Masters in Psychology vs. Masters in Counseling – Key Differences

The terms “psychologist” and “counselor” are often used interchangeably. This makes sense, given that psychologists and counselors perform many of the same functions, such as providing interventions and treatments for mental health conditions.

But, there are also differences between psychologists and counselors that make them distinct careers. These include educational differences, different career roles, and varying career opportunities.

In this guide, we explore the differences between these fields to help you decide if a master’s in psychology or a master’s in counseling is the more appropriate path.

Master’s in Psychology Vs. Master’s in Counseling – Differences

A master’s in psychology focuses on the scientific study of human behavior and mental processes, while a master’s in counseling emphasizes preparing students for therapeutic roles. Psychology graduates pursue research, teaching, or doctoral studies, whereas counseling graduates become licensed mental health counselors, working with individuals, families, and groups.

Differences in Education

Though prospective psychologists and counselors begin their education in much the same way, the educational paths begin to diverge at the graduate level. Would-be psychologists should enroll in Master of Science or Master of Arts programs in psychology, while would-be counselors should select Master of Science or Master of Arts programs in counseling.

There are many variations of master’s programs in psychology. Some are generalist programs. Others focus on psychological research. Some programs focus on school psychology or counseling psychology. Yet others have a clinical focus and prepare you for more detailed training at the doctoral level. This is one of the major distinctions between these fields – many psychology jobs require you to have a doctorate degree in psychology. This is not always the case for counseling positions.

There are a variety of master’s degree options for counseling, too, though not as many as for psychology students. School counseling and mental health counseling are perhaps the most common, with addictions counseling and rehabilitation counseling being other common options.

Another distinction between typical master’s programs in psychology and master’s programs in counseling is the focus of study. Many psychology programs focus on the science of psychology, research, and psychological theories and approaches. Though some master’s programs in psychology include clinical training, many don’t.

On the other hand, master’s counseling programs tend to focus less on the science that underlies counseling principles and more on learning counseling techniques that can be implemented in a counseling setting. So, for example, you might take several therapy-focused courses in a counseling program (e.g., counseling children, marriage and family counseling, and school counseling). But, in a psychology graduate program, you might take courses on psychological research ethics, the history and systems of psychology, and the biological bases of behavior.

Moreover, it’s typical for master’s counseling programs to have field experiences as part of the graduation requirement. For example, if you pursue a master’s degree in school counseling, you will have practicum and internship placements that allow you to apply what you have learned in an actual school setting.

Psychology master’s programs don’t always include these field experiences. Clinical or counseling psychology programs certainly have a field experience component, but generalist and research-based programs often do not.

As a result, the length of these programs can also differ quite dramatically. For example, a generalist psychology master’s degree might only take one to two years to complete. A pre-licensure counseling master’s program, though, often takes three years to complete.

It’s important to point out that the broad variety of master’s programs in these fields means that there are exceptions to this rule. For example, a clinical psychology master’s program can easily take two to three years to complete. Meanwhile, there are many master’s level counseling programs that you can finish in a year or two.

Differences in Career Opportunities

Another difference between master’s level psychology and counseling programs is in the available career opportunities.

For example, with a master’s degree in psychology, you might pursue a career in:

  • Educational psychology
  • School psychology
  • Sports psychology
  • Forensic psychology
  • Industrial-organizational psychology

Remember that some master’s level psychology programs are also preparatory for working in a clinical or counseling capacity.

However, note that the list above is subfields of psychology with professional, not clinical, applications. Graduate-level programs in psychology prepare you to work in specific settings or to provide services to a certain type of client.

Meanwhile, a master’s in counseling can prepare you for jobs such as:

  • School counseling
  • Mental health counseling
  • Rehabilitation counseling
  • Marriage and family counseling
  • Addictions counseling

Unlike master’s psychology careers, master’s counseling careers focus exclusively on providing interventions to clients. So, for example, as a school counselor, you might meet with a student every week to work on improving social skills while also providing interventions to help the child manage their ADHD.

As a school psychologist, though, your role would focus more on identifying and assessing students who might have ADHD to assist the school in providing appropriate services so the student can succeed.

