How to Become a Counseling Psychologist – Schooling and Career Guide [2024]

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 link 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 large-scale 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 Does a Counseling Psychologist Do?

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.

How to Become a Counseling Psychologist?

To become a counseling psychologist, you generally need to fulfill the following requirements:

  1. Complete your bachelor’s degree
  2. Obtain a master’s degree in psychology
  3. Obtain a doctoral degree in psychology
  4. Complete internships
  5. Fulfill supervised work experience requirement
  6. Pass EPPP and state exams
  7. Complete background checks
  8. Apply for your licensure

Counseling Psychologist Education

Individuals who wish to enter the counseling psychology field need to obtain at least a master’s degree, and in most instances, are required to have a doctorate as well. However, the first step is to get an undergraduate degree in psychology or other field. Master’s level individuals typically work under a licensed psychologist.

Usually lasting four years, psychology 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 professional work, 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 doctorate degree program will involve much research, a dissertation defense, and advanced coursework in psychology, counseling, and therapeutic techniques.

Doctorate programs are most often five years in length, and like graduate studies, include internship requirements. Additionally, post-doctoral studies may be required, which includes one to two years of supervised practice.

Counseling Psychologist Licensure

Counseling psychologists also must be licensed in order to practice. In most states, licensure is required to use the title “psychologist”.

Licensure is regulated by each state, and therefore requirements can vary somewhat, but generally include an APA accredited doctorate degree in psychology, supervised experience under a licensed psychologist, and passing licensure examination. The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB) provides contact information for each state’s licensing body.

Counseling Psychologist Certification

Certification for counseling psychologists is highly recommended, however its not compulsory. Still, many employers prefer certified counseling psychologists over non-certified ones. Getting a certification is also highly recommended if you are planning to open your own private practice.

American Board of Counseling Psychology (ABCoP) offers a certification for counseling psychologists. Certification requirements include 1) earning a doctoral degree from a regionally accredited institute 2) completing a Commission on Accreditation of the American Psychological Association accredited internship program 3) completing minimum two years of post-doctoral experience 4) submitting complete application and 5) passing the oral certification examination.

What Skills are Needed to be a Counseling Psychologist?

There are many skills needed by counseling psychologists that all successful psychologists need to posses. There are a few, however, that make an excellent additional to the profile of a psychologist working in this specialty:

  • Excellent critical thinking – these psychologists will address specific problems a patient is having but they will also take a very detailed history and try to work with their patient to identify the root causes of their problems. Being able to see a broader picture than just the acute issue or concern is a quality that helps both them, and their patient, enormously.
  • Curiosity – as well as the rather more scientific quality of critical thinking, counseling psychologists have to be genuinely curious. They have to want to understand each and every patient as an individual and be able to work to identify the root causes of problems through systematic questioning and history taking. A keen interest in problem solving alongside this curiosity is a great strength.
  • Insightful communication – excellent communication skills are needed by all psychologists but in this area, the ability to see links throughout a patient history and question successfully around those links while still making a patient feel comfortable and at ease is a quality rather specifically required by counseling psychologists.
  • Active listening – as well as asking insightful questions, a counseling psychologist has to have exceptional listening skills. They have to be able to hear both the main messages of a client’s answer but also pick up on subtle details. The whole aim of the role is to find root causes that the patients themselves may not be aware of. This makes the ability to listen for the smallest of clues a huge asset.
  • Creativity – as one of the broadest areas of psychology, the techniques required are varied and constantly changing. What works well for one patient, might not for another and a counseling psychologist has to be able to creatively develop plans and strategies suitable for the individual which capture the scientific principle of the treatment but appeal to the personality and motivation of the individual.
  • Adaptability – counseling psychologists work across a wide scope of patients and issues. They need to be able to see each client with no preconceptions and start from the beginning to find the key pieces of their history which are important.

Where Does a Counseling Psychologist Work?

Counseling psychologists generally work in following environments:

  • Mental health clinics
  • Psychiatric hospitals
  • Counseling centers in colleges and universities
  • Counseling in medical centers, veterans hospitals
  • Counseling at state and federal agencies
  • Family counseling services
  • Consulting services
  • Corporate consulting
  • University faculty
  • Independent practices

Can a Counseling Psychologist Work in a School?

Counseling psychologists have a lot to offer a school environment. They can help young people address issues such as social difficulties, troubled home lives and family troubles. In addition, they can provide support for young people suffering from mental health issues or conditions such as eating disorders, helping them to change the thoughts and subsequent behaviors associated with their conditions.

Counseling psychologists can work with a broad range of patients to deal with a broad range of issues – to work in schools they will often have chosen to work with young people as an area of specialty and be interested in the issues specific to that patient population.

Psychologists in this specialty have the opportunity to work with young people having difficulties, identify areas of concern early and provide intervention before these issues become too troubling or begin to impact upon the social development or education of the young person. Working in a school environment is an ideal place for these psychologists.

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 10 percent through 2032.

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 $102,740 per year, as of May 2023. Among the industries that have the highest wages include health practitioner offices and outpatient care centers. Pay for these industries runs much higher than average, from $106,870 per year in health practitioner settings to just over $105,000 per year in outpatient care centers.

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.

How Counseling Psychologists are Different from Psychiatrists?

As mentioned above, a counseling psychologist has a Ph.D., or a Psy. D in 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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