan development, prevention measures, and educational tools to help people cope with life’s problems.
  • Clinical psychology is defined by the APA as a specialty that offers “comprehensive mental and behavioral health care” for people with mental health issues, including individuals, couples, families, and groups. Moreover, clinical psychologists conduct research-based practice, offer consultative services to organizations, and incorporate knowledge from multiple disciplines to provide improved service.

This is just one difference between clinical psychology and counseling psychology. Below is an explanation of some of the other primary differences you can expect between the two.

Difference in Education

Whether you want to be a clinical psychologist or a counseling psychologist, you will need to complete a doctoral program. How you get there, and the type of doctorate you get might differ, though.

For either field, you must begin by completing a bachelor’s degree program. It’s preferable that your undergraduate degree is in psychology, but closely related areas like social work, human development, or human services are just fine, too.

The next step is to complete a master’s degree program. In some cases, if your undergraduate degree isn’t in psychology, you must take prerequisite courses before beginning your master’s degree. This might be two or three essential psychology courses that might not have been part of your studies in a different bachelor’s degree program.

If you want to become a clinical psychologist, getting your graduate degree in clinical psychology is best. On the other hand, if counseling psychology is preferable, a degree in counseling psychology is the way to go.

These programs have many similarities. For example, you can find Master of Arts and Master of Science options in both fields. Likewise, graduate degrees in these fields usually take about two or three years of full-time study to complete. Even much of the coursework is similar between graduate degrees in counseling psychology and clinical psychology.

However, each degree offers specialized courses that address the main function of clinical or counseling psychology. For example, you might find that a master’s program in clinical psychology has more required courses in psychopathology, therapeutic interventions, and psychopharmacology. These courses help prepare you for working with clients with severe mental disturbances.

A master’s program in counseling psychology might instead have courses that focus on human growth and development, family systems, or community mental health counseling. These courses prepare you to work with clients with less severe problems in many different settings.

According to the APA, you must have a doctorate to become a counseling psychologist. The same is true for clinical psychologists. Again, the focus area of your degree differs between the two.

For example, while both careers require a Ph.D. in psychology, your specialty would concentrate your studies in clinical practice or counseling. Since Ph.D. programs are research-intensive, this means that your coursework and seminars will have a different focus, and it also means that the research you conduct will have a different focus.

So, as a counseling psychology Ph.D. candidate, your research might be on the effect of group therapy for children with depressive symptoms. Conversely, if your Ph.D. is in clinical psychology, your area of study might be the efficacy of a specific drug for treating a severe mental illness like dissociative identity disorder.

In either case, you can expect to spend about four to five years in your doctoral program. This includes the time needed to complete coursework, research, your dissertation, and supervised practice.

All told, you will need about twelve years to complete your studies, whether you pursue an education in clinical or counseling psychology.

Difference in Job Duties

As discussed earlier, the primary difference between counseling psychology and clinical psychology is in the nature of their work with clients. As the Society of Counseling Psychology notes, clinical psychology derives its meaning from the Greek word “kline,” which means “bed.” Therefore, clinical psychologists provide bedside care to ill patients.

On the other hand, counseling psychology derives its meaning from the Latin word “consulere,” which refers to providing advice, consultation, or deliberation. This meaning reflects the practice of counseling psychologists helping people with less serious mental health issues and daily problems.

These differences play out in the workplace in various ways.

For example, counseling psychologists often use a strength-based perspective to help their clients overcome the issue that brought them into therapy. So, let’s say you are struggling with depression after your significant other dumped you. A counseling psychologist might use strength-based therapy that focuses on the positive traits and features (e.g., your ability to communicate well, your openness to compromise with others) you possess rather than hashing out what you might have done wrong to get dumped in the first place.

It’s this positive spin on what’s going on that counseling psychologists believe will help most clients overcome their struggles and get back to regular mental health and functioning.

On the other hand, clinical psychologists often utilize much more intensive approaches to address their clients’ significant mental health issues.

For example, if you are in therapy because you have bipolar disorder, a clinical psychologist might use a combination of drug treatments and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to help you manage the depressive and manic symptoms of the disorder. In fact, CBT might even help decrease the occurrence of depressive and manic symptoms.

CBT involves one-on-one counseling as well as homework, during which you learn how to apply what you have learned in counseling. This might involve working on coping skills that enhance your ability to reduce your bipolar symptoms, like eating right, avoiding alcohol and drugs, and focusing on self-care.

Other differences in job duties revolve around the populations with which clinical and counseling psychologists work. For example, clinical psychologists might work more with clients who have cognitive, intellectual, or neurological conditions, while counseling psychologists might work more with marginalized groups, like people of color or members of various minority community.

Moreover, clinical psychologists typically spend more time in individual, couples, or group therapy. In contrast, counseling psychologists might spend more of their time addressing the needs of large groups or even communities.

For example, a counseling psychologist might offer a class for the community on the social and cultural influences on mental health. Meanwhile, a clinical psychologist might spend their time researching emerging therapies for severe mental disorders.

Difference in Salary

As of November 2022, according to ZipRecruiter, the average annual salary for a counseling psychologist is $89,917. Salary.com estimates the average annual salary for clinical psychologists at $115,212.

While the difference in salary seems quite wide, these two professions often overlap in terms of earnings far more than they differ. Counseling psychologists make anywhere from $55,000 to $147,9500 per year.

Meanwhile, clinical psychologists earn anywhere from $45,000 to $190,000. Though counseling psychology has a much lower potential income, both professions have roughly the same maximum average income.

Many factors influence how much you might earn in clinical or counseling psychology. This includes your level of education and experience, any specialties or certifications, and even the location in which you work.

What are the Similarities Between Clinical and Counseling Psychology?

Ultimately, there are many similarities between these two specialties in psychology. Both clinical and counseling psychologists help individuals, couples, families, and groups. Both also use different therapies and interventions to help their clients navigate difficulties in their lives.

Additionally, both clinical and counseling psychologists must have a doctorate to practice, in addition to licensure from the state in which they work. The specific licensing requirements might differ from one state to the next, but typically, they are very similar for clinical and counseling psychologists.

Another similarity is that counseling psychologists and clinical psychologists often work in the same locations. Both types of psychologists work in mental health clinics, hospitals, and for non-profit agencies, to name just a few.

Which One is Better? Counseling or Clinical Psychology?

Ultimately, clinical psychology and counseling psychology aren’t better than the other. In many ways, they are two sides of the same coin, offering many of the same benefits to clients while having just enough differences to make them distinct and equally useful approaches to helping people with their mental health.

For your purposes, determining which of these fields is better really comes down to what you want to do as a psychologist. Counseling psychology is the better pursuit if you prefer to work with more typical, day-to-day mental health issues. However, becoming a clinical psychologist is the more appropriate route if you want to help people with severe mental illnesses.

In either case, you will acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to make a profound, positive difference in the lives of your clients. Though it takes a long time to become a clinical or counseling psychologist, the hard work pays off when you’re able to help someone in their time of need.

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