Differences in Job Scope

Though there are obvious similarities between psychologists and counselors (e.g., providing mental health services to those in need), there are also many differences in the scope of work of these professionals.

For example, clinical psychologists tend to focus on a single issue, such as a behavioral disorder or a dissociative disorder. The purpose is to assess the client, diagnose the client, and implement interventions to help the client cope with their mental health problem.

Counselors often take a more holistic approach. For example, a counselor might help a client with anxiety by using talk therapy as a targeted intervention. However, they might also offer psychoeducational components that address improved well-being or personal growth.

Another difference is in the way psychologists and counselors assess their clients. A clinical psychologist might utilize IQ or behavioral assessments to build a clinical picture of their client. Typically, counselors do not administer tests like these.

There is a greater focus on client education and training in a counseling relationship as well. As noted earlier, psychologists tend to address a specific problem much like a medical doctor does. The approach is more “what’s wrong and how to fix it.” Counseling tends to include elements of “what else can we do to improve functioning.”

Now, this isn’t to say that psychologists have a narrow focus on one problem at all times, nor does it imply that counselors always take a holistic approach. Professionals in both fields vary in how they conduct their work, but the generalizations discussed above apply in many situations.

Is It Better to Become a Psychologist or a Counselor?

The answer to this question depends on your specific interests and abilities. For example, becoming a psychologist is the better option if you are especially interested in psychological research. Graduate-level counseling programs simply don’t provide the necessary background in psychological research to prepare you for that kind of career.

There’s another side to that coin, though. If your interests are in utilizing preventative and therapeutic techniques to help people improve their mental health, counseling might be the better option. Most counseling programs focus on these areas, whereas many psychology programs do not.

There’s a question of your appetite for education, too. As noted earlier, most psychology jobs require a doctorate. Getting a doctorate usually takes five to six years after completing a bachelor’s degree program, so you will likely spend nearly a decade in school to become a psychologist. Compare that with two to three years after completing a bachelor’s degree to finish a graduate program in counseling.

Which is Best? Masters in Psychology or Counseling?

Again, the best option is the one that fits your skills, interests, and career goals the best. Fortunately, graduate degrees in either of these fields can open doors to many different careers, as discussed earlier.

So, comparing graduate degrees in psychology and counseling is less about identifying which is the best. Instead, it’s more about identifying which program suits your goals better.

What is the Best Degree for Counseling?

If you want to be a counselor, the best degree to pursue is a Master of Science or Master of Arts in Counseling. As noted earlier, there are clinical and counseling options in psychology at the graduate level. However, graduate counseling programs are specifically designed to train you to provide counseling services.

The question is, should you enroll in a Master of Science or Master of Arts program? From an academic standpoint, this distinction often doesn’t matter that much at the graduate level. Most MS and MA programs in counseling offer the same courses to prepare students for licensure.

Having said that, some MS counseling programs have a larger research component and focus more on the scientific underpinnings of counseling. Likewise, some MA counseling programs focus more on theory and relationship-building in the therapeutic environment.

Again, choosing between these types of counseling degrees is less about choosing the “best” one and more about ensuring that the program you select aligns with your interests and career goals.

Can I Do a Psychology Master’s Without a Psychology Degree?

Yes, it is possible to pursue a master’s degree in psychology without having an undergraduate degree in psychology. A lot of psychology graduate programs accept students from different educational fields, as long as they meet the program’s admission requirements.

However, some master’s psychology programs might require you to finish specific psychology-related classes before applying. These classes could be basic psychology, research methods, statistics, or other related subjects. If you didn’t take these classes in college, you might be able to take them as a non-degree student or through a special program called “post-baccalaureate” before applying for the master’s program.

Can I Get My Doctorate Without a Master’s in Psychology?

Yes, pursuing a doctorate in psychology without first obtaining a master’s degree is possible. Some Ph.D. and Psy.D. psychology programs accept students who have only completed a bachelor’s degree. These programs often combine the master’s and doctoral studies, allowing students to work on their doctorate while earning their master’s degree.

Students usually complete the coursework for the master’s portion of the program and then proceed to the research or clinical training required for their doctorate. The entire process, from starting the program to getting the doctorate, can take around 5 to 7 years.

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