What Do You Need to Start a Career in Counseling Psychology

What Does a Counseling Psychologist Focus On?

Counseling psychology encompasses a broad range of practices that help clients of all ages alleviate stress, improve their well-being, resolve crises and increase their ability to function in a healthful manner. Counseling psychologists specialize in counseling patients whose issues are related to social, vocational, emotional, health, developmental or organizational concerns. Counseling psychologists normally focus upon patients who have life issues, like adjusting to changes in career or marital status. These professionals often help people deal with everyday problems.

While clinical psychologists deal mainly with patients suffering from serious mental and emotional disorders, counseling psychologists primarily deal with patients who have issues that are less severe in terms of external symptoms, though perhaps are no less important internally. There is, however, some overlap between clinical and counseling psychology, because counseling psychologists do sometimes treat psychological disorders.

Some of the most common problems counseling psychologists commonly deal with include:

  • Adjustments to a new job
  • Disabilities
  • Stress management
  • Family problems
  • Marital issues
  • Drug abuse
  • Adjustments to a new social situation
  • Personality dysfunction
  • Organizational problems
  • Retirement
  • Coping

Counseling Techniques

Counseling psychologists use any of over a hundred types of therapy to aid their patients. Some of the most common therapies are psychotherapy, behavioral interventions, crisis intervention, trauma management, organizational consulting, family counseling, group therapy and systemic counseling.

Important Personal Qualities

Counseling psychologists must enjoy working with people, and must gain great satisfaction in helping patients. They have to be excellent listeners and communicators with their patients, especially those counselors who have private practices. All counselors must be able to communicate and work effectively with other professionals on a daily basis.

Counselors need good observational skills in order to read facial expressions and body language, because patients often communicate more with gestures than with words.

Counselors need to be trustworthy, because patients don’t fully open up to a counselor they don’t fully trust. Counselors also need to be delicate in dealing with their patients’ sensitive issues. They must be compassionate to the needs of their patients, and yet dispassionate and objective when having to face a patient’s tantrum or outburst.


Candidates need to start by getting a bachelor’s degree, though it doesn’t necessarily have to be in psychology. A Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree in psychology is preferred over a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree in psychology, because the latter requires several additional research classes that a counseling psychologist doesn’t really need.

The normal coursework for a B.A. in psychology consists of classes in neuroscience and in several types of psychology, like social, clinical, developmental and cognitive. Recommended courses include biology, statistics, sociology, anthropology, communication and ethics. If you plan to open your own counseling practice, you might consider taking basic business classes.

There are few jobs available in psychology with only a bachelor’s degree; most of them are in business administration, advertising, sales or education.

Admission into psychology graduate school is extremely competitive, so getting excellent grades and gaining volunteer experience in a psychology-related field is highly recommended. In most cases, graduate schools require at least a 3.0 grade average, if not higher.

Counseling psychologists must acquire a doctoral degree; if you’re content with a lesser job position, you might be able to find work with just a master’s degree. Possible employers might include local or state governments, corporations, advertising agencies, educational institutions and human services agencies. Obtaining a doctorate normally requires at least five years of graduate school (including the master’s program). And once you’ve gotten a doctorate, you’ll need to enter a one-year internship program.

Doctoral coursework includes core classes in psychology, along with specialized courses in counseling, human lifespan development, vocational psychology, psychopathology, psychological assessment, statistics, consultation, supervision, professional ethics, etc.

You can choose from among three types of doctoral degrees: a Doctor of Education (DEd or EdD), Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD). The DEd is only intended for aspiring school psychologists or for counselors who work for a school system. The PhD requires extra research classes that a counseling psychologist doesn’t really need, so a PsyD is the preferred degree for most counselors. The PsyD is usually based more upon practical work and exams rather than a dissertation. Because the PsyD in counseling psychology is a relatively new degree, it’s hard to find schools that offer it.

Employment Opportunities

Counseling psychologists commonly find work in health care institutions, mental health centers, private clinics, rehab centers, hospitals or school systems. Other settings might include large corporations, local governments, organizational consulting groups or community services centers.

Many psychologists open their own private practice, though usually only after they’ve wet their feet in the field for a few years. Others work as part of a team of care providers that might include physicians, psychiatrists and social workers.

Related Reading

Further Reading

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