How to Become a Counseling Psychologist

Industry Advice Healthcare

When it comes to pursuing a career in counseling psychology, there are many potential career paths that an individual might choose to go down.

Some individuals might, for example, decide that they want to work as a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) or as a mental health therapist, either as a generalist or specialist. Others, however, might choose that they want to work as a counseling psychologist.

Below, we take a look at the role and responsibilities of counseling psychologists, including what they do on a day-to-day basis, and discuss the steps that you will need to take to make that career a reality.

What is counseling psychology?

Psychology, as a field, is commonly approached through one of two lenses: counseling psychology or clinical psychology.

To understand what counseling psychology is, it’s first important to understand clinical psychology. Clinical psychology typically focuses on patients who have diagnosable mental health disorders or display severe psychopathologies such as anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, or personality disorders. Clinical psychologists work to assess, diagnose, and treat these disorders and often conduct research as a part of their practice. Because pharmaceuticals are often necessary for managing many more serious mental health disorders, clinical psychologists will often coordinate with psychiatrists or other healthcare providers to prescribe medications as appropriate.

Counseling psychology, on the other hand, typically focuses less on diagnosable conditions and more on everyday stresses that an individual might face as a part of their lives related work, education, and family or interpersonal relationships. Counseling psychologists spend their time in much the same way as clinical psychologists: assessing and treating patients. The primary difference is that counseling psychology places a greater emphasis on counseling—giving patients the tools and frameworks necessary to lead happier and more fulfilling lives.

What does a counseling psychologist do?

On a day-to-day basis, counseling psychologists perform a range of activities designed to help patients handle the physical, emotional, and mental health challenges they face. While the exact breakdown of activities will vary from day to day and situation to situation, it will often include:

  • Assessing patient wellbeing and identifying areas where they may be struggling
  • Generating counseling and treatment plans on a patient-by-patient basis
  • Conducting talk therapy sessions with patients
  • Educating patients on different frameworks and strategies they can use to improve their wellbeing
  • Intervening during moments of crisis or trauma
  • Diagnosing patients as appropriate with mental health disorders or conditions
  • Coordinating as necessary with other mental health or healthcare professionals, such as psychiatrists

Counseling psychologists can work as generalists or can specialize in a specific area of psychology. For example, it is possible to specialize in working with specific patient populations (such as children, adolescents, or the elderly) or in particular challenges (such as addiction counseling, family counseling, forensic counseling, etc.).

Steps to Becoming a Counseling Psychologist

To become a counseling psychologist, you will need to complete an accredited doctoral program in the field. Before taking this step, however, you will first need to have completed a related bachelor’s and master’s degree. Below is a look at each of these major milestones in your career.

1. Earn a relevant bachelor’s degree.

The first step to becoming a counseling psychologist will be to earn a relevant bachelor’s degree. This degree will serve as your introduction to the field and lay the groundwork and foundational knowledge that you will need for a successful graduate experience. In that regard, there are many potential areas of study which could make sense for you, including:

Other possibilities include studying education or counseling.

2. Complete your master’s degree.

Many doctoral programs will require a student to have earned their master’s degree first before enrolling. However, some programs will allow a student to earn both their master’s and doctoral degrees simultaneously. Even if you are considering enrolling in a doctoral program that does not require you to obtain a master’s degree first, doing so can bring a number of benefits. 

First, according to Susan Bradley, Assistant Program Coordinator for the Applied Psychology Department in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences at Northeastern University, it’s important to recognize that doctoral-level courses are much more advanced.

“The material is more intense, and it is often more technical,” Bradley says. “It’s a deeper level of conversation. Suppose you don’t understand the basic stages of human development when you enter the program, for example. In that case, you’d need to take a course somewhere on your own before you would really understand what was going on in the doctoral-level courses. You really need those essential courses before you can go to that higher level of learning.”

Completing a master’s degree such as a Master of Science in Counseling Psychology before enrolling in a doctoral program is a highly effective means of gaining this foundational knowledge. 

By earning your master’s degree, you will also become qualified to work as a licensed mental health counselor. This will empower you to spend time working in the field, gaining experience interacting with actual patients. This experience can prepare you for the advanced academic work required in a doctoral program and help you identify the areas you are truly passionate about, which you may wish to pursue at the doctoral level.

Bradley notes that some master’s-level programs are designed specifically to be earned in a condensed time frame. These programs are ideal for students who know they would like to enroll immediately in a doctoral program. At Northeastern, for example, it is possible to enroll in a one-year master’s degree program.

“Students aren’t doing any clinical training during that one-year program, but they graduate with a master’s degree,” Bradley says. “Perhaps, more importantly, they complete all the required coursework so they can then apply to programs around the country that require the master’s degree. They have the essential base of the foundational coursework under their belt already before going into the PhD program.”

3. Enroll in a doctoral program.

Finally, to qualify for your license as a psychologist, you will need to complete a doctoral program that meets the state’s qualifications in which you wish to practice, such as a PhD in Counseling Psychology or a PsyD in Counseling Psychology.

In choosing a program, Bradley recommends that prospective students evaluate programs based on several specific elements. 

  • Professional model: A program will typically be informed by a specific professional model, which influences the curriculum and the program’s general approach to the field. The Counseling Psychology program at Northeastern, for example, is grounded in the ecological model, which understands the individual is just one piece of a broader system that includes an individual’s socio-economic reality. 
  • Faculty: If your goal is ultimately to work as a practicing counseling psychologist, you must find a program where you will be educated by faculty members who have spent time working in the field and who bring their experience to the classroom. 
  • Breadth of educational opportunities: Look for programs that offer various learning formats, such as casework, hands-on research, and independent study, which can translate into valuable experience.
  • Availability of specializations: If you would like to specialize in working with a particular patient population or on a specific challenge, seek a program that offers the ability to specialize.

Making Your Dream Career a Reality

If your career goals include making a real and lasting difference in the lives of your patients by arming them with the knowledge and skills that they need to lead more meaningful lives, then becoming a counseling psychologist is an excellent option for you. Though it will take work and significant educational achievements, you can make this dream a reality with the right mindset and dedication.

Jumpstart your future today and learn more about gaining the skills and experience needed to accelerate your counseling psychology career.