What are the Differences Between a PsyD and a Master’s in Counseling?

Last Updated: June 29, 2024

There are many clear differences between a PsyD and a master’s degree in counseling. On the one hand, a PsyD is a doctoral degree, while a master’s in counseling is a graduate degree. There’s the obvious difference in their subject matter, too – a PsyD focuses on the science and application of psychology, while a master’s in counseling focuses on the art of the therapeutic relationship.

There are many other differences, though – some of which are crystal clear like those above, and some that are far more subtle. Whatever the case, these differences are important to understand if you need to seek mental health treatment or if you are considering a career in one of these fields.

This guide explores the detailed differences between these occupations and also briefly discusses some of their many similarities. By exploring these similarities and differences, you will have a better understanding of which type of degree is the best option for you.

PsyD vs Master's in Counseling

PsyD Vs. Master’s in Counseling

A PsyD is a doctoral degree in psychology focusing on clinical practice, while a master’s in counseling prepares students for counseling roles. PsyD programs are longer and often require more intensive research, whereas master’s programs are typically shorter with a practical, hands-on approach.

A PsyD focuses on clinical psychology and advanced therapy skills. Meanwhile, a master’s in counseling equips students with practical counseling methods. Though both prepare for therapeutic roles, PsyD dives deeper, while a master’s offers a quicker path to counseling careers.

If we break down the major differences between a PsyD and a master’s in counseling, we might compartmentalize those differences into five distinct areas:

  • Level of study
  • General subject matter
  • Licensure requirements
  • Coursework
  • Career Opportunities

We have already briefly discussed the differences in the level of study and general subject matter. In addition to that, the licensure requirements are different for psychologists and counselors.

For example, many states require psychologists to have a PsyD or Ph.D. for licensure purposes. So, if you want to work as a clinical psychologist, you would likely have to pursue one of these degrees in addition to completing supervised work experience after completing your doctoral program.

Counselors, on the other hand, typically need a master’s degree to qualify for state licensure. A good example of this is the Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) credential. To become an LPC, most states require you to have a master’s degree in counseling, mental health counseling, clinical mental health counseling, or a related area. Like psychologists, though, counselors must complete an extensive period of supervised postgraduate practice before being granted a full license.

Perhaps the greatest differences between these professions are in the coursework and career opportunities of each. These differences are discussed in detail below.

PsyD Coursework

It’s a given that a PsyD and a master’s degree in counseling will have different coursework requirements because, as noted earlier, they focus on different subjects and applications and are at different levels of study.

A PsyD program is a professional doctoral degree in psychology. Unlike a Ph.D. in psychology which focuses heavily on scientific research, a PsyD is intended for students who wish to focus on practicing psychology. So, as a PsyD student, you might take courses in psychological theories, assessments, and treatments that you can use in practice in a clinical setting. Conversely, a Ph.D. program in psychology might focus more on things like psychological statistics, research ethics, and experimental methods.

Every PsyD program is a little different from the next, but, generally speaking, most programs include foundational coursework and advanced practice courses. Foundational coursework might include classes like the following:

  • History and Systems of Psychology, which outlines the development of psychological sciences and the major theories that have shaped its development.
  • Psychometrics, which explores the measurement of psychological data, its interpretation, and its use in research and clinical applications.
  • Biological Psychology, which evaluates the relationship between our physical bodies and their systems with behaviors like sensation, perception, and memory.
  • Ethics in Psychology, which helps you develop a clear understanding of what is and is not acceptable behavior in research and clinical settings.
  • Quantitative Research, which examines the essential tenets of conducting psychological research, including developing hypotheses, testing hypotheses, evaluating validity and reliability, and disseminating research findings.

Advanced practice courses might be defined as courses and field experiences that prepare you for applying your knowledge and skills. For example, you might take a course in Trauma Psychology, and learn how trauma impacts behavior and explore the most effective approaches for treating a client with trauma.

Likewise, as a PsyD student, you will complete practicum and internship placements that allow you to work face-to-face with clients in a real-world setting. These field experiences are supervised by a licensed and experienced psychologist, who gives you professional feedback on your performance.

In many cases, PsyD coursework also includes detailed research and a doctoral dissertation. Since this degree focuses on clinical applications, the chances are good that your dissertation will focus on a subject related to providing mental health care in a clinical environment. Though you get to decide the direction of your dissertation, the topic must be approved by the psychology department.

A typical PsyD program takes about five years to complete, given the high level of study and the breadth and depth of graduation requirements. You might be able to finish the program sooner if you already have a master’s degree in psychology or a closely related area.

Master’s in Counseling Coursework

A master’s in counseling curriculum includes similar studies. For example, many counseling programs have courses in psychology, ethics, psychometrics, and research, just like a PsyD program. However, the research component is much less robust for a master’s degree than a PsyD.

Let’s say you enroll in a graduate program in counseling. You might have to take a statistics course and a research course, but the likelihood that you have to conduct additional research is fairly low. Many graduate programs in counseling do not require a thesis; some require a capstone project, but, again, it is more focused on applying what you have learned to solve a clinical problem as opposed to exploring theoretical research.

We can see further differences between PsyD and master’s programs in counseling in the type of courses taken. For example, typical counseling programs will have classes in the following subjects:

  • Group Dynamics, which evaluates the best processes and practices for providing mental health services in a small group setting.
  • Counseling Theories, which explores major therapeutic approaches and how each can be applied to treat a wide range of mental health needs.
  • Cross-Cultural Counseling, which helps you better understand the cultural influences on behavior and identify your biases and blind spots as they pertain to people from different backgrounds.
  • Data Interpretation for Counseling, which identifies common psychological assessments and how they can be used in informing the counseling process.

An important point to make is that counseling programs incorporate lab components that help you apply what you have learned in classes like those above. These labs, which might be as simple as practicing counseling skills with classmates, help you connect counseling theory with counseling practice.

This isn’t to say that PsyD programs don’t include elements like this. However, they might be more limited in number outside the PsyD practicum and internship experiences. As a counseling student, you will have ongoing labs, opportunities to observe practicing counselors, and have practicum and internship placements, too.

Most graduate counseling programs require about three years to finish, so they are shorter than typical PsyD programs. Part of this is attributed to the lower level of studies in a graduate program versus a doctoral program. Part of it is due to the lack of extensive research in a master’s in counseling program.

Differences in Career Opportunities

If you take a cursory look at psychology and counseling, you will get the impression that they are basically the same career. Psychologists and counselors alike provide mental health services in settings like schools, mental health clinics, residential treatment centers, and private practice.

However, given that these are two different degrees and areas of study, the career opportunities available after graduation are quite different. For example, let’s say you wish to be a practicing psychologist. To do so, you would have to complete a PsyD or Ph.D. program in psychology. As a doctoral-trained psychologist, you could work in many different settings, such as:

  • A licensed psychologist with a private practice specializing in treating dissociative disorders.
  • A staff psychologist at a mental hospital where you provide mental health evaluations and treatments for seriously mentally ill patients.
  • A counseling psychologist that works in a non-profit mental health setting providing a range of psychological services (e.g., individual, group, and family counseling) to clients of all ages and backgrounds.

Other career options with a PsyD are in non-clinical applications, like working as a:

  • A psychology professor at a college or university, where you teach undergraduate and graduate psychology courses.
  • An independent contractor who provides psychological assessments and expert testimony for prosecuting attorneys or defense attorneys in criminal and civil court cases.
  • A forensic psychologist who assists in criminal investigations by providing insights into human motivation, decision-making, and criminality.

With a master’s degree in counseling, you can pursue many different career paths, though some are restricted by the type of graduate degree you get. For example, if you want to become a school counselor, you need to complete a graduate degree in school counseling. Likewise, if rehabilitation counseling is your passion, you will need to complete a graduate degree program in that field.

As with PsyD graduates, counseling graduates can pursue various clinical-related jobs, such as:

  • A substance abuse counselor who outlines a course of treatment for substance abuse disorders, including individual and group counseling as well as skills training.
  • A child counselor who specializes in providing therapy for children under the age of five that have experienced abuse or neglect at home.
  • A marriage and family counselor that helps couples and families identify breakdowns in communication and trust that have led to a fracture in the family unit.
  • A general mental health counselor who provides psychotherapeutic treatments for clients with varying mental health needs, from anxiety to depression to eating disorders.

Something that is not especially common is for graduate-level counselors to work in academics or research, in part because these positions usually require a doctoral degree. Likewise, as mentioned earlier, the focus of counseling is less on research and more on the practice of counseling.

Is It Worth Getting a PsyD?

A PsyD can be well worth the time, money, and effort if it helps you accomplish your goals. For example, if you want to be a counseling psychologist that specializes in working with emotionally disturbed children, a PsyD is a very appropriate path to pursue.

However, it isn’t the answer to all career decisions. For example, if you aspire to work in community mental health, you don’t need a PsyD to do so – a graduate degree in counseling is completely appropriate. Likewise, if you want to work as a career counselor, a PsyD is not the best option.

As you consider your educational and occupational future, it’s important to evaluate the specific requirements associated with your ideal job and ensure that your educational pathway aligns with those requirements.

Which is Better? PsyD or Master’s in Counseling?

As noted in the previous section, what is best for your education depends on your future goals. That’s the purpose of guides like this – to help you make sense of the intricacies of two seemingly similar types of degrees and how those differences can impact your career.

Generally speaking, though, if your interests are in psychological research and clinical practice, a PsyD is the better bet. But, if you are less interested in research and more interested in gaining advanced counseling skills, a graduate degree in counseling is an appropriate path.

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